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Drama series based on Reena Virk's murder does 'great disservice,' says retired cop

Retired police officer Chris Horsley is shown in a handout photo. A true crime drama based on the 1997 murder of British Columbia teen Reena Virk does “a great disservice” to the victim, her family and her community, says Horsley, who worked on the original investigation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Chris Horsley **MANDATORY CREDIT**

A true crime drama based on the 1997 murder of British Columbia teen Reena Virk does “a great disservice” to the victim, her family and her community, says a retired cop who worked on the original investigation.

The Disney Plus miniseries “Under the Bridge,” which premieres Wednesday, centres on the real-life story of Virk, who was 14 when she was swarmed and beaten by a group of teens in Saanich, B.C., and subsequently drowned in a waterway.

Retired staff sergeant Chris Horsley, who served as a media liaison for the Saanich Police Department during the Virk case, says he hasn't seen any episodes but worries about whether the show compromises accuracy for "dramatic effect.”

"It's sad in a way because there's a lot of significant trauma in the real investigation,” he says over the phone from Victoria.

“But it's a Hollywood production, right? Unfortunately, it's made on the memory of someone who was in fact murdered here. So I probably won't watch the TV series.”

Lily Gladstone and Riley Keough star as a Saanich police officer and writer investigating Virk’s death. Keough plays a version of late author Rebecca Godfrey, whose 2005 book “Under the Bridge,” about Virk’s murder, serves as the basis for the show.

Horsley says none of the investigators involved in the Virk case heard from the "Under the Bridge" production team during the series’ development and a spokesperson for the Saanich Police Department also says they were not consulted. 

“The minute that the production strays from the truth and starts to become fiction, I think that is a great disservice to not only Reena and her memory but also to the people who worked on the case and those who participated here in the community,” says Horsley, adding that several anti-violence programs were launched in the Greater Victoria area following Virk’s murder.

Publicists for the production with Disney Plus Canada did not respond to a request for comment. 

Horsley says Virk’s death is, to this day, the “biggest media story” Saanich has ever had.

“It was very unique having not just young offenders but young female offenders committing such a degree of violence. I don't think it was something we got our heads around at that point.”

Episodes made available in advance portray Godfrey, who co-produced the series with creator Quinn Shephard before her death in 2022, as participating with police in the investigation. Horsley says this was not the case. 

“That didn't happen at all. She didn't write the book for long after the incident took place.”

In the pilot, Virk’s uncle and father, played by Anoop Desai and Ezra Faroque Khan, visit the police station to report the girl missing but officers don’t take them seriously. 

Horsley also counters this, saying school officials reported her missing and that Virk was living in a group home at the time because of a troubled relationship with her parents. 

He adds that Virk’s family had an “excellent working relationship” with the police.

According to documents released by the Parole Board of Canada last month, Virk’s killer Kelly Ellard — who changed her name to Kerry Sim — told her case managers it was “so horrendous” that the series will “re-victimize the victim's family."

Horsley says he expects that far more than just those connected directly to the case will be impacted by the series.

“It's not just the family that would be retraumatized. I think it’s also friends of Reena and other people that lived in the community that were affected by the murder,” says Horsley.

“The vast majority of the viewing audience, they don't have that personal connection, but here in Victoria there's many people that do. It's been 27 years but there's still a lot of people in Victoria that were affected by this murder.”

Horsley says he’s perturbed by the proliferation of true crime shows “that are loosely based on real events.”

“The tragedy for me is they’re not loosely based on real victims,” he says.

“These are real people with families that were murdered. And a lot of people are watching for entertainment value.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 7, 2024.

Alex Nino Gheciu, The Canadian Press

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