Death of Alloura Wells
Alloura Wells (a.k.a. Alloura Hennessy and Alloura Wheeler) was a homeless Canadian mixed-race transgender sex-worker. She died in Toronto in June 2017 and her body was discovered in a ravine the following month, but she was not reported missing until 6 November 2017, and her badly decomposed body was not identified until 23 November.
|Born||1989 or 1990|
|Died||26 July 2017 (estimated) (aged 27)|
Rosedale Ravine Lands Park, Toronto
|Cause of death||Undetermined|
|Body discovered||5 August 2017|
Wells's death brought attention to a marginalized community and brought criticisms against the Toronto Police Service (TPS) and The 519 community centre over mismanagement of information. Internal and external reviews were called by both organizations over their policies and accusations of bias. The case, along with a series of deaths of missing people in Church and Wellesley, Toronto's gay village, prompted the TPS to create a dedicated missing-persons unit.
Wells was born in Toronto, the third of four children. The family struggled financially, relying on the small but stable income of her mother Mary, a Tim Hortons manager. Wells was enrolled in a specialized drama program at Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts and came out to her family when she was 18.
As a teenager Wells would disappear for periods of time, going downtown where Wells was caught trying to sneak into bars in Church and Wellesley, Toronto's gay village. She befriended drag performers and questioned them about dressing up and becoming "glam".
Around 2012 Wells settled down for a bit; she signed up for the Ontario Works income-support program and rented an apartment in Scarborough near her sister. But in February 2013 her mother died and the family broke apart. Her father and older brother became homeless and Wells was evicted. From that time she mainly lived in a tent in the Rosedale Ravine Lands Park.
Wells had many friends according to Monica Forrester, a transgender and sex-work activist, who knew Wells as a "staple of the community". According to Forrester, Wells had fallen on hard times, couldn't afford housing and was living under a bridge. Wells had served short jail terms at the Vanier Centre for Women, which her father believed were for theft and breaking and entering. Wells's father said that she had been engaged in sex work and had turned down offers to stay at his apartment. They had last spoken in March 2017.
Wells was in a relationship with Augustinus Balesdent, the only boyfriend Wells had introduced to her father. Their relationship was marked with use of intravenous drugs. Around 2015, Wells was once found sleeping on her sister's doorstep, disheveled and almost unrecognizable.
Her Facebook account, under the name Alloura Hennessy, went dormant after 26 July 2017. Of the last two posts, one stated pride in her younger brother's military service and the other read: "Is wondering [what] happened to me life love loss its to much to handle right now."
Rebecca Price discovered a dead woman's body in Rosedale Ravine Lands Park in midtown Toronto on 5 August 2017. She informed the Toronto Police Service (TPS) and an on-scene investigation was conducted by 53 Division investigators and the coroner. The body was found beside a tent with drug paraphernalia; there was no identification. The body was fully dressed in women's clothing with a blonde wig and a purse, and there was no indication of foul play. An autopsy was unable to determine a cause of death or race, though the coroner determined that the woman was transgender. The body had badly decomposed and the time of death was estimated at three to four weeks before its discovery.
The police do not issue a news release every time a body is found. According to police spokesperson Meaghan Gray, there were no details that could be released and investigators worked to establish more information so they could appeal to the public for assistance in an identification.
Price spoke with a detective a few times and realized little progress was being made. Learning that the woman was transgender, Price searched on the Internet for transgender-advocacy organizations and contacted The 519 community centre in Church and Wellesley on 17 August. On 25 August The 519 staff told her they'd look into it and follow up with police. However, they only scanned police news releases and found no mention of an unidentified body; they did not contact police or any other agency.
In mid-August TPS sent out a bulletin to other police services. The Ontario Provincial Police alerted them to a missing transgender person from Northern Ontario but the ages didn't match. Another case from Alberta was closer but was ruled out by DNA testing.
Alloura Wells disappearanceEdit
At the beginning of August, Maggie's: Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, an advocacy group that Forrester worked with, was in touch with Wells's family and concerned that she had stopped posting on Facebook. Forrester contacted the Vanier Centre for Women and learned they had a prisoner named Wheeler, which she thought was Wells's surname, and assumed that Wells was all right.
In late October or early November, Forrester checked again with the Vanier Centre and learned that Wells hadn't been in prison that summer. Wells's father was informed of this and later his other daughter, who had moved from the city, informed him that Wells wasn't in a drug rehabilitation centre. Wells's father filed a missing-persons report with police on 6 November 2017, four months after she had disappeared. He reported her missing to 51 Division, which covered Church and Wellesley. On 8 November TPS issued a news release of Wells's disappearance with two photographs of her. Officers returned to the ravine on 9 and 10 November to search it.
Maggie's alerted the media to Wells's disappearance. Price learned of this and contacted them, and both were shocked that neither TPS nor The 519 had contacted Maggie's or other social agencies working in the area. Police also saw similarities between the missing persons report and the body found in the ravine, and obtained a DNA sample from a family member for testing.
Wells's body was not easily identifiable and required months of forensics work with DNA testing by the Ontario Centre of Forensic Sciences. The body was positively identified as Wells's on 23 November.
TPS handling of missing personsEdit
The TPS receives over 4,000 missing-persons reports each year but is facing staffing shortages of frontline officers described by a staff sergeant as "dangerously low". Mark Mendelson, a former TPS homicide detective, said that the circumstances surrounding a disappearance determine the priority a missing persons case is going to receive. Whether uniformed officers become involved in a physical search depends on whether police suspect foul play, noting that it is a big step to begin a search, especially for an adult.
Wells's father has alleged that TPS told them the case was "not high priority" when he reported Wells missing, given her homelessness. TPS Detective Barry Radford noted that homelessness raised concerns of where to begin a search, the reliability of information regarding the person's last known whereabouts, and factors such as weather and the person's mental state, history and health.
On 11 November Forrester criticized Toronto police for overlooking Wells's disappearance, though Wells's father only reported her missing on 6 November. In those few days TPS had issued a news release, conducted two searches of the ravine, and initiated testing to determine if the body was Wells's.
Friends of Wells also blamed police for not publicizing information about her body earlier. There has been a growing shift in policy across Canadian police forces to not release details about deaths and murders. In early 2017 Edmonton police stopped releasing the names and details of murder victims and the exact location of the crime, even while appealing to the public for information. Policies like these have been made in response to new privacy laws which require police "to protect the privacy rights of the victims and their families".
The day before police announced that they had identified Wells's body, Tess Richey was found strangled to death in an alley in Church and Wellesley. The two deaths and a string of unsolved disappearances in the neighbourhood caused an uproar, with some fearing a serial killer. In late February 2018 Saunders recommended an external review of how TPS handled missing persons cases and in March established a dedicated missing persons unit.
Wells's death also brought criticism to The 519 community centre, the city's leading LGBT advocacy agency, which failed to follow-through with Price's report of a transgender body. Wells's friends say that this resulted in her body being unidentified for months.
Maura Lawless, The 519's executive director, initially said that the centre "made some effort to verify the information with the police". The 519 later said that they tried but couldn't verify the information and didn't want to cause panic or spread rumours. Since then, an internal review found that staffers only scanned police news releases for mention of an unidentified body and did not contact police or any other agency. The 519 posted an apology on its website on 12 December for their "mishandling of information" which 519 board chair David Morris referred to as a "comedy of errors". However, they continued to place the full blame on TPS.
Trans people have had a history of being stigmatized within the broader queer community. Forrester, who worked for The 519 for 10 years before moving to Maggie's, was particularly outraged at The 519, which was supposed to be advocating for their communities. In December Forrester, along with other former-519 employees Lynda Cheng and Brian De Matos, began circulating a petition demanding Lawless's resignation. They alleged that under Lawless's direction The 519 had been systematically "pushing out the most marginalized people in the community" and turning the centre into an exclusive club for wealthy donors in the increasingly gentrified neighbourhood. Their main allegations were that The 519 was prejudiced against transgender women, the poor and the homeless. They cited The 519's mishandling of the report of Wells's body, and also redevelopment plans for More Moss Park which would displace low-income and homeless people. The petitioners also alleged that The 519 had contributed to tensions by discouraging homeless and sex workers from the area, and had a "ban list" largely made up of mentally ill or developmentally disabled racialized people. Staff disputed these allegations and The 519 board of directors supported Lawless, while engaging an independent review of the petition's concerns.
Vigils and memorialsEdit
On 19 November members of Trans Pride Toronto and Maggie's Toronto Sex Workers Action Project organized a vigil for the then-unidentified transgender woman at Barbara Hall Park in Church and Wellesley. Following the vigil about 100 people marched to TPS headquarters to demand accountability.
A public memorial for Wells was held in the second week of December.
On 12 December 2017 the Ontario legislature enacted into law that 20 November would be observed as an annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, requiring a minute of silence in the legislature. MPP Cheri DiNovo, who introduced the private member's bill in 2016, said that the legislation would be a memorial to Wells.
On 27 February Forrester created a GoFundMe page to raise money toward Wells's burial and tombstone. The City of Toronto covered the cremation expense, and surplus funds were planned to help sponsor a monthly support group for homeless transgender women. By mid-March the effort had raised over $100,000, some of which went toward expenses for members of Wells's family.
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