The family of a Lake Country woman whose husband was charged with her murder has hired a lawyer to help in their search for justice, and he believes there could be more evidence that should still be collected in the case.
In 2016, Arlene Westervelt died while canoeing with her husband Bert Westervelt on Okanagan Lake.
Bert was charged with the second-degree murder of his wife nearly three years after her death.
The charges against Bert were then stayed in July this year.
However, Anthony Oliver, the family’s lawyer, said they’re worried that some of the evidence in the case still hasn’t been collected.
He wants the Crown to look into the most recent allegations.
“The family has become aware that a high-ranking member of the RCMP was (allegedly) involved informally, without authority, in the investigation of the death of Arlene Westervelt,” Oliver said.
“And the family now wants assurance that that issue has been fully investigated and that the Crown was aware of that, and that any outcome from that, in no way has or will jeopardize the prosecution.”
The allegation of possible officer misconduct has not been proven.
Arlene’s family said they don’t want to jeopardize the investigation in any way, but they want to make sure the allegation is investigated, Oliver said.
RCMP said they could not confirm whether or not there was any officer misconduct connected to the case.
“Should there have been allegations of misconduct related to one of our officers in relation to this investigation, these allegations would have been disclosed to the BC Prosecution Service and assessed with respect to the potential impact on prosecution,” Staff Sgt. Janelle Shoihet said in an email.
“It is our understanding that the charge assessment and subsequent stay of proceedings made by the prosecution service is unrelated to the conduct of any RCMP members or employees,” she said.
“The allegations of ‘interference’ are incorrect,” Shoihet added.
No file is ever closed, and if any further information comes to light, RCMP investigators will forward to the prosecution, she added.
Bert Westervelt declined an interview but his lawyer Cory Armour said in an email that he maintains his innocence.
“As much as Bert would like to be able to tell his side of the story, we can’t make any public comment given how Arlene’s family members are handling things,” Armour said.
Arlene’s family held a demonstration on Kelowna’s courthouse steps on Sept. 14, the day Bert’s preliminary hearing was supposed to start.
“We haven’t seen any justice. We are in the dark,” Arlene’s sister Debbie Hennig said at the time.
Oliver said he is fighting for the family’s right to information under the provincial and federal victim bills of rights.
“Both the B.C. and the federal victim bill of rights provides that they are to be informed about developments both in the investigation and prosecution as things unfold,” Oliver said.
“There is an obligation by those in the position of either prosecutor or investigator to consult with, and to listen to the family or the victim, as much as possible to have their views considered,” Oliver said.
The family has asked B.C.’s attorney general for the coroner’s report, including the cause of death, he added.
Oliver is also asking for the attorney general to have a second look at the case.
“The family of the deceased has good reason to believe that there’s vital evidence out there that still has yet to be collected by the RCMP,” Oliver said.
“What the family is concerned about, is that there are witnesses who are not interviewed by the RCMP, and there is evidence that was not collected by RCMP that the family believes is highly relevant to the prosecution.”
Oliver said it’s important to note that the charges against Bert are stayed, not withdrawn.
That means there’s a one-year window for the prosecution to restart, he said.
Oliver said Arlene’s family believes she was heading for divorce with Bert.
“Arlene went to a family lawyer to initiate those proceedings, and the family believes that Arlene Westervelt was murdered subsequent to that.”
The Crown said it stayed the charge after carefully reviewing new information that was brought forward.
“Crown counsel determined that the BC Prosecution Service’s charge assessment standard was no longer met,” spokesperson Dan McLaughlin said in an email.
The charge assessment requires Crown counsel to “independently, objectively and fairly measure all available evidence against a two-part test,” he said.
The first part is whether there is a substantial likelihood of conviction, and if so, the second part requires the Crown to look at whether the public interest requires a prosecution.
“This test continues to apply throughout any prosecution,” McLaughlin said. “Where this test is no longer met, it is appropriate for Crown counsel to direct a stay of proceedings.”
Oliver noted that other provinces, such as Alberta, only require a reasonable likelihood of conviction.
Back in 2019, the prosecution determined that there was a substantial likelihood of conviction based on the evidence that they had at the time, and it was in the public interest, Oliver said.
“Arlene Westervelt’s family believe and they know that the prosecution service is acting in good faith, and they want to make sure that no stone is left unturned during this critical period of the stay,” he added.
The BC Prosecution Service said it has been in touch with Arlene’s family but that those communications are confidential.
Arlene’s family has started a Facebook page, “Justice for Arlene” and is encouraging the public to check it for updates.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.