US & Canada

Care home murders case leaves Woodstock, Ontario, reeling

Elizabeth Tracey Mae Wettlaufer Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ms Wettlaufer leaves court with police

A string of alleged murders of elderly nursing home residents has left a Canadian town in southwestern Ontario struggling with old wounds.

On Tuesday, former nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer was charged with eight counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of eight patients under her care.

Police alleged that seven of the deceased were given a fatal dose of a drug. They offered no motive for the killings.

They say Ms Wettlaufer's victims were between the ages 75 and 96 and were killed between 2007 and 2014.

Samuel Lamb, 89, who was friends with one of the alleged victims, is still processing the news.

"I can't understand myself how it's coming out now, after nine years," Mr Lamb told the BBC on Wednesday.

"I don't know how they found out about what she did, what they say she did."

His friend, Maurice "Moe" Granat, who died in 2007, could have been one of the first alleged victims.

Mr Lamb recalled Granat, a car mechanic by trade, as a "happy-go-lucky" man who loved to roll his own cigarettes, play solitaire, and was always ready to help friends.

The victims, five women and three men, were all residents of either Caressant Care in Woodstock or Meadow Park in London, Ontario.

According to sources who spoke to the CBC and the Globe and Mail, police were tipped off by someone employed at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

Ms Wettlaufer was reportedly seeking treatment at the Toronto rehabilitation centre.

Sean O'Malley, a spokesman for the CAMH, said the facility was governed by confidentiality rules and had no comment.

Ms Wettlaufer's lawyers did not respond to media requests.

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption The accused had posted on social media about her struggles with alcohol addiction

Police began their investigation into Ms Wettlaufer on 29 September 2016.

On 30 September she resigned from the College of Nurses of Ontario.

One year earlier, in a Facebook post dated 28 September 2015, Ms Wettlaufer spoke about her difficulties with alcoholism.

"My own voice called to me in the darkness. Others hands lifted me when I chose the light. One year ago today I woke up not dead. 365 days clean and sober," she wrote.

Police have identified the victims as:

  • James Silcox, 84 (died 2007)
  • Maurice Granat, 84 (died 2007)
  • Gladys Millard, 87 (died 2011)
  • Helen Matheson, 95 (died 2011)
  • Mary Zurawinski, 96 (died 2011)
  • Helen Young, 90 (died 2013)
  • Maureen Pickering, 79 (died 2014)
  • Arpad Harvath, 75 (died 2014)

The news that one of their own may have been involved in murder brought back painful memories for some in the town of Woodstock, which has a population of under 40,000 and serves as a regional hub for the surrounding Oxford County.

Innocence Lost

In 2009, eight-year-old Woodstock resident Tori Stafford was abducted, raped and murdered by two other members of the town.

From the time she went missing through the ensuring murder trial, the community was gripped by a sense of loss, not just for the little girl's life but for the town's own innocence, said former resident Martha Emonts.

"We're no longer exempt from what's going on in the rest of the world," she said.

Tori's killers, Michael Thomas Rafferty and Terri-Lynne McClintic, were convicted in 2012 of first-degree murder.

Just a day before news of Ms Wettlaufer's charges broke, a judge struck down Rafferty's request for appeal.

Now that Ms Wettlaufer has been charged, it is hard not to shake the sense of deja vu, Ms Emonts said.

On television, the news broadcast footage of the Caressant Care facility parking lot.

That same lot appeared on surveillance footage played during Rafferty's 2012 trial.

Seeing the parking lot on television again "made the hair on my arms stand up", Ms Emonts said.

The nursing home is a prominent employer in the town, she says, and nearly everyone knows someone who has worked there or had a family member who has stayed there.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Police say the victims lived in two different long-term care facilities

The case has raised questions about oversight in the province's nursing homes.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said on Wednesday she was open to an independent review of long-term care facilities in the province.

Cheryl Mahyr, a spokeswoman with Ontario's Office of the Chief Coroner, said all deaths in long-term care homes are reported to the coroner's office but are only investigated under certain circumstances.

Those include "deaths that are sudden, unexpected and due to unnatural causes. Those are typically deaths that would be investigated by a coroner," Ms Mahyr said.

A review committee also looks annually at deaths in the province's nursing homes that have raised concerns.

Jane Meadus, a lawyer with the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, said it is too soon to say whether more oversight could have prevented the deaths related to Ms Wettlaufer's case.

But she said her organisation would like to see more post-mortem examinations performed on patients who die in the province's long-term care homes or, at a minimum, that there be a more thorough review of the deaths.

"You can't just assume what's in a (medical) chart is faultless," she said.

The Caressant Care home in Woodstock and Meadow Park home in London both say they are co-operating fully with the police investigation.

Ms Wettlaufer is back in court on 2 November.

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