Their murders by a stalker husband were preventable. Officials continue to bury the lessons.
On May 20, 2003, Bryan Bruce Heron walked into Mission Memorial Hospital and shot dead his wife, Sherry Heron and her mother who sat by her bedside, Anna Adams. A flurry of police activity ensued. Helicopters, uniforms, dogs and SWAT teams were deployed by the same police forces that earlier had refused to act when Sherry and Anna were still alive and requesting help.
After a dramatic televised chase, Bryan Heron shot himself while being dragged out of a tree stump by a police dog. He died before reaching hospital.
Because Bryan Heron died in police custody, it is mandatory for the BC Coroner to conduct an inquest into that death. Coroner Marj Paonessa ordered that both Sherry and Anna’s deaths were to be addressed by the inquest, which began September 27, 2004 and took place over five days.
Sherry Heron and Anna Adam’s surviving family hired a lawyer and had him seek out workers from Mission Transition House and Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter. The family asked the two feminist groups to provide evidence to the Coroner’s inquest into the killings.
Liberal Government eased pressure on prosecutors
Mission Transition House and Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter quickly agreed to support the family in this way. I attended two days of the hearings, and asked our BC/Yukon representative to the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres (CASAC) to act as the expert witness.
Lee Lakeman had just completed writing a report on a five-year project involving ten centers across Canada on behalf of CASAC. The centers each worked with ten women over five years examining how women’s reports to the justice system failed to result in appropriate criminal convictions. Since Sherry’s experience with the police was a tragic example of what battered women across the country face, and because the Coroner’s Inquest is an external inquiry into the RCMP, we were trying to bring the highest level of analysis possible to the process. In other places, particularly in Ontario, inquests had made it possible to look at factors that police internal investigations either refused to examine or reveal to the public.
The transition house workers’ testimony would give the five members of the coroner’s jury a chance to understand how horribly commonplace Sherry Heron’s experience was. It is the public nature of her death that sets her apart from the two hundred women Mission and Vancouver transition houses combined save each year.
We might have pointed out to the jury that the behavior of front-line police officers is a reflection of our political leadership. The officers who dealt with Sherry were no exceptions. At the time, Gordon Campbell’s government had recently changed provincial policy on violence against women by issuing new directions to crown prosecutors. The new orders eased pressure on Crown counsels to bring criminal charges against violent husbands. Crown Counsels were instructed to divert some cases to alternative measures such as anger management instead of pursuing convictions.
What the police knew
Whether it was the BC Liberal government’s intention or not, RCMP officers and Bryan Heron (a prison guard) were sent the message that Heron’s violence against his wife was a reduced priority for the criminal justice system. It was a deadly situation given that women and their advocates already had to fight to get decent protective police response to battered women. Anti-violence workers throughout the province protested the change. We knew this decriminalization of male violence against women would have dangerous consequences.
Sherry provided a statement to RCMP from her hospital bed detailing that Bryan Heron had threatened to harm her and her family if she were to leave him. She told them that Heron had many guns. She explained that she was fearful. Lisa Thompson, Sherry’s sister approached the police initially on Sherry’s behalf. Lisa knew Heron as her brother-in-law and as a co-worker, she, her husband and her mother, Anna, all took action to protect Sherry from Heron. Sherry was in hospital because her family responded to her plea for help from her home. Bryan Heron interrupted that phone call by ripping the phone line out of the wall and wrapping his hands around Sherry’s throat.
The RCMP marked Sherry’s file “No further action required” three days after starting it. Sherry was directed to hire a lawyer and apply for a civil restraining order. A copy of this court order was clipped to the medical chart at the foot of Sherry’s hospital bed and another copy was delivered to Heron at his workplace. It seems that the RCMP had washed their hands of Sherry Heron.
Shut out of inquest
Despite the wishes of the family, and despite our willingness and expertise, the Coroner accepted the RCMP assertion that feminist transition house workers had nothing relevant for the jury members to consider. We were blocked from contributing.
A former girlfriend of Bryan Heron, Barbara V. came forward ready to testify about the frequent, frightening level of threats and violence she had endured from him. Barbara avoided calling the police. She didn’t think Heron had committed any crimes against her that police would act on. Heron had also repeatedly threatened to kidnap their baby and burn down her house if Barbara were to cause any trouble, including leaving him. On average, across the country, 70 percent of women using rape crisis centres and battered women’s shelters choose not to involve police.
The Coroner agreed with the RCMP that Barbara V. had nothing of relevance to share with the jury. She was blocked from testifying.
These decisions were made while the jury sat in another room. They did not know they were denied a chance to hear from anti-violence workers or from another woman threatened by Bryan Heron.
The eight recommendations to the Commissioner of the RCMP focus on improving direct supervision and training of RCMP.
The fact that Sherry was diverted away from using the criminal justice system by the first officer she spoke to was never addressed.
The fact that lawyers and the judge who granted Sherry the restraining order failed to correct the first police officer’s decision was never addressed.
The provincial government’s leadership away from proactive arrest and prosecution of violent husbands was not taken into account.
The jury was left trying to shore up police adherence to a set of policies that our elected officials had earlier attacked. They did not have a chance to consider that RCMP are contracted by the provincial government to provide policing services. This relationship allows the provincial government to require RCMP prioritize response to violence against women.
Wiping out accountability
As transition house workers we are too familiar with the fact that in Canada more than one woman a week dies at the hands of a husband or ex-husband.
Often, after the murder, we are told that the woman asked for police protection. In too many cases women are diverted to family court or are simply discouraged away from the justice system by officers.
It is well known that men pose a higher level of danger to women in the first eighteen months after choosing to end the relationship. On average, women requesting police help have experienced multiple attacks by their husband. Calling the police is often a last resort. In my ten years as an anti-violence worker, numerous women told me that police instructed them to report again “when things get really bad.” Generally, in those cases, as in Sherry’s case, things were already bad enough to warrant an arrest and charges.
It was clear to everyone that Sherry and her family had done everything possible to protect Sherry and that they were defeated by the justice system’s institutionalized denial and minimization of wife assault. It seemed the jury did not blame Sherry, and they struggled to find other explanations. Because the evidence they were allowed to consider was so restricted, the jury got a severely limited picture of the situation. As a consequence, the recommendations they made were inadequate to addressing the real problems.
The jury recommendations, made in October of 2004, are not mandatory nor are they enforceable. In a way they are almost symbolic.
Today, the recommendations can no longer be found on the BC Coroner’s website and they are not posted on the RCMP website. Even the symbolic accountability to battered women has been wiped out.
Suzanne Jay is a collective member of Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter. The shelter operates a 24-hour crisis line for women dealing with male violence and a shelter for battered women. Volunteers and community support keep VRRWS open and active. VRRWS was a participant centre in the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres’ five-year research and community development project described in this article.
Published in TheTyee.ca