For this post, I ended up going back into a book that I started with I was younger. In elementary school, I was blessed to attend the Globe Theatre to see the one-woman play The Shape of a Girl. It was incredibly powerful and inspired me to look deeper into the murder of Reena Virk. So I had requested this book from the library. I do not recall finishing the book and the memory of it got lost in my mind after the book was returned.
However, while looking through some old photos to help my mom create a memorial for my Grandma, there are photos of me carrying this book. My grandpa was in the hospital and there I am, sitting on the bed with my siblings, holding onto Under the Bridge.
Seeing the book in my arms brought back the memories of the play and of what I could remember of the case. So I did what any rationale person would do and requested it from my local library. Again.
Thus begins my review of Under the Bridge: The True Story of the Murder of Reena Virk by Rebecca Godfrey.
I’m going to start with a bit of background in case you have never heard of this case before.
On the evening of November 14, 1997 in Victoria, BC, 14 year old Reena Virk met up with a group of other teenagers she wanted to be friends with. However, she had some unconventional ways of trying to attract their attention, ways that made several of the “ringleaders” of the group very upset. After the initial group meeting was broken up by the police, they moved to under the bridge that rose above the Gorge.
It is here where 8 of the teenagers started to beat Reena up. According to the witnesses, it was a brutal beating, that was eventually stopped by one of the 8. The teens dispersed at this point. However, Reena Virk never arrived home and would never be seen alive again. She would be considered a runaway by the police for too long, but eventually her body was found and the truth would start to find its way to the surface.
Rebecca Godfrey captured this case with a certain beauty. She did not pretend it was not a horrible event, but through her writing, gave a voice to those who were impacted by this case. Not all of the voices given were beautiful, some of them devastating in their honesty, their tragedy, their own horrendous actions. However, they were also not simply static bullies who had no life beyond that. Godfrey fleshed out those involved, reminding readers that everyone involved was human. That no human is perfect. That people make mistakes.
It occurs to me that people may take some of my statements to mean that I blame Reena Virk for what happened to her.
That is not the case.
Reena Virk wanted to become friends with some of the people in the group that attacked her. She tried to get their attention in some ill-advised ways, but she had no way of knowing what the impact of her actions would be. There was no way for her to know that she would get more than simply their attention. There is no reason that her actions should have resulted in being beat up and especially not in her death. Reena was a victim to the cruelty that can come from teenagers, that was increased by a mob mentality, and then she was murdered by the darkest urges of some.
Godfrey starts the novel by sharing the experience of the divers who searched the Gorge for Reena’s body and the moment where she is found. It is a beautifully crafted prologue. It hits the reader emotionally within those first 5 pages, pulling them into a real understanding of where this story is going to find itself.
Then she gives the reader this incredible section at the end of prologue:
The body was carefully floated to the wharf by the men of the Dive Unit. Carefully floated was the term Bob Wall would choose for his police report. Carefully floated. The phrase, like the gesture, was poetic and kind, an act that might have been the only poetry and kindness shown to the murdered girl.
The men lifted her out of the Gorge, away from the spot of her secret grave.Godfrey 5
Reading this sent chills down my spine, my heart momentarily stopping at the beauty of the words and the care shown by those who had hoped that Reena really had run away. I was unprepared for this section. I was ready for brutality and cruelty, to wish that the world was less harsh, people less terrible. Instead, I was presented with the unexpected tenderness shown to a young woman who would never get the chance to experience anything again.
I knew right away that I was trapped, that I would be unable to put this book down. That I would need to see it through to the end, hoping for more gentleness than I could reasonably ask for in a book about a murder.
Unsurprisingly, I was correct. The kindness shown by the officers who brought Reena Virk’s body in was one of the few moments of tenderness in the novel. The details of what happened are horrendous, the interrogations are difficult, and the posturing of certain defendants is hard to swallow. Yet, it is all written in a way that begs the reader to continue, to reach the end of the tale, and to care for Reena Virk in death.
Reena was 14 years old when she was beaten by people she wanted to be friends with, and then brutally murdered by two fellow teenagers from her community. It was not until 2005, 8 years later, that the final trial would be concluded, that justice would be granted for a young woman who simply wanted to be friends.
Warren Glowatski and Kelly Ellard were both convicted of second degree murder for what happened to Reena Virk. Both were sentenced to life with no ability to apply for parole for 7 years. Glowatski was originally denied in 2004 request, but successful in his 2007 request for day parole. He was granted full parole in 2010. Ellard was not granted day parole until 2017 and is still on day parole as of 2021.
Warren Glowatski admitted to his part in the murder and used his time in jail to look within. He even met with Reena Virk’s parents several times while in prison and thanked them for their support. If you want to read a bit more about Glowatski at the time that he was granted day parole in 2007, you can find an article here.
Kelly Ellard maintained her innocence for years, despite being the only person to insist she had no part in this. However, in January 2021, her case management team reported “that she has shown remorse for Virk’s murder and takes responsibility for the attack.” It is years too late, but it is better than never. You can find the article discussing her most recent parole decision here.
It is never a fun topic to read about: teenagers killing teenagers. However, I believe it is an important one to be aware of because teenagers are the future adults of society. They are the ones mostly likely to grow out of whatever possessed them to cause such devastation. Their brains have development left to do, their personalities are still open to being formed, and they are still learning.
This murder may have happened under the bridge in Victoria, BC, but it is not a problem with that specific school district, that specific town, that specific province. Rather, it is clear to see that this type of act is possible anywhere. In fact, my last post was on Columbine, a school shooting conducted by teenagers against teenagers in 1999, two years after Reena Virk’s murder.
Whatever happened under the bridge is a problem within our society.Godfrey 224
I don’t have any answers. I wish that I did. I simply want to take a moment to remember Reena Virk.
Reena, which is the Punjabi word for mirror, who watched The Muppet Show with her father as a child, who loved playing at Gorge Park. She loved watching Bollywood movies with her grandmother and driving around town in her uncle’s yellow Karmann Ghia. She did not want to be a part of the Jehovah’s Witness anymore. She liked listening to Puff Daddy and was worried about what her classmates would think if she listened to R. Kelly. She painted her nails blue. She was a young woman, who simply wanted to be loved and respected.
Reena Virk had a maple sapling planted in her memory and flowers are placed there on the anniversary of her death each year. She will forever live in the collective memories of those who loved her and those whose lives were impacted by her loss.
Rest in peace, Reena Virk.
If you would like to buy Under the Bridge by Rebecca Godfrey, please consider making your purchase from a Black or Indigenous Owned Bookstore. A list of those can be found here.