Mysterious demise of Okanagan girl raises questions on BC Coroners Service

2021-05-23 16:30:39

Almost 5 years after Arlene Westervelt perished on Okanagan Lake, the reason for her demise stays shrouded in thriller and is elevating troubling questions on doable systemic issues on the BC Coroners Service.

The 56-year-old nurse died throughout a canoe journey along with her husband Bert Westervelt on June 26, 2016.

He instructed officers the canoe tipped and it was an unintended drowning, whereas Arlene’s household suspected Bert of homicide.

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Arlene’s sister Debbie Hennig instructed International Information that her household pleaded with authorities to do an post-mortem however says the request fell on deaf ears.

Which will have been a severe mistake, based on a number of consultants interviewed by International Information for its present affairs program The New Actuality.

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“I discover it somewhat bit surprising that they might not err on the facet of warning,” says former Calgary murder detective Mike Cavilla.

Cavilla was requested to supply an impartial opinion on the case by a lawyer employed by the Hennig household.

He says water deaths are notoriously tough to research.

In deaths just like the Westervelt case, the place there have been no impartial witnesses shut sufficient to see what occurred, an post-mortem needs to be ordered instantly, he says.

“That’s the way in which it’s executed in Alberta and that’s the way in which it’s executed in a variety of jurisdictions throughout each Canada and the US.”

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Retired forensic pathologist Dr. John Butt agrees that an post-mortem ought to have been executed instantly.

“It needs to be computerized if there aren’t any witnesses. Very positively,” he says.


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Within the Westervelt case, the post-mortem was delayed for 10 days. It was solely after the RCMP acquired new proof prompting them to open a homicide investigation that an post-mortem was lastly carried out.

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In accordance with the Coroner’s report, the post-mortem discovered hemorrhages on Arlene Westervelt’s neck muscle groups and in each eyes.

Butt says these hemorrhages could also be proof that she was strangled.

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Almost three years after Arlene’s demise, her husband Bert Westervelt was charged with second-degree homicide.

Nonetheless, authorities later stayed the homicide cost with little clarification, saying solely that there was “new proof.”

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Arlene’s physique was embalmed earlier than the post-mortem was carried out, and Butt believes which will have performed a task within the Crown’s reluctance to prosecute the case.

Embalming, Butt says, can “masks different proof which may have been current or create proof that could be deceptive.”

“It’s my opinion on this case that that was one of many the explanation why the cost in opposition to the accused was stayed,” he says.

The Coroner’s report claimed the embalming didn’t intrude with the examination of the neck hemorrhages. The report additionally discovered no marks on Arlene’s neck, and no harm to the hyoid bone, situated underneath the chin.

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The report couldn’t verify or rule out strangulation, drowning or an underlying coronary heart situation as a reason behind Arlene’s demise. Finally, it discovered the reason for demise to be undetermined.

But Butt maintains the choice to delay an post-mortem was a mistake and believes it’s a part of a much bigger systemic drawback in B.C.

“The entire system, from begin to end, is second price. I feel the delay within the post-mortem was made due to cash. And I feel a lot of that is delivered in British Columbia as an edict from the federal government.”

And the numbers do nothing to quell his suspicions. In accordance with Statistics Canada, B.C. ordered autopsies in solely 2.9 per cent of deaths in 2019. That’s about half the nationwide common of 5.7 per cent for a similar 12 months. In Alberta, the place Butt was as soon as Chief Coroner, autopsies have been carried out in 7.4 per cent of deaths in 2019. That raises questions on whether or not different suspicious deaths are being missed.

There are additionally questions in regards to the credentials of the docs performing autopsies in B.C.

A number of forensic consultants instructed The New Actuality greatest practices dictate that complicated water deaths like Arlene Westervelt’s needs to be autopsied by a forensic pathologist.

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Nonetheless, the physician who autopsied her physique is listed as a basic pathologist by each the BC School of Physicians and Surgeons and the Royal School of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.

Basic pathologists generally work in hospital settings, and based on the Royal School, they carry out autopsies in circumstances of “pure and routine” deaths.

They have to additionally, based on the School, acknowledge “traits of autopsies requiring referral to forensic pathologists.”

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Butt says nationwide requirements require forensic pathologists to go an examination by means of the Royal School, or different accredited establishments to acquire accreditation.

Nonetheless, adhering to these requirements is left as much as the discretion of the provinces.

The pathologist who did the post-mortem on Arlene Westervelt was accredited by the BC Coroners Service, a spokesperson for the coroner’s workplace stated in an e mail.

“Credentials, expertise and references are all reviewed by the BC Coroners Service, and after that course of we ‘privilege’ physicians to carry out autopsies for us. We accomplice with the well being authorities — they carry out the credentialing course of and we use that as part of our enter when granting privileges to carry out autopsies for BCCS,” the e-mail stated.

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In different phrases, some pathologists could also be performing the duties of a forensic pathologist with out assembly nationwide accreditation requirements.

That doesn’t sit nicely with Butt.

“The coroner’s service in British Columbia can not make a forensic pathologist specialist of any substance.”

In reality, he’s written a letter to the BC School of Physicians Surgeons complaining about how the BC Coroner’s service accredits docs performing autopsies and is asking for a full investigation.

“I feel that the entire system of British Columbia wants a evaluation by an impartial physique.”


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