WARNING: This story contains details that may be distressing.
A 41-year-old woman who died after suffering severe burns was the victim of a homicide and Winnipeg police urge the public to help them learn more about her.
Melissa Cook died in hospital on Aug. 20 and police became involved in the investigation five days later, after being notified by the chief medical examiner’s office that her death was a homicide.
Detectives say Cook, who was from Sapotaweyak Cree Nation and living in Winnipeg since April, did not have a house in the city and may have been living in homeless encampments.
She had also spent time at Siloam Mission and in the South Point Douglas area.
Cook likely sustained her burns in late June or early July, police said. She told staff at a shelter in early July about her injuries and was taken to hospital, where she remained until she died.
Police spokesperson Const. Jay Murray wouldn’t say where on her body she was burned.
“That’s an aspect of the investigation we’re going to hold back at this time, but we can acknowledge that she has severe burns,” he said. “She did live with them for some time.”
Police are still trying to determine where in the city she was burned.
Although Cook told shelter staff that she needed help, “Melissa wasn’t very candid with some of the individuals she interacted with about the injuries,” Murray said.
The police service’s major crimes unit has been trying to learn more about Cook and her activities over the summer but is now turning to the public for help.
“We’ve learned some things about Melissa … but there’s still a lot of unknowns, and we’re really relying on the public to help us with this,” Murray said.
“I just ask the members of the public to look at this with an empathetic lens,” he said, noting Friday was the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and Tuesday is the National Day of Action for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
“See the person behind this picture. Her family is grieving.”
‘Pain behind that number’
There have been 41 homicides so far this year in Winnipeg. The record for a single year was set in 2019 with 44.
Murray urged people to look at that as more than just a number.
“That’s 41 families here that have lost somebody in a violent manner. I think far too often we focus on it as a number, but the reality is there’s a lot of pain behind that number,” he said.
Investigators hope to speak with anyone who knew Cook, who knew about her injuries, or who may have been victimized similarly.
“The audience that we’re hoping to target with this release is that of the unhoused community that she might have been residing with, or anyone that works in or around shelters in the downtown, South Point Douglas area,” Murray said.
“We want to know if she confided in her injuries to anyone, the source of the injuries or maybe a better timeline as to when exactly they happened.”
Asked about the length of time that passed before police told the public about the homicide — Aug. 25 until Oct. 3 — Murray said there are “a lot of complexities in this investigation.”
Before releasing the news to the public, police communications staff consulted Indigenous members and resources in the WPS and also had discussions with Cook’s family.
“There was a lot of work behind the scenes that went into this release, just to make sure we do it in a cultural and trauma-informed perspective,” Murray said.
The police intend, in the next week or so, to distribute a poster of Cook and the plea for information to people in encampments and at shelters.
There is nothing so far to suggest Cook was targeted simply because of her living situation, Murray said, when asked if homeless people should be concerned.
There’s no evidence to lead to that conclusion, “but it’s certainly a possibility,” he said. “I do understand and recognize that they are very vulnerable.”
Murray also said he wanted to address the photo of Cook that police provided.
While he wouldn’t say the photo was a police mugshot, “I think anyone can deduce the source,” he said.
He said they wanted to be sensitive and tried to get a different photo, but in any older ones her family had, Cook looked completely different.
The one provided to media was taken a year or two before her death and most closely resembles her appearance before she died.
Cook was described by those who knew her as kind and caring but she was “someone who endured some tough circumstances before her death,” Murray said.
He doesn’t want that to detract from the fact that Cook “is somebody’s loved one. There are people who miss her.”
Anyone with information is asked to call the major crimes unit at 204-986-6219 or leave an anonymous tip with Crime Stoppers at 204-786-TIPS (8477).
Support is available for anyone affected MMIWG or by the latest reports.
An independent national toll-free call line is available 24 hours a day to provide support for anyone who requires assistance: 1-844-413-6649. The service is available in English, French, Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut.
Individuals can also access immediate mental health counselling and crisis intervention services at the Hope for Wellness helpline by calling 1-855-242-3310 or online at www.hopeforwellness.ca.