BRE McADAM (host): We often hear about crime stories in the early stages of an investigation, when they are shrouded in mystery, and then again when they slowly unravel years later in a courtroom.
But what happens when we examine these cases from crime to court case? Would we see a larger issue at hand? And would it cause us to remember the victims, maybe in a different way?
Working as a criminal justice reporter in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada for eight years, I’ve covered many cases involving female homicide victims.
Saskatchewan had the highest rate of intimate partner violence and domestic violence in Canada in 2018, according to Stats Canada.
The percentage of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in our province is also one of the highest in Canada, and the rate of femicide — the killing of women and girls primarily, but not exclusively, by men — exceeds the national average.
This podcast series details the stories of four women: their lives, deaths and the criminal cases that followed.
In hopes of ensuring they are never forgotten.
-INTRO AUDIO PLAYS-
BRE:A beautiful young lady.
That’s how Crown prosecutor Robin Ritter described 18-year-old Brittney Gargol.
Brittney lived in Saskatoon and worked two jobs, one at the German Concordia Club and the other at Vern’s pizza. She had recently met her biological father for the first time, and was getting to know this whole new side of her family tree.
She had long auburn-coloured hair, loved fashion, and wanted to go to school and work in the hospitality industry.
But she wouldn’t even get a chance to fulfill any of her future plans.
On March 25, 2015, police received a call about a woman’s lifeless body on a rural road near Cedar Villa Estates, just southwest of Saskatoon.
Markings on the woman’s body showed indications of strangulation. But at first, officers had no idea who she was.
Police shared photos of her distinctive tattoos — a lion on her left shoulder and two stars on her left hand — and some of the clothing that was found near her body in an effort to identify her.
A woman soon came forward to say this was her friend, Brittney Gargol.
Police found Brittney on Facebook, and her photos matched the descriptions they had of the woman on the road.
One particular photo piqued police interest. But the investigation was just getting started.
It took two years of twists and turns before any charges would be laid. As Ritter put it, quote: “This was a very long and complicated investigation. The Saskatoon Police Service did a remarkable job putting together a lot of facts to eventually make an arrest.”
I’m Bre McAdam, criminal justice reporter with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, and you’re listening to She’s Gone: Stories of female homicide victims in Saskatchewan, from crime to court case.
Episode Four: The Mysterious Death of Brittney Gargol
BRE:At first glance, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about the photo — — two young women, friends, smiling as they pose for a kitchen selfie.
Normal content for an 18-year-old’s Facebook page.
But investigators were focused on a specific detail.
The photo was of Brittney Gargol and her friend, 18-year-old Cheyenne Rose Antoine. It was the last picture Brittney posted to Facebook before she died.
Cheyenne was wearing a thick, braided black belt, cinched at the waist of her greyish-black striped dress.
It looked exactly like the belt that was found beside Brittney’s body.
Police started piecing together a timeline of a party night gone horribly wrong and that to this day, still makes little sense.
BRE:Witness accounts from people who drove the stretch of Cedar Villa Road the morning of March. 25, 2015 revealed Brittney must have been left there sometime between 5:20 and 5:40 a.m.
David Kirton drove by the cluster of police vehicles later that morning.
DAVID KIRTON: I’m David Kirton, I’m an anchor and a show host at Rawlco Radio. At 650 CKOM and 980 CJME. Well, I walk my dogs. I had two dogs back at the time, Owen and Phil, and we go to the southwest dog park, which is right off Cedar Villa Road in southwest Saskatoon. And that morning I was doing that very thing, driving to that park. And right at the entrance to that road was a police car. I stopped and the police officer int eh car just stayed in the car. And I said: ‘what’s going on down there?’ and you could see some activity down there. And he was very gruff, and just: ‘you can’t get in here today, sir.’ But he wouldn’t answer questions or anything like that.
And I did notice he was gruff, and, you know, I took it personally a little bit, I guess. I think I realized a little later on after realizing, you know, along the investigation that he had witnessed a woman dying on that road, so I kind of got the idea ‘okay, I get it, now, why you were doing that. So, that road was closed off for, I think, almost two days.
BRE:But at the time, what led to Brittney’s death remained unknown.
Police turned to Facebook, which held some pretty crucial clues.
The selfie of the two friends was posted six hours before Brittney was found dead.
And later that night, Cheyenne Antoine, the other woman in the photo, posted the following message on Brittney’s Facebook wall:
CHEYENNE ANTOINE (Read by producer Ashley Trask): “Where are you Brittney? Haven’t heard from you. Hope you make it home safe, and I need my phone. Love ya.”
BRE:That message was posted about 12 hours after Brittney’s death.
The next day, police got a call from a staff member at the Lighthouse, an assisted living shelter in downtown Saskatoon.
The caller said a woman had some information about Brittney Gargol. The caller was Cheyenne Antoine.
Cheyenne said she was with Brittney the night before her friend died. They got ready together and went to Manchester’s, a bar on the corner of 33rd Street and Idylwyld Drive, and then over to a house party on Avenue I.
She said they ended up in the parking lot of the Colonial Pub and Grill on 8th Street around 4 a.m. Cheyenne told police that Brittney asked a man for a lighter and invited him along with them.
Cheyenne then said she got dropped off at the Lighthouse so she could visit her uncle. She said it was the last time she saw Brittney.
She even put her uncle on the phone with police to back up her story. During a subsequent police interview, most of his information matched hers.
But, when police went to check the surveillance video at the Colonial, there was no sign of Brittney’s white Chevy Cavalier — the car the girls were driving that night.
And video footage from the Lighthouse showed Cheyenne and her uncle never met up.
Nothing about their story was checking out. In court, prosecutor Robin Ritter described Cheyenne as leaving a trail of breadcrumbs leading away from herself.
BRE:Police believed Cheyenne had used her uncle as a false alibi. When they confronted him about it, he told them an entirely different story.
He said his niece told him that her and Brittney had been partying with quote “two black guys” in a hotel room, and started arguing over cocaine.
Cheyenne said she came out of the bathroom and saw Brittney on a bed with marks on her neck. She then told her uncle that the men held a gun to her head and forced her to help them.
She begged her uncle to cover for her by giving police a fake story.
BRE:By this time, Cheyenne Antoine is in custody on a completely separate matter. Major Crimes interviewed her two months after Brittney’s death, but said she was quote “very uncooperative” and wouldn’t talk.
But a few weeks later, police received information that matched some of their evidence.
Now this involves a lot of ‘she said/she heard’ kind of stuff, so stick with me as I explain it.
A woman called a member of Brittney’s family to say another woman told her that Cheyenne had come to her house about three weeks ago, in the middle of the night.
She said Cheyenne was drunk and hysterical, saying she had hit her friend with an object and choked her, and that her friend wasn’t waking up.
The woman said she looked outside and saw Brittney, badly beaten and slumped against the window of her car.
Now, Brittney’s family gives this information to police, who obviously want to talk to the woman who was there.
She reluctantly corroborates the story: That Cheyenne came to her house around 4 or 5 in the morning, crying and saying she choked her friend during an argument.
She said she told Cheyenne to leave and was too scared to report what happened to police.
BRE:So that all happened in 2015. Two years later, in March 2017, Cheyenne Antoine is charged with second-degree murder.
Superintendent Dave Haye was involved in the Major Crimes Unit in Saskatoon during this investigation. He says police were pursuing other investigative avenues during that time gap.
HAYE: We had attempted undercover operations with her —I believe that’s all come out in court— they were unsuccessful. Given her lifestyle at the time, it was hard to pin her down. It takes time. Plus, we always have these files sent for review by the Crown, so again, there’s pressures on the Crown to get files reviewed, too. It doesn’t explain a couple years, but it certainly speaks to the pressures that our people are under, and the Crown. Sometimes, they just take time.
BRE:Brittney’s car was thoroughly examined. It had dirt and long grass under the wheel-wells, as if it had been driven through a ditch or field.
Inside the car was Cheyenne’s iPhone. The device had connected to a McDonald’s WIFI at 4:30 a.m. And her phone contained several photos from Brittney’s last night, including the photo of Cheyenne wearing that black belt.
There were also black marks on Brittney’s white car that matched the weaving on the belt. Police didn’t say how they got there, or what part of the car the marks were on.
But, Ritter said the belt in the selfie is the same belt that was found beside Brittney’s body.
Haye says it was sent away for DNA testing.
HAYE:When we got it back, it actually had both girls’ DNA on it. And I believe the belt belonged to Cheyenne. That’s what I believe.
BRE:It was her personal belt?
HAYE: It was her personal belt.
BRE: So, for Brittney’s DNA to be on it would be unusual?
HAYE: Right. Or, they’ve shared the belt. I mean, who knows? But both persons DNA was on the belt.
BRE:A forensic pathologist determined Brittney’s cause of death was ligature strangulation.
The Crown’s theory is that Cheyenne used the belt to strangle Brittney.
But according to Haye —
HAYE:It was never proven that the belt was the method of strangulation. We believe things, but it was never proven, and so there was a lot of inferences.
BRE:Cheyenne made her first court appearance in March 2017.
Kristi Wickenhauser, Brittney’s stepmom, spoke that day outside Saskatoon provincial court.
(AUDIO OF KRISTI WICKENHAUSER): “We’re so grateful, so grateful and so thankful that the investigators that have been working on this for almost two years never gave up hope because it was very hard for us at times to keep that hope up.”
BRE:Cheyenne initially denied being responsible for her friend’s death.
Because she doesn’t remember killing her.
(LISA WATSON AUDIO):“There’s a significant memory loss. There’s memory up to a certain point of the evening between my client and her friend and unfortunately, the pertinent time when the offence actually occurred, there is no memory.”
BRE:That’s defence lawyer Lisa Watson, speaking with myself and other reporters outside court in January 2018, almost a year after Cheyenne was charged.
She had just pleaded guilty to the lesser offence of manslaughter.
Although Cheyenne says she doesn’t remember killing Brittney, she took responsibility for causing her death in the face of all the evidence against her, and was sentenced to seven years in prison.
The sentence was a joint-submission, a common practice in which both the Crown and defence agree on an appropriate sentence, and explain to the judge why it should be imposed.
We’ve heard a lot about the the false stories that Cheyenne gave police, but in court that day, Lisa tried to answer the question that was on everyone’s minds.
Why did Cheyenne kill her best friend?
LISA WATSON AUDIO: “I think that the word ‘motive’ doesn’t have much relevance in this particular case. This is just a tragic situation where drug and alcohol use exploded. My client had some very deep-seated personal issues that she was not dealing with and unfortunately, they turned into a very tragic situation for all involved.”
BRE:Lisa said the girls were consuming drugs and alcohol that night, but it’s unclear what happened after they left the house party.
Cheyenne recalls being in a McDonald’s parking lot. Remember, the WIFI on her phone places them there at 4:30 in the morning.
She also said she remembers Brittney getting frustrated with her and taking away her phone.
Cheyenne says it’s the last memory she has of the night.
BRE:All this information was laid out in a small upstairs courtroom on a cold January morning.
Brittney’s stepmom, aunt, uncle, father and sisters listened to the painful details from the front row. Some of them wore t-shirts in memory of Brittney.
Cheyenne, wearing a purple long-sleeved shirt, glasses and her curly black hair down, cried in the prisoner’s box.
An important aspect of sentencing involves hearing from the victims of crime through something called victim impact statements.
Sometimes victims read their own statements, and sometimes they get others to read them.
Brittney’s biological father, Everett Hillbom, spoke first. He said he loved going camping and shopping with his daughter. Everytime he drives past her old workplace, he said he’s plagued by guilt and anxiety. Quote: “On her last day, I was supposed to meet Brittney at home so I could fix something on her car. I wasn’t home. That day plays over and over in my mind. That was the last opportunity that I could have had to see my beautiful daughter alive.”
BRE:Kristi Wickenhauser went next. She said she loved getting to know her new stepdaughter. There were some bumps at first, but they had created a strong bond.
She said Brittney was excited about making plans for the future. She wanted to finish high school, have a family, be successful.
This is what she told Cheyenne in court:
Quote: “The night you two went out and you ended her life, not only did you take away a daughter and a sister who we were just getting to know, you took away the life-long potential we had to have her in our lives. The chance for her father to get to be there for the daughter he had already missed out on so much with.”
Kristi said Cheyenne could have taken Brittney to a hospital instead of leaving her to die on a road, and then hiding her involvement for two years.
According to Lisa, Cheyenne lied to police because she felt like something had happened between her and Brittney, but she didn’t want to acknowledge it.
BRE:Brittney’s aunt, Jennifer Gargol, said her niece would go to great lengths to make people feel better about themselves and their life situations.
Then, she turned to Cheyenne, saying quote: “You robbed this world of somebody who had a special gift and would have helped a lot of people struggling in life. Brittney defended you and your friendship to her family, and what did you do for her?”
BRE:In court, Lisa talked a lot about Cheyenne’s life, and the deep-rooted issues she had been burying leading up to that night.
She said both her client’s parents attended residential schools. They were young and struggled with addictions, so Cheyenne was put in foster care at the age of two. She stayed in the system until she was 18.
She was sexually abused and refused to talk about the abuse for a very long time.
She began running away from her foster home until she was eventually removed.
She tried to have a relationship with her biological parents, but her mother was still drinking and using drugs.
And then, when Cheyenne was only 15 years old, her mom died. She had zero support and zero coping skills.
So, Lisa said she acted out. She hung around with negative people and started using drugs, like methamphetamine, to numb the pain of her unresolved issues.
Cheyenne was in the depths of this drug use a month before she killed Brittney.
Quote: “She identifies that month prior to March 25 as being a period of escalated drug use, increased alcohol use and truly addiction running her life,” Lisa said in court.
BRE:I remember watching Cheyenne sob throughout her sentencing hearing. She kept taking off her glasses to wipe away tears.
She was too emotional to speak but she did provide a statement, which Lisa read out for her. Quote: “I’ll never forgive myself. Nothing I say or do will ever bring Brittney back. I’m really, really sorry. It’s wrong and shouldn’t have happened.”
WATSON AUDIO: “I think it was evident for anyone who was in that courtroom, she feels immense regret and remorse for what has happened. This was her best friend and the fact that she is no longer here as a result of her own actions weighs incredibly heavily on her and she’s going to have to live with that and deal with those issues as she moves forward.”
BRE:Despite all this, you still might be thinking: ‘How could someone only get seven years for taking another person’s life?’
The lawyers, Lisa and Robin, explained to the families, the best they could, how they arrived at that number.
BRE:Cheyenne wasn’t being sentenced for murder. Murder requires intent, and because of her memory gaps, likely from intoxication and shock, the Crown could not prove that Cheyenne had the capacity to form the necessary intent for murder.
Now, manslaughter sentences, which generally fall between four and 12 years, are typically lower than murder sentences. Higher-end manslaughter sentences are reserved for the most extreme ‘near murder’ cases.
Sentences need to balance the severity of the crime with the offender’s life circumstances, and judges have to balance both aggravating and mitigating factors.
This case had a few aggravating factors. Cheyenne was Brittney’s friend. She has a prior criminal record with 54 convictions, including convictions she accrued after Brittney’s death. She also tried to mislead police.
But those aspects are tempered with mitigating factors. Cheyenne took responsibility by pleading guilty, which can go a long way in sentencing.
Then there’s her host of Gladue factors — systemic issues that must be considered when sentencing Indigenous people, as mandated by the Criminal Code of Canada.
Even the Crown agreed Cheyenne has every Gladue factor imaginable.
BRE:Lisa said Cheyenne wants to take prison programming to deal with her demons: addiction, and the trauma that caused it.
She told Judge Marilyn Grey that for the rest of her life, Cheyenne will have to live with the knowledge that she killed her best friend.
That really resonated with David as he followed the case.
KIRTON:I feel.. I know a lot of people always want to, you know, come down hard on the perpetrator. I’ve always felt a sense of loss for Antoine, because if everything she says is true to this day, that she doesn’t remember what happened, then, obviously I feel bad for Brittney’s family, but I also feel bad for Antoine and her family. Because something went very, very sour that night. Lives were lost and a life was changed.
BRE:Judges are instructed to reject joint submissions only if they are seen as thwarting the administration of justice.
Judge Grey determined seven years was an appropriate term, and imposed the sentence.
She left Cheyenne with the following advice:
Quote: Ms. Antoine, I sincerely hope that while you are in custody you will take the time to address some of your personal issues, as painful as they may be. Honour your friend by becoming a positive, productive law-abiding member of the community. You owe it to her to persevere.
BRE:Brittney’s family created a memorial in a ditch at the intersection of Cedar Villa Road and Valley Road. Every year, they brought flowers, cards and stuffed animals on her birthday.
Brittney’s friend Nikki Allan made frequent trips to the roadside memorial, where she was interviewed by the StarPhoenix in 2015.
Nikki Allan Audio: When I’m here I can still feel her presence and it’s almost like she’s telling me ‘Nikki it’s okay, Ill meet you again, we’ll be together again, I’m in God’s hands, I’m safe.
BRE:My producer and I drove out to the area where Brittney was found. Today, in 2019, there is no memorial — just a grassy ditch, a gravel road and the distant whir of passing cars.
But in 2015, there was a black cross with the words “You are in my thoughts and my prayers,” on it. There was a bouquet of pink, yellow and purple plastic flowers and a pink stuffed pony.
David remembers it well.
KIRTON:The memorial itself was basically a huge bouquet of mostly plastic flowers. But there were some very very small solar lights in there, so even at night when I would drive home, I could see, you know, the glisten of the memorial. And then there was the small picture of Brittney hanging in that memorial. You know, it lasted a long time. I mean, that investigation of course went on for two years before charges were laid, but it lasted throughout that time. And, during that time, the civic operations facility was being built and Ellis Don, the contractor that was building that building placed a small sign beside the memorial and it bascially said: ‘please do not disturb this memorial, a family is mourning the death of a loved one.
BRE:Cedar Villa Road runs along the Southwest Dog Park. Further down the road is Cedar Villa Estates, a community of acreage homes.
A large plot of industrial land and rail yards separates the area from the nearest neighbourhood. It’s not directly off any major road or highway.
It makes you wonder what lead to Brittney being left….there.
KIRTON: Why out there? How did they end up driving from where they were, supposedly having a good time that night, getting into some kind of fight and then ending up there. That’s a huge mystery that I think is going to be with us for years.
BRE:Brittney’s case gained international attention. Dateline, People Magazine, even the Dr. Phil Show tried contacting local reporters, lawyers and family members for interviews.
Major news outlets from around the world rewrote local stories, splashed with the headline: ‘The Facebook Selfie Killer.’
It took a lot of us kind of by surprise. I know I didn’t think of it as this sensational story about a selfie.
To me, it was about a young woman who died at the hands of her friend, someone she trusted, for seemingly no reason.
And the impact that she left on people like her stepmom, Kristi.
WIchenhauser Audio: Brittney was very happy…joyful..she loved her family, she has four younger sisters. She loved her friends, she spent as much time with them as she could. She was a wonderful person whose life was cut short, and it’s not fair. It’s just not fair.”
BRE:We reached out to many people for this episode. They included Brittney’s friends, some of her relatives who spoke in court and the Crown, Robin Ritter, who is now retired. We did not receive any responses.
Cheyenne’s lawyer, Lisa Watson, declined to participate based on instructions she received from Cheyenne, who is serving her sentence in Fraser Valley, British Columbia.
We heard Cheyenne might be interested in speaking with us for this podcast. When I submitted a request to the Correctional Service of Canada, a spokesperson said she did not want to participate.
People struggling with substance abuse and trauma issues can access services through the Saskatchewan Health Authority by calling 306-655-7777.
Or visitbreakthebarrier.cafor information on how to help others recover from addictions.
Published on: March 16, 2020