NO CLOSURE: Nicole, wife of murdered truck driver Donald Woods, struggles to come to terms with his senseless killing.
FATAL STOP?: Surveillance videos placed accused killer Paul Cyr at the 10 Acre truck stop in Belleville at the same time Woods was there. However, Cyr told investigators he didn’t talk to Woods at the truck stop.
WHITBY, Ont. –The truck sat unnoticed for two days on an access lane behind a Wal-Mart store. Shoppers and workers came and went, paying no mind to the rig.
It was a humid Friday in June when police in Pickering, acting on a report of an apparently abandoned vehicle, arrived to investigate.
A grisly scene awaited them. Lying on his right side on the blood-spattered sleeper bunk, his arms twisted awkwardly behind his back, was 35-year-old Donald Woods, a bear of a man, his body covered by a blue sleeping bag.
The cause of death was obvious: Woods had been shot in the back of the head. A forensic pathologist would find the shotgun blast had been administered point blank, execution style.
The refrigerated trailer had been shut down and was empty.
The discovery, made on the afternoon of June 23, 2006, was an utter puzzle.
As they traced his final movements, homicide detectives with the Durham Regional Police would learn Woods had left Montreal two days earlier with a load of air-chilled chicken bound for the Greater Toronto Area. It appeared the theft of the chicken, valued at $40,000, was the motive for the brutal killing.
The homicide cops would follow that stolen cargo to food processors in the Toronto area. They would also focus on a truck stop off Hwy. 401 in Belleville, about 90 minutes east of Toronto, where Woods was last known to have been.
And they would travel to Montreal where they were welcomed into the home of Paul Cyr, a burly, heavily tattooed, convicted killer who had been released on parole five years earlier. A team of detectives and uniformed officers would spend countless hours tracking Cyr’s movements, testing the statement he’d made that he’d had no contact with Woods the night he went missing. The investigative trail would ultimately lead them right back to Montreal.
Donald “Donnie” Woods was a born trucker, falling in love with the road in his teens. The hum of pavement beneath his tires would become the underlying soundtrack of his life.
“It was what made him happy,” said Nicole Woods, who married Donnie in 2001 after a courtship begun at a backyard barbecue at her sister’s house. “As much as it frustrated him, it made him happy at the same time.”
“He liked to be his own boss,” Nicole added. “He liked to be on his own and do his own thing, to set his own hours.”
Of course, the lifestyle had its drawbacks. He was on the road more than he was home. He’d grab what time he could with Nicole and Alex, the stepson he treated as his own child. Donnie would drop in whenever he could at the family home near Athens, Ont., outside Brockville, and on occasion Nicole would make the half-hour trip into town to meet him when he’d pull off the 401 for a brief visit.
They made their own family time. Alex, now 16, travelled frequently with his stepdad; together they visited all 48 states of the continental US.
Nicole would ride along, too. A smile played on her lips when she recalled riding along as Donnie drove west to Calgary, then due south to Laredo, Texas. They took five weeks, wending their way through the deep south. Donnie took his time, diverting the rig along back roads, always in search of a view of the Gulf of Mexico.
“That was the best trip I think I’ve ever been on,” Nicole said, her gaze far away.
But for the most part theirs was a relationship defined by time and distance. The last time Nicole saw Donnie, in the parking lot of a Brockville supermarket on the night of June 21, 2006, he loaded her vehicle with four damaged boxes containing dozens of frozen Tim Horton’s muffins.
“I laughed at him,” Nicole said. “There were hundreds of muffins. I said,’What am I going to do with all these muffins?'”
Donnie promised to call Nicole before he bedded down for the night. It was going on 11 p. m. when he called, telling her he was pulling into the 10 Acre truck stop in Belleville. He said he was thinking about meeting up with a guy from a Montreal trucking firm who had offered him a job: Five days a week, day-time runs, for good money. No more lengthy absences. Sleeping in his own bed at night. He was seriously considering the offer.
“It was his dream job,” Nicole said.
She would remember the phone call and the name of the company -JC Drivers -when Durham police called to tell her the husband she’d spent two days frantically searching for had been found murdered in Pickering.
The investigation into Donald Woods’ murder was headed up by Durham police detectives Dave Henderson and Mitch Martin, two seasoned cops who have seen their share of violent death.
The homicide had all the hallmarks of a planned and deliberate killing. Woods appeared to have been abducted; police found plastic tie wraps in and around the truck -one of them bore traces of the victim’s blood and DNA -and his wrists were bruised, suggesting, along with the odd positioning of his arms, that he had been bound. The nature of the fatal wound indicated the killer had placed the shotgun muzzle against the back of Woods’s head and pulled the trigger -an execution.
And there was the missing cargo, which gave cops a viable working motive of robbery. But who would coldly kill a man for a few thousand dollars worth of chicken?
“This was truly a whodunnit,” Henderson said.
Police made public appeals for tips in the baffling killing and fanned out across the GTA and beyond, attempting to track the pilfered chicken.
It was Nicole Woods, though, who got the police looking east to Montreal. She told Martin and Henderson about the job offer from JC Drivers and Donnie’s planned meeting in Belleville the night he disappeared. In mid-July of 2006 Martin travelled to Montreal to question Jacques Cyr, owner of the company. He could shed no light on the mystery but told Martin his brother Paul, a driver for his company, knew Woods.
Martin phoned Paul Cyr, left a message, and just minutes later got a call back. ‘Come on over,’ Paul Cyr said.’I’ll tell you what I know.’
The interview was taped in Cyr’s kitchen with two cops, Cyr, his wife and the family dogs crowded around the table. On the tape Paul Cyr sounds amiable and cooperative. Yes, he told Martin, he knew Don Woods, and yes, he had talked to the man about a job.
But he said he hadn’t seen Woods the night of June 21, 2006.
Martin confronted Cyr with what would become a valuable piece of evidence: Security cameras at the 10 Acre truck stop caught Cyr there that night, at the same time Woods had pulled off the highway.
“From what I can see, you guys were there at the same time,” Martin said.
“He never talked to me,” Cyr replied.
Cyr continued his denials of involvement even as Martin asked directly if he’d played any role in the killing.
At one point Cyr mused, “Who wants to die for a box of chicken?”
The goodbyes at the end of the interview were cordial. But Martin left determined to check out Cyr’s story.
Police already knew plenty about the then 49-year-old Cyr. He’d been convicted of second-degree murder in the 1987 stabbing of a Toronto man in a botched drug robbery and was released on parole in 2001 after serving 14 years in prison. But that record didn’t automatically put Cyr any higher on the cops’ “sliding scale” of persons of interest, Henderson said.
Rather, it was when they checked into Cyr’s movements the night of the killing that doubt was cast on his claims of innocence.
Police interviewed GTA food processors who said they’d dealt in June of 2006 with a man named Paul who promised them fresh chicken at a low price. Phone records placed Cyr in the vicinity of one of those processors -he phoned 19 times early in the morning of June 22, 2006.
Other evidence put Cyr in locations connected with the killing and the selling of the cargo.
In late October of 2006 the Durham detectives travelled once more to Montreal. This time they came back with Paul Cyr in handcuffs.
Nicole was grabbing a bite at a Mc
Donald’s in Kingston with Alex when the call came that an arrest had been made. She fell to her knees, weeping, as the other diners looked on, incredulous.
Cyr’s trial for first-degree murder occurred in Whitby over two months in May and June this year. The Crown presented what it admitted was a circumstantial case. But when he made his final submissions, prosecutor Jinwon Kim urged the jury to look at the totality of the case against Cyr. The only logical inference to draw from the puzzle was that Cyr robbed and killed Donald Woods, he told them.
It took jurors just a day to return with a verdict. On June 30 they pronounced Cyr guilty. As the tense moments before the arrival of the jury crept by Nicole sat on a courtroom bench, visibly trembling. When the word “guilty” was uttered she broke down, sobbing.
At a sentencing hearing two days later Superior Court Justice Bryan Shaughnessy pronounced the obligatory term of life with no parole for 25 years, but added he’d be recommending that Cyr, now a two-time killer, never be released.
Paul Cyr, silent and inscrutable throughout the trial, spoke out at last: “I didn’t kill him,” he suddenly said, his deep voice reverberating through the cavernous courtroom.
Onlookers sat in stunned silence.
“The jury thought otherwise,” the judge shot back.
“I didn’t kill him,” Cyr said again, louder this time.
The judge ordered silence. Cyr spoke no more. He was handcuffed and led away.
The climactic moment in the courtroom drama left Nicole feeling empty; there is little satisfaction to be had, conviction or no conviction. It’s just over for now, that’s all.
“Everybody says I have closure now,” she said. “Really? Do I have closure?”
She thought for a long moment as she gazed at an enlargement of a photo booth image of her and Donnie, smiling goofily. It was taken long ago, in Montreal.
Finally, she sighed.
“There is no closure,” she said.
-Jeff Mitchell is a crime reporter based in Oshawa, Ont. After covering the entire trial, he wrote this article exclusively for Truck News.