On the night he went missing, the day before his 60th birthday this past May, Doug Snider must have had at least an inkling something momentous was about to happen.
Shortly before 9 p.m., Snider took an unexpected phone call from one of the few other doctors in town, Abe Cooper, with whom he had been involved in a long and bitter feud. After hanging up, Snider went into his study, retrieved several sheets of blank letterhead stationery, then called upstairs to tell his wife he was going to meet Cooper at his office and try to resolve things once and for all.
Twice during that night, Jean Snider awoke to find the bed beside her empty. Twice, she put on her robe, got into the family car and drove through a cold drizzle to Cooper's office three blocks away, where she assumed from the fact that the lights were on that the meeting was continuing.
When her husband had not returned by 7:30 the next morning, she called the hospital: Doug had not been seen all night. She called the police.
What happened next has left a permanent scar on the psyche of this quiet and comfortable prairie town of 3,300, about 400 miles north of the U.S. border.
One immediate effect was that Fairview lost the services of two of its five practicing physicians, what with its most beloved doctor now missing and presumed dead and the brash newcomer sitting in jail, charged with first-degree murder. And with stories beginning to come out about a recent history of doctors attacking each other with fists and BB guns, local officials began to fear that they might not be able to attract enough new physicians to keep the local hospital open.
Certainly another casualty of the events last May was the carefully maintained sense of social harmony in Fairview. Almost from the moment that police entered Dr. Cooper's office and found bloodstains on the rug and a bloody scalpel handle left out on the table, the town began to divide itself into opposing factions, with those in the Snider camp virtually certain that Cooper was guilty of murder and those in the Cooper camp insisting that their man could never be as callous or stupid as is now alleged. Some Snider partisans stopped doing business with Cooper sympathizers while children from each camp, no doubt reflecting views picked up at home, reportedly got into fights on the school playground.
Perhaps the greatest impact from the whole affair is that it has robbed Fairview of its cherished self-image as a place of "hospitality and good will," to quote from the town's official history. To be sure, there had been over the years the occasional rumor about problems at the hospital--about the bickering among the doctors and even an alcohol problem--but the medical community had maintained a conspiracy of silence and most people in town were happy to leave it at that.
When tragedy finally struck, the people of Fairview were suddenly confronted with the prejudices and human weakness and petty jealousies that operate beneath the congenial surface of small-town life, and much worse.
Doctors of Difference
Fairview is a quiet town of one-story buildings in the heart of Alberta's Peace River Valley, surrounded by the hardwood forests and canola fields and gas wells that pump a modest prosperity into the local economy.
The town's Main Street runs four blocks from the grain elevator to the hospital, both sides lined with pickup trucks parked at an angle to the curb. Fairview's business directory boasts three motels, a bowling alley and a Chinese restaurant, plus a pair each of drug stores, pizza parlors, hardware stores and supermarkets. The fire department is volunteer. The mayor and council are elected without opposition. All the doctors are general practitioners. On Saturdays, there's a farmer's market at the Legion Hall and drag racing out at the old airstrip; Sundays are pretty much reserved for the town's 11 churches. The average temperature in winter is 17 degrees.
Although neither Douglas George Snider nor Abraham Robert Cooper was born in Fairview, both grew up in similar prairie towns during the 1940s and seemed comfortable with small-town life. But in most other ways, the two men could not have been more dissimilar.
After more than 30 years of practice in Fairview, where he came straight out of medical school, Snider knew practically everyone in town. In recent years, he had delivered babies to women whom he had delivered a generation before.
Snider had a smile and a kind word for just about everyone he met. It was not uncommon for him to make the trek twice or three times a night from his home to the hospital, even if he knew a problem could wait until morning. He was a favorite of the nurses and housekeeping staff, who would often joke good-naturedly about his dirty glasses or his shirt that never seemed properly tucked into his trousers.
Although a wealthy man by local standards, Snider lived in a modest brick rambler a block from Fairview Hospital. He invested his spare cash in cattle and farmland and in a collection of Canadian artwork, much of it kept hidden away, in keeping with local feelings about ostentation. In the summers, Doug and Jean would drive up to Dawson City in the Yukon Territory, where they maintained a rustic cabin, stopping along the way to fish. On Saturday nights, the Sniders might take in a movie, back when there was a theater in town, or play nickel-ante poker with one or two other couples. Tall and a bit overweight at 230 pounds, his most active sport was curling.
Cooper, by contrast, was very much a man's man who cut a much more controversial figure in Fairview. He had black belts in judo and taekwondo, an airplane and a pilot's license. Early on, he became a member of the Toastmasters and Rotary Club, where he was generally admired for his wit and intelligence.
Most mornings at 10 you could find "Coop," as many called him, at Fairview Steak & Pizza on Main Street, a windowless cafe of smoke and Formica where he would go from table to table teasing the regulars before sitting down with a group of local businessmen for morning coffee. Thursday nights, Cooper would don a windbreaker and leather chaps, hop on his Honda motorcycle and tour the roads around Fairview with a dozen other middle-age men who jokingly referred to themselves as "The Geritols." His usual place was at the head of the pack.
"Dr. Cooper is the kind of person you either really like or you really don't," said Deb Craig, editor of the Fairview Post over lunch recently, echoing a common view around town. "He had quite an ego. Very arrogant."
"He walked around like he owned the place, the cock of the walk" said Ken Landry, a travel agent who met Cooper at taekwondo class.
Cooper arrived in Fairview in 1988 from Hallock, a town in northern Minnesota where he had a bitter falling out with the other doctor there. While his patients quickly found him to be a skillful diagnostician and competent surgeon, many also found his gruff and straightforward bedside manner off-putting--a reflection, many said, of the Army doctor he once was. The nursing staff, by and large, couldn't stand him.
"Cooper was very aggressive verbally and quite obnoxious to the nurses," said Jim McGregor, who was administrator at the hospital for 37 years until his retirement six years ago. "I remember he threatened to sue the girls three or four times just in the first week." Relations with the doctors weren't much better. At meetings of the hospital medical staff, he frequently questioned standard procedure, such as allowing nurses to give flu shots without a doctor's orders. At another, he accused other physicians of unnecessarily extending hospital stays to bolster revenues. On several occasions, he was heard to accuse other doctors of malpractice.
Friction among doctors in small towns is not uncommon--unlike in large cities, small-town docs don't have much choice with whom they collaborate and cover for on nights and weekends. The hours are long, much of the work is routine and any change in the medical roster can have significant impact on the income of the other doctors in town.
Even by small-town standards, however, Fairview's medical community was a snake pit. By 1993, in fact, relations within the medical staff had become so strained that the hospital was forced to call in the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons. Quietly, a consultant was brought in by the college and later concluded that the doctors in town had been "acting like a bunch of kids," and recommended that a new code of conduct be instituted to control conflict.
When Cooper refused to sign the new code, the hospital board stripped him of his admitting privileges. In the letter outlining its decision, the board declared that his behavior had created an "unsettling atmosphere" and fomented "distrust and ill will" and concluded that his "continued presence . . . would be detrimental to the proper functioning of the facility and the medical staff."
Cooper was not one to accept the hospital's decision and slink quietly out of town. He appealed the board's decision and then filed a $2 million lawsuit against Snider and two other doctors, Paul Chung and John Clarke, alleging that the three had conspired to make it impossible for him to practice medicine in Fairview by turning nurses and patients against him and refusing to assist him in surgical procedures. The evidence that would come out of those legal proceedings would soon cast serious doubt on the assertion of Fairview Hospital officials that everything was hunky-dory in town until Abe Cooper came along.
George Stewart-Hunter, for example, told the appeals board that he had received a letter from Snider just before his scheduled arrival in 1976, warning that there were already too many physicians in town, that they wouldn't cooperate with him if he came. After being reassured by the hospital board that this was not the case, Stewart-Hunter decided to come.
Once in Fairview, Stewart-Hunter recalled that he found himself constantly in the middle of squabbles among the other doctors, particularly Snider and Chung. But things really got tense after the medical staff, including Snider and Stewart-Hunter, recommended that the hospital not renew Chung's hospital privileges. Shortly thereafter, Stewart-Hunter claimed, Chung asked him to step outside the hospital for a private chat and, without warning, punched him in the face. (As Chung recalls it, it was Stewart-Hunter who threw the first punch.)
In the ensuing months, Stewart-Hunter claimed that he and his family began getting so many threatening telephone calls that he asked the police to put a tap on his phone. But it was only after his wife was shot in the face with a BB gun by an unknown assailant, he said, that he finally decided to pack up and leave.
The appeals board also heard from Dietrich Wittel, who arrived in town in 1980, at a time when Snider was away on sabbatical. Shortly thereafter, he testified, Snider showed up at his office to announce he was coming back.
"I want you to leave this town because you are the last person to come here and there's not enough room for all of us," Wittel recalled Snider telling him.
As things turned out, another doctor decided to leave Fairview, and Wittel continued to practice in town for most of the 1980s, even returning years later to fill in for vacationing physicians. During one such assignment at the hospital, Wittel testified, he came across Snider, who was clearly drunk, and subsequently lodged a formal complaint with both the hospital and the College of Physicians. Under threat of having his license revoked, Snider agreed to take a six-month leave of absence and enroll in a program in Atlanta for doctors struggling with substance abuse.
Alcohol, however, was not Snider's only addiction. At the preliminary hearing held in September on Cooper's murder charge, Jean Snider testified that even she was unaware until 1994 that her husband was addicted to Valium, a problem that apparently had begun 20 years earlier when he started dipping into manufacturers' samples. Although there were some in Fairview who had wondered why so many doctors had left town over the years, for the most part, people had little idea of the turmoil at the hospital. Even after some of the details began to come out in court, the local Fairview Post declined to report them, according to editor Craig, both out of fear of a lawsuit and a reluctance to foment discord in town.
In fact it was only last year, when Alberta Report, a feisty weekly magazine in Edmonton, weighed in with an article on Fairview's medical wars that a full picture began to emerge. The Report's pithy headline: "You think ER is intense?"
No doubt all this weighed heavily on Snider's mind in the early months this year as he prepared to give a deposition for Cooper's civil suit. His wife, Jean, would later testify that the suit had become an obsession with her husband--so much so that she finally demanded that he stop talking about it at home.
On several occasions this year, Snider had asked mutual friends to inquire of Cooper if he might be willing to sit down over a cup of coffee and try to work out a settlement. But each approach was rebuffed. One of the chosen intermediaries, Ken Landry, whose wife was Cooper's office manager, said Cooper told him Snider should "keep his money in the country because I'm going to get it all."
Cooper "had gone too far by then to settle," Landry said a few weeks ago. "He'd gotten into trouble financially. Emotionally he was just too invested in winning."
With each rebuff, Snider's mood seemed to grow blacker. Albert Klapstein, a member of the provincial legislature from Leduc and an old friend, would later recall Snider telling him that the matter had reached the point where "I'll kill him or he'll kill me."
So perhaps it was with some relief that Snider took Cooper's call on the night of May 5, the day before his 60th birthday and only weeks before his planned retirement. According to Jean Snider's testimony at the preliminary hearing, she urged him that night to do whatever was necessary to help Cooper get his hospital privileges back.
"Why don't you go along with it--you are retiring," she recalled saying.
"There have got to be rules," he replied. They were the last words she would hear him speak.
A Trail of Blood
The facts surrounding the alleged murder of Snider were spelled out in two preliminary hearings held in June and September. They constitute a compelling, albeit circumstantial, case against Cooper.
After receiving Jean Snider's call, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer, accompanied by Cooper's secretary, gained entry to the Main Street office, where they found evidence of blood on the carpet and floor, in the washroom sink, on several sheets of paper towels and on a roll of duct tape. In the garbage container were two blank sheets of Snider's letterhead stationery and pieces of a carbon ribbon from a manual typewriter that was found on Cooper's desk. A bloody scalpel handle lay on the table. There were also indications of a hurried effort to clean up.
Police tracked Cooper's Nissan Maxima to a garage at the Edmonton airport, a six-hour drive from Fairview. Cooper had parked it around 6 a.m. before taking a flight that morning to Orlando, where he was scheduled to attend a medical conference. Investigators found extensive traces of blood on the rear bumper and muffler of the car, as well as in the trunk and on the floor mats of the front seat. A blood-stained T-shirt was also stuffed into a recess in the trunk.
Back in Fairview, Gwen Tegart, a local beekeeper and close friend of the Sniders, was already busy organizing a search, calling a dozen friends around midnight and asking that each, in turn, call a dozen more. When police investigators showed up the next morning at the rendezvous point on Main Street, they found 300 people ready to go.
"Some of us believed he was already dead while others thought maybe he'd been beaten up and thrown out of the car somewhere," said Tegart. "But after we'd been at it for two or three days, we all realized he was probably dead."
Over the next three weeks, volunteers and professionals, using dogs, planes, boats and helicopters, conducted a massive search. Farmers in the area were asked to walk their fields, hunting for anything that looked like a fresh grave. A vague tip from a psychic eventually led searchers to a mysterious pile of charred remains that turned out be those of an animal.
All this time, Cooper was in Orlando. Wittel, who had moved out of Fairview and set up practice in British Columbia, was also at the conference and reported that his old friend seemed perfectly normal when they had a beer together at the hotel bar.
Sometime that weekend, police seized from Fay Cooper an envelope containing papers that her husband had asked her, on the morning of his departure to Florida, to deliver to his lawyer. It contained several copies of a statement from Snider admitting that he had conspired with other doctors and hospital officials in seeking to revoke Cooper's hospital privileges, deny him his livelihood and drive him out of town.
When Cooper returned to Edmonton airport on May 11, as scheduled, he was met by the RCMP. He was wearing a pair of shoes that had bloodstains and police also found blood on a shirt and pair of trousers in his carry-on bag.
It would be several weeks before the police would make an arrest in the case--tense weeks for the town of Fairview. Cooper was trying to resume his practice, angrily shooing away the army of reporters that had camped out in front of his home and his office. Meanwhile, the town roiled with theories about what may have happened between the two doctors, where Snider's body might be buried, or even whether he was really dead at all.
"It don't jibe," said Joanne Lonsdale, a waitress at Fairview Steak & Pizza, where Cooper was a regular. "Dr. Cooper was a very smart man and if he was to do something like this, he wouldn't be so stupid in the way he went about it. If you ask me, I think it was some sort of frame-up."
Although Cooper kept mostly to himself after returning, he did manage to get in a last ride with the Geritols. Ed Collins, a community college instructor and leader of the group, described Cooper as openly philosophical about the "unexpected twists and turns that life takes," but not forthcoming about any recent events.
One friend finally confronted him on the street and vowed to lead the lynch mob if it turned out he'd killed Snider. Cooper reportedly replied, "You'll be surprised when the truth finally comes out."
On Saturday, May 15, 10 days after he went missing, more than 800 people crammed into St. Thomas More Catholic Church for what was billed as a celebration of Snider's life. On May 26, RCMP officers arrested Cooper at his office and charged him with first-degree murder. Authorities said that DNA tests done on the blood found in Cooper's office, in his car and on his clothing showed that it was Snider's, in several cases mixed with traces of Cooper's. And a handwriting expert had concluded that the "confession" on his letterhead was indeed written and signed by Snider--leading prosecutors to speculate that Cooper had forced his nemesis to sign, and then killed him. Another expert found that the typed versions of the confession had been done on the old Royal in Cooper's office with the ribbon found in the wastebasket.
The evidence was laid out by prosecutors at a hearing the following week in Peace River. Cooper's wife and several friends were called by his attorney as character witnesses to support his petition for bail, which was denied. But during cross-examination, Mrs. Cooper dropped a bombshell: Her husband, she acknowledged, had called her the day after Snider's disappearance and asked that she switch her car for his at the airport--something she never got around to doing. She was busy, in any case, answering questions from curious police officers.
The Fairview Post outlined what was at stake for the town in an editorial:
"With every development in the case--or every new speculation--our close-knit town has been slowly but surely drawn apart into opposing camps," the paper said. "What our neighbors across the street think or what doctor they went to . . . does not--cannot--provide a reason to shun them or keep our kids away from their kids. . . . Our town's unity is on the line."
Mayor Jean Charchuk issued a simple plea: "We need to be kind to each other."
These days, life is getting back to normal in Fairview. Gwen Tegart is back tending her bees, the Geritols have gone out for what is probably their last ride of the season and the usual morning crowd, minus one, still gathers at 10 at the coffee shop. The Coopers' home has been sold and his office sits vacant and forlorn near the top of Main Street.
Around the corner, John Andreiuk, a doctor originally recruited by Snider in anticipation of his retirement, has moved into Snider's office and taken over most of his practice. More difficult, however, than tending to the medical needs of Fairview will be the task of tending to its soul. Shortcomings and tensions that were once barely acknowledged within the community have now come crashing into the civic consciousness and have begun to be broadcast across the continent.
Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that these days most people in Fairview simply refuse to talk about the whole affair, with outsiders in particular but even among themselves.
"We don't bring it up with people because we don't know whether other people are a supporter of one side or another," said one elderly woman as she and two friends sat in the basement of the Royal Canadian Legion Hall during the weekly farmers market. Others allowed how torn they were emotionally between loyalty they felt to a friend and the nagging suspicion that the guy may have actually done something horrible. Their confidence in their ability to judge the character of people has been badly shaken.
"How would you feel if someone you considered one of your best friends--the man who had taken care of your family when they are sick and coached your kid in badminton--and suddenly he is accused of first-degree murder," asked one, his eyes filling with tears.
Among some Snider partisans, however, there is little sympathy for the difficult position in which Cooper's friends now find themselves.
"If they're shunned, they deserve to be shunned, defending a guy like that," said Jim Reynolds, a former mayor, as he emerged from the post office on a recent Saturday.
Uncowed, a loyal group of Cooper's patients has started up a fund and raised more than $5,000 to help him support his family and pay his lawyers. But even a straightforward news story about the defense fund in the Fairview Post brought a flurry of angry letters and phone calls from Snider partisans demanding to know why the paper was supporting such a drive.
There are those in town who, putting aside the question of guilt or innocence, see the campaign of vilification against Cooper as a manifestation of the all-to-comfortable insularity of small town life.
"There's a lot of people here who resent someone coming into their territory and telling them what to do, whether he's right or not," said one partisan. "Doctors Chung and Snider had a little fiefdom up there at the hospital and Cooper wasn't willing to accept that. He stood up to them."
At Fairview's United Church, the Rev. Michael Cochrane sees his town suffering, but says the healing process cannot really begin until all the facts come out--a process that could drag on until a verdict is rendered.
Last month, following an eight-day hearing, the court ruled that, notwithstanding the lack of a body, there was sufficient evidence for the case against Cooper to go to a jury for trial. And as to the affidavit signed by Snider that night in Cooper's office, the judge ruled that its tone and substance indicated it was likely dictated by Cooper and written out by Snider under duress. The 62-year-old Cooper, meanwhile, continues to be held without bail at a prison outside of Edmonton after being arraigned last week and pleading not guilty to a charge of first-degree murder. Visitors report that he is wan, struggling with back pain and depressed. His trial has been set for September.
Cooper's lawyer, Thomas Engel, has already made clear he will use Snider's obsessive concern about the lawsuit in support of a possible defense: that Snider was not murdered, but fled town after signing a damning confession about his role in the campaign against Cooper. Engel also indicates he is likely to suggest that a fight could have broken out between the two doctors ending in Snider's death, but that Cooper acted not with premeditation but merely out of self-defense.
As for Jean Snider, she is working part time, as she did before, in her husband's old medical office. She has only recently returned from Sydney, Australia, where she visited her daughter, Daena Williams, her newest granddaughter, Brianna, and a 2-year-old grandson who, by some odd twist of fate, has the given name of Cooper.