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The woman’s voice sounds weary. This story, she says, drags on, and on, and the two little girls at the heart of it, well, they deserve better. They are the ones who suffered. They deserve to “rest in peace.”
“Krista and Karen were your typical little darlings,” says the woman, a relative who didn’t want her name published. “They slept at my house. They were loveable little girls. It is a sin what happened. They should be 13 years old and going to school.”
They never had the chance.
Karen and Krista Hart were twins, with brown hair and big dark eyes. One of the girls resembled her mother, Jennifer. The other looked more like her father, Nelson. They were three-year-olds when their Dad took them to the wharf at Gander Lake in August 2002.
Nelson Hart is the only living person who knows what happened next. Karen and Krista drowned that day, a tragic loss that buffeted a community in central Newfoundland and led to a sensational murder trial that ended with Hart’s conviction in 2007, a judgment the Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court of Appeal overturned Monday, ordering a new trial, reopening old wounds.
The prosecution’s case relied on a damning confession, an admission of guilt uttered by Hart to an undercover police officer following a “Mr. Big” style sting operation by the RCMP. It is a controversial police technique. One that, several academics and legal experts argue, can lead a guilty person to confess — but also coax a false confession from the innocent.
In a Mr. Big scenario undercover officers pose as underworld figures. Investigators in the Hart case were at a dead end. They initiated a sting targeting the dead girls’ father in 2005. Hart was recruited into a fictitious criminal network, wined and dined and paid handsomely for fictitious crimes, told loyalty meant everything — or else — and eventually asked, by a fictitious crime boss, what happened to his kids on that awful day.
He confessed to shoving them in the water and leaving them to drown, a videotaped admission the appeal court judges have ruled should not have been admissible in court. No new trial date has been set.
What we are left with, for now, are some vexing questions about human nature and Nelson Hart. Hart, the court heard at the initial trial, had a Grade 4 education, was prone to seizures and bounced from welfare cheque to welfare cheque. Social workers visited the Hart home. The family was in distress. It is a sad picture.
There is another aspect to it, though, a common-sense component that, no matter what the challenges confronting Hart were, can’t change who he was in August 2002: a father. And this is where the story gets fuzzy, because what do parents do when their children are in danger? They run to them, with their hearts pounding in their throats.
They run to them, out of instinct.
Initially, in the aftermath of the girls’ deaths, Hart explained to police that Krista fell in the water and he panicked. He couldn’t swim — and he panicked — leaving his three-year-old to flounder in the lake while forgetting her sister on the shore as he drove home to get his wife, who also didn’t swim. Along the way he passed a gas station and a hospital. He had a cellphone in the car.
Later he changed the story, saying he suffered a seizure at the lake and didn’t remember how the girls ended up in the water. He later changed it again, returning to the wharf on Gander Lake with “Mr. Big,” calmly showing an undercover investigator how and where he committed the perfect crime.
“It is a sin what happened to those girls,” says the woman who knew the twins.
“I don’t know how to swim,” she says. “But we spend a lot of time on the water and if my children went overboard — and they couldn’t get back up — well, I’d go overboard right then, too, and it’d be just as well that I did because I wouldn’t be able to function without my kids.”