Justice

Murder in Cold Lake

Where can abused women go to be safe?

ANITA ELASH August 18 1997
Justice

Murder in Cold Lake

Where can abused women go to be safe?

ANITA ELASH August 18 1997

Murder in Cold Lake

Where can abused women go to be safe?

Justice

When Carol Meredith walked out on her husband, Barclay MacFie, in early June, she may have believed she was leaving her problems behind. She soon discovered she had traded an unbearable marriage for sheer terror. On July 28, Meredith was driven to a remote area near Calgary, sexually assaulted and dropped off at a shopping mall. With a warrant issued for MacFie’s arrest, Meredith fled to her sister’s home in Cold Lake, almost 600 km northeast of Calgary. But before 8 a.m. on July 31, less than nine hours after her arrival, she was dragged, screaming, from her imagined haven. According to Cold Lake RCMP, a man beat her sleeping brother, attacked her sister, and forced Meredith—clad only in a T-shirt and underwear— out of the house.

Witnesses saw the man pull Meredith by the hair for half a block down one of Cold Lake’s busiest streets before shoving her into a grey van and driving away. Meredith, 29, did not live to realize her dream of a fresh start. Police found her body six days after she was kidnapped, dead from a blow to the head and discarded in a grey van hidden by dense brush about 30 km from town. MacFie, also 29, who had been arrested the day before as he tried to to buy a bus ticket to Edmonton, faces charges of firstdegree murder, kidnapping and the attempted murder of his estranged wife’s brother, Gord.

While outraging everyone close to Meredith, the crime also emphasized a deeper truth—that despite government directives and police crackdowns, Canadians have made little progress towards eliminating domestic violence. Declining crime rates have left the impression family life is getting safer. A Statistics Canada survey released last month concludes that domestic assaults against women have dropped by 18 per cent since 1993. But people who work with battered women dispute the figures. “If anything, we see an increase,” says Mary Lougheed, an executive of the Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter Association. The caseload at the Calgary centre grew 11 per cent last year and 13

per cent in 1995, a trend Lougheed attributes to greater awareness of the potential dangers. “More women are thinking of their personal safety,” she says. “They seem to be coming in earlier now, before the police are involved.”

That is Lougheed’s explanation of the declining StatsCan numbers. Other theories are more disturbing. A police campaign against domestic abusers may, ironically,

have made women more reluctant to call authorities. Officers in many police forces are now under orders to press charges, even if the victim does not want to. But many women then fear what will happen later. ‘Women are afraid to press charges, and when they do go to court the punishment does not fit the crime,” said Simone Harris, co-ordinator of the New Brunswick Coalition of Transition Houses. “The guy gets a fine or 30 days in jail, then he is angrier and things are worse for the woman.” Activists also argue that government cuts to legal aid and women’s services have put abused spouses at greater risk. In a climate of increased awareness, says Patricia Kostouros, women’s shelter co-ordinator for the Sheriff King Family Support Centre in Calgary, more women are taking the initiative to leave, but fewer have a safe haven or information about how best to protect them-

selves. “While the relationship is over for the abused partner, it is not necessarily over for the abuser and so the risk level can go up,” she says. Women commonly make the mistake of seeking refuge with family members, adds Kostouros, where they can easily be found.

By all accounts, Meredith’s and MacFie’s separation came as a surprise to those who knew them. They met about 10 years ago. She worked as a trust company teller in Wetaskiwin, 70 km south of Edmonton. He was building a reputation as an on-ice tough guy with the Hawks junior hockey team in nearby Hobbema. After three years, they eloped to Las Vegas. Friends say they went everywhere together—the outgoing, 130-lb. Meredith alongside her retiring, six-foot, one-inch, 220-lb. husband. As recently as May, they returned together to Las Vegas. While MacFie sometimes worked as a sur-

veyor and picked up odd jobs, the only obvious problem, recalls his mother, Shirley, was a chronic shortage of money. However, Meredith shattered any illusion of marital harmony when she announced she was leaving and asked her in-laws to break the news to MacFie. They did and, for a month, her family deflected her estranged husband’s attempts to contact her.

Late last week, Cold Lake RCMP were trying to trace MacFie’s movements after Meredith was grabbed from her sister’s place. They suspect he spent time in the van before checking into a Cold Lake motel on Aug. 3, two days before his arrest. People who work with battered women are watching the investigation closely, in the hope that it will provide some lessons in how to prevent other tragedies.

ANITA ELASH