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Jury for Inquest into three murdered Ottawa Valley women begin deliberations

The jury selected for the Coroner's Inquest into the 2015 murder of three women left the inquest for the last time to prepare recommendations in the hope of reducing future victims of domestic violence.

The Coroner’s Inquest examining the circumstances leading up to the deaths of three women in the Ottawa Valley at the hands of Basil Borutski has ended, and among the many recommendations is the suggestion that a one-time emergency fund be established for any woman seeking protection from their abuser. 

Carol Cullerton, 66, Anastasia Kuzyk, 36 and Nathalie Warmerdam, 48, were killed on their properties in the Ottawa Valley on September 22, 2015 by Borutski, a man with a known history of violence against women.

Borutski was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2017 after a jury found him guilty of two counts of first degree murder for the deaths of Kuzyk and Warmerdam and one count of second-degree murder for the death of Culleton.

The five-member community jury was tasked with delivering a verdict, and will spend a few days prioritizing a list of recommendations in the hope their findings may save other women from being victims of domestic violence.

For three weeks the jury and others gathered in the Pembroke Best Western Hotel and heard testimony from over 20 experts in the field of advocacy for women in domestic abuse relationships; current and retired police officers, some of whom were directly involved in the investigation of the murders of the three women; and lawyers who specialize in the area domestic and family members of the deceased women.

All of them carried the same message to the jury: make recommendations that will assist in the protection and support of survivors of intimate partner violence in rural communities.

Before the jury began their deliberation, they heard from Kirsten Mercer, a lawyer who spoke on behalf of End Violence Against Women Renfrew County (EVA Renfrew County), the Office of the Chief Coroner and emotional closing remarks from Valerie Warmerdam, the daughter of the late Nathalie Warmerdam who was shot in her own home by Borutski after he had just fatally shot Kuzyk and strangled Culleton in her Combermere cottage.

Together, the presenters highlighted 72 recommendations and reminded the jury that none of their recommendations are binding for them to include, rather they provided them as references as they prepared to complete their task.

Recommendations Not Binding

Kirsten Mercer, who had provided legal advice to EVA Renfrew County, suggested the jury consider the establishment of an emergency funding for women, and in some cases women with children, who want to flee a violent domestic situation.

"We've dubbed it the She C.A.N. Fund, and you'll recognize those initials: Carol, Anastasia and Natalie," said Mercer said. “It would be a one-time fund up to $7,000 and it would not have any bearing or effect any other income a woman may have. For example it can be used to cover first and last month’s rent or something that will help a woman secure a safe home from their abuser.”

The emergency fund for women, which would give special consideration to survivors living in rural and remote parts of the province, would help remove one of the biggest barriers women face when they work up the courage to leave the relationship.

"We want to take away barriers that they are encountering in making the choices that will make them and their children safer," she added.

Prabhu Rajan, lead legal counsel for the Office of the Chief Coroner, admitted any set of recommendations coming out of the inquiry will come with a price tag, but saving the life of a woman at the hands of her abuser is worth the investment.

“What we're asking Ontario to do is expensive, but it's critical,” he said.

None of the recommendations coming out of the inquest are binding due to the fact the Ontario government said it was not taking a position on any specific ideas yet because the actual slate of recommendations will require careful study. 

Other recommendations forwarded by the panel include the creation of an oversight body to account for whether the Ontario government does act on final recommendations — and to explain why if it doesn't.

One of the themes heard repeatedly throughout the inquest was the inability of any level of government is to enact and enforce the recommendations, and that lack of action was echoed by Rajan.

"They must happen quickly before another generation of women have to deal with the pain and suffering experienced by their mothers," he said. 

The joint submission proposes a study on a number issues or topics that have come up during the inquest, including:

  • The dearth of adequate housing in rural communities;
  • Laws that might allow people to obtain information from police about their partner's history of abuse;
  • The requirement for police to mandatorily charge abusers. The inquest has heard that can lead women to fear further harm; 
  • Electronic monitoring of convicted abusers;
  • Ensure that survivors and those assisting survivors have direct and timely communication with probation officers to assist in safety planning.

Although the inquest was for the most part lacking the confrontational drama of a trial, the role of the probation office and its failure to properly supervise Borutski who had regularly disobeyed the conditions of his probation.

Kirsten Mercer cross-examined James Pearson, a quality assurance manager with Ontario’s probation services, while he was on the stand during his third straight day of testimony. She drew on an internal report that was prepared by the ministry shortly after Borutski was charged with the three murders when she questioned him about the lack of oversight of a man with such a violent criminal history and his total contempt of the judicial system.

He refused to attend mandatory counselling sessions; moved into a residence near two of his victims in spite of no-contact orders; he had issues with alcohol which led to violent outbursts and was never referred for substance abuse treatment and told his probation officer he was entitled to “hang out” at the end of Warmerdam’s driveway.

He was classified as “high risk" and likely to re-offend, yet there was no attempt made to closely monitor him and increase the number of times he was to make contact with the parole offices.

Time and time again Mercer put Pearson on the spot to try and explain the lack of supervision over Borutski and the refusal of probationary staff to address his numerous breaches of his probation conditions.

Those exchanges led to several proposed recommendations aimed at Ontario's probation and parole service. 

"What happened? What does supervision even mean?" Mercer asked. She questioned why nothing was done as he had been deemed a high risk to re-offend seven months before the murders and before he started stalking Culleton. 

Valerie Warmerdam addressed the participants of the inquest and said since the brutal murder of her mother, her life was turned upside down and it was only through the support and love shown by so many people in Renfrew County that she has been able to not only survive, but she is able to address a room full of people on a topic that haunts her every day.

One participant in the inquest said she was in awe of the courage displayed by Warmerdam in light of the tragedy that completely disrupted the life of a young lady, but she survived and is an example for all.

“We have heard Valerie (Warmerdam) share her feelings about the empty chair at her dining room table knowing her mother will never again sit in that chair to share a meal with her children," the participant said. “For me, that empty chair has become the symbol of this inquiry.”

Leslie Reaume, the Presiding Officer of the inquest, gave final instructions to the jury and reminded them that she was available as a resource if required during their deliberation. She asked the members of the gallery to stand one last time as jurors were led out of the meeting room to begin their final task.

The jury's deliberations on the final recommendations will continue into early next week. Each of the recommendations they put forward must be agreed upon by at least three of the five jury members. 

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