After almost seven years, four separate police investigations and one relentless family searching for answers, a seemingly unending mystery surrounding the death of a 19-year-old man in Ontario’s cottage country may soon be resolved.
The uncertainty revolves around who is responsible for the death of Jake Hughes and whether it was simply an accident or something more.
The answers to these questions all depend on knowing who was driving the four-wheel ATV Hughes was riding, something that would appear to be relatively easy to answer, but has proved elusive following a highly criticized Ontario Provincial Police investigation.
“The RCMP has now taken over,” said Sam Hughes, Jake’s father. “We should have a full report by June 1st.”
Relief that something is being done is tempered by frustration, said Pearl Hughes, Jake’s mother.
“Our son’s death has fallen through the chain of command.”
Jake Hughes of Welland, near Niagara Falls, was killed when the ATV he was riding struck a steel gate on a dirt road beside a beach on Little Redstone Lake, near Haliburton, on Aug. 20, 2012.
Until now, police forces have been unable to definitively answer the question of whether Jake Hughes was the driver or the passenger that day.
His father has his own theory of what happened, one that he believes has already been proven..
“My son wasn’t responsible for his own death. Somebody else was,” Hughes told The Fifth Estate. “And that boy needs to be held accountable for it.”
Jake Hughes was a part of a group of 10 friends from Ontario’s Niagara region who went to a cottage for an end-of-summer celebration. He had told his mother he didn’t want to go.
“I told him to go,” said his mother, Pearl. “I wanted him to enjoy the last weekend before university started. I carry terrible guilt.”
According to interviews the friends did with the OPP, the day after he arrived at the cottage, Jake Hughes asked if he could join Taylor Rivando, 18, as he was leaving for a spin on an ATV. The two drove on the beach before witnesses say they saw the ATV heading onto a trail in the woods.
In a police interview later, Rivando estimated they were travelling at 30 km/h. Moments later, witnesses say he came running out of the woods in a panic.
The pathology report concluded that the steel gate had hit Hughes in the chest. When the ATV rolled under the gate, the impact of the bar hitting his neck was so severe that it lacerated his trachea and cracked the back of his skull.
According to 911 calls made by a British tourist on the scene and ATV owner Mark Oliver that were obtained by The Fifth Estate, Hughes was bleeding badly and struggling to breathe. A frantic attempt to revive him ran out of time. It took first responders and the OPP 38 minutes to arrive.
According to Rivando’s statement to the OPP at the time, when he was asked if he was driving the ATV, he said no, Hughes was.
‘Oldest trick in the book’
But that didn’t make sense to Sam Hughes, who is a 15-year veteran of the Niagara Regional Police Service.
“It’s the oldest trick in the book,” said Hughes. “Talk to any police officer. If there’s two people and no witnesses around and one of them dies, they always blame it on the dead person. It’s the easy way out.”
The day after the ATV crash, the OPP issued a statement. “The driver of the ATV was pronounced deceased at the scene. The deceased has been identified as Jake Hughes.”
Hughes eventually got his hands on the details of the OPP investigation through a freedom of information request in 2013. It left him with more questions than answers.
“We’re starting to get information from the FOI, freedom of information. We’re starting to get people’s statements in and all the statements are inconsistent. We kept telling the OPP this isn’t making sense. This isn’t making sense. And they just ignored it.”
The lead investigator, the first officer to arrive on the scene, was Const. Tyler Johnson from the Haliburton Highlands detachment. He had been on the job for 18 months and it was his first fatal motor vehicle investigation.
Ontario’s police watchdog found in July 2018 that Johnson didn’t follow all potential avenues of investigation, meaning opportunities to preserve evidence and do timely and thorough interviews with witnesses were lost.
Hughes has his own theory of what happened. He believes Rivando was driving at the time of the accident, then ducked at the last second to avoid the gate. The OPP said because of the height of the gate, that was impossible.
So Hughes obtained the same make and model ATV, built a replica to the size of the steel gate and staged his own recreations. He used three different drivers of different heights, and showed it was possible to duck under the gate.
Hughes also noted there was a scuff on the red helmet Rivando was wearing at the time of the accident and a red paint mark left on the gate, consistent with the theory that Rivando ducked under the gate. In its investigation, the OPP never tested the helmet or the paint on the gate.
“They had conclusions set before even all the evidence was taken,” said Hughes.
Two witnesses who were first on the scene after the accident told The Fifth Estate they were both immediately suspicious of Rivando.
Watch a recreation of the ATV crash that killed Jake Hughes
Alastair Mills, a businessman from Britain who was on vacation with his family, was driving by when he saw an ATV abandoned on the road just after the accident.
He was the first person on the scene and performed CPR on Jake Hughes before paramedics arrived.
Mills said he heard two different stories from Rivando.
“On the one hand there was the implication that he’d ducked under the gate and stayed on the ATV. But I specifically remember him saying he jumped off, came off the ATV before it got to the gate.”
Jean-Charles Chrétien, the second person to arrive, was on the beach with his family when Rivando ran out of the woods shouting for help.
Chrétien said he became suspicious when he asked Rivando to explain how he was able to survive the accident. “I think just him not being able to say what happened, you know, he didn’t have a story right.”
Then “he specifically said, ‘I saw it [at the] last second. I ducked,’ ” Chrétien told The Fifth Estate.
But when the OPP took a statement from Rivando later that afternoon, his story had changed. Johnson asked him: “Did you duck down?”
“I didn’t have time to do anything,” the police statement quotes Rivando as saying.
‘Very specific memory’
Chrétien’s wife, Jennifer, is certain that Hughes was the passenger.
“I remember the boy on the back having tattoos. It was a very specific memory because when I was watching them drive along on the beach and turn up, I admired the tattoos,” she said.
Hughes had a large tattoo on his back. Rivando did not.
Two of his friends, Aaron Zavarella and Joseph Cicerone, who were at the cottage told police they saw Hughes and Rivando trade places on the beach before heading down into the woods.
Despite several attempts to reach Cicerone and Zavarella, The Fifth Estate did not receive any response from them.
But the Chrétiens both say it’s not possible for the switch to have happened.
“There was nobody else on the beach,” said Jean-Charles Chrétien.
Original investigation reviewed
In 2016, four years after the accident, following complaints from the Hughes family, Ontario’s police watchdog, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, ordered a review of the original OPP investigation.
It was conducted by Peel Regional Police Staff Sgt. Gary Carty.
Ontario’s Police Services Act forbids anyone involved in an OIPRD investigation to speak about it. But in his report that The Fifth Estate obtained, Carty wrote that the OPP investigation was marred by:
“A lack of scientific testing.”
“Poor collection of evidence.”
“Testing methodologies [which] are flawed”
He concluded that “in all likelihood, Hughes was seated in the passenger seat.”
Carty also did something the OPP failed to do — conduct a formal interview with Rivando to challenge his version of events.
According to a recording of the interview done in October 2015 and obtained by The Fifth Estate, Carty confronted Rivando about whether he was driving the ATV.
“The evidence points to you. It’s been three years in hell. I imagine you’ve had three years of sleepless nights,” he said.
Rivando didn’t say anything.
“I’m trying to get you to realize that all the evidence points towards you ducking down,” said Carty. “You were on the front of the bike. Jake was on the back.”
Carty then left the room, but not before suggesting Rivando should take a polygraph test.
Rivando turned to his lawyer and asked, “You think all that stuff is legit?”
His lawyer responded: “He’s just saying stuff to scare you.”
When Carty returned to the interrogation room, he showed Rivando a picture of Jake Hughes’s body taken by police at the scene of the accident.
“At the end of the day, this is what we’re dealing with,” he said.
‘You don’t have to look at that’
His lawyer interjected: “He doesn’t have to look at that. You don’t have to look at that. He doesn’t want to look at that.”
Carty persisted. “I want him to see it. I want him to see what he did.”
The Fifth Estate tried several times to reach Rivando, without success.
Following the review by Peel Regional Police, the OPP asked the Missouri State Highway Patrol to review the findings of the initial investigation.
After reviewing the file, Missouri reported that the information provided was thorough but that a comprehensive review would require staff resources that would negatively impact their caseload so they turned the file back to the OPP.
According to the Hughes family, then OPP Commissioner Vince Hawkes met with them in September 2018 and told them the reason for requesting the review was because the OPP felt their conclusion about Jake being the driver was accurate and since the OIPRD findings pointed the finger at Taylor, they wanted a third police agency to weigh in.
Hawkes also explained that they went with an American force because the U.S. had state-of-the-art reconstruction software.
After the accident, the OPP changed its protocols around how sudden death investigations are conducted.
In a written statement to Sam and Pearl Hughes in 2016, Chief Supt. Bernie Murphy, commander of the OPP’s professional standards bureau, wrote: “Since the time of this motor vehicle accident, a three-tier review process has been put in place in the [Technical Collision Investigation] and Reconstruction Program.”
But when it comes to changing the findings of their final report on Jake’s death, Sam Hughes said the OPP “has dug their heels in.”
“Every time we go there, they apologize. They changed all their training because of this accident,” Sam Hughes said of the OPP. “So they admit all their mistakes. But for some reason they don’t want to change the report.”
“They still want to blame Jake,” said Pearl Hughes.
The official OPP report into the accident still says Hughes was responsible for his own death.
The OPP declined a request for an interview with The Fifth Estate.
In the past few weeks, the RCMP has taken on the case at the request of the OPP.
RCMP Staff Sgt. Tania Vaughan said in a statement: “The review includes the totality of the case, and the RCMP has access to all previous investigative steps taken, the evidence gathered and the findings of previous reviews.”
A report is expected in June.
That report may not answer all the questions of what led to the death of Jake Hughes, but for his family, it’s a final attempt to try to find some closure.
Watch Jake Hughes’s mother recount the difficult moments immediately after his death.
“Right now, it’s been seven years of no closure,” said Sam Hughes. “We can’t even move on because every day this is what we deal with. How are we going to get the truth? What do we have to do? Are we missing something?
“So, we have no closure yet.”
And if they had closure, he said, “we could start healing.”
- Watch “Dead End: An Investigation Gone Wrong” on The Fifth Estateon CBC-TV Sunday at 9 p.m.