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It has been five years since Joshua Whalen disappeared, and three years since his body was found, and while the torment of his loss and unsolved murder continues, an act of kindness surrounding his legacy has brightened the saga.
Darlene Dunne, Whalen’s mother, wanted to create Joshua’s Garden and when she put out a social media request for quotes on a garden mural, she got a big surprise.
A stranger — artist Reg Mercer — offered the labour for free. The finished mural, painted on a sheet of plywood, sits in her basement, awaiting an unveiling in August 2020.
“It’s going to be a good day. It’s going to be a happy day,” Dunne said of her plans to gather friends and family, who will plant perennial flowers by the fence where the mural will be placed in the front lot of her St. John’s home.
Mercer said after he responded to Dunne’s request, his brother, Sheldon, had suggested he offer his artistic services for free.
“'Imagine though after what this woman has been through in five years, you told her it would be an act of kindness,’” Mercer said of his brother's advice to him.
“’You know you are right,’ I said. I have wanted to do something good for somebody my whole life.”
Mercer knew gut-wrenchng loss — his father drowned when he was eight, and his mother was dead of cancer by the time he was 13.
But he knew little of Joshua Whalen, forsaking the daily news outlets for things more positive in life. Google told him all about it.
“Some might look at her son as involved with the wrong people. He did all this stuff. At the end of the day, he’s somebody’s son who got murdered,” said Mercer, who added his artist friend Bev Amah helped him with the painting.
They spent a solid week on it, using supplies Dunne provided, but charged nothing for their labour.
Mercer said he met Dunne’s husband, David, and wanted to give the family some peace of mind.
“In the beginning we were strangers. Now she almost feels like my baby sister,” Mercer said.
“I was so amazed that somebody would want to do that for me,” Dunne said.
“It really was nice. I really took it to heart. It made me feel good. It made me feel that there are people out there who do care and could see past.”
What she wants the world to see past is the perp-walk court headlines, the sordid recounting of Whalen’s life of drug use and associates in a world he never wanted her to know about.
Joshua was one of her three boys and was loved by many who tried to help him on a path to redemption, Dunne said.
The blond-haired, blue-eyed Whalen had Hollywood good looks, a wide smile and a prankish sense of humour, and would help her with anything if she asked. Dunne’s eyes light up when a reporter wants to see the armadillo candle he gave her as a child, and hear the birthday poem he wrote for his pop in Sweet Bay 19 years ago, one of many verses he composed for family, she said.
He never wanted to show her his newest tattoo and she would never admit the artistic beauty in the Jesus Christ image he had on his chest, nor the Bob Marley portrait on his back.
“When people see those people and hear those things on TV — this one was murdered or that one was murdered, these people done drugs — people don’t really realize this person got a mother, family, brother or sister that loves them dearly,” Dunne said.
“They are somebody.”
After a stint in federal prison, Whalen began having laser treatment to remove the telltale teardrop below his eye, she said.
According to lore, it is a symbol of death that has become a common prison tattoo.
He’d gone back to working out, put on weight and was looking good until he slipped back into relationships with drug addicts.
“Josh was doing fine for a while and then he started hanging around with the people he used to hang around with before and he got a girlfriend,” Dunne said.
“I told her, I said, ‘Josh is clean. I don’t want him doing more drugs. If you sees him doing drugs I wants to know.’ But little did I know the end of it, she was the one supplying the drugs and everything. The crowd she hung with were right into the drugs, but I didn’t know. I was just blind to it all.”
On one occasion Dunne called a helpline, but Whalen insisted he’d be alright, so she stayed up all night watching him twitch, helpless to change the situation.
“What can you do? You can only teach your kids right from wrong and hope that they make the right and good choices. There’s not much you can do once you get a certain age. … I sat down for hours and hours and talked to Josh, and, ‘Do you know what you are doing to yourself? Do you know what you are doing to your family?’ He would understand everything I was saying, but it was in one ear and out the other. It was a sickness. He had an addiction.”
The last time she saw him was two or three weeks before the 26-year-old disappeared. Whalen had been busy and missed invitations to supper, she said.
“I always told I him I loved him — I would never hang up the phone or at the end of every text,” Dunne said.
“The last time he went through my door, I said goodbye. I told him to be careful.
‘I will be alright, Mom,’ he said. That’s the words he said. I never forgot those words.”
That night when he disappeared, Dunne and her husband were visiting a cousin in Arnold’s Cove.
She got a message from Whalen’s girlfriend, asking where he was. Dunne didn't know, but advised her to give him space in case they’d had a disagreement, as he didn’t like to argue.
But something wasn’t right with Dunne.
“It’s weird, that whole weekend I was out there, I felt right on edge. Something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I was there, but didn’t want to be there,” Dunne said.
“When I came home, that’s when it hit me, when he couldn’t be found. That was my worst fear — him being found somewhere on the side of the road.”
Dunne knew he didn’t just take off — he would have said something to someone in the family.
Whalen was last seen Aug. 16, 2014, in the area of Cabot Street in St. John's.
His remains were found Oct. 14, 2016, deep in the woods off Roaches Line near Makisons.
In 2015, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary announced it believed Whalen’s disappearance and the murder of Robert Pitcher, whose body was found on July 28, 2014, on Seascape Drive in Paradise, were connected.
The two men were known to each other.
Prior to the discovery of Whalen’s body, Dunne put her heart and soul into searching — consulting psychics, whose clues ultimately were useless given where he was found.
The psychics took her money and gave her false hope.
“I was sending the police everywhere,” said Dunne, who praises the officers who have handled the case and their willingness to always take her calls, telling her as much as they can without jeopardizing the investigation.
“A lot of stuff they did, that was on their own time on their weekends, off searching places and doing things. They really wanted to solve this really bad,” she said.
During the call confirming the Roaches Line remains were Whalen's, she had questions for police. One of the answers dispelled a rumour that his body had been dismembered.
But she said she wasn’t told the cause of death and understands it may be crucial evidence.
Dunne never saw the body, taking police advice it wasn’t something a mother should ever see.
Growing up, Josh Whalen would do anything for a laugh, often moving things out of place to see if his mother would notice, as everything in her home is neatly arranged and spotlessly clean.
He lit up a room, she said.
The urn containing his ashes sits above the mantel, next to a commemorative candle and photo frame etched with the words, “Those who we love don’t go away. They walk beside you every day.”
Dunne twice visited the site where Whalen’s remains were found — after the discovery, and a year later. A cross marks the site, but Dunne said she isn’t planning to go back — it’s not the place she wants to hold his memory.
She carries some of his ashes in a necklace so he’s always with her.
A light of her life these days is her four-year-old grandson, Declan, who is the image of his father.
Dunne said the mother of the child — not the girlfriend he’d been involved with — was a few weeks pregnant when Whalen disappeared.
The woman told Dunne about the child in a phone call when the boy was 10 months old. One particular photo convinced her, but DNA tests confirmed it. She met Declan at 11 months, but hasn’t seen him recently.
The child, said Dunne, is now in foster care in Edmonton, where he was born, and Dunne hopes to win custody.
"(Alberta child protection) got to make a decision. They know I want my grandson. They can’t just give him to anyone. I am his grandmother and I have rights. They know I am not leaving it alone. I am not going anywhere,” Dunne said.
“He calls me every Sunday night. … There’s not much you can say (at his age) except, ‘Nanny loves you. What did you do today? … God love him, he’s my world now.“
Dunne said Declan’s mother claims to have told Whalen of the pregnancy.
She said fatherhood might have changed him.
“Because he was such a loving person anyway, I really think, yeah, but he wasn’t given a chance," Dunne said.
"I just hope (Declan) will grow up not having any bad wisdom if I have anything to do with it."
Before Whalen was released from federal prison, he told his mother he was thinking of staying away from Newfoundland for a while. She thought it might be a good idea, a fresh start. But then he showed up at her door with that great big smile.
Dunne said she isn’t confident she’ll ever know for sure who murdered him and see justice.
“That makes me angry sometimes,” she said. “I used to get mad with this whole city. … Why did I move here? I tried to find something to blame it on, I guess.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t think I will ever be satisfied. I think, honestly, when a woman loses their child, they lose more than their child. I don’t think anyone who loses a child is ever the same again. That’s the way I feel. Life goes on. You move on. I am living. I wake up each morning. I live the day.
“That’s why I need to do this for Joshua, this memorial garden is for him. To let everyone else know he is a person. … He was not a waste of space.”
According to the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, the investigation into Whalen's homicide remains active. Police are asking anyone with information that may help the investigation to contact the RNC or Crimestoppers.