‘Ottawa’ ‘I’m Still Angry’: Community Tries to Find Brightness in the Dark After Wilno Triple Slaying
A year ago, on Sept. 22, 2015, a storm of anger and violence rained down on communities in and around Barry’s Bay, Wilno, Combermere, Round Lake and others. The brief and lethal fury left three women — Anastasia Kuzyk, Nathalie Warmerdam and Carol Culleton — dead.
Basil Borutski, a former partner of two of the women and a man with a deeply troubled past, faces three counts of first-degree murder and will stand trial beginning Sept. 18, 2017. None of the charges against the 58-year-old have been proven in court.
Yet as abrupt as the horrific events were, healing in the affected communities has not been nearly as swift. Residents are coming to grips with an act many still find difficult to believe happened in their own backyard, where everyone knows everyone else.
“You hear about stuff like that happening in the city,” says Jeanette Mackintosh, who works in Golden Lake. “You don’t expect it to happen in a small town like this.
“That day was terrifying. To know that there was someone out there capable of doing that — and heartbreaking that it wasn’t prevented.”
Mackintosh adds that she knows Warmerdam’s daughter, Valerie, who worked at Frontier Trails Camp, a children’s horseriding camp in Eganville operated by Mackintosh’s parents. Degrees of separation are few and small in this area, and people seem more likely to have known one of the victims or a family member than not.
“It seems like everybody had a story, everyone was connected to at least one of the women. But the thing that was amazing to me was to see how the community came together to help each other heal. It became a really big family.”
For many members of that family, though, the healing process is still in its infancy. One woman in Combermere, not far from the cottage where Culleton was killed, refused to relinquish her anonymity. “I’m still afraid,” she said. Another woman declined to be interviewed: “Just you mentioning it gave me chills,” she said.
“It’s only been a year,” says JoAnne Brooks, director of the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre in Pembroke. “That’s not a lot of time. For many people, it will take much longer.”
Yet Christopher Hicks, who operates the Valley Market variety store, the hub of gossip in Combermere, says the killings are rarely mentioned in the village. “Maybe for about a week when it happened, but then only when (Borutski) appears in court and it gets mentioned in the local paper.”
But residents’ grief and recovery takes many forms. Amanda Welk, who owns The Cottage Cup gift shop in Golden Lake, had T-shirts and sweatshirts made up last year, each depicting a tree in autumn, its leaves falling, alongside the phrase, “To everything a season.” Proceeds from the sale of the shirts were donated to the Bernadette McCann House for Women, an emergency women’s shelter in Pembroke.
“Everybody was connected in some way,” Welk says. “I just picked up a telephone book the other day, and Anastasia Kuzyk’s advertisement was on the front of it.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been a year.”
Wilno resident Richard Shulist says his wife, who has since passed, worked as a cook at the Wilno Tavern, where Kuzyk was formerly a server. His brother, he adds, attended school with Borutski. “People here, especially those closely connected to the women who were killed, will be healing for a long, long time,” he says. “It will be part of this community for a long time. It has to be, because it’s violence against women. There’s a lot of that going on. Most of the time you don’t hear about it. But we have to look at ourselves and talk about it.”
Another Wilno resident, Rita Hudder, who knew Kuzyk casually, said simply talking about the slayings has helped her.
“I still think about it. I attended last year’s candlelight vigil at the Wilno Tavern and on Thursday I’ll probably say some prayers for the women at St. Hedwig’s church in Barry’s Bay.
“I think about it,” she adds, “but I also talk to my neighbour, Nancy. She knew Anastasia very well. The more you talk about these things, the better you feel, instead of keeping it inside. But I’m still angry.”
Hudder is hardly alone in her vitriol. Many in the community are incensed – at the accused, at police who failed to notify the women of his release from jail nine months before the deaths, and at what they see as prevailing attitudes that allow men to abuse women.
Borutski had served a 19-month jail term for assaulting Kuzyk in 2013. He refused to sign a court order that he stay away from her, although the conditions were in effect regardless of his signature.
“Of course I’m angry,” says Combermere photographer Jamie Harron, who knew Kuzyk well enough to say hello. “It’s just wasted lives.
“We still have a society where violence against women is acceptable. You listen to these old boys that they interviewed on TV, on the Fifth Estate, saying, ‘Well, we knew he was bad, but…’. Well, then you knew he was a f—ing disgusting man who beat women, so why didn’t you do something about it?
“This is a conservative area which doesn’t like to look at things like that, but violence against women and the attitude to women is still bad.”
Another Combermere resident, Helen Maika, says the slayings have changed her life in smaller ways. “Out here, you don’t lock things up. You leave your keys in the car. Now I think about that. I used to go for walks at night, in the pitch dark. Now I’m less likely to.”
Cathy Pitts, a Combermere real-estate agent who discovered Culleton’s body, agrees the slayings affected almost every person in the region. “It’s not until something like this happens that we get people up in arms about it. In the meantime, there’s a lot of people slipping through the cracks.”
Obviously, the grief is heavier the closer you get to the women who were killed. Nathalie Warmerdam’s mother, Maz Tracey, says the one-year anniversary has been even more difficult than the days immediately following her daughter’s death. “Then it was sudden, and you went into shock and just did what had to be done. But when that wears off, which is about now, it’s rough. It’s been on our minds all summer about the first-year anniversary coming up. It’s hard.
“But there’s been no joy in any anniversary in the last year,” she adds. “Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving … anytime when we did things with Nathalie and the children. Last year’s Christmas presents are still in a cupboard, unopened.”
Even less-formal occasions, such as trips to the farmers’ market in Cobden, are difficult. Instead, Tracey is trying to start new traditions not associated with her daughter. “The old ones I can’t do. This year we’ll get on a bus with some seniors and roam the countryside looking at the leaves, and get some joy from it. That’s not something I did before. And Christmas I think will be low-key. I’m going to go on a trip with the seniors to Upper Canada Village to look at the lights. And that’s also something I don’t normally do. But Christmas itself, I’m not looking forward to. Although, having said that, I’ve never liked Christmas.”
This past year, she says, has been a “roller-coaster ride” of anger, depression, nightmares and family fracturing. “All the things that are listed in homicide grief, I’ve gone through.”
She attends weekly counselling sessions through the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre, an extremely helpful process she imagines will continue for a long time yet.
“Unlike other grief, we still have the trial to get through, and that will go on into 2018, and if he appeals or if we don’t like the sentence – if he gets off for whatever — it’s all very worrying.”
Tracey is recovering now from pneumonia, not a surprise, she says, given the stresses of the past year. Yet she works hard to keep Nathalie’s life and death from being forgotten. Last week she attended the unveiling of a stained-glass window at the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre, dedicated to the three women. On Thursday, she’ll take part in a vigil at the Women’s Monument in Petawawa, and on Oct. 15, she’ll further memorialize her daughter at a Pebble Mosaic Monument ceremony in Eganville.
“Directing my grief in a positive way is what works for me,” she says. “Whether it will help, if it will change things for the better, I don’t see that happening.
“But my only option is how I’m going to deal with it. Some people deny that it even happened, but that’s not going to work. For me to sit back and do nothing, that’s not the kind of person I am.”
Carol Culleton’s brother, Kevin, who lives in Wabamun, Alta., west of Edmonton, spent most of the summer in the region, selling his sister’s cottage and sorting through her belongings. While he’s been unable to attend any of the ceremonies, he says he follows the story closely.
“It’s not a good thing. I’d sooner see Carol alive than dead, but I can’t change what’s happened. But if her death can benefit anything, I’m all for it.” On Thursday, he says he’ll say a prayer for Carol and the others. “Someday I’d like to go to one of the ceremonies there, if they still have them.
“Carol was a very trusting person and very kind. And warm-hearted. All three women were like that. The way I look at it is that God needed one bad person off the street, and he needed three more angels in heaven.”
Brian Tyrrell, a good friend of Warmerdam’s and an acquaintance of Kuzyk’s, says last year’s slayings will always be a part of the fabric of the community. “When you lose someone, any anniversary is hard. The hardness may soften over time, but that doesn’t mean it goes away.”
He regularly passes by Warmerdam’s house, and thinks about her death every time. “That’s not going to go away, I don’t think. When it happened, washes of grief would put me on my knees every few minutes. It’s not like that anymore, but it’s still there.”
Like others, he looks for whatever brightness he can find in a dark and tragic story.
“There was one horrible thing done, and there were thousands of people reacting and acting in a caring and positive way; reaching out to people to make sure they were OK, bringing food or whatever. It sounds like an awful thing, and it is and we still feel it, but incredible good came out of it, and that good, that love, is more powerful and much more enduring than horror and fear.”