Day 12 of a coroner’s inquest in the 2015 murders of Nathalie Warmerdam, Anastasia Kuzyk and Carol Culleton by Basil Borutski featured one of the shortest testimonies by a witness when Joshua Hopkins took the stand.
However, it is fair to say that when he completed his brief appearance, it was by far one of the most emotionally charged accounts of how the death of Nathalie Warmerdam impacted the younger brother of the late 48-year-old Cormac resident.
Hopkins, an opera singer, recently collaborated with acclaimed Canadian author Margaret Atwood and American composer Jake Heggie to produce an album of original material dedicated not only to his late sister, but also 36-year-old Anastasia Kuzyk and 66-year-old Carol Culleton. The album is also dedicated to all victims of femicide referring to them as all the countless sisters who have been taken.
"For years, I had found myself feeling numb about Nathalie's murder because it was just something too shocking to comprehend," Hopkins said on Tuesday, June 21. "But the kernel of an idea compelled me to find a way to use my voice to tell my sister's story, as an opera singer and as an ally. She was my beloved big sister.”
Throughout the three-week inquest, ordered by the Chief Coroner of Ontario, witnesses are usually asked a few questions in relation to testimony they have provided. However, in this case, none of the five jurors followed up with questions following his appearance.
Sadly, Hopkins, like so many family members who have lost a loved one as a result of domestic violence, was not aware of how prevalent the issue of violence against women is within rural communities and now that he is much more aware of the problem, he uses his music to help educate others on a national problem.
"It shouldn't have taken my sister's murder for me, a man, to be made aware for the first time how pervasive intimate partner violence is," Hopkins said. "As a society, we seem to accept that men can't control themselves and we find it understandable when they exhibit unhealthy behaviour.”
A 2019 Stats Canada report showed that a woman dies every six days in Canada as a direct result of domestic abuse. Children who witness violence in the home have twice the rate of psychiatric disorders as children from non-violent homes and a Department of Justice report from 2009 estimates a cost of $7.4 billion to deal with the aftermath of spousal violence alone.
"It seems clear to me that this acceptance is one of the many negative outcomes of the deep seated misogyny that is ingrained in our society," Hopkins said at the conclusion of his testimony.
He, like so many others who have been impacted because of the murder of a loved one, expressed utter frustration and a sense of helplessness knowing that his sister took extraordinary steps to protect not only herself, but her two children that also lived in the home where she was shot in her home while attempting to flee.
Luckily, her son Adrian, who was at home at the time of the murder was able to escape by running out the back door and hid in the heavily wooded area behind the home until the police arrived. Warmerdam wore a panic button at all times, installed security cameras to monitor the property, possessed a shotgun and went to a local shooting range to learn how to safely use a rifle and worked with both her children on an escape plan in case Borutski should happen to show up.
Hopkins said it's been heartbreaking to hear during the inquest about "how much tireless effort Nathalie put into her and her children's safety."
The murders of Anastasia Kuzyk, Nathalie Warmerdam and Carol Culleton have been under the spotlight since the inquest began in Pembroke on June 6. It is purposely being held in Pembroke since all three murders occurred on September 22, 2015 in Renfrew County.
Not only is it Ontario’s largest geographical county, but it is a rural county with several remote communities and one of the mandates of the coroner's inquest is to focus on intimate partner violence and preventing future instances of domestic homicide in a rural setting.
The inquest is expected to wrap up proceedings this Friday and the five-member jury will be tasked with recommending changes to policies and protocols to better protect and support survivors of intimate partner violence in rural communities in the future.
Even though the inquest is not completed nor have any recommendations been made yet, it became apparent early on that one of the biggest areas of concern was the breakdown of communication between law enforcement, the courts and various agencies that provide counselling and resources to victims of domestic violence.
One of the presenters on Tuesday, Deepa Mattoo, the executive director of the Toronto-based Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, said the inability of all the services designed to protect these vulnerable women are unable to transmit information to each other in real time. She stressed that a much more efficient system needs to be put in place because the one luxury that victims of domestic violence cannot enjoy is time. The amount of time that it takes for the information gathered by either the police, the Crown Attorney or agencies that provides support to women in need is far too long.
“We need to have a system where the information is shared quickly and current and readily available,” she said. “Right now there is no information-sharing database on high-risk offenders allowing the two different court systems to speak to each other."
She said it is especially true in this case where Borutski’s actions from his first encounter with the law relating to domestic abuse in the 1990s where he went from the category of low risk to the highest risk in 2015 should have been readily available for anyone directly involved with the protection of the three women.
"That remains one of the big pieces of the puzzle,” she said.
A psychologist who analyzed the Renfrew County case testified that there were very serious concerns in the criminal justice system four years before the perpetrator's killing rampage that he had a pattern of significant intimate partner violence and "might escalate based on the outcome of family court hearings."
Once deemed a low threat to cause harm, he actions against women, and the police steadily escalated up until he committed the murders. For example, when he was going through a divorce with his first wife, he boasted publicly he would rather see their family home burned down or destroyed rather than allow his former wife to take possession.
Although never proven in court, it was believed he was responsible for a fire that burned the family home to the ground a few months after she was awarded it by a court ruling. His actions were not just directed at females he was familiar with. His criminal record also included a conviction for viciously beating Anastasia Kuzyk and theft of her mother’s car. When arrested on these charges he urinated inside a jail cell in the Killaloe OPP detachment and proceeded to spit directly on an officer while incarcerated.
While living on Round Lake Road near Killaloe, he posted a handwritten sign on his property that listed the names of those forbidden to set foot on his property. It was widely acknowledged throughout the area it was a subtle “hit list” as it contained the names of some OPP officers and others he deemed as his “enemies”. It is the same house that burned down under mysterious circumstances in 2011 and was listed for sale by Anastasia Kuzyk.
Despite all these actions leading him to be classified as a high risk, the information was not shared among those tasked with monitoring him in order to protect vulnerable women he came in contact with.
Following the triple-murder of the women, a review conducted by Ontario's probation and parole service found that he had been assessed and deemed high risk in February 2015, seven months before he carried out his murders. When he was finally captured near his brother’s residence outside of Arnprior, a “hit list” was found in his possession. Along with his three victims, other names were on his list, a list similar in style to his “list of enemies” he posted outside his Round Lake home.
That same review found that probation officers missed opportunities to closely monitor him and some names on his list had been in contact with various agencies concerned about his behaviour. The review called for greater emphasis on the monitoring of his actions, and a much more concerted effort to effectively share information among the parties involved at a much greater speed.