‘He wouldn’t own up to it’: Hands family devastated by arrest and release of suspect

The recent arrest and release of a suspect in the 2003 death of Nicolle Hands in Winnipeg has been a “devastating” experience for the family, says her mother.

Eleanor Hands says she and Nicolle’s three children are trying to come to grips with the unexpected development in the 16-year-old case that occurred on the weekend of March 8.

That’s when Project Devote, a joint Winnipeg police-Manitoba RCMP task force, announced the arrest of a male from Winnipeg. A day later the man was released.

“He wouldn’t own up to it,” Eleanor says is what the Winnipeg police officer in charge of the case told her.

“It wasn’t enough to sign a warrant for his arrest.”

Eleanor says it was a double whammy hearing the news over the phone.

“They’ve always said they would fly down and tell me everything,” she says, but growing concerns around COVID-19 kept investigators at home.

“I don’t know,” she adds from Kingston, Ont. “It’s been a horrible time.”

Lac Seul First Nation

Nicolle, a member of Lac Seul First Nation in northwestern Ontario, was 32 and living in a Winnipeg apartment with her three children when she was stabbed. She died in hospital three days later.

Eleanor says Project Devote continues to speak with Crown prosecutors about potential charges. It’s unclear whether charges are being pursued against the same suspect.

But in the meantime, her family is trying to get back to their normal.

“We’ve all been not ourselves,” she says. The kids “haven’t been themselves and neither have I.”

The children, who are now young adults, were in the next room when the crime occurred. Since then, two of them have graduated from post-secondary school and a third is finishing high school and has plans to attend college next year.

“I’m so proud of them,” says Eleanor, “and I know Nicolle would be, too.”

The way Project Devote handled the Hands’ case has attracted criticism and concern from advocates for families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

One told APTN News the family should never have been alone after learning of an arrest, never mind a release.

Another says the task force, which claims one arrest since it was formed in 2011, should be disbanded and its resources spent on implementing recommendations from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls that concluded last year.

Eleanor says she received congratulatory calls from friends in Red Lake, Ont., which is home to a large number of Lac Seul off-reserve band members.

“We were so happy dancing around and then ‘bam,’ says Eleanor. “It sure took a toll on my mind.”

Despite being unhappy with what transpired, Eleanor says she knows police are working for justice.

“He’s worked his butt off,” she says of the officer in charge. “I think he was as devastated as we were.”

Anyone with information about this or any case is asked to call the Project Devote tip line at 1-888-673-3316 or Manitoba Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.


Investigative Reporter / Winnipeg

Award-winning reporter Kathleen Martens covers western and northern Canada for aptnnews.ca. A veteran of the Brandon Sun, Sun Media and APTN Investigates, she is based in APTN’s head office, specializing in stories about property, women’s rights and community.