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Man who had 1999 murder conviction overturned dies after contracting COVID

'Mental illness is not a character flaw and is not a ruler by which to measure the character of a man,' says ex-wife of Bill Vanderheyden

For many years, it was cited as the longest jury trial in Canadian history — a father and son accused of gunning down an eccentric millionaire with a small bingo empire and an enviable antique car collection almost three decades ago.

William Vanderheyden and his dad, Jack Heyden, were eventually convicted of first-degree murder in 1999, serving life sentences with no chance of parole for 25 years. But in 2008, the two won an appeal for a retrial after spending a decade of that sentence in prison. 

The lengthy legal ordeal — which began with months of pre-trial motions in 1996 and taxed the justice system — finally concluded in 2009 when the murder verdict was tossed and the two pleaded guilty to lesser charges, receiving sentences of time served. 

A new trial would be impossible with key witnesses dead or too old or ill to testify, the Crown announced. Heyden pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and Vanderheyden pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact.

Vanderheyden, known to some as 'Billy', died earlier this month at age 57 after being diagnosed with COVID-19. His dad, who was 20 years his senior, died three years earlier.

In an obituary in which no family members are named, contributions to Innocence Canada are encouraged. A representative for the non-profit, which helps exonerate individuals who have been convicted of a serious crime which they did not commit, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

But Nancy Bauldry did. 

She described her ex-husband as quirky, fun to be around and having a wonderful sense of humour. She often attended the murder trial, which dragged on for 18 months. And although she and Vanderheyden eventually divorced, they remained friends and co-parents of their two children.

Vanderheyden struggled with mental health issues that landed him in court, mental health facilities and the hospital throughout his adult life. He also found himself homeless and penniless at times. 

During one episode in the murder trial, he spontaneously broke into a British brogue, stupefying the court. He also loudly squashed invisible flies and waved his arms about, yelled obscenities and then asked about his son, following with: “He’s at a disco party for reindeers?”

The judge halted proceedings at that point to explore Vanderheyden’s competency to stand trial, ultimately deciding to continue.

Midway through the trial, Vanderheyden suffered from a series of seizures so severe that he was placed in a drug-induced coma. It was later determined he had stopped taking his anxiety medication. 

In a 2009 court application to have Vanderheyden remain at a mental health facility instead of jail while waiting to return to court, a judge referred to a recent diagnosis of bipolar affective disorder characterized by episodes of manic psychosis.

Bauldry says he did eventually find the right balance with medication to maintain his mental health. And during the last year of his life, things appeared to be stable for Vanderheyden — working, living in an apartment and driving his own car after having his licence reinstated.

“Mental illness is not a character flaw and is not a ruler by which to measure the character of a man,” Bauldry wrote in an email to BarrieToday.

The man that she and his friends saw was loyal and generous, maintaining childhood and other friendships, and having their backs.

Bauldry recalls him once sacrificing his rent and grocery money to fulfil his daughter’s dream of going up the CN tower on her birthday.

“Even at his lowest points, when he barely had a dollar to his name, he would share with other people,” she said. “Whenever he was at a Timmy's near my house, he'd call to ask if we wanted anything.”

Life knocked him down over and over again, but Vanderheyden was resilient, resourceful and tenacious — he would get right up again, she said. 

The killing of 51-year-old Paul Kneeshaw on a cold March 21 in 1992 at his Concession 4 farm north of Barrie in what was then Oro Township remained what investigators at the time called “a real whodunit." 

As the months passed and with investigators revealing no identified suspects, the case raised speculation of assassins and conspiracies.

Investigators also unearthed an unrelated murder plot, for which Vanderheyden was charged, pleading guilty and receiving a four-year sentence after credit for dead time. That scheme involved a plan to kill a 27-year-old Barrie man.

Meanwhile, Kneeshaw was a larger-than-life figure who owned three bingo parlours and a gravel pit — all reported at the time as being financially sound — as well as real estate. And although married, he had a girlfriend who accompanied him to weekly outings around town.

As they pushed through their investigation, OPP investigators declared Kneeshaw likely died for love or money.

It was nearly two years after the killing when Vanderheyden and Heyden were saddled with the first-degree murder charges.

The resulting trial, in which 90 witnesses were called to the stand to testify, revealed a complicated web of personal and business relationships, all revolving around Kneeshaw and Heyden, who were the same age, both independently wealthy and described as best friends and occasional business associates.

The jury heard details of dysfunctional relationships, sexual trysts and the business dealings of the two families.

The seedier side of life in Barrie and Toronto was also revealed through three “unsavoury witnesses” with criminal records.

Their testimony that Heyden confessed to the murder ended up becoming the basis for the successful appeal to have the murder conviction overturned. The three-member Ontario Court of Appeal panel found the trial judge erred in refusing to permit the defence to challenge the credibility of the trio.

For the Kneeshaw family, the whole ordeal was overwhelming from beginning to end. 

“It was an absolutely horrific experience,” said Kim Kneeshaw, who was 27 when her dad was killed.

And although she agreed with the jury’s verdict, the prospect of replaying the trial was more than she thought her family could handle. Her mother was sick at the time and she feared the stress of going through another trial would cost her a second parent.

The courtroom for that original trial was reconfigured to accommodate the additional demands. Each jury member was given their own banker's box for material and the jury box was extended by 10 feet to give the jurors extra space.

They were also given more comfortable executive office chairs, replacing wooden ones.

And each received a wireless headset through which they could listen to the wiretaps submitted as evidence.

A table erected for even more paperwork for the lawyers pushed into the public gallery where reporters, family members and other interested parties witnessed the wheels of justice grind on and on, month after month.

It remained the country’s longest jury trial until three television production company principals were convicted in a $120-million fraud in 2016 after a trial that lasted more than two years.

Despite all the revelations, the Kneeshaw case remained circumstantial. Exactly what happened before his wife found his frozen body face down with a bullet to the head and another to the back was never fully revealed.

No weapons or casings were found.

The snowy terrain gave up no footprints.

But for Vanderheyden’s family, it was a false conviction.

And even through all the struggles, Bauldry still saw her ex-husband as “creative, loyal, loving, funny, intelligent, generous, inventive, tenacious and a ‘ride-or-die’ friend.

“This is how we remember him. This was the man we loved and miss.”

About the Author: Marg. Bruineman

Marg. Bruineman is an award-winning journalist who focuses on justice issues and human interest stories
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