Episode 099: Brigitte Grenier

November 6, 2023

When a 16-year-old girl is brutally murdered at a music festival, it sparks a decades-long search for justice. What really happened to Brigitte Grenier?

Episode Media
Brigitte Grenier (Winnipeg Free Press)
Brigitte Grenier (CBC)
Area where Brigitte’s body was found (Winnipeg Sun)
Kyle Unger and Timothy Houlahan in 1990 (Winnipeg Sun)
Kyle Unger in 2018 (Winnipeg Free Press)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you a case from Canada that was recommended to me by a listener. The more I researched, the more I was heartbroken by the miscarriage of justice and the multiple tragedies that could have been avoided. This episode discusses sensitive topics and includes graphic descriptions, so listener discretion is advised.

On June 24, 1990, two cyclists were out enjoying the cool morning air as they biked the trails around Birch Ski Resort near Roseisle, Manitoba. Around 10am, they passed through a heavily wooded area by a creek, and as they did, they spotted something strange in the water. Curious, they stopped their bikes and moved closer to the edge of the creek. There, they were horrified to discover the body of a young woman, partially submerged in the muddy water and covered in blood. One of the cyclists later testified, “I didn’t believe it. I went and picked up a stick and touched the side of the body. I thought it must have been a mannequin.”

The cyclists quickly rode back to the resort to get help, and soon, officers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had roped off the area and secured the scene. It was clear from the beginning that the young woman was deceased. She was nude, her clothes scattered around her, covered in blood and dirt. She had been so badly beaten that it was impossible to make out her features. An autopsy would later reveal that she had also been manually strangled and sexually assaulted with sharp sticks as she lay close to death.

As officers examined the discarded clothing at the scene, they found two sets of identification in the pockets: one for 16-year-old Brigitte Grenier, and one for 18-year-old Mariette Grenier. It appeared that the two were sisters, but officers couldn’t tell which one was their victim. They would need to contact the family to identify the body.

By the end of the day, it was determined that the young woman in the creek was Brigitte Grenier, a year 11 student at Miami Collegiate. She had been the victim of a horrific attack, but no one knew why. Brigitte was a sweet, popular girl who was liked by everyone. She had been elected student council president and was active in the theater department. She was sensitive and kind, tutoring children at the elementary school in her spare time. No one had anything bad to say about Brigitte, so why had this happened? And who had done it?

Right away, investigators came up against a pretty big roadblock: There had been a music festival at the ski resort that weekend, with hundreds of people in attendance. It wouldn’t be easy to track down Brigitte’s killer. RCMP Constable Wyman Sangster told the Winnipeg Sun, “We’re not ruling out anything, we’re fairly confident that a person who attended the event was responsible for the murder.”

Just two nights earlier – Friday, June 22 – Brigitte and her friends were excited to attend the first annual Woodstick Music Festival. It was advertised as a family-friendly event with a combination of country and rock ‘n’ roll bands. It was only 20 km from the Grenier’s home, and there would be security guards on site. Brigitte’s parents felt that she would be safe camping with her school friends. They had no idea that she wouldn’t come home.

Investigators began by questioning as many festival-goers as they could before people left town. They interviewed hundreds of people and gathered dozens of written statements from witnesses. With this information, they were able to put together a timeline of the night of June 22.

According to witnesses, Brigitte and her friends arrived at the ski resort in the late evening and met up with other students from their school. Although there wasn’t any alcohol for sale at the festival, several enterprising teens had brought their own and were passing it around. Brigitte and her friends danced and sang and drank as the music played from the grandstand.

Also in the group was 19-year-old Kyle Unger, a classmate of Brigitte’s. Kyle was solemn and quiet, not part of the popular crowd, but Brigitte had always been kind to him, sticking up for him when the other kids made fun of him. Some of their mutual friends said that Kyle had a crush on Brigitte, and his best friend John told investigators that Kyle spent the entire night talking about her, saying that he wanted to ask her out.

But shortly after midnight, Kyle spotted Brigitte dancing with another guy – 17-year-old Timothy Houlahan, a student at nearby Carman Collegiate. Neither Kyle nor Brigitte had met Timothy before this, but Timothy had clearly set his sights on Brigitte. Kyle watched as the couple danced and kissed; several witnesses mentioned that Timothy had his hands all over Brigitte.

Around 1:30am, witnesses saw Brigitte and Timothy sneaking off into the woods behind the grandstand. Around that same time, Kyle excused himself from the group and went to the washroom. When he returned, he was annoyed and told John that he had seen Brigitte “going at it with some guy.” Witnesses differed on the timeline here, some – including John – saying that Kyle was only gone for 20 minutes, others saying he was gone for several hours. However, everyone agreed that Kyle was wearing the same clothes all night, and that each time they saw him, he was clean – no dirt on his clothes or scratches on his face.

On the other hand, Timothy Houlahan returned to the group hours later, bloody and muddy. Multiple witnesses told investigators that around 4am, Timothy walked up to the party looking as if he had gotten in a fight. He had mud all over his clothes, and there were fresh scratches on his face. When asked what happened, Timothy said he had been hooking up with a girl when suddenly he was attacked. The unknown man had knocked him unconscious, and when he woke up, the girl was gone and he was alone in the woods.

But even with this harrowing tale of survival, Timothy didn’t seem worried about his injuries and continued to party with his friends, drinking heavily. Before leaving the festival in the morning, he and a friend stopped by the entrance of the resort and set fire to a barrel, its contents unknown.

Investigators now had two strong suspects for the murder of Brigitte Grenier. On June 25th, the RCMP brought both Kyle and Timothy in for questioning. Kyle was forthcoming with information, admitting that he knew Brigitte but maintaining that he wasn’t involved in her death. He willingly submitted dental impressions and strands of his hair for forensic examination.

Timothy, a minor at the time, had his parents and a lawyer present when he gave his statement to police, and he stuck to his original story. He explained the scratches and bruises on his face by stating that he and Brigitte had been having consensual sex when he was suddenly attacked and knocked unconscious. When he described his attacker, the officers thought that he might be describing Kyle Unger, but when they asked him if he had seen Kyle at the festival, Timothy said he hadn’t. Timothy was then asked to describe Kyle, but this description was completely different than the one he had given of his attacker. As far as we know, Timothy and Kyle had never actually met, so it seems strange that investigators would assume they were so closely connected.

However, when Timothy was brought in again a few days later, he suddenly had much more information to give. This time, Timothy claimed that Kyle Unger had indeed been his attacker. Timothy and Brigitte had been having sex in the woods when Kyle showed up in a rage. Brigitte had rejected Kyle’s advances, and now he was furious that she was with another guy. Timothy said that Kyle began beating Brigitte, strangling her as he dragged her down a hill towards the creek. Then Kyle told Timothy to punch Brigette, which he did out of fear for his own life. He watched as Kyle violated Brigitte with sticks he’d found on the ground. When Brigitte finally lay still, Kyle told Timothy to help him hide the body and then threatened him into silence. “He told me to keep my mouth shut or something would happen.”

On June 29th, Timothy Houlahan and Kyle Unger were arrested and charged with first-degree murder. After a few weeks in jail, Timothy was released into his parents’ custody and was allowed to go back to school. Kyle, however, was denied bail and held in police custody.

But as the months passed, prosecutors struggled to make the forensic evidence match the story given to them by Timothy Houlahan. Kyle didn’t have any dirt or scratches on him, whereas Timothy did. There was a hair found on Brigitte’s sweatshirt, but Brigitte had borrowed that sweatshirt from a friend – the hair could have belonged to anyone. There were also bite marks on Brigitte’s breasts and arms, but a forensic odontologist testified that the marks were not a match to the dental impressions submitted by Kyle during the investigation.

And then there was the fact that Kyle and Timothy had never met – they just happened to be at the same festival hanging around in a big group of people. What would lead Timothy to help a virtual stranger murder a young woman in his company rather than run the short distance back to the festival and call for help?

At a preliminary hearing on December 11, 1990, the Crown issued a stay of proceedings due to a lack of evidence. Kyle Unger would not be charged with murder; he was free to go.

But investigators were not so convinced of his innocence. They strongly believed that Kyle was a murderer, and they were determined to prove it.

The RCMP began interviewing inmates who had spent time with Kyle in jail, hoping they would have useful information. Several inmates were willing to testify against Kyle, but their stories were so bizarre that the prosecution worried about their reliability. However, an inmate by the name of Jeffrey Cohen told investigators that on the day Kyle’s charges were stayed, Kyle had come back to their shared cell and told Jeffrey, “I killed her and got away with it.”

An alleged jailhouse confession was not enough to reinstate the charges against Kyle, but it was enough for the RCMP to launch a Mr. Big Operation.

There are lots of ins and outs to it, but essentially, in a Mr. Big Operation, undercover officers create a fake scenario – often some sort of gang or crime syndicate – with the goal of luring a target and extracting a confession. The Mr. Big Operation is considered entrapment in many countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, and is prohibited by law, but it is still used regularly in Canada.

In June of 1991, four undercover officers with the RCMP set out to get a confession from Kyle Unger, who by now had moved out of town and was trying to rebuild his life. Two officers drove a beat up camper to the small town of Austin and pretended that they had broken down in the driveway of the farm where Kyle worked. When Kyle came out to help, undercover officer Larry Tremblay struck up a conversation with him. Over the next week, Larry and Kyle became friends of a sort, Larry slowly earning Kyle’s trust. On four separate occasions, Kyle told Larry that he had been wrongly imprisoned for murder, but Larry never asked for more details. Instead, he told Kyle that he had an opportunity for him, one that could make him a lot of money. And Kyle believed him – Larry was often flashing money around, and he bought Kyle fancy meals and even put Kyle up in a nice hotel.

On June 22, 1991, Larry introduced Kyle to “Mr. Big” – the head of a massive crime ring. Kyle had no idea that this crime boss was actually another undercover officer. Mr. Big told Kyle, “Larry tells me that you whacked somebody. That’s fine with me. That’s, that’s fuckin’ excellent. It’s the kind of thing that I know that I’m dealing with somebody… that I can trust… That’s the kind of person I’m looking for.”

Wanting to make a good impression – and wanting to get the job – Kyle went along with it. He told Mr. Big that he had murdered Brigitte Grenier and that he had acted alone, Timothy Houlahan had nothing to do with it. Every word was caught on tape.

However, when Kyle took Larry and Mr. Big to the crime scene, he couldn’t come up with the correct details. Instead, he read from a newspaper article about the murder, just repeating information that had been released to the public. But that didn’t matter. On June 25th, Kyle Unger was once again arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

Seven months later, Kyle Unger and Timothy Houlahan went on trial for the murder of Brigitte Grenier. During the joint trial, the defense teams pitted their clients against each other, each claiming that the other was responsible for Brigitte’s death. Timothy’s defense claimed that Kyle was the murderer, that Timothy was a victim of circumstance. He had been threatened into compliance and only participated out of fear. Kyle’s defense claimed that Timothy had acted alone, that he had only implicated Kyle after police had planted the idea in his head.

The prosecution argued that Kyle and Timothy had worked together to murder Brigitte. They told the jury that Timothy had lured Brigitte into the woods, but when he demanded sex, she turned him down. He then attempted to force himself on her, and she fought back. When Kyle showed up just minutes later, he joined the fray, the two men ganging up on the 16-year-old girl, beating her and strangling her to death. Then they dumped her body in the creek and went back to the festival as if nothing had happened.

But the forensic evidence painted a more confusing picture. The single hair found on Brigitte’s sweatshirt was consistent with the hair sample provided by Kyle Unger, but in the early 90s, the hair was not tested for DNA. It was examined under a microscope to determine whether it was human or animal and whether its appearance was consistent with the sample. The same goes for the hair found on Brigette’s pants and the pubic hair found on her sock. Both of those samples were microscopically consistent with Timothy Houlahan, but not with Kyle Unger. Blood found on the shoes Timothy had worn that night was consistent with Brigitte’s blood; no blood was ever found on Kyle.

The prosecution’s case largely hinged on Timothy’s and Kyle’s confessions. However, there was compelling evidence that the confessions were not entirely accurate. According to the RCMP’s own reports, Timothy’s descriptions of his supposed attacker and of Kyle Unger did not resemble each other at all. In fact, he only brought up Kyle’s name after investigators asked him if Kyle Unger was his attacker. Suddenly, his unknown assailant had a name and a face.

Kyle’s confessions were even less reliable. The Mr. Big Operation had fraudulently coerced Kyle into confessing, and the details he gave did not match the actual crime. Then, there was the alleged statement he made to his cellmate: “I killed her and got away with it.” During the trial, Kyle’s defense team proved that Jeffrey Cohen had not shared a cell with Kyle. In fact, the day Cohen claimed Kyle made that statement, they weren’t even in the same jail. When Jeffrey Cohen was called to testify, he admitted that he had lied.

Ultimately, the circumstantial evidence won out. On February 28, 1992, Kyle Unger and Timothy Houlahan were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

After the verdict was read, Brigitte’s mother Agnes told the Winnipeg Sun, “I think she can rest in peace now, we can all rest better now.”

But the journey was far from over.

Both Kyle and Timothy appealed their convictions, hoping for either acquittals or new, separate trials. In July of 1993, Timothy was granted a new trial on the grounds that Kyle’s defense had prejudiced the jury against him. He was released on bail while he awaited trial. One year later, Timothy Houlahan died by suicide, taking his secrets to the grave.

Kyle’s appeal was denied, but he kept trying, maintaining his innocence. He even attempted to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, but was denied yet again. It would be over a decade before he got a break.

In 2002, another case moving through the appellate court caught the eye of Innocence Canada, a nonprofit organization that focuses on wrongful convictions. James Driskell had been convicted of the murder of his best friend in 1991, but his case – like Kyle’s – had hinged on three small hairs. Innocence Canada was able to get DNA testing for the hair in Driskell’s case, which proved that none of the hairs belonged to him, and in April of 2003, he was fully exonerated.

Driskell’s case prompted the Government of Manitoba to set up a Forensic Review Committee to determine if there were other cases where DNA testing might illuminate the facts, particularly when it came to hair microscopy. In 2004, the committee began looking into Kyle’s case. They were able to perform mitochondrial DNA typing on the hair found on Brigitte’s sweatshirt. The test results officially determined that the hair did not belong to Kyle Unger. The single piece of evidence tying Kyle to the crime no longer connected him in any way.

In September of 2004, Innocence Canada filed a request for review of Kyle’s case with the Minister of Justice. In November of 2005, he was released on bail while his case was under review.

Four years later, Kyle was finally granted a new trial. Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said in a statement, “I am satisfied there is a reasonable basis to conclude that a miscarriage of justice likely occurred in Mr. Unger’s 1992 conviction.”

It was now up to the Manitoba Attorney General to prosecute the case. However, with advancements in DNA technology and the lack of physical evidence tying Kyle to the murder, there was not enough cause to bring him to trial. In October of 2009, the charges against Kyle Unger were officially withdrawn. After 17 years, he was finally free.

As he walked out of the courtroom, Kyle told reporters, “It’s the first day of the rest of my life, a new beginning.”

In 2019, Kyle Unger and the Government of Manitoba reached a settlement for an undisclosed amount of money intended to compensate Kyle for his wrongful conviction and the years he spent behind bars. His lawyer, Gavin Wolch, told CTV News, “He is unequivocally innocent and as innocent as you can be under the law in Canada.”

Naturally, Brigitte Grenier’s family has struggled with Kyle’s release and exoneration. Her father Ron told CBC News in 2009 that he knew Kyle was guilty and didn’t want a new trial. “Once this happens, once this keeps on going, your family life is destroyed, there’s no doubt about it. Talking about closure for myself will never come because I will know until my dying days how she was murdered, how she died.”

In recent years, Kyle Unger moved to British Columbia and has tried to keep a low profile. In 2018, he gave an interview with the Winnipeg Free Press in which he went back to the festival site for the first time in nearly three decades. “Looking at it, there’s an incredible emotion of regret. This is one of the chains of where my life changed. I feel a little sickened, wishing I never went to that party. Anger that I went to it. We got there when the sun was almost completely down. We were only there for a short time. I wish I’d left just a few more hours earlier.”

We may never know the full truth of what happened that night at the Woodstick Music Festival, but we do know that many lives were changed, none for the better. Brigitte Grenier was brutally murdered, robbed of the promising life ahead of her. Her family was left devastated, forced to endure years of pain and heartbreak. Kyle Unger was accused of a crime he didn’t commit and subjected to 14 years in prison, locked away from the world. And Timothy Houlahan was tortured by the knowledge of what he had done. There is no victory in this case, only tragedy. We can only hope that Brigitte’s memory will live on in the hearts of those who loved her.