Nearly five years after Arlene Westervelt perished on Okanagan Lake, the cause of her death remains shrouded in mystery and is raising troubling questions about possible systemic problems at the BC Coroners Service.
The 56-year-old nurse died during a canoe trip with her husband Bert Westervelt on June 26, 2016.
He told officials the canoe tipped and it was an accidental drowning, while Arlene’s family suspected Bert of murder.
Arlene’s sister Debbie Hennig told Global News that her family pleaded with authorities to do an autopsy but says the request fell on deaf ears.
That may have been a serious mistake, according to multiple experts interviewed by Global News for its current affairs program The New Reality.
“I find it a little bit shocking that they would not err on the side of caution,” says former Calgary homicide detective Mike Cavilla.
Cavilla was asked to provide an independent opinion on the case by a lawyer hired by the Hennig family.
He says water deaths are notoriously difficult to investigate.
In deaths like the Westervelt case, where there were no independent witnesses close enough to see what happened, an autopsy should be ordered immediately, he says.
“That’s the way it’s done in Alberta and that’s the way it’s done in a lot of jurisdictions across both Canada and the United States.”
Retired forensic pathologist Dr. John Butt agrees that an autopsy should have been done right away.
“It should be automatic if there are no witnesses. Very definitely,” he says.
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In the Westervelt case, the autopsy was delayed for 10 days. It was only after the RCMP received new evidence prompting them to open a murder investigation that an autopsy was finally carried out.
According to the Coroner’s report, the autopsy found hemorrhages on Arlene Westervelt’s neck muscles and in both eyes.
Butt says those hemorrhages may be evidence that she was strangled.
Nearly three years after Arlene’s death, her husband Bert Westervelt was charged with second-degree murder.
However, authorities later stayed the murder charge with little explanation, saying only that there was “new evidence.”
Arlene’s body was embalmed before the autopsy was carried out, and Butt believes that may have played a role in the Crown’s reluctance to prosecute the case.
Embalming, Butt says, can “mask other evidence that might have been present or create evidence that may be misleading.”
“It’s my opinion in this case that that was one of the reasons why the charge against the accused was stayed,” he says.
The Coroner’s report claimed the embalming did not interfere with the examination of the neck hemorrhages. The report also found no marks on Arlene’s neck, and no injury to the hyoid bone, located under the chin.
The report could not confirm or rule out strangulation, drowning or an underlying heart condition as a cause of Arlene’s death. Ultimately, it found the cause of death to be undetermined.
Yet Butt maintains the decision to delay an autopsy was a mistake and believes it’s part of a bigger systemic problem in B.C.
“The whole system, from start to finish, is second rate. I think the delay in the autopsy was made because of money. And I think much of this is delivered in British Columbia as an edict from the government.”
And the numbers do nothing to quell his suspicions. According to Statistics Canada, B.C. ordered autopsies in only 2.9 per cent of deaths in 2019. That’s about half the national average of 5.7 per cent for the same year. In Alberta, where Butt was once Chief Coroner, autopsies were performed in 7.4 per cent of deaths in 2019. That raises questions about whether other suspicious deaths are being missed.
There are also questions about the credentials of the doctors performing autopsies in B.C.
Several forensic experts told The New Reality best practices dictate that complex water deaths like Arlene Westervelt’s should be autopsied by a forensic pathologist.
However, the doctor who autopsied her body is listed as a general pathologist by both the BC College of Physicians and Surgeons and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.
General pathologists commonly work in hospital settings, and according to the Royal College, they perform autopsies in cases of “natural and routine” deaths.
They must also, according to the College, recognize “characteristics of autopsies requiring referral to forensic pathologists.”
Butt says national standards require forensic pathologists to pass an exam through the Royal College, or other approved institutions to obtain accreditation.
However, adhering to those standards is left up to the discretion of the provinces.
The pathologist who did the autopsy on Arlene Westervelt was accredited by the BC Coroners Service, a spokesperson for the coroner’s office said in an email.
“Credentials, experience and references are all reviewed by the BC Coroners Service, and after that process we ‘privilege’ physicians to perform autopsies for us. We partner with the health authorities — they perform the credentialing process and we use that as a part of our input when granting privileges to perform autopsies for BCCS,” the email said.
In other words, some pathologists may be performing the duties of a forensic pathologist without meeting national accreditation standards.
That does not sit well with Butt.
“The coroner’s service in British Columbia cannot make a forensic pathologist specialist of any substance.”
In fact, he’s written a letter to the BC College of Physicians Surgeons complaining about how the BC Coroner’s service accredits doctors performing autopsies and is calling for a full investigation.
“I think that the whole system of British Columbia needs a review by an independent body.”
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