Round Lake Centre in the nation's news for unusual crimes

Round Lake Centre -- It's the kind of rural village where few residents take much notice of a Canadiens flag flapping hopefully along the outskirts in support of the hopeless Habs. Or at the centre of town, a larger-than-life picture of a fetus emblazoned across a Pro-Life billboard. Most locals just focus on the Centre Food Market where they stop for a few things on their way home and maybe have a quick chat about snowmobiling or even those hapless Habs. But the talk at that country store this week was noticeably different. It centred on national news reports of a local resident, Steve Sernoskie, and his felony convictions for extortion and operating a bestiality ring.

He pled guilty in an Ontario court room and details of the case were made public underlying is sextortion for pictures of an individual engaged in bestiality with dogs in his basement.

This past Sunday morning, it didn't take long at the Centre Food Market to hear one of three distinctly different local reactions to that horrific story.

A small minority were oblivious to the news, and so were caught off guard. After being told, a few sighed in exasperation, if not disgust, and simply added Mr. Sernoskie to that very short list of other notorious local criminals: Monsignor Bernard Prince, the convicted pedophile, and Basil Borutski, the misogynist who murdered three local women in a single day.

A second group, largely the majority, had heard about the news of Mr. Sernoskie's convictions, but said that they hadn't known the nature of his crimes until they were reported by the national media. And yet, many implied that it was just a matter of time before he was convicted of something. Still, they were genuinely shocked by the bestiality, as well as his grooming of a developmentally-handicapped teenager, and the fact that Mr. Sernoskie was sentenced to time-already-served -- 522 days -- and was now out of jail.

Simply put, this second group had no rational explanation. One, a grandmother, said the crimes were "just so horrendously disgusting" that some parents she knew feared having to answer their children's inquiries about the case.

A third group, albeit much, much smaller, seemed to know something more about the story; that not everything appeared to be as it was reported by the national media. They talked about Mr. Sernoskie's earlier life; and perhaps something that the media was not allowed to report but that might allow Round Lake Centre to appear less of an Ozarkian hell-hole or a place that Hollywood might have considered to shoot Deliverance.

Still, of those three distinct local reactions observed at the Centre Food Market this past Sunday morning, no one wanted their name nor picture associated with the Sernoskie story, yet all had something interesting to say.

"I'd drive by Steve's place and there were occasionally cop cars parked outside, and I thought 'Oh, Steve's in trouble again’," said a long-time resident, now retired, and who grew up on the far side of Round Lake. "I never heard about the recent court case until the verdict came out; I knew he had committed some sort of violation, because I knew at least two of his neighbours had run-ins with him he was missing and presumed to be in jail.

"But when I read what he was convicted of, well, then I was very surprised. I never knew him to commit a criminal act. But he didn't get along with his neighbours. I thought that was what all the police action was about; just his neighbours trying to get him to stop."

The retiree went on to say Mr. Sernoskie didn't have a reputation for partying but was considered "a loner, a wing-nut, one bubble off plumb" before adding, unprompted, "if this would have happened 40 or 50 years ago, the community would have hung him up and castrated him, or burned his property. It wouldn't have tolerated this sort of behaviour."

He also considered Mr. Sernoskie an isolated case.

"I don't think there's any good reason to be fearful of a bestiality ring operating in the area. My phone hasn't been ringing off the hook with people worried about this story. Still, it was a complete surprise to me. Not a whisper, not ever a rumour. Among local contractors, who love to share stories about local things, there was never any stories about Steve."

An older woman who said she had lived for more than 30 years along the Bonnechere River just outside of town, described Round Lake Centre as "a great community," before adding, "all it takes is one person to mess things up, but I suppose you can't judge a community by just one of its members."

Another woman echoed that same idea, but also noted a lot of people were truly horrified when the news came out.

"I never thought that kind of thing would happen in my area," she said, "and now I don't want to let my kids out. I want to make sure my kids are safe wherever they go."

Then there was the middle-aged man who said he was "totally vigilante" before adding, "If Sernoskie was smart, he'd get out of Dodge. I'm surprised there hasn't been a drive-by shooting. There's a bunch of people with that attitude who I've talked to. I don't know what the answer is; it's just too horrible. All I know is that it makes you feel like we now have to make excuses for why we still choose to live here, because everybody thinks we're just running around with a bunch of serial killers and dog-rapers."

With genuine anxiety, he added before going silent, "hard to live that down."

This particular self-proclaimed vigilante also said it wasn't just any old crime, but like the crimes of Prince and Borustski, the Sernoskie crime, when taken together, were all truly horrible.

"Those criminals seemed to want to go the distance and find something that we in the community would be just appalled by."

And then there's the response that represents the third group. It was best voiced by a young woman, a local resident who has spent 10 years in the area, and who knew Sernoskie personally. Somehow, as if some philosopher wise beyond her years, she easily managed to separate the crime from the criminal, and criminal from the community.

"I've always been a little cautious," she said, "but we're not all criminals, and you have to keep in mind that we are all human; and the way we are raised is how we end up living our lives. It all starts when we are kids."

Barry Conway, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader