Dan Zupansky was an amateur journalist when he started corresponding with Canada’s infamous “Shall We Dance” killer. Today, his fans call him the godfather of true crime.
Dan Zupansky was underwhelmed when he met Sidney Teerhuis in jail. Teerhuis was overweight, had a face scarred by acne, and spoke with a high, hectoring voice. He was in prison for committing a vicious murder and dismemberment, but to Zupansky he looked like Drew Carey wearing a jumpsuit.
The two were meeting in the visitor’s room of the Winnipeg Remand Centre on March 9, 2004 in Canada’s midwestern province of Manitoba. They exchanged greetings and quietly sat face-to-face on hard plastic benches on either side of a Plexiglas wall. Zupansky, then 44 and a handsome man with short hair brushed back with a comb, was wondering about the psychological makeup of the person sitting across from him. Eight months earlier, at the age of 33, Teerhuis had stabbed another man 68 times, dismembered the body, and disposed of the organs so thoroughly that they were never found. Teerhuis was in prison awaiting trial for the crime, and he likewise wondered about his visitor – what kind of person puts himself in the company of a killer?
Despite the initial awkwardness, Zupansky had long been anticipating the meeting. At the time, Zupansky was a single father, and the host of a weekly interview program on the local college radio station. He was working as a salesman for Innovative Hydrogen Solutions but had aspirations of becoming a serious journalist. The Teerhuis affair appeared to be the perfect way to break into his dream profession, and Zupansky planned to write a book about the crime. Teerhuis had already agreed to tell Zupansky his life story in exchange for 30 percent of the proceeds from the book (an arrangement Zupanksy would later learn raised both ethical and legal problems), and the face-to-face meeting was coordinated to discuss the scope of the project.
“I simply tried to listen to him and tried to appear as though much of our conversation wasn’t surprising to me,” Zupansky wrote.
A half hour later, Zupansky’s footsteps echoed down the prison’s tiled corridor until he reached the end of the hallway and emerged back into the sun. “All in all, I thought the visit went really well,” he said. His mind reeled with visions of a horrible crime and the sentences he would use to describe it. “Winnipeg is the wildest place in Canada with the most bizarre crimes,” Zupansky says, but “if a murder doesn’t happen in Toronto it doesn’t get press.” He aimed to correct that imbalance with his first book.
Teerhuis and Zupansky corresponded for a year and a half following the meeting. The killer discussed his life over the course of 200 pages of handwritten letters, but he also expounded in horrifying detail about the sound, smell, feel, and taste of taking apart a human body. Zupansky soon realized he was party to what amounted to an explicit confession. He had gained the killer’s trust “but was shocked that Sidney revealed as much as he did.” The revelations would change the direction of both men’s lives.
Today, Zupansky talks about the crime with same politeness and well-researched passion that he employs on his weekly podcast “True Murder.” He began the podcast as a result of the Teerhuis affair, building on the lessons he learned while writing his book. Zupansky has since come to be known by his fans as a “godfather of true crime.”
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On July 1, 2003, Zupansky was in Thunder Bay, his hometown in Ontario, to celebrate Canada Day. On the same day in Winnipeg, one of the grisliest murders in the city’s history was about to unfold.
Robin Greene, 38, an aboriginal man had traveled to Winnipeg for the weekend, coming from a small reservation a few hundred miles north of the city to visit his sister for the holidays.
At around 9:45 a.m., Greene was walking in downtown Winnipeg, not far from where the Hollywood romcom “Shall We Dance?” was being filmed. Within minutes he had exited one of the production’s trailers with a small bag of jewelry, and shortly thereafter was in a downtown bar trying to fence the stolen goods. (The jewelry was worn by Susan Sarandon, one of the film’s stars, and can be seen throughout the movie.)
Sidney Teerhuis happened to be in the bar at the time. (While his legal name is Sidney Teerhuis, he is often referred to by the hyphenated Teerhuis-Moar in press reports.) Trained as a chef, Teerhuis was back in Winnipeg after living a hard-knock life across Canada for the previous nine years, engaging in copious violent sexual encounters, as well as heavy drug use. He didn’t want the jewelry but instead bought Greene a beer. The two sat and drank in the bar, realized they were attracted to each other, and went back to room 309 of the nearby Royal Albert Arms Hotel.
At approximately 6:20 p.m., reeling from a cocktail of alcohol, prescription medication and crack cocaine, which he’d been using throughout the evening, Teerhuis was overcome with a sinister urge. He killed Greene, cut him to pieces in the bathtub, and passed out.
Teerhuis later testified in court that he woke up the next morning unaware of what he’d done, took stock of the carnage and threw up. He then walked to a nearby jail, where he told the attendant he’d killed someone. Detectives soon arrived and were led to the scene of the crime. (One detective who walked into the bathroom with Teerhuis later cried over the carnage he witnessed.) Teerhuis was taken into custody and charged with Greene’s murder.
News of the atrocious crime caught Zupansky’s attention, and he began following its developments, clipping articles from the Winnipeg papers. A few months later, a friend called him from jail and told him he was in the same unit as Teerhuis. Though he hadn’t planned on writing a book, Zupansky says the “unexpected prospect of a unique journalistic opportunity” made him “think much more ambitiously” about how he could cover the case. The friend put the two in touch, and from there came the visit in jail and the letters.
Zupansky admits he was out of his element when he began the book. He had been hosting his radio program for around three years, but didn’t have much experience writing. Still, the circumstances of the crime were so sensational that he figured he had a bestseller in the making.
“I was excited as a journalist that I was uncovering the evidence I was,” he told podcaster Jon Safran in a 2013 interview. “I’ve got to give credit to people like myself who really want to be a true crime writer and then look for a story they know will appeal to a lot of people.”
Teerhuis also had high hopes for the book’s sales, and offered a slew of suggestions for how it could be constructed and even promoted. He picked out epigraphs and described how he wanted the book laid out. He also requested Zupansky get Marilyn Manson to write a song about him, and that Zupansky print and sell Teerhuis-themed shirts outside of the courtroom when the case went to trial. “This case is more sensational than you can comprehend,” Teerhuis wrote, and obliged Zupansky with ghastly details of the crime to make sure success came to pass. The book would eventually be called Trophy Kill, one of Teerhuis’s suggestions.
But the partnership came to a screeching halt in spring 2005, when Zupansky alerted Teerhuis to the fact he could not legally ever see a dime from Trophy Kill. “The Profits of Criminal Notoriety Act” was passed in Manitoba the previous summer, which made it illegal for convicted criminals to profit in any way from the story of their crimes. Zupansky was left with a dial tone when he relayed the news.
“I find it rather convenient that you suddenly said that over the phone, when you thought you had all your information,” Teerhuis wrote in the final letter he sent Zupansky not long after the phone call.
Teerhuis explained in the same note that the contents of his previous letters were “a complete fiction.” The account of the killing was cobbled together from crimes committed by other serial killers, he said, and the anatomical details were gleaned from medical textbooks. “Please don’t waste any more time on your project,” he wrote to Zupansky, “you are only going to make yourself look stupid if you do.”
Not long after Teerhuis cut all contact, Zupansky turned the letters over to police. But the continual delay in starting the trial meant there were a lot of nerve-wracking false starts. At one point, Zupansky took a bus from his home in Thunder Bay to Winnipeg to meet with the prosecutor, and he got held up in traffic for more than 12 hours. He’d gone from novice writer to star witness against Teerhuis, which generated pressure he had not anticipated.
“I felt so much trepidation already,” Zupansky remembers. “I almost snapped. No, I did snap.”
The case finally came to trial on December 1, 2008, more than five years after the murder took place. According to the defense, an opportunistic Zupansky exploited the accused by plying him with promises of fame. The defense argued that since Teerhuis maintained from the beginning he couldn’t remember anything, the details in the letters had to have been made up. The extent of his culpability hinged on whether or not Teerhuis was cognizant of what he was doing when he killed Greene.
But the jury, guided in part by Zupansky’s four-and-a-half-hour testimony, felt the letters were true recollections, and convicted Teerhuis of second-degree murder on December 16, 2008, sentencing him to life in prison with no possibility of parole for ten years. The judge took the unusual step of making the sentence even harsher, giving Teerhuis life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years, the strictest law on Canada’s books.
Greene’s family was in court for the duration of the trial, listening to the explicit details of his death while surrounded by complete strangers. The experience cut into his sister Janice’s very soul, and the sentence was little consolation. “I felt bad enough until I heard the gory details of his demise,” she told the Toronto Sun at the time. “I was never to be the same again… His death made me question life, my creator, my spiritual being.”
Teerhuis is currently housed in Saskatchewan Penitentiary near Prince Albert. His chance at parole will come up in 2033, when he is 58 years old. Teerhuis briefly resurfaced in the news in 2009 when his lawyer attempted to gain him a new trial, which was not granted. In July 2009, a website attempting to sell some of his art came under scrutiny for possibly violating the Criminal Notoriety Act, and Teerhuis almost had to have his left leg amputated in August of that year when he contracted a flesh-eating disease. Despite these occasional reappearances in court, he has not spoken publicly about the case since his original trial.
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Zupansky’s book about the case, Trophy Kill: the “Shall We Dance” Murder, was published by Prohyptikon Publishing Inc. in 2010. A picture included in the book shows Zupansky leaving the courthouse in a black leather jacket, and it captures the essence of a writer doing his duty – he lived his work and has a dense tome to show for it.
The Teerhuis experience was like a self-directed school for crime writing for Zupansky. But he has faced some criticism for his maverick coursework, which often went outside the norm of journalistic standards – including offering Teerhuis money for the story, maintaining a promotional website promoting his own participation in the trial as the trial was happening, and later trying to secretly re-initiate contact with Teerhuis. But Zupansky feels that had he not pursued the story his own way, “the story Sidney had put forth about the killing would be the only story ever told.”
“I didn’t go to any journalism school, so what do I care what they think good journalism is?” he says. “Did I put the guy away for 25 years or not?”
Though Zupansky did 49 book signings for Trophy Kill and says he has personally sold a few thousand copies of the book in person and through the mail, Trophy Kill did not turn out to be the next In Cold Blood. The book’s middling success can be partly attributed to the “unglamorous” nature of the victim and killer, he said, and the average Canadian’s disinterest in true crime, but Zupansky took the lessons he learned while writing it and embarked on another journalistic endeavor, the podcast “True Murder,” which he launched in 2010.
Each week, “True Murder” features a true-crime author discussing the subject of their book. Zupansky felt a bare-bones interview format was the best way to convey the shocking details of crimes like the one he had covered himself, and to contrast them with what he perceives to be the failings of milquetoast criminal justice systems worldwide. He records the podcast in his house, broadcasting live on Wednesday evenings via Blog Talk Radio. “True Murder” was one of the first true crime podcasts and predates a number of other noteworthy genre productions – such as “Serial,” the show credited with turning millions of people onto the medium.
Zupansky has racked up more than 330 episodes, has legions of devoted fans, and, according to iTunescharts.net, has charted in at least four countries. He still has to work a day job to fund his interest in journalism, but his mounting experience has helped him feel comfortable and productive in pursuing his true calling.
To that end, Zupansky also has two new books in the works. One is an investigation of a Thunder Bay cold case, and the other explores the life of a man who spent 15 years behind bars due to “an elaborate frame job.” He doesn’t yet have a publisher for either book, but says he is content with self-publishing if he has to.
There was no way for Zupansky to have known what was taking place at the Royal Albert Arms Hotel on July 1, 2003. But like any hard-nosed journalist, he did his best to make sense out of a senseless act.
“I’m a volunteer journalist,” he told police upon turning the Teerhuis letters over to them, according to his book. He then added that he’d simply “like to be regarded as a writer.”