Dateline   |  June 14, 2013

Deception, Part 5

Four months into the investigation of Wendy Ratte's disappearance, with no sign of Wendy anywhere, police radar becomes squarely pointed at her husband Denis.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> police thought they were a big step closer to solving the mystery surrounding wendy 's disappearance. someone cashed in her unemployment checks at an atm. was it wendy ? was it someone who had done her harm? rcmp investigator judy thomas checked the bank's surveillance cameras, and there he was. denis ratte, wendy 's husband. so you asked him it it --

>> and he admitted it.

>> straight out? didn't try to lie?

>> i don'think he could lie about it when you have a picture of him cashing the check at an atm.

>> did he have an explanation that made sense?

>> yeah. he explained the fact that his wife had disappeared, there was no money coming in. and he needed to pay the bills. it made me wonder about his character.

>> denis suddenly became suspect number one. though it was hardly a surprise police would look at the husband. in fact, in the very first week of the investigation, thomas had questioned him three times.

>> i introduced myself as a police officer coming to talk to him. and i said, "how are you doing?" his comment was, "better." it struck me odd right at the beginning.

>> did he seem nervous, upset?

>> he didn't strike me as overly concerned. not distraught by any means.

>> frustrated is what he was, denis told his sister.

>> i said, you know, get used to it. you're the husband. they're going to look at you. because 99% of the time, the husband did it.

>> didn't help that from one interview to the next, denis appeared to change vital information about the day his wife went missing.

>> he said she left with no money, but then in the following statement, he claims that she gave her money.

>> $1,000 or $2,000 in fact, money he'd gotten for an odd job when he asked weekendy to return when he couldn't complete it.

>> it struck me there as going --

>> why didn't he tell me that the first time?

>> yeah, because it was specifically asked did wendy have money on her.

>> you wouldn't think he'd forget about $2,000.

>> $2,000, exactly.

>> in the fall of 701996, investigators found that since denis had the job at the mill two years ago, the perfect little family had not been quite so perfect after all.

>> that was really hard for him, as you can imagine. he liked being the man of the house.

>> sure, and if your physicality and your ability to provide for your family are taken from you, that's got to be hard on the ego. oh, yeah. it was very hard.

>> and especially hard on the family's finances. their visa card was almost maxed out. the only income came from wendy 's work as a substitute teacher, not exactly a lucrative profession. denis did what he always did when times were rough. he played poker.

>> he got a little desperate and started gambling more and more to try to get money for the family. and gambled too much and started losing money. and money they didn't have.

>> and it was on one of those smoke-filled nights, sometime around february, 1997 , six months before wendy disappeared. hunched around a poker table in the company of high rollers , denis found himself staring at a hand that spelled salvation. with $25,000 in chips sitting on the table.

>> it's every gambler's excuse -- my hand was so good that no one was going beat it.

>> so he threw everything into the pot.

>> uh-huh, yep. he bet the highest he could. and yeah, he lost it. so i think that went on to the visa, as well. and he was terrible.

>> mom was very vocal. i remember her yelling. she was so angry. she just vibrated.

>> vibrated?

>> mom was emotional -- i'd never seen her yell at him before. she talked about how much she loved dad but was so angry with him, wasn't sure she could forgive him. it was a betrayal, and you put years of devotion into someone to be cut down like that.

>> their father's addiction is ruining us, wendy told anna , and as was wendy 's way, told everyone else who cared to listen, too. 16-year-old anna , daddy's girl, began to see the tarnish in her father's halo.

>> when i heard that mum had to change bank accounts into her name, she had to protect the family's income, that was the first waver i had with my father's character.

>> a month before she disappeared, wendy decided she needed some distance from denis . she took the kids and went to visit her old friend, lois.

>> i feel that the decision wendy was making was whether she was going to end the marriage with denis or not. but she knew how much denis loved his children and how much the children loved denis .

>> so she decided to give denis one last chance. she went back to prince george , had a heart to heart with him and then called lois.

>> when she phoned, she said, "i had a talk with denis , i've decided we're going to give it another try." that phone call was happiness with a lot of relief in it. but my sense was if denis betrayed her trust again, it was over. she was finished.

>> denis told wendy he'd do whatever it took to save the marriage. but anna could clearly see that wendy 's very public complaints about his failings had been bothering him a lot.

>> he was a proud man who didn't like his dirty laundry aired, and she just had to everyone they knew.

>> his failings had been put on display.

>> and they had never been before. what it took for her to forgive him hurt him deeply.

>> but denis told police again and again his marriage was back on track. he had absolutely no reason, he said, to hurt wendy or have anything to do with her disappearance. police said, "prove it."

>> he said, "they want me to take a lie detector test ." i said, "you're the husband, they scare me, don't do it."

>> denis did not listen to his little sisterment four months after wendy disappeared, he volunteered to take the test. how did he seem going in?

>> a lot of people are nervous whether they come in. they're unsure of the procedure.

>> right. pretty scary, i think.

>> if i could categorize him, he was that way. wondering what was going to happen, what's going to take place.

>> there was a polygraph question that had to be asked. last august, did you murder wendy ? denis ratte answered with conviction, "no, i did not." and waited to see what the machine would say.

>>> coming up -- the investigation is transformed when detectives run up against a fresh and frustrating piece of evidence. did it seem to you at the time, hey, this is -- this can't be?

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>>> four months into the investigation of wendy ratte's disappearance, no sign of wendy anywhere, police radar was squarely pointed at her husband, denis , which was no surprise to seasoned prince george reporter frank peebles.

>> it was just the natural assumption that someone of that style, that democrat graphic wouldn't go missing unless it was to someone that she knew closely.

>> denis , of course, had proclaimed his innocence. took a lie detector test to prove it. there's no shortage of other theories in the case, though theories like rumors are easy. separating rumor from fact, that's another matter altogether as detective judy thomas discovered. she chased down the leads. first, the highway of tears . for years, women had been going missing out here. a body occasionally turning up beside the road. a horrifying surprise for passersby. but thomas had investigated and was sure wendy didn't fit the profile.

>> some of the victims we see are hitchhikers, also involved in drugs and organized crime or some of the folks that are sex trade workers.

>> so you were able to dispense with that quickly?

>> uh-huh. there was nothing to indicate that she was in any way connected to any of the missing or murdered women along highway 16 .

>> so said judy thomas , no highway of tears . but wendy could still have left prince george of her own accord. there was, after all, that sighting at the greyhound bus station. but no, said thomas , false alarm.

>> with various files, you get a lot of people saying, oh, i saw this person. they're quite adamant. then i spoke to the woman, she actually said, "no, i wouldn't be able to say that at all." we flagged bank accounts , credit cards , social insurance numbers. we put wendy on a canada-wide data base . we checked the airlines, the border crossings , there was just nothing.

>> what about the religious group , the emissaries of divine light , that wendy had been drawn to years before?

>> we checked into that and met with dead ends. they said they had never heard of her.

>> reports that wendy was mentally still in that it wasn't her but her alter ego that may have left town? thomas interviewed wendy 's mother about her daughter's troubled youth.

>> we spoke at length. she told me all about wendy and her background and growing up.

>> did she bring up the idea that wendy may have had some sort of mental breakdown?

>> there was talk some issues that wendy h. we looked into medical records , and there was nothing recent. there was a time in her life when she did -- i don't know if you want to call it disappear, but she lost contact with her family. but that's in a person's youth which is much different than when you're married with children .

>> thomas interviewed several of wendy 's closest friends. all told her the same thing -- wendy was first and foremost a mother. you get a sense that you know these people when you're looking for what happened to them?

>> you certainly develop an idea of who that person could be.

>> and what idea did you develop about wendy ?

>> for wendy , very caring, loving mother. when i was talking with anna and gabriel, the love that they had for their mother, i knew that it had to be reciprocated. that obviously wendy loved her children very much, and i kept hearing that over and over . that she would not leave her children.

>> right. that was a central fact in your mind?

>> yeah, definitely.

>> so runaway wendy ? investigator thomas decided no. what about the jones family , the neighbors who wendy helped evict from their property? they would have had the motive to hurt her.

>> you look at the full circumstances of it. that family had moved four months i believe prior. the main person that they alluded to wasn't even in the area. and there was nothing else to support that.

>> the joneses ruled out as suspects in the disappearance of wendy ratte. which left wendy 's husband, denis . he created the suspicion himself, of course, when he illegally cashed wendy 's unemployment insurance checks, and his gambling habit hospital bankrupted the family. led -- habit almost bankrupted the family. led to terrible fights before wendy disappeared. but denis agreed to take a lie detector test . now the results were in.

>> the polygraph operator came back and told denis that he found him to be truthful.

>> you hear right, truthful. letting him go as a suspect must have difficult. did you say this can't be, or --

>> it -- i remember having a thought of, hm, it's not what i would have expected.

>> she would warn denis not to take the lie detector test , got a call for her vastly relieved brother.

>> did the lie detector test , and i passed it. he said, "see, told me ton do. it i did it, and it paid off. now they know i didn't do it, and they're leaving me alone. see, i was right." i said, "okay, you were right. you win."

>> the case of the disappearance of wendy ratte was at a dead end .

>> judy told me, "we don't understand. for other cases there's usually -- at least bogus information coming in. there was nothing coming in."

>> was her mom alive, was she dead? could she have abandoned the children who loved her so much? unsolved cases often carry with them an intolerable uncertainty, or maybe as anna was about to discover an unbearable truth.