By Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press
Winnipeg police are investigating the death of a First Nations woman as a homicide after she was hospitalized for severe burns.
Melissa Cook, 41, was admitted to hospital in early July and died on Aug. 20.
Officers became involved in the investigation five days later after when the chief medical examiner’s office notified them that her death was a homicide.
Police would not say where on her body Cook was burned, but described the wounds as “catastrophic.”
“I hope that speaks to the severity of the burns that she had suffered. It’s quite possible that she lived with these burns for a number of weeks before seeking medical treatments,” Const. Jay Murray said at a press conference Monday.
Murray said police believe Cook was likely burned between late June and early July.
Cook was from Sapotaweyak Cree Nation in northwestern Manitoba. She had been living in Winnipeg since April, police said.
During her time in the city, Cook was unhoused and spent her time staying in shelters and may have lived in encampments.
Murray said Cook told shelter staff about her injuries in early July. She was sent to hospital, where she stayed until she died.
Little is known about where or when Cook was injured. She did not disclose many details with the people she spoke to before she went to the hospital, said Murray.
“I know that staff made every accommodation they could to try to assist her. I know there were attempts to get her better shoes, better walking equipment. Things that would help her deal with these injuries. Ultimately, she chose to go to the hospital.”
Murray said officers do not believe Cook was targeted because she was unhoused.
Police worked with Angie Tuesday, a family support and resource advocate for the service, to provide cultural and trauma-informed support to Cook’s family.
Tuesday said regardless of Cook’s circumstances, she has a family who is grieving and looking for answers.
“Melissa was, from the sounds of it, someone who was living unsheltered in the community. But that doesn’t mean that she didn’t have people who loved her and cared about her. That doesn’t mean that she didn’t have friends or people in her life that supported her.”
Cook’s death is the city’s 41st homicide this year. The highest number of homicides in Winnipeg was 44 in 2019.
Murray said there are several factors that account for the number of homicides. The city has seen a concerning amount of violent crime this year, he said, but generally killings happen between two people who know each other.
The cases are more than just numbers, he added. They represent family and friends who have lost loved ones to violence.
“I think far too often we focus on it as a number. The reality is there’s a lot of pain behind that number …. I think that should be the reminder for the public: there’s a lot of grief in the community.”
Police are looking to speak with anyone who knew Cook, knew about her injuries or also may have been burned.
In an appeal for information, the police service released a photo it had of Cook from the last year or two.
Murray said officers made every attempt to find a different photo. But others provided of Cook were older and her family said her appearance had changed significantly.
“Melissa had a tough set of circumstances that she was faced with before her death. We all owe it to her to try to provide help so that we can provide some closure to family.”