CANADA

Questions on a cult

PAUL KAIHLA June 27 1994
CANADA

Questions on a cult

PAUL KAIHLA June 27 1994

Questions on a cult

A coroner reopens the case of a baby's death

PAUL KAIHLA

ROSS LAVER

He is one of Canada’s most frightening criminals, a charismatic cult leader who presided over a doomsday commune with his eight “wives” and their 26 children. For 12 years, Roch Thériault ruled his world like a concentration camp commandant, immersing his followers in a cauldron of physical, sexual and psychological abuse. Thériault’s violent career ended in 1989, when he was charged with severing the arm of one concubine and killing another. But although he was convicted last year of second-degree murder, his case still raises many troubling questions—including those surrounding the death of a fivemonth-old baby in 1985 at the cult’s commune northeast of Toronto. At the time, the local coroner ruled that the infant had succumbed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), or crib death. That verdict has always been controversial. Now, as a result of an investigation prompted by Maclean’s, Ontario’s chief coroner has set aside the original finding and says he will review the coroner’s handling of the case.

That decision is only the latest development in the bizarre saga of Thériault’s sect. A high-school dropout from Thetford-Mines, Que., Thériault led a band of followers into the Quebec wilderness in 1978 by convincing them that the world was about to end and that God had chosen him to build a new civilization. He is now serving a life sentence in Kingston Penitentiary, but three of his wives remain devoted to him and Maclean’s has learned that Thériault is still fathering children from prison. On May 21, 35-yearold Francine Laflamme gave birth to her sixth child by Thériault in the two-storey house she and the other women rent near a bakery they run in Kingston. And another follower, 37-year-old Nicole Ruel, is in the early stages of pregnancy—despite prison rules that say Thériault is entitled to conjugal visits with only one partner.

According to former cult members, Thériault often directed his violent outbursts at the commune’s children. In 1982, he was convicted of criminal negligence in the death of Samuel Giguère, the two-year-old son of two of his followers. For that, he was sentenced to two years in prison and three years’ probation. Three months after his release on parole in February, 1984, the cult leader moved his flock to a remote lot near Lindsay, Ont. In doing so, he evaded a court order mandating regular inspections of the commune children by Quebec’s child-protection authorities. That fall, however, the province issued a Canada-wide bulletin on Thériault that included details of his mistreatment of children and his role in Giguère’s death. That prompted the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) office in Lindsay to compile a file on the cult and pay frequent visits to check on the children’s condition. “Given the group’s history, we felt there was every reason to be concerned with the safety of those children,” said Georgia Brown, one of the CAS social workers who led the investigation.

Brown and others became even more alarmed on Jan. 26,1985, when they learned of the death of a child at the commune. That morning, one of Thériault’s wives, Gabrielle Lavallée, had wrapped her five-month-old son, Eleazar, in a blanket and left him unattended outside in a wheelbarrow. The temperature was -10° C. By the time she went to get the child about an hour and a half later, he had turned blue and stopped breathing. He was pronounced dead on arrival at hospital.

That afternoon, the area coroner, Dr. AÍ Lackey, visited the commune to interview Lavallée and Thériault, the boy’s father. The coroner also conducted an autopsy, the results of which have been kept confidential under the terms of Ontario’s Privacy Act. Lackey then filed a brief report— also confidential—in which he classified the death as a case of SIDS. Based on that finding, Ontario Provincial Police decided not to investigate further. Interviewed by Maclean’s in 1993, Lackey refused to discuss his verdict beyond saying that he stood by it.

For her part, Brown says that she and another CAS worker also interviewed cult members at the time of the coroner’s investigation. During those interviews, Lavallée and Thériault openly acknowledged leaving the infant unattended in subzero temperatures. Brown says that, based on their responses and on Thériault’s history, she and her partner suspected that the child had not died of natural causes. “I think he [Lackey] was fully aware of the concerns of the CAS. He was quite offended we were questioning him.” Brown also said that nurses at the hospital told CAS staff that when the baby arrived, its eyelids were frozen shut. ‘Their opinion was that he had frozen to death,” Brown added.

Ten months later, after one of Thériault’s followers fled and complained to authorities about his treatment of the children, the CAS raided the commune and seized all 14 children born to that point. An Ontario judge subsequently concluded that Thériault had subjected them to a litany of abuse, including throwing them into a lake, beating them with logs and ordering young children to masturbate him.

Lavallée later gave police her own account of abuses. In 1989, after Thériault had hacked off her right arm, she told investigators that Thériault had hated Eleazar and struck him often during his brief life. She added that the cult leader complained that Eleazar bore the “mark of Satan” because one of his eyelids was deformed and said that it would be best for everyone if he died. When the baby did pass away, Lavallée recalled, “I felt this would relieve his suffering.”

Last year, after Maclean’s first reported the crib-death finding, Ontario’s chief coroner, Dr. James Young, referred the matter to a committee of medical specialists for reconsideration. And last week, Young told Maclean’s that he has set aside the original verdict and reclassified the case as one of “sudden unexplained death.” Until recently, Young said, there was no standardized definition in Ontario for what constituted crib death, and coroners were given a degree of leeway when arriving at such findings. However, Young said that, even without strict guidelines, he himself “probably would not have called it [Eleazar’s death] a SIDS at that time. ... He [Lackey] may well have classified it inappropriately.”

Asked about the decision to alter his finding, Lackey again declined to comment last week. Meanwhile, Young said he was unsure whether the Lindsay-based coroner had done a good job in the case. “I just don’t know at this point,” the chief coroner said. “I just don’t know enough to be able to say one way or the other.” Young added that he will now review the case personally. That review will include an examination of what was known in January, 1985, about Thériaulfs cult and whether there were grounds to be suspicious about the baby’s death. “I’ll investigate and I’ll take it seriously,” Young told Maclean’s.

Also taking a serious look at matters related to Thériault are Children’s Aid Society workers in the Kingston area. After the commune broke up in 1989, Laflamme, Ruel and Chantal Labrie, 36, moved there to be near the imprisoned cult leader. Now, CAS staff are waiting to see if Laflamme— and, potentially, Ruel— decide to give up their latest children for adoption. That is what Laflamme did with her five other children, including two bom previously during Thériaulfs incarceration. Ruel was last pregnant in 1989, but police records show that she miscarried after Thériault punched and kicked her in the stomach. In all, the three women have borne 12 children by Thériault. In every case so far, they have chosen to give up their children and remain with their master.

Police and other authorities who are familiar with the group told Maclean’s last week that they are convinced Thériault is responsible for Ruel’s pregnancy. One possibility, they say, is that the fetus was conceived through artificial insemination. Shannon McNamara, who co-ordinates inmate visits at Kingston Penitentiary, said that Thériault is allowed weekend-long private visits with Laflamme, who is listed in prison records as his common-law wife. Ruel and Labrie also see him frequently, but are not entitled to conjugal visits, she said.

Meanwhile, Thériault has been the focus of controversy in the Ontario legislature. Earlier this month, opposition MPP Robert Runciman demanded to know why the provincial Crown law office had stmck a plea bargain with the cult leader in 1993. Under the terms of that deal, first disclosed by Maclean’s, the Crown obtained Thériaulfs guilty plea for second-degree murder by agreeing not to prosecute him for any of the other assaults that came to light during a three-year police investigation of the cult. Ontario Attorney General Marion Boyd defended her ministry’s handling of the case, declaring that Thériault would have “a 15-year wait for parole, which is the top amount that’s allowed.” In fact, the maximum period for parole eligibility in such cases is 25 years; Thériault received the minimum term, which is 10 years. According to Thériaulfs National Parole Board file, he is eligible to apply for full parole in October, 1999, 10 years from his arrest, and for unsupervised day parole as early as October, 1996. □