Canada

A tangled tale, and a trust betrayed

A Toronto woman’s hard-luck story has a sour ending

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER April 22 1996
Canada

A tangled tale, and a trust betrayed

A Toronto woman’s hard-luck story has a sour ending

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER April 22 1996

A tangled tale, and a trust betrayed

A Toronto woman’s hard-luck story has a sour ending

Ken Sylvia knows the anguish of being down-and-out. So, two weeks ago, when he read a heartrending newspaper story about a Toronto woman, who—with less than six months to live—was robbed of her purse containing her last $150, her cancer medication and a bus ticket that would take her seven-year-old son to relatives in Winnipeg after her death, he decided to help. “I’m only getting $1,100 a month to support my wife and two kids,” said Sylvia, who also lives in Toronto and is

on social assistance. “But I stopped into the bank and handed over $20.” He was not alone. Police at the city’s 55 division were first to the rescue. When Donna Mercier, 27, reported the alleged crime on April 3, they gave her $200 and helped her buy groceries. The next day, the police issued a news release with a detailed description of the suspect and an announcement that “if ever there was a call for help, this is it.”

Mercier’s sad story grabbed headlines— and public sympathy—around the world. Contributions poured into a special bank account at CIBC branches across the country. One donation arrived via the Internet from Hong Kong. Then, last Tuesday, a different story began to emerge after Mercier— whose identity was concealed because she claimed to be a victim of domestic violence—held a news conference from behind a screen at police headquarters. On television, only her darkened silhouette was

visible as she softly thanked the public and called for an end to the donations. Within hours, police received phone calls from members of the public who recognized the woman and accused her of lying.

Two days later, police charged Mercier with public mischief. In a further investigation, they reported, “it was discovered that the purse-snatch did not occur.” They also confirmed that Mercier does not have cancer, although she is seriously ill with a chronic kidney disorder. The bank account, meanwhile, was frozen while police and bank officials seek a legal opinion on what to do with the $112,000 collected.

Embarrassed police officials continued to defend their response to Mercier’s fraudulent claim. “This was a noble deed,” Det. Sgt. David Marks told reporters. “We had a woman who needed help.” But some of the nearly 3,000 Canadians who contributed to the fund expressed surprise at the police department’s apparent naïveté. “You think of the police as hard-nosed,” said Blair Richardson, an Oakville, Ont., businessman who gave $50 to the fund. “You’d think they would know who’s shooting them a line and who’s not.”

For the unemployed Sylvia, giving money to Mercier was “a double slap in the face.” In 1987, Mercier falsely accused Sylvia, a former lover, of sexual assault. Two years later, the former furniture designer was cleared and Mercier was convicted of public mischief. “She ruined my life when she accused me of raping her,” Sylvia said. “Now she has psychologically raped the public. Maybe she is closer to dying than she was eight years ago, but who’s suffering? She’s not suffering.”

But Mercier’s lawyer, Paul Layefsky, said that his client is “very depressed” and has been unable to return home because of her notoriety. “She never intended to ask for money,” said Layefsky. “She wants the money to go to families in need.” Mercier, he added, will plead not guilty when she appears in court on May 2. And when she tells her real story, Layefsky promised, “Not one member of the public will want to be in her shoes.” The question is whether that story will be believed.

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER

DAN HAWALESHKA