Dozens of family members and friends of Lake Country’s Arlene Westervelt rallied outside of Kelowna Law Courts on Friday (June 25).
The group was rallying together to call on the B.C. chief coroner to comply with the RCMP’s request of providing Westervelt’s forensic file so that a forensic pathologist can conduct an external review of the circumstances surrounding her death.
June 26, marks five years since Westervelt died while canoeing with her husband, Lambertus “Bert” Westervelt, on Okanagan Lake. Her death was ruled an accidental drowning, but Arlene’s family alleges that Bert was responsible for her death.
“Everyone here shares our mission to ensure justice for Arlene Westervelt,” said family friend Deborah Johnston.
Many wore purple outside of the Kelowna courthouse in honour of Arlene’s favourite colour, while some donned necklaces with butterfly pendants, which Johnston said symbolizes hope and transformation.
“As soon as they found my sister’s body, we said this is not an accident,” said Arlene’s older sister, Debbie Hennig.
“It needs to be investigated. I begged for an autopsy to be done, but the coroner said there would not be an autopsy because this was just an accidental drowning. But how could the coroner know that Arlene drowned without performing an autopsy?”
Following an investigation into Arlene’s death, Bert was charged with second-degree murder in April 2019. The Crown stayed that charge in July 2020 and did not provide a reason for the stay of proceedings, only stating that “new information” came to light, making conviction unlikely.
Prosecutors have a one-year window to restart the proceedings when a charge is stayed, and that deadline is approaching.
In April, Arlene’s family filed a lawsuit that named two Kelowna Mounties, alleging that their actions interfered with the investigation of Arlene’s death. Insp. Brian Gately, who the family alleges was friends with Bert and Sgt. Chris Andrychuk was named in the suit, alongside the Attorney General and Solicitor General.
In the lawsuit, the family claims they advised RCMP of their suspicion that Arlene’s death was no accident and that Bert may have been responsible. They said members of the Kelowna RCMP General Investigation Section (GIS), a unit headed by Andrychuk, who were investigating the matter had requested an autopsy be conducted on Arlene’s body.
The suit claims Gately, despite not being assigned to the GIS, quashed that notion and suggested Andrychuk “shut down” the consideration of homicide in Arlene’s death and instead deem it an accidental drowning. Andrychuk complied, despite, as the suit alleges, knowing it was contrary to the law and his duties.
“This consequently resulted in the Kelowna GIS Constables being denied permission they sought to properly investigate Arlene’s death, which included a request for an autopsy before the body was embalmed,” reads the suit.
An autopsy was eventually conducted after the embalming but the coroner was unable to determine a cause of death, according to a report released earlier this year. The family alleges the embalming destroyed critical evidence.
Hennig said that the BC Coroners Service’s failure to provide the RCMP Major Crimes Unit with forensic evidence that would allow for an external review by a forensic psychologist is what is standing in the way of renewing the second-degree murder charge against Bert.
“We are dismayed. We are alarmed. We are done begging,” she said. “We demand that chief (coroner) Lisa Lapointe answers the RCMP’s request affirmably and accept our request for an inquest.”
Anthony Oliver, the family’s lawyer, said the RCMP Major Crimes Unit was not advised that the murder charge was stayed, highlighting that the clock on the one-year stay period for Bert’s second-degree murder charge is ticking.
“It was a total surprise to the RCMP, as it was to my client,” said Oliver. “But the RCMP appears to be doing the right thing. Being the investigators, they want to ensure that no evidentiary stone is left unturned before the one-year clock runs out.”
— With files from Michael Rodriguez