The Barbara Stoppel Murder
At approximately 8:45 p.m., on December 23, 1981, 16-year old Barbara Gayle Stoppel was found strangled in the woman?s washroom of the donut shop where she worked as a waitress after school. Several witnesses, who observed a suspicious male leaving the women?s washroom and exit the store only seconds earlier, found her body. She was immediately rushed to the St. Boniface Hospital where she was put on life support, however due to a lack of oxygen it was determined that she had suffered massive brain damage and she died a few days later when her life support systems were disconnected.
The male seen leaving the donut shop was variously described as being a white male, 21-30 years old, brown hair, scruffy looking, scraggly sideburns, poor complexion with some noticeable acne pimples or pock marks on the left side of his face, brown mustache, tall, slim build, wearing prescription glasses, a dark brown or black cowboy hat, a dark coloured waist length coat, blue jeans and round toed or cowboy boots. A composite drawing of the suspect was prepared by a police sketch artist and circulated to the media.
One of the witnesses who observed the suspect inside the donut shop followed him around behind the shopping centre and across the Norwood Bridge where there was a confrontation. Unfortunately, the suspect escaped, but not before he threw a box, some gloves and some extra twine used in the killing, over the railing. It is believed that the suspect may have lived in the area and sought revenge on Barbara for some perceived wrong.
Investigation determined that the braided green and yellow nylon twine used in the murder was unique and may have been used as shot line for pulling wires through conduits in underground hydro or telephone installations. It was originally believed that the twine came from a producer in Washington State and as such police centered their investigation on the west coast. However, a recent analysis of the twine confirmed that it contained a chemical tracer used by a former Portage la Prairie rope manufacturer named Berkley Twine.
Based on the original belief that the source of the twine was along the west coast, the police identified Thomas Sophonow, a 28-year old Vancouver resident who frequently traveled to Winnipeg as a possible suspect. He was similar in appearance to the composite drawing and was in Winnipeg on the night of the murder. He was eventually charged with the crime, however in 1985 after three trials, the Manitoba Court of Appeal acquitted him of the murder. On June 8, 2000, Jack Ewatski, Chief of Police, exonerated Sophonow of any wrongdoing after an internal analysis of the case determined he was not responsible.
As a result of Chief Ewatski's exoneration, a Public Inquiry was called by the Minister of Justice to determine how the Justice system may have prosecuted an innocent man. The Inquiry, chaired by former Supreme Court Justice Peter Cory, released its findings earlier this year and made several recommendations on to improve police procedures.
The case currently remains unsolved and anyone with information as to the identity of the true suspect is requested to contact police.
If you have any information about this case, please contact Crime Stoppers at 786-TIPS (8477), or e-mail Sgt. Al Bradbury and Det. Jon Lutz of the Cold Case Homicide Unit.
The Commission of Inquiry Report into the Investigation and Prosecution of Thomas Sophonow is available online at the Manitoba Department of Justice.
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