How a cottager grappled with being caught in the middle of a murder investigation

Updated: July 18, 2018

a-crime-scene-samantha-collins-bracebridge-ontario-muskoka The crime scene where the remains of Samantha Collins were found. Photo courtesy of Debbie Levison.

You may remember reading news reports a few years ago about the gruesome murder of a young woman whose remains were found in a crate in a crawl space beneath a cottage in Bracebridge, Ontario. Stories were written about the victim’s life and her turbulent relationship with her accused killer. But what about the family who made the disturbing discovery? Cottage owner Debbie Levison answers some of our questions regarding the tragic case that changed her family’s lives forever.

When did you move into the cottage?

In the very early 1970s, after vacationing at a holiday village on Sparrow Lake for several summers, my family decided we wanted a cottage of our own. A realtor from Gravenhurst showed us a secluded, thickly-wooded, pie-shaped lot in Bracebridge with which we fell in love, for its groves of slim birches, outcroppings of bedrock, the way the leaves trailed out over the lake. Construction began the next summer. My parents did so much themselves: the electricity, plumbing, paneling, finishes, painting, deck, dock, landscaping, and of course the interior décor. They poured their hearts, souls and sweat into the place and vowed it would last forever.

You see, my parents survived the Holocaust — in concentration camps, on death marches, in ghettoes — and had everything they owned and nearly everyone they loved ripped away from them. Our cottage would be their refuge, something beautiful they’d built out of the wasteland of their past. They never in a million years dreamed they would encounter violence again.

How was the crate discovered?

I’ll never forget the surreal phone call of July 2010, with my brother on the line telling me he’d stumbled upon a wooden crate while cleaning up around the property. It had been shoved into the dark, dank, spidery crawl space under our cottage, almost hidden from view … but not quite well enough. He’d noticed it there amidst the random debris from a recent renovation. And nothing could have prepared us for the horrific contents of the crate.

The discovery, that there had been a gruesome murder, left us reeling. Those first days after opening the crate were filled with panic and confusion. Had we been targeted in some way? We felt an enormous sense of violation: our beloved cottage had been not only defiled but made public. Our property became a crime scene. It made the headlines, with photos of our private sanctuary plastered all over the media. My brother became the initial murder suspect. I had three young children I wanted to shield and my husband and I were totally freaked out.

But more than anything, the discovery traumatized my parents. Their sense of security – of having found a safe haven after escaping evil — had shattered. The discovery of the crate, with all its grisliness, dredged up all the terrible memories of their past. As a family, we were devastated.

Then it hit me: everything we were feeling after opening the crate — the violation, the anger, the fear — all of it was nothing compared to what the victim’s family must have been going through. After I learned the identity of the young woman who died, Samantha Collins, and the awful circumstances of her death, I realized I could give her a voice.

People who have endured abuse finally have a forum through which to tell the world their stories: the #MeToo movement, and many other global platforms like it. But what about those who have been silenced forever, those who have been reduced to statistics? The victims of violence who no longer can speak for themselves?

After the discovery of the crime, I realized I could tell Samantha’s story. And, I could tell my parents’ stories from the Holocaust. Those are memories that must be preserved.

Did you consider selling your cottage after you found out what had happened?

Never, for one moment, did we consider selling after what happened. Our parents built the cottage for their children and grandchildren as an enduring legacy, one they’d lovingly maintained decade after decade. They had been uprooted from their homes in Europe and forced to start again. They chose Muskoka as the place they would lay down new roots.

Our cottage is a victory over everything they’d endured in the past, the hatred that tried to obliterate them, and a reminder that in end, they’d persevered. And, it exposed the secrets of the crate so that a killer could be brought to justice.

Debbie’s book THE CRATE: A Story of War, a Murder, and Justice just released on Amazon.ca in print and audio. Visit www.debbielevison.com for a calendar of her author events in Muskoka and Toronto.

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