Globe and Mail

The pain behind a suicide

Family-law system was blamed in death but those who were close to Darrin White suggest it really was more complicated

British Columbia Bureau
The Globe and Mail
Saturday, April 8, 2000

Pallbearers carry Darrin White's coffin after his funeral in Brandon. His suicide was blamed by some on court-ordered spousal and child-support payments that almost exceeded his income. KEN GIGLIOTTI/The Winnipeg Free Press

Darrin White, a 34-year-old railway engineer, tied a rope around the branch of a tree overlooking Prince George, B.C., last month and hanged himself.

A few days before his body was found, possibly on the last day of his life, Mr. White wrote a six-sentence farewell note, which has been obtained by The Globe and Mail; In the note, he says he leaves everything he owns to his eldest daughter, who is now 14. He wanted the child's mother, his high-school sweetheart whom he did not marry, to be in charge of his estate until his daughter turns 21.

What is remarkable about his note is what he left out. Mr. White did not mention his three children from his 11-year marriage to his wife, Madeleine. He did not mention his acrimonious court case over custody of the children or the onerous child-support and spousal-maintenance payments imposed by the court. He did not say why he was going to kill himself.

Shortly after Mr. White's body was discovered, a Prince George group called the Parent Child Advocacy Coalition blamed Canada's family court system, which the group contends is biased against men, for the suicide.

Interviews with family, friends and neighbours this week indicate, however, that Mr. White's suicide was mom complicated.

Shayne Eyford, a neighbour who offered shelter to Ms. White and the children on nights when Mr. White was violent, said the family is lucky that Mr. White killed himself before he killed them. In the year before the court rulings, Mr. White had threatened suicide at least twice and kept a noose in his basement, Mr. Eyford said.

Mr. White's sister, Debbie Empey, insisted that Mr. White was extremely upset because he could not be with his children as much as he wanted. But she also has concerns about the medical care her brother received. She said a psychiatric nurse refused to help her brother.

His wife, who said she always cared about her husband and still prays for him every night, refused to blame anyone.

"What he did, he did to himself," she said. "There is no one to blame, not the justice system, not the advocacy coalition, not me myself." She believes court rulings restricting access to her children and ordering support payments were "a minor incident" in her husband's life.

"If you look at the situation, the facts, you realize there's no one to blame," she said.

Mr. White's death was transformed from private tragedy to cause celebre at the speed of e-mail. Peter Ostrowski, spokesman for the advocacy coalition, publicized the suicide a few days after the discovery of Mr. White's body.

An interim court order in January had awarded Ms. White sole custody of the children. Mr. White had to move out of the family home and pay $2,071 a month to support his wife and children, although he was on a disability pension of $400 a week.

"A grotesque policy failure of governments is causing parents to kill themselves," Mr. Ostrowski told The Prince George Citizen on March 21. "Ex-spouses are coming out of the woodwork to ask for more money since new child-support guidelines were put into effect in 1997....

Ten days later, on the day of Mr. White's funeral, 15 lobby groups pushing for family-law changes held memorial rallies from Saint John to Victoria. A prominent media report elevated Mr. White to a poignant symbol of family courts gone awry, of a divorce system run by people with closed minds, hard hearts and deaf ears."

"What are you going to do about it?" Rev. Leo Fernandes of St. Augustine's Roman Catholic Church, challenged mourners during an emotional mass at the funeral in Brandon.

"It is up to you, his friends, to accomplish what he was unable to. If his dream was to challenge the scales of justice in our country, then so be it. Do it for his sake. But was this his dream?

Both Mr. White and his wife were railway locomotive engineers when they met in a rail yard in rural Ontario. They were married in 1988.

The couple moved with their three young children in 1995 to Prince George, where Mr. White got a job at B.C. Rail. In British Columbia, Ms. White, who had been reluctant to give up her job and leave Ontario, stayed home with the children, now ages 10, 9 and 5.

The marriage fell apart in January after Ms. White concluded that her husband was having an affair with a hitchhiker he had picked up in November, Mr. Eyford said.

Mr. White's family said he told them he picked up a hitchhiker for safety reasons in an area where grizzly bears roam, but he insisted they were just good friends.

Ms. White also feared for the safety of her children and herself, Mr. Eyford said. Whenever the children heard yelling, doors slamming, things being thrown around, they would ask if they were going to have to sleep over at someone's house, he said.

In the past 18 months, Ms. White and the children came to Mr. Eyford's home at least twice in the night, needing a place to stay, he said.

Mr. Eyford said that twice in the past year Mr. White put one of his rifles in his truck and told his wife he was going to kill himself. His friends tried to encourage him to seek professional help, he added, but Mr. White felt everyone was against him.

"Darrin was a walking time bomb waiting to go off for years. ... If not for the RCMP taking possession of all his firearms, I am sure that Darrin would have taken other members of his family's lives along with his own," he said.

Mr. White disappeared a few days before he was to undergo a psychiatric examination and appear in court on a charge of assaulting his wife.

The assault charge stemmed from an incident on a day in mid-January when Ms. White and the children returned from a visit to her family in Ontario. During a fight, Mr. White phoned the police and told them to get over to their house or he was going to hurt his wife, Mr. Eyford said.

After reviewing a police report, a government prosecutor approved an assault charge.

Nevertheless, Mr. White remained in the house for five weeks, while Ms. White and the children stayed elsewhere. Under court order, he was forced to move out.

Then on Feb. 7, a few days before a court hearing on support payments, Mr. White signed an agreement with the mother of his first child, Melodi Johnston, to make monthly support payments of $439 to their daughter, a significant increase from a previous arrangement.

Mr. White has rarely seen his eldest daughter, who was born on Aug. 1, 1985. However, he made regular support payments of $150 a month and often sent more for clothing and school supplies. His wife sent the cheques to Ms. Johnston.

Ms. Johnston said in an interview that she spoke to Mr. White on the day he disappeared. He was crying but sounded all right by the end of the conversation, she said.

"He was talking about how he missed his kids, and he could not understand why people were doing this to him," she said. "He said his kids were forgetting him already.

She also said Mr. White never talked about suicide with her. She recalled a conversation with him after a friend committed suicide.

"I said, 'Things have to be pretty damn bad. You promise me and I'll promise you, you never will do anything like that.' And he promised," she said.

Mr. Ostrowski, of the advocacy group, said Mr. White was depressed about the court rulings and asked him if he should go to a psychologist for help. "I said, no, you're having a normal reaction to absurd events."

Mr. Ostrowski also said he told Mr. White that whatever he told a psychologist could be used against him.

Friends and family say Mr. White needed medical help and did not receive it. Was that a bigger factor than the court rulings? The questions hangs in the air, while the coroner decides whether an inquest will be held.


Final note of Darrin White, dated March 11, 2000:

"I, Darrin Bruce White, being of sound body & mind, do hereby make my last will and testament;

"I leave everything I own, property & finances, including any insurance policies, mutual funds & bank accounts to my eldest daughter Ashlee Anna Dawn Barnett, daughter of Melodi Lee Johnston. I owe her a great deal. I would like Ashlee to be my beneficiary under direction of her mother until she becomes 21 years of age.

"To my father, Les White II, the PCAC [Parent Child Advocacy Coalition] is a very good coalition. Try to make a meeting."

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