The following includes first-hand recollections from Black Press Media reporter Roger Knox who covered this story as it unfolded following the Nov. 1, 2011, incident.
The mayor remembers his phone ringing early on the first of November 10 years ago.
This reporter also remembers being woken by his phone that morning, with several messages from friends in Armstrong asking if I knew anything about a vicious Halloween night attack or possibly a murder.
The RCMP media relations officer, stoically announcing the news to local media gathered near the railway tracks on Rosedale Avenue in Armstrong, remembers thinking ‘Why her?’
Taylor Van Diest, an 18-year-old 2011 graduate of Pleasant Valley Secondary School, was viciously attacked Halloween night 2011 as she walked along the tracks, dressed as a zombie.
She died overnight in hospital of her injuries.
“It was Supt. Reg Burgess of the Vernon RCMP who called me,” said Chris Pieper, still Armstrong’s mayor 10 years later. “He told me there was a serious incident in Armstrong last night, that there was a young person in the hospital and that was it.
“Instantly, you think of all of the worst things, and later on in the day, I found out Taylor had been murdered. It was a shock, it was everything else.”
I was still groggy looking at my phone before 7 a.m. on Nov. 1, 2011. It’s not the best of days for me as Nov. 1 is the anniversary of my dad’s passing.
I didn’t know anything about a Halloween night murder, so I made a couple of calls to my RCMP contact, Gord Molendyk, and Mayor Pieper, and quickly discovered something horrible had happened.
Glenn Mitchell was the editor of the Morning Star at the time, and when he got into the office, I told him to hold the front page.
It was a Tuesday, a production day, and this story had to be reported.
Molendyk was the Vernon North Okanagan RCMP media relations officer in 2011. He fought back tears as he announced in a hastily called news conference at the Rosedale Avenue railway crossing that Van Diest had been attacked.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Why her? Why was she targeted?’” said Molendyk, who now works in construction.
In the following weeks, Pieper said anxiety filled the City of Armstrong. The population was less than 5,000 people then and Armstrong was a place where ‘everyone knows everyone.’ Was the killer one of them? Was he or she still around?
Police recommended people walk in pairs or groups – advice that was also issued by the city and well-heeded by its citizens. People were phoning Pieper inquiring about self-defence courses.
Then, the Morning Star was published three times a week. The attack and subsequent police investigation made the front page for five consecutive editions.
Finally, on Nov. 23, 2011, there was a break in the case.
DNA found at the scene in Armstrong linked the murder to an assault in Kelowna.
Matthew Foerster was arrested in Ontario on April 4, 2012, and returned to the North Okanagan. He was eventually convicted of first-degree murder, but appealed the conviction based on an error at trial and won, receiving a second trial. Foerster pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison with no parole eligibility for 17 years.
But out of that tragedy on Halloween a decade ago came some good.
A 185-metre trail in Taylor’s memory – the Taylor Jade Van Diest Memorial Trail – was built linking Rosedale Avenue to Pleasant Valley Road. It was created by the Van Diest family with help from the city and Kelowna Pacific Railway.
The trail is adorned with figurines, and at the halfway point, there’s a gazebo with benches where one can sit and look at a photo collage of Taylor.
“It is and has become one of the city’s absolute treasures,” said Pieper, who did not know Taylor personally. “They (family) maintain it every year and look after it, and it’s a fantastic memorial to Taylor.”
Ten years later, there hasn’t been another murder in the City of Armstrong. Pieper was asked if Armstrong is a safe community. He didn’t hesitate to answer.
“Sure it is,” he said.
The mayor – who is now 74 and has lived in the community for more than seven decades — praised the work of Molendyk and the RCMP for their efforts and guidance during the days and weeks after the assault. It’s something he never wants to have to go through again.
The RCMP media relations officer was comfortable with his one quote and let it go at that.
This reporter still works for Black Press Media, and the Van Diest story is one of the most shocking and tragic stories I’ve covered in my 24-year newspaper career. And one I wish I never had to cover.
The Van Diest family respectfully declined to be interviewed for this story.