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Nick Fontanelli and Samantha Higgins: A young couple, a tragic end

The Gazette The Gazette 12/06/2016 Jesse Feith, Montreal Gazette
060916-0611_extra_A1_fontanelli_2_cols.jpg-0611_extra_A1_fontanelli_2_cols-W.jpg Nick Fontanelli and Samantha Higgins: A young couple, a tragic end

The apartment Samantha Higgins and Nick Fontanelli shared is bare, stripped of most signs that it once housed a family.

Their bedroom is empty. Dark purple walls and matching drapes cut out the light. The living room is dotted with toys and decorated with furniture Fontanelli salvaged from street corners.

A blanket embroidered with dinosaurs hangs on a couch — a gift from his mother when he was a child. A blanket made for the couple’s own daughter is folded beside it.

There’s a vision board Fontanelli assembled as a teenager to plan out his goals. His parents hoped it would keep him focused. It displays a picture of a big white house with a well-kept lawn, its floor plans glued beside it, and surrounded by cars he always wanted to own.

The LaSalle apartment was one of the first places police searched last July after Higgins’s body was found below a bridge in a small farming town near the U.S. border. Her body had been dismembered.

And the place has been unoccupied since police intercepted Fontanelli days later, on his way to buy balloons and decorations for their daughter’s fourth birthday.

The next afternoon, Fontanelli, then 22, sat in a Montreal courtroom as Higgins’s friends and family filled the front rows. Her mother wept from the back.

With a blank look, he said nothing for the two minutes it took for him to be arraigned on two charges: first-degree murder and committing an indignity to a body.

Higgins had just turned 22 when she disappeared. Then came a search that ended in heartbreak, followed swiftly by Fontanelli’s arrest. Both families were blindsided. The two had met as teens, their relationship filled with tumult. But those who knew the couple say they seemed to finally be getting on track. Very little, though, had ever been easy for Higgins and Fontanelli. Not before they found each other. Not after.


As a toddler, he would often point at things and scream instead of using words. His parents encouraged him to speak instead, but the screaming persisted. Tired with two young children at home — his sister, Angela, was only 20 months older — they gave him what he wanted to restore peace.

Nicholas Fontanelli, called Nick by friends and family, was born in the fall of 1992, two months premature.

Fragile and lacking oxygen, his 4-pound, 10-ounce body was tied to tubes. Doctors told his father, Giuseppe, there was only a 50/50 chance that baby and mother were going to make it.

As both improved, his parents wondered what the difficult start would mean for him later on — possible brain damage, they thought, maybe developmental issues.

Nick was late to speak, then struggled with a speech impediment. He was pulled out of kindergarten for six months after teachers said he “wasn’t involved anymore.”

From an early age, it was suggested he be tested for ADHD — he was often caught sneaking toy cars into class to play with instead of listening, hiding them beneath his baseball cap after learning his pockets would be checked.

He hated roughhousing and never liked sports. He outright refused to try karate, but liked to play chess. He never had more than one or two close friends.

He had trouble remembering things.

He’d wake up with no recollection of plans his mother had told him about for the day: a trip to the community pool, a birthday party.

It was ignored until it couldn’t be anymore.

On a family camping trip when he was about 10, a group of children from the campground loaded onto a raft and floated down a river.

When they didn’t return, Nick climbed into his father’s truck and the two went looking for them.

They were all found not too far down the river, ambling around a village. They squeezed into the truck beside Nick and his dad. Less than an hour after returning, he approached his parents: “Did they ever find those kids that were missing?” he asked. His parents looked at him: “Huh?”

A psychologist said he had slight memory problems. He was given tricks: an agenda to write things down, a memory board to keep track of tasks.

“Was it his memory, or did he just not understand what was going on around him?” his mother, Nancy Murray, said in a recent interview. “We never knew.”

“It’s always when you think back,” his father, Giuseppe, 56, added. “It’s not in the moment. Maybe we should have had him tested for this or that. But, no, we just thought he was a little slow, but a kid like everyone else.”

Growing up, Nick never grasped sarcasm, struggled to read body language, and would often puzzle over jokes. It was as if there were a place in his mind — something resembling common sense — that he couldn’t get to, his mother, 59, says.

Without a diagnosis, Giuseppe settled on a simple calculation: “In our minds, he was always five years behind in the way he acted.”

He was happy building things. At age 3, he made a detailed helicopter out of Legos. At 10, he built a small two-storey hut in the backyard. By his teens, he was dismantling and reassembling car engines.

But he could be distant and quiet. He kept to himself when his father would try to get him to talk. Then he’d open up out of the blue, words pouring out. It was obvious that he wanted to talk about something else, Giuseppe says, but he could never pry it out of him.

At 16, some clarity: He was diagnosed as partially deaf in both ears. His parents were floored. How did no one catch this before? He was given hearing aids, which he hated.

The same year, he found out he needed glasses. Neither helped his teenage self-esteem. His learning impeded by his hearing, he told his parents he often felt embarrassed at school. Sometimes humiliated, sometimes frustrated.

He made the honour roll his first two years of high school, but was failing classes by Grade 10. It was at James Lyng High School in St-Henri that he met Samantha Higgins.


Vanessa Higgins says she’ll never throw it out, doesn’t care how impractical it might seem.

In the kitchen freezer is a frozen family-size pack of chicken drumsticks. The date on it is June 26, 2015 — 11 days before Samantha, her eldest daughter, was reported missing.

Vanessa, 40, had been struggling at the time. Her husband had just lost his job, and she was waiting for her next unemployment cheque to come in. There was hardly any food in the fridge or pantry.

Then Samantha, who had her own financial worries, arrived out of nowhere, carrying $100 worth of food in grocery bags.

“So, I had these,” Vanessa says, holding the drumsticks. “But then Sam ended up missing.

“That’s the kind of person Sam was.”

Samantha Higgins was born when Vanessa was 17. Her father was quickly out of the picture, and Vanessa was living at Elizabeth House, a home for struggling young mothers.

When Vanessa got her first apartment, a small three-and-a-half in Point St-Charles, she gave her daughter the bedroom, and slept on the pullout couch.

Then they bounced around a bit — moved out of the city and back — searching for stability.

At one point, Samantha lived for six months with her grandfather, who called her Chicken because of the way she looked when she was born.

By the time Samantha was 8 or 9, she had younger siblings and Vanessa was battling a crack-cocaine addiction.

The children were placed in homes while Vanessa checked into rehab for a year, then for six more months to be sure.

“She didn’t have it easy,” Vanessa says. “And I’ve always apologized to her for giving her that rough patch. But she was the sweetest thing.”

By the time they were reunited, Samantha was displaying the sunny traits she’d become known for. A family photo album shows a young girl with an ever-present smile, the one friends would say lit up rooms.

She liked ballet and judo, but was drawn more to arts than sports. She liked movies: she’d imitate Olivia Newton-John in Grease, loved Mrs. Doubtfire, and when her mother got married three years ago, she re-enacted scenes from Dirty Dancing at the wedding. She didn’t mind coming off as a goofball as long as others were laughing.

Vanessa and the kids didn’t have much, but they made it work. Without a television until 10 years ago, they listened to the radio, went on long walks and spent afternoons at parks. They’d all run around in camisoles and underwear, and call friends or family late at night to leave long messages of them signing the Dixie Chicks’ version of Landslide.

Because of how young she was when she had Samantha, Vanessa says, they grew up together, their relationship something closer to twinship than mother and daughter. And they’d sometimes fight and bicker like it, too.

Samantha had always been stubborn, but grew defiant as a teenager. She was placed in Teen Haven, a group home geared toward the rehabilitation and social reintegration of troubled youths.

She worked odd jobs: made club sandwiches at one restaurant, cinnamon buns at another. She tried to be a waitress, like her mom, but quit after one night.

She planned on taking classes so she could work with older people — take care of them and maybe share some of that extra energy she always seemed to have.

But first, she had to graduate from high school.

There is a graduation photo — slight smile, straightened blond hair, the year 2011 showing on her diploma — but it was taken prematurely.

Within a month of Vanessa buying her daughter a graduation dress, Samantha didn’t fit into it anymore. Her body was starting to show what she hadn’t told her family yet — she and Fontanelli were expecting their first child. She was 17.


The first time Samantha Higgins saw Nick Fontanelli in the hallway at school, she whispered to a friend that he was going to be her boyfriend one day.

Walking up the stairs later that day, listening to a pop song about kissing in a corner, she approached him and — out of nowhere — kissed him.

Almost from the start, their relationship was punctured with long breakups.

Higgins dated other guys in-between. She had one boyfriend’s name tattooed across her back, but covered it up with cloverleaves when she and Fontanelli got back together. She then got his name inked on her right wrist.

Throughout the pregnancy, Fontanelli attended doctors’ appointments and ultrasounds, and pitched in financially.

But his family says he struggled with the thought of becoming a father. They weren’t pleased about it themselves, and noticed changes in him.

A few months into Higgins’s pregnancy, Fontanelli, then 18, was on a Montreal bus with two friends.

All three followed a man off the bus. Fontanelli held a pellet gun to the man’s head while his friends stole $60 in cash, an iPod and a cellphone.

Police arrested all three boys, and found a Taser gun in Fontanelli’s backpack.

Documents prepared for court suggests two things: that the mugging was out of character for Fontanelli, and that he was struggling with becoming a father at such a young age.

“While carrying the weight of very serious issues, Nick is putting additional effort toward graduating from high school,” reads one letter written from a Montreal school for the deaf integration teacher who worked closely with him. “He greatly values the respect of his family and is deeply affected whenever he feels he might let them down.”

“During the time that I have known him, to my knowledge, he has never shown a hint of violence in any of its forms,” wrote a science teacher from James Lyng, describing him as honourable, empathetic and caring.

“If I had to think of students who I believe would never deliberately hurt another human in any way, Nicholas would be among the top of my list.”

His parents described him as straight-laced: He didn’t drink or smoke, never got tattoos and didn’t like bars because the noise would bother his ears.

He was released with conditions after the arrest.

By the time their daughter was born, Fontanelli wanted nothing to do with being a father. He asked for a paternity test, the couple separated again and Higgins moved into Elizabeth House.

Then what started as Higgins emailing him pictures of their daughter evolved into secret meetings in his van, then trips to the park and, eventually, sleepovers.

They got back together, and when their daughter was almost 2, moved into an apartment above Fontanelli’s parents, who gave them a break on the rent.

Three years after the bus incident, Fontanelli pleaded guilty to his involvement in the mugging.

At his sentencing hearing, his lawyer argued that he had “different mental problems,” and was probably influenced by the two friends, who were more mature than him despite being minors.

“It’s the position of the Crown that having jail time for this young individual would not be a good solution,” Crown prosecutor Catherine Hébert said.

“I understand that at the time of the event, you had just learned that your girlfriend was pregnant and you kind of panicked?” Hébert asked Fontanelli.

“Yeah,” Fontanelli answered.

“What have you learned from being accused of this very serious crime?”

“I learned that things are a little more serious and you should think a little bit harder before you do something,” he answered. “It goes for everything, even when I parented my daughter. You have to look at the consequences, or balance them — what’s good and what’s bad — and base your decision off of (that).”

“I learned a lot of … being able to distinguish my morals as to right and wrong.”

Fontanelli was dealt a two-year community sentence, allowed to leave home only for school or work for the first year.

He and Higgins would keep breaking up and getting back together. After a stint in an apartment together in Point St-Charles that Higgins had secured through city housing, they moved back into their LaSalle apartment in the summer of 2014.

By the time they were expecting their second child, both seemed to be in a better place, determined to make it work.

Fontanelli had started a company — Nick’s Home Maintenance — mowing lawns, gardening, painting fences and plowing driveways. Higgins sent friends nearly daily photos of her growing belly.

They got engaged. Higgins was bathing their daughter when Fontanelli entered the bathroom and offered her a ring. He didn’t tell his family. She called friends to let them know, and posted a photo on Facebook.

Fontanelli went from not wanting to be a father to being a good one.

His father would smile, watching him from his living-room window, carrying in the two kids, groceries and their strollers. Nick would drop off their eldest at daycare, and keep a diary to stay on top of their son’s milestones. The kids became his life, his parents say.

“He had them at a young age,” his mother says. “But I defy any 30-year-old man to do what he would do with those children.”

Last June, he graduated from electrician school, lining up an internship that never happened. He was arrested a month later.


Samantha Higgins was reported missing on July 7.

She spent the night before at a friend’s basement apartment, a 10-minute walk away, drinking strawberry-flavoured beer and taking videos of themselves dancing and laughing. She seemed carefree and buoyant, swaying in a peach-coloured dress, continuing on her own even when others had stopped.

She left on foot sometime between midnight and 1 a.m., assuring a friend that she was OK, that she did it all the time.

Search parties started the next day.

Friends, family and strangers joined in to scour LaSalle and its surroundings.

Her family, fearing the worst, kept returning to search Angrignon Park, where mosquitoes ate at their skin and the hot summer sun wore them out.

For three 18-hour days they plastered posters, searched Dumpsters and abandoned buildings. At night, her mother would lie on her couch for a matter of hours, her eyes shut but unable to sleep.

The local McDonald’s became a gathering point, offering drinks to fuel the searches.

Fontanelli was with the family for the most part. Two days after Higgins was reported missing, he gave his only television interview. “I might not hear you,” he told the interviewer, leaning in. “So I’m gonna be like, ‘What, what, what?’”

Wearing a blue Ferrari T-shirt, he blinked back tears and fiddled with one of the missing posters. “It’s not like her to be gone this long,” he told the interviewer, pausing. “And not contacting anybody. So, I just hope she’s OK.”

His voice broke when asked of the children.

“I just want her to come home,” he said. “I miss her. I need her home. We all do. We all love her very much, and we need her home.”

Standing next to him was Higgins’s mother, patting him on the back: “You did good.”

It’s a 14-year-old boy who found Samantha Higgins.

Seventy kilometres away in Hinchinbrooke, he was cycling over a short bridge on Rivière des Outaouais, making runs between two farmlands for his summer job.

As he often did, he stopped to look for fish or frogs. That day, he saw a garbage bag, and rushed back to the farm.

“There’s a dead body in the river,” he told the dairy farm owner’s son, Ashley Cameron.

“Come on, now,” Cameron shot back, telling him it probably wasn’t what he thought it was.

Cameron hopped in a friend’s truck and together, they made the short drive to the river. They found a woman; her legs were missing. Before long police cars and firefighters were swarming the area.

In the middle of the night, back in Montreal, a police officer asked Vanessa if her daughter had any tattoos.

“This isn’t happening,” she told him. “You tell me my daughter’s tattoos.”

The tattoo on the inside of her left forearm, in small cursive lettering, was unmistakably Higgins’s. It’s the same one friends and family have since had replicated, on forearms and backs: “Nothing lasts forever.”


Fontanelli’s sister Angela, 25, had become friends with Higgins through her relationship with her brother. They’d grab brunch or go shopping together.

Higgins had texted her the day she went missing, so she knew she was out at a friend’s house that night, and thought about stopping in to see her brother after working a 12-hour day.

“I would go up and see him all the time. Go up and see the kids and just chill,” she says.

“And that night I thought, ‘Should I go up?’ But I was kind of tired. So, I didn’t, and sometimes I think: What if I did?”

She was with her brother when he was arrested the next week, on their way to get party decorations. She says police officers reminded him that they had said they would be coming to see him again. He grew quiet and went with them, she says.

She didn’t know what to do, so she called her mother.

“Mom, they arrested Nick,” she told her.

Nancy and Giuseppe were at home with their grandchildren, where Fontanelli had been all day before heading out to the store.

Police were knocking at their door within what felt like minutes. Giuseppe was feeding his granddaughter in her high seat when they rushed in. Their white coveralls frightened her. Nancy was questioned while they searched the place.

Nothing in the days leading to his arrest tipped off either family that it was coming.

“Because there were two or three days when he was still home after Sam was found, it never felt like, ‘Oh no, cops are going to barge in at any point and arrest him,” Angela says. “It felt like ‘Oh no, we’re going to get through this together and you’re going to be OK and we’re going to help you.”

When the Higgins family found out, Higgins’s 18-year-old sister, Claudia, confronted a police officer outside the apartment, shouting that they had the wrong guy.

“I refused to believe it,” Vanessa Higgins says. “For the longest time after, I still didn’t believe it.”

Fontanelli’s parents don’t like to talk about what it’s been like since that day.

When tears come, they feel guilty. Too much respect for Samantha, they say. Too much confusion.

“The stress. The sadness. Christmas … ” his mother says. “I haven’t — we haven’t — hugged him since July. I haven’t held him in my arms, as a mother. I can’t even touch him. He’s behind glass.”

Giuseppe adds: “We have so much respect for Samantha Higgins. She was part of our lives. And all of a sudden, she’s gone.”

“We lost Samantha. We lost our son. He’s gone. And we lost two kids that were upstairs.”

Fontanelli has been detained in a Rivière-des-Prairies prison. The couple’s children live with a Higgins relative outside the city while the courts decide what’s best for them. Their daughter is about to turn 5; their son is 14 months old.

Fontanelli’s preliminary hearing is set for November. The case was delayed for months as Fontanelli was ordered to change lawyers due to a conflict of interest. His parents said it was important for them to find one who could understand their son. If found guilty, he could serve a life sentence.

His sister visits him once a week. Separated by a glass panel, she tries to keep the conversation light, talking about cars.

“I feel it’s important to see him and make sure he’s OK,” she says. “We’re very close, so, to me, it’s weird. He’s like my little baby brother. I have to make sure he’s OK.”

They don’t talk much about why he’s there. When they do, he just says: “The truth will come out.”

For the Higginses, much of the last year has been a blur — the searching, the funeral, the grieving, the drawn-out court proceedings.

“It was non-stop,” Vanessa says. “Then, one day I looked out the window, and the leaves were coloured.”

The family just wants justice now. They’ve been to court nearly a dozen times, waiting hours for hearings that often last minutes.

Higgins’s ashes are kept in an urn in their living room, surrounded by an angel, a lamp, a bottle of her favourite rum and candles. The urn was wrapped in a scarf for the winter.

Vanessa still finds herself sleeping nights on the couch to be close to her.

When they leave home, they put music on low. At night, they turn on Christmas lights around her portrait because she was always afraid of the dark.

The bridge she was found below now bears a mural — Samantha, 1993-2015 — and serves as a makeshift memorial site. A cross, bouquets, a beaded necklace and rain-streaked photos hang on its railing.

A pink geranium bush left there died with the winter frost. The family brought it home. It’s in their kitchen window now, and growing again.

Higgins would have turned 23 last Friday, June 3. That night, the family dressed a cake with a number two-shaped candle and three individual ones, singing happy birthday before blowing them out. Earlier, friends and family gathered in Angrignon Park, the same place they had searched a year earlier, to release pink, purple and gold balloons.

And they’ll gather again in less than a month, this time from the McDonalds parking lot — more hugs, more balloons, and more tears — to mark one year since the day she died.

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