Acquittals in Martensville cast doubt on how abuse cases are investigated

D'ARCY JENISH February 14 1994


Acquittals in Martensville cast doubt on how abuse cases are investigated

D'ARCY JENISH February 14 1994



Acquittals in Martensville cast doubt on how abuse cases are investigated


On a bright, bitterly cold morning last week, Ronald and Linda Sterling walked out of the Saskatoon Court House accompanied by friends, supporters and their defence lawyers. After the longest criminal trial in Saskatchewan history, an 11-member jury had acquitted them of 32 charges of sexually abusing children at an unlicensed day care centre that Linda Sterling operated out of the family’s former home in Martensville, a town of 3,500 people 10 km north of Saskatoon. But the jury convicted their 25-year-old son, Travis, on eight of the 13 charges he faced, including sexual assault. As Ronald Sterling left the courthouse, wearing a black overcoat and a defiant glare, he told waiting reporters that he and his wife had been victims of an incompetent police investigation and should never have been charged. “We’ve gone through

that police bungled their inquiries and clumsily led the children into making allegations that could not be supported. Said Maggie Bruck, a psychology professor at McGill University in Montreal who has conducted extensive research on the reliability of child witnesses: “The evidence was so tarnished that we’ll never know what went on in Martensville.”

After the jury delivered its verdict, lawyers for the Sterlings urged the provincial justice department to abandon the prosecution of the four remaining defendants, who face a total of 39

hell,” said Sterling, a former provincial jail guard. ‘We’ve lost everything. Our house, our car, our truck, our savings.”

Although the trial was over, the Martensville scandal, as it became known, will continue. Sterling immediately demanded a public inquiry into the provincial justice department’s handling of the case and declared that his son, who will be sentenced this week, will appeal his conviction. Sterling also said that he and his wife, who are both 45, may sue the police officers and prosecutors who pursued the case against them. The Sterlings and seven other people, including five active or former police officers, were charged in June, 1992, with a total of 170 sexual offences against 15 children. The allegations contributed to a widely held view that Martensville was one of the worst cases of child sexual abuse ever to surface in Canada—even involving rumors of a satanic cult and devil worship. But the acquittal of Ronald and Linda Sterling raised serious and troubling questions about such investigations. Expert defence witnesses testified

charges. “It’s about time they started making some correct decisions,” said Hugh Harradence, who defended Linda Sterling. “It has become apparent that there was something seriously wrong with this investigation.” Crown attorneys Leslie Sullivan and Bruce Bauer refiised to disclose their next move, but the following day prosecutor Judy Halyk announced that the department will proceed with the trial of James Elstad, a former officer with the Martensville police force who faces 13 charges. Halyk also said the Crown may appeal the acquittal of the Sterlings.

Within the Saskatchewan legal community, the Sterling verdict was seen as a devastating blow to the police and prosecution argument that an organized ring of child abusers had operated out of the Martensville day care centre. Crown attorneys Sullivan and Bauer obtained convictions last May against a 21-year-old woman, who cannot be identified because she was a young offender at the time of the assaults. One month later, they suffered their first set-

back when they were forced to halt the trial of Saskatoon police officer John Popowich, who faced eight charges, because his three young accusers were unable to identify him in court.

However, the trial of Ronald and Linda Sterling was the biggest test for the Crown and police. After court officials announced that the jury had reached a verdict following a record nine days of deliberation, almost 100 spectators packed the third-floor courtroom within minutes. After the Sterlings were declared not guilty, Mr. Justice Ross Wimmer told them they were free to leave, and added: “I appreciate how devastating this has been for you, and I hope that in time you can put your lives back together.”

Among those present were two sets of parents who had left their children in the care of Linda Sterling. They sat, near tears, as Travis Sterling, who lived in the house where his mother ran the day care centre, was convicted of sexually assaulting the son

and daughter of one of the couples. They refused all comment, but an aunt and uncle of another victim, a 10-year-old boy who was also assaulted by Travis, reacted angrily. The woman, who wept quietly, said the child is still receiving counselling once a week. “Our nephew can’t even sleep in his own bed,” she said. “He sleeps on the floor in his parents’ bedroom. Some of these kids are emotionally shot.”

For many residents of Martensville, a largely Mennonite community that once regarded itself as a haven from the big-city problems of Saskatoon, the verdicts prompted both anger and disbelief. “I have mixed feelings,” said Donna Brasseur, a clerk at Martensville Hardware. “I feel sorry for those children. I can’t see that they would be lying.” Others simply wanted to put the trial, and the sensational publicity it brought to their town, behind them. “It’s settled and done,” said Stephen Smith, owner of the hardware store. “Let’s bury it. We’ve got lots

of good things going on in this community.” Some Martensville residents said they were unable to assess the outcome because they had been denied access to the most crucial testimony. At the start of the trial last September, Wimmer prohibited the news media from publishing the names of the five boys and two girls allegedly assaulted by the Sterlings, or any of their testimony. Once the jury began deliberating, Wimmer partially lifted his gag order and gave the media permission to publish the children’s

0 evidence. But a day 2 later, Madame Justice § Marion Wedge, who is

scheduled to preside

1 over Elstad’s trial, g issued an order pro§ hibiting publication of £ the testimony. CBC and

CTV stations in Saskatoon broadcast stories based on the testimony of the children after Wimmer advised their lawyers that his order took precedence over Wedge’s. Nevertheless, police seized tapes from the two networks and last week were reviewing the possibility of charging them with contempt of court.

Although the Crown called a total of 55 witnesses, the case against the Sterlings rested largely on the evidence of the children, who ranged in age from 2 to 9 when the assaults allegedly occurred between 1988 and 1991. But weaknesses in the prosecution case became apparent during the trial when Sullivan and Bauer announced that they could not proceed with 15 charges against the couple and their son due to lack of evidence. And in his address to the jury, Wimmer declared that the Crown had not presented any physical, forensic or eyewitness evidence to link the Sterlings to a shed eight kilometres outside Martensville where

investigators alleged that many of the assaults took place.

The defence strategy depended heavily on attacking the police investigation led by Claudia Bryden, who joined the Martensville force as a temporary officer in 1991. Later, Cpl. Rod Moor, a child-abuse specialist with the Saskatoon police department, assisted in the inquiry. Defence lawyers called several expert witnesses who testified that the tactics used by Bryden and Moor may have led some of the children to invent incidents of abuse, and to make accusations against individuals whom they had never even met. McGill psychologist Bruck, who reviewed videotapes of police interviews with the Martensville children, said in an interview that the officers used suggestive questions, in which they hinted at the answers they wanted. They offered rewards for answers and sometimes told the children that they would not be allowed to go to the washroom until they had answered the questions. “Under these circumstances,” said Bruck, “kids can provide very detailed accounts of things that never happened.”

Another defence witness, University of Utah psychology professor David Raskin, said the children were subjected to enormous pressure from poorly trained investigators, their distraught parents and zealous therapists—most of whom were convinced from the start that abuse had occurred. Raskin, who has studied dozens of similar child-abuse cases in the United States, told Maclean’s that videotapes of the interviews reveal that the children were subjected to intense interviews, the results of which unleashed a wave of hysteria in the community. Some children were questioned as many as 60 times, while one boy was asked 19 times “where else” he had been touched. “This was one of the worst investigations I’ve ever seen,” said Raskin. “The work of Bryden and Moor was horrendous. Police officers should never come into an investigation with a bias. Then it’s not an investigation, it’s a witch-hunt.”

Raskin said the Martensville case is not the first one in which groups of adults allegedly abused dozens of children. The most famous case involved a woman named Peggy Buckey, who ran a day care centre in Manhattan Beach, Calif. In the early 1980s, police charged her and her son, Raymond,

with dozens of counts of sexual abuse. The arrests attracted international attention and prompted an explosion in the reported instances of child sexual abuse, but Buckey and her son were acquitted in 1990. Raskin said that case, and other similar incidents, developed when badly trained police officers responded to complaints from distraught parents. Police called in social workers or therapists who joined the investigation already believing that abuse had occurred. They conducted intense interviews with the children, who eventually gave the adults what they wanted: allegations of abuse. Investigators then concluded that they had uncovered an organized ring of child abusers—in some cases even concluding that the abusers were involved in ritualistic cults. Said Raskin: ‘The people conducting the investigations are so misguided and poorly trained that it’s sad.”

For Ron and Linda Sterling, last week’s verdict means they can start to rebuild their lives. He was immediately suspended without pay from his job at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre when the charges were laid, and a provincial court judge ordered the couple to leave Martensville. Since then, they have been staying with his mother in Prince Albert, 140 km north of Saskatoon, along with Travis and their 22year-old daughter, Tracy. Ronald Sterling said he received unemployment insurance benefits until last October but has been on welfare since then. Sterling added that they were forced to give up their home and their cars because they could not make the payments, and legal bills have consumed their savings. Sterling said he wants his job back and hopes to recover his lost income. But he added that he and his wife will never fully recover. “Our lives can never be normal,” he said. “No matter that we’ve been found not guilty, we’re going to be tainted as the most vile child molesters for the rest of our lives.”

The affair has left deep scars among all those directly involved. Police officer Popowich, who has returned to his old job with the Saskatoon police department, came straight from an all-night shift to the courthouse to hear the Sterling verdict last week. “How many lives have Moor and Bryden screwed up?” a still-bitter Popowich mused as he stood outside the courtroom. “I run into Moor at work all the time. I say hello. I kill him with kindness.” Gregory Walen, a lawyer who represented the parents of the children in court, said that only two of the six families still live in Martensville. Two have moved to other parts of Saskatchewan and two others left the province altogether. “It’s been hell for them,” said Walen. “Everything in their lives for the last five years has been affected by the Martensville case. Some of them wanted to start new lives elsewhere. I can’t blame them.”

D’ARCY JENISH in Saskatoon