Carline VandenElsen was jailed last month for a standoff with Halifax police over a child custody case.
Ontario drops runaway mom case
No retrial for VandenElsen on charge of fleeing with triplets
By PATRICIA BROOKS ARENBURG / Staff Reporter
Carline VandenElsen won’t be retried for allegedly abducting her triplets in Ontario in October 2001.
Henry VanDrunen, assistant Crown attorney in Stratford, stayed the charges Tuesday morning in Ontario Superior Court.
“It is no longer in the public interest to continue this prosecution,” he wrote in his submission.
The stay of proceedings means that after a year, it will be as if all three counts of abducting a child under 14 in contravention of a court order were never filed. Mr. VanDrunen said he has no plans to revive the charges.
Ms. VandenElsen’s ex-husband, Craig Merkley, had asked the Crown to stop the trial from proceeding.
“After watching just the bizarre antics and behaviours with that trial down in Halifax recently, I made the decision that there’s just no way that I would subject my kids to that,” Mr. Merkley said in a telephone interview from his Stratford home.
Justice Robert Wright, when sentencing Ms. VandenElsen and her husband, Larry Finck, two weeks ago in Nova Scotia Supreme Court for their roles in a Halifax standoff in May 2004, noted the couple’s “contemptuous conduct at trial” that “ranged from the belligerent to the bizarre.”
Ms. VandenElsen is imprisoned at the Nova Institution for Women in Truro and is not yet allowed to conduct media interviews.
She didn’t attend the Ontario hearing but her defence attorney, Tony Bryant, called her with the news and described her response as “neutral.”
“I didn’t get the sense one way or the other as to what her feelings were,” he said.
“It may well be as a result of what I understand is her ongoing fast.”
She has been on a liquid-only diet in jail, saying she would not eat until there is an investigation into her case.
Mr. Merkley said the triplets, the subject of a lengthy and acrimonious custody battle, have made slow but steady emotional gains since November 2003 when their mother was barred from contacting them. He called the time since then the most peaceful and tranquil in the 12-year-olds’ lives.
“The spectacle that this trial (in Stratford) would create would simply turn their lives upside down,” he said.
Court documents state that the triplets – Peter, Gray and Olivia – suffered emotional harm throughout the fighting.
One child became aggressive, hurt others and tried to commit suicide. Another wet the bed and the third was extremely withdrawn.
The couple divorced in 1996 but the battle for the children didn’t end even when Mr. Merkley was awarded full custody in March 2000.
That October, Ms. VandenElsen fled to Mexico with the children, then seven, during one of their weekend visits. At the time, an Ontario judge was shortly to decide what access, if any, she was to have to her children.
The triplets were found in Acapulco in January 2001 and were returned to Canada. Ms. VandenElsen was extradited and charged.
An Ontario jury acquitted her in 2001 on the basis of necessity – she said she left with the children because it would have caused them emotional harm if the court had kept her out of their lives.
The Crown won its appeal on the issue of necessity and the acquittal was overturned.
“Accordingly, no new trial is required for the purpose of resolving the legal issue of necessity; it has been settled,” Mr. VanDrunen wrote.
The Crown pointed to Ms. VandenElsen’s 3 1/2-year prison term in Nova Scotia, calling it a “substantial sentence for serious violence and abduction offences.”
Police went to a Shirley Street home in Halifax in May 2004 with a court order to seize Ms. VandenElsen’s and Mr. Finck’s infant daughter. The ensuing standoff lasted almost three days.
On May 12, a Halifax jury found Ms. VandenElsen guilty of child abduction in contravention of a court order, using a shotgun while committing a crime, threatening to assault a police officer with a shotgun, obstructing police, having an unregistered shotgun and having a shotgun dangerous to the public peace during the 66-hour standoff.
On June 29, Ms. VandenElsen was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison, with 200 days shaved off for the time she spent in custody before sentencing. Her husband was also sent to prison.
The couple lost all access to their baby daughter but an appeal has been filed.
Even if Ms. VandenElsen had been found guilty on the Stratford charges, it’s unlikely she would have received a “dramatic increase in custodial sentence,” Mr. VanDrunen wrote.
The stay means Ms. VandenElsen – who Mr. Bryant said is “passionate about her cause” and has a fierce love for her children – will never know if a Stratford jury would have acquitted her again, Mr. Bryant said.
“She can always say . . . ‘I am presumed innocent. I have never been and never will be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.'”
Andre Lefebvre, one of Ms. VandenElsen’s supporters in Stratford who attended the hearing Tuesday, had mixed emotions about the Crown’s move.
Although the supporters knew a court fight might be hard on the children, they had hoped the triplets would finally get a chance to say what they feel in open court.
“They would be asked, ‘Were you told that you would never see your mother again?’ ” Mr. Lefebvre said. “And they (authorities) would have to look into this whole thing.
“I think that he (Mr. Merkley) has way more to lose in this situation.”
The support group meets regularly and maintains a website on the VandenElsen case. The members planned to meet again Tuesday night to digest the news and plan their next move.
For now, Mr. Lefebvre remains hopeful about his friend’s future.
“It is my hope that Carline will keep quiet and not exacerbate the public opinion or the legal opinion against her by anything she will do from this point on,” Mr. Lefebvre said.
“It is my secret hope and prayer that she will bite the bullet and realize that as soon as she comes out of jail in 3 1/2 years or before, her children will be 16 and they will have the right to choose where they want to live.”
Mr. Bryant said his client plans to apply for a transfer to a prison in Kitchener, Ont., to be close to her family.
“Maybe somehow she still has a dream that maybe she’ll get a chance to see her children, but that will be their choice, not hers,” he said.
Mr. Merkley said he was unaware of his ex-wife’s wishes.