Warning: This story contains disturbing details and deals with violence against women, and may upset and trigger some readers. Discretion is advised.
It was a FaceTime call that changed her life.
On July 21, 2022, Jana Jorgenson was contacted by the RCMP in Chilliwack, B.C., who wanted to know if she knew anyone in the area who could care for her two grandsons. She was told her daughter Amber Culley — their mother — was not available, and neither were Culley’s brother Aaron or her close friend, Mimi Kates.
“My heart was just beating outside my body. I knew I had to get on the ferry immediately,” Jorgenson told Global News, from Parksville, where she lives.
Jorgenson would later learn that Culley, 43, and Kates, 49, had been murdered in their home, while Aaron had survived with injuries. Culley’s and Kates’ abusive ex-partner, Eric Shestalo, was the killer.
Shestalo was found four days later near Bridal Falls, dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to the RCMP.
The past few weeks have been “surreal,” said Jorgenson, as “thousands” of people have reached out to support the family, express love for Culley, and painfully — share their own disturbing experiences and interactions with Shestalo over the years.
“I don’t think we even understand or can comprehend that something so evil, targeted, predatory … could have happened to my beautiful daughter, who is just an amazing human being,” said Jorgenson.
“Did we think he was capable of murder? Absolutely not, but we knew he wasn’t very nice.”
According to Jorgenson, Culley had obtained a restraining order against Shestalo. He had been previously arrested and charged with uttering threats.
She and Kates had sheltered together to keep each other safe.
“Amber actually rescued Mimi from kind of a dangerous situation she was in with another man that was kind of controlling her,” Jorgenson explained.
“She just wanted to help her … that was her way of doing things.”
Jorgenson is now using her platform to raise awareness on the need to improve the systems in place to protect women in abusive relationships — systems that right now, are “not working,” she said.
“It’s really important to me that I am going to start something bigger because a restraining order is nothing,” she explained. “It has no bearing on what that person is going to do and their capabilities.”
Jorgenson said she would like to see some sort of tracking device placed on those with restraining orders, that will alert police if the subject gets too close to a prohibited location. She also suggested better monitoring and police protection for those who have obtained the orders.
After all, she told Global News, Shestalo was due in court at noon on the same day he killed her daughter.
“He came into that house, just walked in … all dressed in black with a toque on and sunglasses and a firearm pointed at my son’s head,” she described.
“If (police) knew he was going to be in that area, with a restraining order, something should have been happening in that area — ghost cars around her home.”
The B.C. government’s website currently urges anyone who observes that another person has breached the conditions of their protection order, to call police right away.
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According to Hilla Kerner, a frontline worker at the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, British Columbia suffers from a lack of current data on femicide. It’s clear, however, from data collected during the COVID-19 pandemic that violence against women has increased.
“(Femicide) is targeting women because they are women and it’s an expression of a very high level of misogyny and women-hating, girl-hating,” she explained.
“We see it in wife murder, we see it in the missing and murdered Indigenous women. It’s a phenomena. These are not just individual incidents.”
According to the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, 88 women and girls were killed in Canada in the first six months of 2022, 15 of whom were in B.C.
Kerner said the province, police and BC Coroners Service must proactively release information every time a woman is killed by a man that includes context such as whether she was financially dependent on that man, whether children were involved, or whether prior abuse had been noted.
Such details will help B.C. “learn important lessons,” and bring an end to femicide, she said.
“We believe that these murders could have been prevented,” Kerner said, referring to Culley and Kates.
“The fact that the man was arrested and charged means that he was under the system’s hold … violent men who threaten, who are charged with uttering threats, should not be released (on bail) to follow up on those threats.”
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees that anyone charged with an offence will be presumed innocent until proven guilty. The Criminal Code outlines the rules for bail, and states that anyone charged with is entitled to be released from custody unless the Crown can justify their continued detention in accordance with the law.
“The position that Crown Counsel takes in relation to bail, including whether to seek the detention of the accused, includes careful consideration of the specific circumstances of the case, the background of the accused, and the risk to the public,” reads a BC Prosecution Service information sheet on the topic.
Kerner said the concept of innocence until proven otherwise must be given extra scrutiny when it comes to “violent men,” especially those with past transgressions.
“We’re not in general disagreeing with this notion — of course we are all attached to having a fair and just criminal justice system,” she explained, “but when it comes to violent men, in some cases we cannot take the risk.
“We cannot afford having a few — it’s not the majority — but having dangerous men going after the women who reported them and murdering them.”
According to B.C. Public Safety Minister Mark Farnworth, “bail supervisors and probation officers are vigilant in monitoring compliance with court-ordered conditions.” They also have the legal authority to report violations to police or Crown counsel, who in turn can initiate charges or revoke bail.
The province funds more than 400 victim service and violence against programs that provide assistance, including safety planning, he added. There are nine domestic violence units that pair police officers with community-based victim services and in some areas, a child protection worker, to improve case coordination.
“The Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General operates the Victim Safety Unit which provides registered higher risk victims with notification services,” Farnworth wrote in an emailed statement.
“Once registered with the Unit, victims and protected parties receive ongoing information while an accused or offender is in the community (on bail or probation) and in custody.”
Kerner said Culley’s and Kates’ murders are a “terrible warning to other battered women that they cannot trust the system to keep them safe.”
“Women need to know that when they report violent men, they are taken very seriously, including putting some protections in place,” she said.
Jorgenson, meanwhile, is continuing to fundraise for her grandsons, 12-year-old Dante and nine-year-old Magnus, and raise awareness in her daughter’s honour.
Culley was a “being of light and laughter and joy,” she said, “always helping the underdog.” She loved music, dancing, cooking, and the beach.
“They are the most incredibly little human beings,” she said of her grandsons. “Amber just filled them with so much love and confidence.
“I hope we can continue pouring love into them and give them the life they deserve with lots of opportunity … and carry on this beautiful life that Amber has made for them.”
Women and gender diverse people experiencing violence can access support from Battered Women’s Support Services by calling the 24/7 crisis line toll-free at 1-855-687-1868.
Legal and mental health resources for adults and children experiencing violence can be found on the Public Health Agency of Canada’s website.