Murder of Reena Virk

Reena Virk, a 14-year-old of South Asian origin, was savagely beaten and murdered by teenaged attackers in November 1997 in a suburb of Victoria, British Columbia. The crime horrified Canadians and attracted international media attention because of the brutality of the killing as well as the youth of Virk and those who attacked her. It prompted a national conversation about teenaged bullying and racism, led in part by Virk’s parents, who became anti-bullying campaigners in the wake of their daughter’s murder.

This article contains sensitive material that may not be suitable for all audiences.



Background

Reena Virk was a 14-year-old living in View Royal, a quiet middle-class suburb of Victoria, British Columbia. Unlike many other families in the local South Asian community, Virk’s parents, Manjit and Suman, were not practising Sikhs. Instead, they were devout Jehovah’s Witnesses. Reena rebelled against her parents’ strict rules. About a year before her death, she had run away from her parents and had been placed in the care of a group home.

According to friends, Reena Virk was self-conscious about her weight and struggled with self-esteem. She desperately sought acceptance from her peers at school and in the group home where she lived for a while. In late 1997, she was accused by some teenagers of spreading rumours about another girl and of trying to steal her boyfriend.

The Murder

On 14 November 1997, Reena Virk was part of a large group of teens who gathered — as they often did on Friday nights — to socialize and party on a field behind Shoreline School in View Royal. After police arrived, the group moved to the Craigflower Bridge. A fight suddenly broke out under the bridge. One girl, the subject of rumours allegedly spread by Virk, put out a burning cigarette on her forehead. Virk was then swarmed by a group of seven girls and one boy, all 16 years old or younger, who repeatedly punched and kicked her. Virk cried out “I’m sorry,” as she absorbed the blows and lay bleeding on the muddy ground underneath the bridge. Many in the crowd dispersed once the fighting started, while others watched as the eight teens carried out their assault.

After the attack, Virk staggered across the bridge toward home. However, she was attacked again by two of the original assailants, Kelly Ellard, 15, and Warren Glowatski, 16. She was punched again, her head was smashed against a tree, and she was dragged unconscious into the Gorge Waterway and drowned.

Virk’s parents reported her missing, but her half-naked body was not discovered until eight days later, retrieved from the water by police divers. A coroner’s autopsy reported extensive damage to Virk’s body, including multiple blows and bruising to her head and abdomen. The report said Virk would most likely have died from her injuries if she hadn’t been drowned.

The Prosecution

In February 1998, six girls who took part in the initial attack on Virk were prosecuted in youth court with their identities protected from publication (see Youth Criminal Justice Act). Three of the girls pleaded guilty to assault causing bodily harm, while three others were convicted of the same offence at trial. Kelly Ellard and Warren Glowatski were charged with Reena’s murder, and despite their ages, they were tried in adult court due to the extreme nature of the crime.

Sixteen-year-old Glowatski had grown up in difficult circumstances. His alcoholic mother had been absent for much of his life. At the time of the killing he had been living at a friend’s house after his father had left British Columbia without him to live in California. In June 1999, Glowatski was convicted by a judge of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. His appeal of that conviction was dismissed in 2001.

Ellard, on the other hand, came from a more stable, traditional family that supported her at trial. A jury found her guilty of second-degree murder in 2000, but the conviction was overturned on technical legal grounds by the Supreme Court of Canada. A second trial in 2004 — at which Ellard insisted on her innocence and declared, “I am not a monster” — resulted in a deadlocked jury and a mistrial. Ellard was convicted again by a jury at a third trial in 2005. That conviction was upheld on appeal to the Supreme Court, and Ellard received a life sentence.

Prison and Parole

In prison, Warren Glowatski took responsibility for his crime. He discovered his Métis heritage and participated in restorative justice programs, including Indigenous healing circles, aiming to reconcile offenders and victims. (See also Justice Systems of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.) At one such session he met Reena Virk’s parents and apologized to them for his actions, explaining that he had no particular motive at the time of the attack. Amid tears, Glowatski and the Virks exchanged hugs.

After years of grief, the Virks chose to forgive many of the young people who had killed their daughter, telling the Globe and Mail that although it wasn’t easy, forgiveness allowed them to let go of their anger. “I think the most important reason why we’ve forgiven Warren is so we can just put this whole matter aside and for our own healing and sense of wholeness,” Suman Virk said.

Glowatski’s parole application was supported by the Virks, and he was fully paroled in 2010.

In contrast, Kelly Ellard spent her early years in prison repeating her claims of innocence while also taking illegal drugs and breaking penitentiary rules. She eventually changed her name to Kerry Sim and by 2016 had given birth to a child conceived during a conjugal visit with her new boyfriend, an ex-convict. By 2020, then in her late thirties, Ellard had a second child with the same partner and was receiving day parole as part of a program to reintegrate her into the community.

Anti-Bullying Campaign

Manjit and Suman Virk channelled their grief over Reena’s murder into a public awareness campaign against bullying and teenage violence. They successfully pushed the British Columbia government to enact a series of anti-bullying programs in schools. They also spoke about bullying in public meetings attended by thousands of children, teachers, and law enforcement officials. Since then, bullying has become a national topic of conversation. In 2009, the Virks were honoured with British Columbia’s Anthony J. Hulme Award of Distinction for their contributions to crime prevention and community safety.

Suman Virk died on 16 June 2018, aged 58, following a choking accident while eating in a Victoria cafe.


Further Reading

  • Rebecca Godfrey, Under the Bridge: The True Story of the Murder of Reena Virk (2005)