The Lake Country man accused of murdering his wife inherited everything that she owned, and her mother has now launched a lawsuit seeking justice.
Arlene Westervelt was canoeing with her husband Bert Westervelt when their canoe tipped and she died.
Her family called foul play at the time.
After a nearly three-year investigation, Bert was charged with her murder, but then the Crown suddenly stayed those charges without explanation last summer.
Arlene’s mother Jean Hennig has now filed a civil suit against Bert seeking a declaration that he killed his wife and asking for Arlene’s assets to be returned to her family.
“This is basically an estate litigation case where we are alleging that Mr. Westervelt wrongly inherited a bunch of assets because of an unlawful or dishonourable act,” civil lawyer Scott Stanley said.
“Some people refer to it as the slayer rule, that’s obviously very graphic. But there’s basically a law of equity that says you can’t profit from a misdeed,” he added.
The civil suit alleges that Arlene and Bert were heading for divorce after nearly 30 years of marriage.
It goes on to claim that Bert killed his wife so he could inherit Arlene’s assets before she was able to leave him and take her share.
Stanley said pursuing a civil case is one way for the family to get justice for Arlene.
“My experience with folks in this situation is really what they want is justice. They want something that the criminal proceeding, or the lack of the criminal proceeding, failed to provide them,” Stanley said.
In Canada, criminal cases need to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, while civil cases are judged on a balance of probabilities, which is a much lower bar.
In a civil case, Bert will have to answer questions under oath, Stanley said.
“And of course you have access to things like discovery and disclosure from Mr. Westervelt that the Crown doesn’t have. He’s not obligated to incriminate himself in a criminal proceeding, whereas in a civil proceeding, he’ll have to make disclosure,” Stanley said.
The family is hopeful that the criminal case against Bert will still proceed.
If it does, evidence obtained through the lawsuit can’t necessarily be shared with the Crown, which is in charge of the criminal case, Stanley said.
“If we were to get documentation from Mr. Westervelt, or we take his discovery evidence under oath, that’s not evidence that could be shared,” Stanley said.
“There are rules that prohibit that, but it certainly might provoke the Crown to do their own further investigation,” he added.
Stanley said he plans to try to get access to the thousands of pages of documents that are available in the criminal case.
“The family hopes that those materials eventually will be made available to us. We’ll obtain a court order for it and make sure it has been disclosed properly,” he said.
Bert Westervelt did not respond to a request for comment on the civil case, but his criminal lawyer has previously said that he maintains his innocence.
None of the allegations against him have been proven in court.
The family of Arlene is still looking for tips and leads on their Justice for Arlene Facebook page.