Family holds rally to demand information why murder charge was stayed

Family demands answers

Sarita Patel

On Monday morning, friends and family of Arlene Westervelt gathered at the Kelowna Law Courts demanding justice. 

Bert Westervelt was charged with second-degree murder of his wife Arlene after she drowned in Okanagan Lake when their canoe capsized back in June 2016. 

In July 2020, the BC Prosecution Service stayed the charges due to "new information." On Monday, the family convened on the steps of the Kelowna Courts to demand answers on the day the trial's preliminary inquiry was originally set to commence. 

“The family has... requested a copy of the coroner's report and it was denied,” explains Deborah Johnston, a friend of the family. 

“They have asked the Justice Minister for answers, they have asked the Prime Minister to look into this, they have spoken to the Regional Crown Counsel, they’ve called the Deputy Crown Counsel, at every turn, the doors have been closed and they’ve been simply told we can’t tell you.”

Debbie Hennig, Arlene’s sister, flew across Canada to be present to speak to media about the lack of details on exactly why the charges have been stayed.

“When I heard this, I didn’t even understand what stay the charges meant - I had to ask the Crown. I was absolutely shocked, I almost fell out of my chair," she said, comparing it to reliving her sister's death.

Shelley Westervelt, Arlene’s sister-in-law (she is married to Bert’s brother), says they just want to know what happened, no matter the outcome.

“I have always said, if Bert Westervelt is innocent of these charges, let us hear. If he is not, he needs to answer to those.”

“I am no God, that’s what the court system is for, that’s why we were going to trial. We were going to enter into a five-week trial and that’s what we were looking for, justice whatever that may look like,” explains Cathy Vissia, Arlene’s close friend.

The family hired Anthony Oliver, an Alberta-based lawyer to represent them. They hope he’ll be able to assist them under both BC’s Victims of Crime Act and the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights to receive more information.

“I have spoken to every member of the Hennig family, including Arlene’s mom, who has been shattered by the loss of her daughter,” added Shelley. “I am a mother and if what had happened to Arlene happened to one of my children I too would be shattered and begging for answers.”

Arlene was described as athletic, loving and caring. 

“She was a very adventurous kind of traveller,” says Hennig, who was reminiscing on the times they would vacation together. “I waited as she jogged on the beach,” she laughed. 

Hennig added that Arlene was her best friend and they did everything together. She said her sister sent their dad a father’s day card five days before her death with a keychain that said “guardian angels protect us all" — something she was wearing as a necklace during the protest. 

The crowd wore Arlene’s favourite colour, purple, and donned butterflies, which represent the soul. The family believes every time they see a butterfly, it is Arlene. 

“A butterfly popped up on my Facebook memory page that I posted four years ago … I wrote, I never use to pay attention to butterflies [but] since Arlene died I see them all the time,” says Hennig.

In response to the protest, the BC Prosecution Service says they only proceed with a prosecution if there is a likelihood of a conviction and it is in society's best interest, but would not provide any further details on the case.

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