Okanagan woman’s family calls for justice after murder charges stayed

Click to play video: 'Lake Country woman’s friends and family call for justice'
Lake Country woman’s friends and family call for justice
Friends and family of Arlene Westervelt gathered on Kelowna's courthouse steps Monday morning. They're calling for justice after a second-degree murder charge against her husband Bert Westervelt was stayed in July. – Sep 14, 2020

Friends and family of a Lake Country woman gathered outside Kelowna’s courthouse on Monday to call for justice.

Arlene Westervelt’s family says she died under suspicious circumstances on June 26, 2016.

“Arlene’s husband Bert Westervelt claimed he and Arlene were canoeing on Okanagan Lake when Arlene reached for a bottle of water and accidentally tipped the canoe,” Arlene’s sister Debbie Hennig said.

“He said she disappeared into the lake and was gone,” she added.

“We don’t believe it. We’ve never believed that. Arlene was too skilled to make such a rookie mistake.”

Arlene was an experienced canoeist, a member of the rowing team and knew how to swim, Hennig said.

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“She always, always wore her life jacket,” Hennig said, recalling a time when her sister even wore a life jacket during a dinner cruise on choppy waters.

Three years after Arlene’s death, Bert was charged with second-degree murder.

“Why did it take three years to charge Bert Westervelt with the second-degree murder of his wife?” Hennig asked.

Then, the charges were stayed on July 14.

Hennig said she was shocked when she found out.

“It was like I had to relive her death all over again. It was the same reaction I had the day that I heard she died,” she said.

Click to play video: 'Extended interview with Arlene Westervelt’s sister'
Extended interview with Arlene Westervelt’s sister

Crown prosecutors told the family that the case no longer met a substantial likelihood of conviction, Hennig said.

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“We asked what changed,” Hennig said. “And we were told they could not give us that information.”

The family also asked for a copy of the coroner’s report but were denied and told that it only goes to next of kin.

“Arlene’s next of kin is her husband,” Hennig said. “Incredibly, that means the man charged with murdering Arlene is entitled to information but Arlene’s mothers and sisters are not.”

However, Hennig said the cause of death was read out in court.

“Because there is a publication ban, I’m not allowed to share that information with you. Believe me, I want to shout it out from the rooftops,” she said.

Friends and family chose to gather on Monday because it marked the day that Bert’s five-week preliminary hearing was supposed to start.

“We have been denied the right to the trial process that would reassure us that justice has been served,” Hennig said. “Not only must justice be served, but it must be seen to be served. We haven’t seen any justice. We are in the dark.”

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READ MORE: (April 8, 2019) Friends react to Lake Country man’s murder charges

The family has hired Alberta lawyer Anthony Oliver to represent their interests under B.C.’s Victims of Crime Act and the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights.

“In the case of a victim’s death, the relevant legislation protects the rights of a deceased person’s family to be informed about the investigation and prosecution at every stage of the proceedings,” Oliver said.

“Unfortunately, there has been very little communication by the Crown with Arlene’s family, whose views were never considered, let alone requested, and who as a result are further traumatized by a confusing and seemingly shadowy process.”

Because the charges are stayed and not withdrawn, the family is hoping Bert will still see his day in court.

“If Bert Westervelt is innocent of those charges, let us hear. If he is not, he needs to answer to those,” Arlene’s sister-in-law Shelley Westervelt said.

The family has written letters to the prime minister, B.C.’s ombudsperson and justice minister, but have only received condolences so far.

They’re hoping public pressure will help in their search for justice.

“Why is Bert Westervelt not required to stand trial for the murder of my sister? We hope the public will ask the same question,” Henning said.

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“Make no mistake. We are not going away until we have answers,” she added.

The family has started a Facebook page, “Justice for Arlene” and is encouraging the public to check it for updates.

In an email, Bert Westervelt’s lawyer Cory Armour declined an interview but said that his client maintains his innocence.

When the charges were stayed in July, Bert had called the news bittersweet, telling Global News he still has to live with the tragic death of his wife of nearly 30 years.

None of the allegations against Bert Westervelt have been proven in court.

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