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Crime Beat: Arlene Westervelt – murder or misadventure?

Click to play video: 'Preview for Arlene Westervelt: Murder or Misadventure?'
Preview for Arlene Westervelt: Murder or Misadventure?
Was it a tragic accident or a cold-blooded killing? Jules Knox takes a closer look at the death of a Lake Country woman for Global News' Crime Beat show. – Nov 12, 2021

Crime Beat: Arlene Westervelt – Murder or Misadventure airs Fri, Nov. 12 on Global News.

It’s been five years since a B.C. woman died during a day of picnicking and canoeing with her husband, but the story around her death continues to unfold.

Many more details of the case are being revealed through recently filed civil court documents.

Arlene Westervelt, a 56-year-old nurse, spent June 26, 2016, with her husband Bert Westervelt in their canoe on Okanagan Lake. Bert claimed the couple were paddling back to their vehicle when the boat tipped and his wife disappeared.

Read more: Search crews scour Okanagan Lake for missing 57-year-old Lake Country woman

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The next day, RCMP pulled Arlene’s lifeless body from the lake.

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Bert told police it was an accidental drowning.

But right away, Arlene’s sisters Debbie Hennig and Wendy Judd were suspicious.

“I knew instantly that he killed her. I just screamed it, he killed her. He killed her. I know he killed her,” Wendy said.

“As soon as I heard that, I just screamed, literally screamed,” Debbie said in an interview with Global News. “I said, ‘Mom, this is not an accident.’ I said, ‘He’s done something to her.’”

Arlene’s sisters believe her marriage with Bert was on the rocks in recent years.

When Arlene died, they said they made repeated calls to police and the B.C. Coroner’s Service, begging officials to take a closer look at the circumstances surrounding Arlene’s death and calling for an autopsy.

Their pleas were ignored.

Bert has always maintained his innocence, and at least initially, the Mounties appeared to believe his version of events.

“It’s a tragic accident that possibly could’ve been avoided, and we feel for the victim and the families and everybody involved,” RCMP Const. Kelly Brett said at the time.

Read more: Lake Country woman killed in canoeing accident identified

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But according to civil court documents recently filed by the government, “between June 27 and 30, 2016, the RCMP interviewed several individuals who provided information on the alleged abusive relationship between Bert and Arlene and voiced concerns about the incident potentially involving foul play.”

A sergeant on the case spoke with the coroner on June 30, 2016, and updated him on the allegations of foul play, according to the court filings.

“The coroner did not request an autopsy, as the circumstances were consistent with a sudden event followed by a medical emergency, and an autopsy would not advance things,” the government wrote in its civil response.

However, that changed when Arlene’s divorce lawyer stepped forward.

Read more: ‘Her story matters’ — Family of Lake Country woman shares new details, renews calls for justice

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“That’s the moment that changed everything,” Hennig said. “That is when her divorce lawyer contacted RCMP and told them that she was his client.”

With that call, the police and coroner sprung into action. They opened a suspicious death investigation, retook custody of Arlene’s body and ordered an autopsy.

Bert broke his silence in an interview with Global News in May.

“We’ve had a tumultuous, you know … we’ve never gotten along,” Bert said of his relationship with Arlene’s sisters.

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He admits he and Arlene had disagreements over their 34-year relationship but said the overwhelming majority of their time together was “wonderful.”

“Arlene and I had ups and downs, but when it came down to it, there’s nobody I’d rather travel with than Arlene. There is nobody I’d rather golf with than Arlene. There’s nobody I’d rather hike with than Arlene. There’s nobody I’d rather bike with than Arlene.”

While there were years of bad blood between Arlene’s sisters and husband, Arlene’s uncle Don Hennig said he was on friendly terms with Bert.

That began to change when word leaked out that Arlene had been speaking to a divorce lawyer, and Don realized police had opened a murder investigation.

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“When I found out the RCMP were involved, I suspected something wasn’t right.”

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Don said in retrospect, there were signs that things between Bert and Arlene were not going well. He keeps a daily diary and showed Global News an entry he wrote less than two weeks before her death.

“Arlene stopped by for a few minutes last night … was crying,” it reads.

“I asked her what was wrong and she didn’t want to talk about it. And finally, she said to me, ‘I guess all married couples fight.’

Looking back, Don said there were other things that stick out in his mind.

He said Arlene was a good swimmer who was comfortable on the water and always wore a life-jacket. But she wasn’t wearing one when she died.

Shelley Westervelt was Arlene’s sister-in-law. She was married to Bert’s brother Ed when Arlene died, and she rushed to the Okanagan with her husband to be with Bert.

“I loved Bert. I truly did,” she said. “We had a wonderful relationship.”

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In the days after Arlene’s death, Shelley said she heard Bert tell the same story over and over: that his wife reached for a bottle of water and the boat tipped.

“He said, ‘We both fell into the water. When we had resurfaced, Arlene was hanging on to the bow and I had said to her, “Honey, hang on to the bow. It floats,’” Shelley said.

“He said, ‘I proceeded to dive two or three times under the boat to retrieve those life-jackets. When I came up, Shelley, she was gone,’” she said.

Shelley said that two months later, Bert’s story changed.

“Bert had phoned my husband’s cellphone, he and I were sitting at the table. And Bert had said, ‘Ed, I need to talk to you. That story of Arlene’s death is not what really happened,’” she said.

According to Shelley, Bert said that after they capsized, Arlene surfaced and made her way onto the overturned canoe. But he was worried she was going to tip the boat onto herself, so he pulled her off, Shelley said.

“She went under. My husband asked, ‘Did she ever resurface?’ No, she did not resurface. ‘But I tried to grab for her and, Ed, she was fighting and punching and resisting so hard that I lost grip of her,’” Shelley said.

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According to Shelley, Bert said that when he did get a hold of her again, Arlene punched him so hard to his left shoulder that he was forced to let her go.

Shelley said she believe Bert changed his story to get out of a lie.

“I don’t believe you need a good memory if you’re telling the truth,” she said.

She also has questions about why Arlene wasn’t wearing a life-jacket.

“She was fanatical about water safety,” Shelley said.

“I find it very hard to believe that she was not wearing her life-jacket, and I believe the reason she wasn’t was because she could not.

“I believe that Arlene may not have even been alive when that boat tipped over.”

“I think Bert Westervelt knew the writing was on the wall that his marriage was over. His life as he knew it was going to be crumbling down very, very soon.

“I believe he murdered Arlene.”

Three years after Arlene’s death, the RCMP apparently believed that Bert might have killed Arlene too. In 2019, Bert Westervelt was charged with the second-degree murder of his wife.

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He declined to answer questions about exactly what happened in the canoe on the advice of his lawyer because at the time of the interview, the case was technically still before the court.

However, he said he understands why changing his story might raise suspicions.

“Apparently, that’s a large part as to the reason why I was arrested,” Bert told Global News.

Read more: Okanagan Lake murder charge heads to preliminary hearing

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But Arlene’s family said there was much more to it than that.

“When he was arrested, the RCMP detectives talked to me,” Don Hennig said. “That’s when I asked, ‘You’ve got evidence to lay charges?’ And (a detective) nodded her head and said, ‘Yeah, we’ve got lots.”

Debbie Hennig said she met with detectives in the homicide office in Kelowna.

“I saw black boxes stacked up on the desk, her files with her name on them. There were thousands of documents. And statements, interviews.”

But in yet another stunning reversal, two months before the preliminary hearing was to begin in September 2020, the Crown announced the case was not going forward. The murder charge was stayed. The Crown said only that the decision was based on “new evidence.”

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The Hennigs were devastated but not ready to give up. They rallied in front of the Kelowna courthouse and demanded answers. They also hired a lawyer to push authorities to answer the big question: what had changed so drastically?

“We had a preliminary inquiry that was scheduled for multiple weeks with dozens of witnesses. And for whatever reason, the Crown’s office blew the whole thing up,” said lawyer Anthony Oliver, who represented the family until a few months ago.

Oliver said the Crown has refused repeated requests to provide more information about why the murder charge was stayed. Neither has the family gotten a satisfactory response from writing letters to provincial and federal politicians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Click to play video: 'Family of Lake Country woman renews calls for justice'
Family of Lake Country woman renews calls for justice

An investigation gone wrong

Anthony Oliver, the family’s lawyer, said the investigation began to go wrong almost immediately after Arlene’s body was recovered from the lake. He believes it started with an RCMP officer named Brian Gateley.

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“Now, what occurred in those early days is still unclear. And it certainly does have something to do with Brian Gateley, who was then an inspector with the RCMP,” Oliver claims.

In the days after Arlene’s death but before a murder investigation was launched, Bert asked Gateley to take his dead wife’s cellphone to be unlocked using RCMP resources. He said the phone had photos of their last day together that he wanted for the funeral.

Arlene’s sister, Debbie Hennig, believes Bert wanted the phone unlocked to see, and potentially wipe clean, any secrets it might hold.

“He wanted, obviously, to get into the phone and maybe read past texts and conversations and see who she’d been communicating with.”

Gateley was not assigned to the case, so Bert’s ask wasn’t a formal request but a personal one. He gave the phone to a fellow officer, who used RCMP technology to unlock the phone and it was returned to Bert.

As a veteran Mountie, Gateley should have known that could be a serious breach of the RCMP’s code of conduct, Oliver said.

“It’s hard to comprehend how an officer, especially one of his training and rank, could justify using RCMP resources to crack a phone in that manner,” Oliver said.

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In a letter to Arlene’s sister Debbie, Gateley admitted he had the phone unlocked. But, he wrote, that was only after confirming with investigators that Arlene’s death was being treated as an accident and that RCMP were not interested in the cellphone data – something police confirmed in a court filing.

Eventually, Gateley’s actions would be the subject of an internal RCMP investigation. Global News obtained a copy of the conduct letter alleging Gateley had Arlene’s phone unlocked using a tool called “Cellebrite” for “personal or unauthorized reasons.”

Through his lawyer, Gateley denies any wrongdoing but declined an interview, saying he can’t comment publicly because of an ongoing civil case that Arlene’s family has since launched against him.

However, in the letter to Debbie, he claimed that he and Bert were casual acquaintances, that their wives worked together, and that the two couples had socialized a few times.

While Gateley admitted to having the phone hacked, he said he only did it after he was assured by investigators that Arlene’s death was being treated as an accident.

But there’s a problem with that, too, because the RCMP investigation into Gateley’s actions includes another allegation: that Gateley “provided his personal opinion” to investigators and engaged in “a potential conflict of interest.”

In civil court filings, the government claims that Gateley called an investigator on the case and said he was friends with the couple and had never seen any evidence of violence or abuse between them.

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The government’s civil response also said that on Feb. 1, 2019, RCMP found Gateley guilty of engaging in a potential conflict of interest and misusing RCMP IT equipment.

However, Gateley said that the conduct authority found that there was a “perception” of a conflict of interest, not an actual one.

“In fact, Supt. Gateley was the catalyst for the RCMP learning that Bert had been untruthful during his initial interview with the RCMP,” Gateley alleged in his court filings.

He said that no sanctions were imposed against him.

In his letter to Debbie Hennig, Gateley also claims he wasn’t involved in the case, and did not “in any way compromise the investigation or the prosecution.”

A month after the conduct authority made its finding, Gateley retired from the police force.

He was subsequently hired by B.C.’s Organized Crime Agency.

Gateley already had connections with the agency. He’d worked with them on investigations when he was still with the RCMP.

In addition, Kevin Hackett, the same man who signed Gateley’s initial conduct letter, was also the top cop at the Organized Crime Agency at the time.

Arlene’s family believes Gateley and Bert Westervelt were actually friends, not mere acquaintances.

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Debbie can’t shake the feeling Gateley influenced detectives to treat Arlene’s death as an accident early on, and that his actions are being covered up.

“I had a lot of fear. I was terrified of their connection.”

“If he knew a party in the matter, that being Bert Westervelt, and knew that certain RCMP members were saying, no, this doesn’t look to be a drowning, this needs to be investigated as a homicide, we need an autopsy, he should have checked himself out immediately and he didn’t,” Oliver said.

The Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner is now investigating Gateley for writing a letter to Arlene’s sister Debbie.

The RCMP has always maintained that the stay of proceedings made by the prosecution is unrelated to the conduct of any officers.

Gateley alleges that the stay was made because of new evidence connected to the pathologist report and unrelated to his conduct.

Click to play video: 'Okanagan woman’s family pleading for closer look at murder investigation: Lawyer'
Okanagan woman’s family pleading for closer look at murder investigation: Lawyer

Whatever the reason, the decision to treat Arlene’s death as an accident in the early hours after her body was found may have been a turning point in the investigation.

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“I’ve never been involved with, investigated or experienced a case like this that has so many gaps and shortcomings early on in the investigation,” said former homicide detective Mike Cavilla.

Cavilla was asked to provide an independent assessment of the case by the family’s lawyer at the time.

There were no independent eyewitnesses close enough to see exactly what happened when Arlene and Bert Westervelt’s canoe tipped. He said that under those circumstances, the B.C. Coroner’s Service should have ordered an autopsy immediately.

“Was this accidental? Was this non-accidental and inflicted? Is this a homicide? None of those decisions can be made within the first hours of the events unfolding,” Cavilla told Global News.

“The body is like the crime scene. You only have one crack at it and you’ve got to do the best job you possibly can in order to arrive at the truth.”

Whether they were influenced by Gateley, or for other unknown reasons, police treated Arlene’s death as an accident until they got a call from her divorce lawyer and opened a murder investigation days later.

An autopsy was finally performed 10 days after Arlene died — and after her body had already been embalmed.

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The family said they had been begging authorities to order an autopsy earlier, but as Arlene’s next of kin, Bert rejected the idea.

“I wasn’t crazy about it because I just felt Arlene had been through enough, you know, and I just wanted, I really just wanted to leave her be,” Bert said.

He also said Betty Noble, the coroner called to the scene of Arlene’s death, told him there were no signs of any injuries to her body when it was first inspected. He said he asked because he was wondering if the canoe had hit her when it flipped.

“I asked her for signs of physical trauma. And Betty Noble said, ‘No.’ Was emphatically, ‘No, none.’”

The coroner’s report confirms no injuries were found at first.

But later, when the autopsy was eventually done, it raised the possibility that Arlene may have been murdered. It found hemorrhages on the strap muscles of Arlene’s neck and hemorrhages to both eyes.

“Hemorrhages in the eyes can occur and hemorrhages in the neck can occur from strangulation,” said retired forensic pathologist Dr. John Butt.

Those findings may be why Crown prosecutors laid a second-degree murder charge against Bert Westervelt in 2019.

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But the fact that the body was embalmed prior to the autopsy is another issue that may have muddied the legal waters. Embalming is a procedure that preserves the body for viewing at a funeral by draining the blood and pumping in chemicals through an incision in the neck.

“The incision can, of course, mask other evidence that might have been present or create evidence that may be misleading,” Butt told Global News.

The coroner’s report found no marks on Arlene’s neck and no injury to the hyoid bone, which is located under the chin.

It also claims the embalming did not interfere with the investigation of the hemorrhages.

Yet Butt disagrees. He said the delayed autopsy may have been part of the prosecutor’s calculations when it decided not to proceed with the murder prosecution against Bert Westervelt.

“It’s my opinion in this case that that was one of the reasons why the charge against the accused was stayed.”

He said regardless of any confusion around the neck hemorrhages, the eye hemorrhages haven’t been explained to his satisfaction.

“The hemorrhages in the eyes are not common with drowning, that’s for sure. I would say in this case that my index of suspicion is sustained. The best way to put it is I don’t think this is the end of the matter.”

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Ultimately, the coroner’s report found the cause of Arlene Westervelt’s death to be “undetermined,” explaining that it could neither confirm nor rule out the possibility that she died of strangulation, by drowning or from an underlying heart condition.

In retrospect, Bert Westervelt agrees that the autopsy should have been done earlier. But all along, he has stuck to his story that Arlene’s death was an accidental drowning and maintained his innocence.

“I still, to this day, don’t know how it got this far. It’s been hell. But it’s not just on me. It’s my friends, my friends, family, my family — it’s been hell for a lot of people.”

Asked point-blank whether he killed his wife: “No. God, no.”

Allegations of interference from Gateley and questions about the competence of RCMP and the B.C. Coroner’s Service may have contributed to the Crown’s decision to stay the murder charge against Bert Westervelt. Or, there may be other evidence that the Crown is not disclosing, leaving both Bert and Arlene Westervelt’s family in legal limbo.

“We are left with a very, very large hole in our hearts. Our family is so broken. We miss her so much and we want to know why she died,” said Arlene’s mother Jean Hennig.

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The Hennig family still believes Bert killed Arlene.

Debbie is pleading with anyone who has any information to come forward to police, or contact them at their Facebook page, Justice for Arlene.

“Make no mistake, we are not going away and we are not going to give up our fight.”

Five years after Arlene’s death, the family held another rally on the courthouse steps, calling for a coroner’s inquest to look into the full circumstances surrounding Arlene’s death.

“We want you, (chief coroner Lisa) Lapointe, to do the right thing, even if it means casting a dark shadow on your organization.”

Debbie said her family wants Bert to finally see his day in court.

“The man charged with murder is walking free, not because he’s been found innocent, but because something has gone wrong with the prosecution, and that’s not justice.”

Jean said she’s still grieving the loss of her daughter.

“We are left with a very, very large hole in our hearts. Our family is so broken. We miss her so much and we want to know why she died,” she said.

Shelley Westervelt said she believes the lead homicide investigators in Kelowna want to see the case proceed.

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“Why does no one else want to see this case proceed?” she asked.

“I have never wanted to believe that Bert Westervelt is guilty of killing his wife, my sister-in-law.

“But if he is, he needs to answer to those charges, and not be given a hall pass to walk away in order to protect the RCMP, the coroner service, the prosecution service.”

“It’s wrong. It’s wrong.”

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