Ottawa Citizen
Tuesday 8 August 2000

A woman who strikes fear in criminals

'The only time I saw her smile was when she did somebody in'

Jake Rupert
The Ottawa Citizen


Patrick Doyle, The Ottawa Citizen / Cathy Fordham was convicted of public mischief for filing a false complaint of assault.

Late last month, a rag-tag group of ex-cons gathered at Paddy's Pub on Montreal Road in Vanier to toast the conviction in court of a woman who they say made their lives hell.

All the men had been residents -- most by court order -- of the Vanier Community Support Group, under the direction of Cathy Fordham, 29.

Court testimony paints a picture of Ms. Fordham's centre at 249 Bradley St. as a snake-pit of drugs, alcohol and sex, and Ms. Fordham herself as a manipulative woman who used her power and influence with police to obtain welfare money and sex from the men under her care.

These aren't men one would normally trust implicitly. All have criminal records. Some have drug problems, some are alcoholics, some have violence in their pasts.

However, a judge, several Crown attorneys, defence lawyers and former volunteers at the group centre now back their stories. In fact, Hilary McCormack, the chief Crown attorney, says the situation at the centre "strikes at the core of the administration of justice on many levels."

On July 26, Ms. Fordham was convicted of public mischief for filing a false complaint of assault against a man who lived at the house. She will be sentenced next month. Another charge of filing a false complaint is awaiting a trial date.

Residents and volunteers say that while she ran the group home between the fall of 1997 and January 1999, Ms. Fordham constantly threatened to report phoney crimes and court-order breaches to probation and police officers. According to court testimony, her motive was to coerce the men into doing what she wanted.

Ms. Fordham insists every complaint she filed was legitimate.

"I tried my best to help people," Ms. Fordham said in a two-hour interview this week. "I didn't do anything or say anything that wasn't right. I tried my best."

Nine out of 12 men the courts sent to Ms. Fordham's centre ended up back in custody after she reported breaches of their release conditions. Some were convicted of new charges based on her word.

One man, Jamie Nelson, was sent away for three-and-a-half years after being convicted in 1996 of assaulting and raping Ms. Fordham. His defence lawyer, Ken Hall, says he was convicted with no other evidence but her testimony. Mr. Nelson, who maintains his innocence, has done his time, but is still appealing the conviction.

Ms. Fordham also accused another man who lived at her centre, Emile Andre Masson, of assaulting and sexually assaulting her in January 1998. However, the Crown stayed those charges and another of breaching his release conditions 16 months later, after the first public mischief charge was laid against Ms. Fordham.

"I kind of expected that after they laid the first charge," she told the Citizen.

Ms. Fordham isn't in the outreach business any more. Instead, she awaits her sentence and the result of her second charge.

She faces a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a $2,000 fine, but even that would pale in comparison to the harm the men at Paddy's Pub say she caused them.

As they drank beer and coffee and smoked cigarettes, they talked about the helplessness they felt. Many are lifelong petty criminals, and most look older than they are. Hard men living hard lives, but all of them say they were frightened of Ms. Fordham.

"These were the most vulnerable people in our society," said defence lawyer Heather Perkins-McVey, who had a client ordered to the group. "They were under court order to live there, and she had the power to revoke their freedom and she used it."

Ms. Fordham, who grew up the youngest of four children in Alexandria, Ont., came to Ottawa 10 years ago after dropping out of high school.

A petite woman, she worked mostly in restaurants in the Ottawa area, sometimes relying on welfare. After moving to Ottawa, she says a boyfriend got her started injecting cocaine and it's a battle she fights every day.

Ms. Fordham appears to have gotten into community work for the right reasons. She started a community cleanup program to combat prostitution in Vanier, helped women in abusive relationships, found money for single moms and developed a lunch program at a primary school.

Though she had no formal training in drug and alcohol recovery or social work before running the outreach centre, she didn't need any. There is no formal licensing requirement for recovery houses or homes where offenders are sent as part of sentencing or bail release.

"You'd think there would be, but there isn't," says Harvest House's court liaison officer Andrew Maine. "A lot of people get into it for the wrong reason, usually the money."

Most homes, including Harvest House, follow strict internal guidelines and give staff extensive training that is updated annually to stay abreast of new ideas. But this isn't required. Outreach centres only need a good reputation and the approval of police officers running diversion programs.

So when Ms. Fordham opened the home and started appearing in bail court to offer men accused of crimes a place to stay, everything seemed legitimate.

She accepted responsibility for men released on bail, who were ordered to live at the home and take part in its recovery and counselling programs. In return, residents paid between $300 and $400 a month for room and board to Ms. Fordham, who also lived at the home. This was the centre's sole source of funding; it received no government support.

Ms. Fordham now is employed and living in Vanier, not far from where she ran the home. She says her boss has been good to her despite recent headlines about her legal problems.

During an interview for this story, Ms. Fordham repeatedly denied allegations that she had lied and abused her power. In a soft-spoken voice, rasped slightly from smoking, she patiently insisted she has nothing to feel guilty about.

However, others have a different view.

Julie Lemieux, a registered nurse, volunteered at the centre. So did Carl Crozier, who has worked at the Ottawa-Carleton detox centre. Phil Francois and Alan Kamen, both of whom lived at the home, testified against Ms. Fordham in court.

All say Ms. Fordham would take men under court order not to drink alcohol to a pub, then tell them she would report it if they didn't hand over their welfare money.

Drugs were consumed on the premises by the men and Ms. Fordham, who admits smoking marijuana.

According to an affidavit signed by Ms. Lemieux, Ms. Fordham had sex with some of the men.

She would rant about minor issues. She would forbid men to use the phones. She would call the police over minor issues.

"Everything I would do during the day, she would undo at night," says Mr. Crozier. "Every day, there would be fires to put out. It was nuts.

"I don't know what it was with her, but she was the most vindictive person I'd ever met, literally, and I've met some pretty awful people. The only time I ever saw her smile was when she did somebody in.

"The place was out of control."

Meanwhile, Ms. Lemieux was facing an ethical crisis of her own. She could see what was happening to the men wasn't fair and wanted to quit, but she felt a responsibility to stay on for their sake -- to try and help them through.

She started keeping a record of incidents she would later take to the courts and police in a nine-page affidavit about Ms. Fordham and conditions at the group home. The affidavit includes a list of things she says she overheard Ms. Fordham saying to the men including: "I'll make your lives hell"; "I have the power and credibility with the police behind me"; "If you don't comply with me, I will call the cops and you will be breached and sent back to jail"; "I'll see to it that you will get added time and worse charges laid on you if I have to."

"When the men said these were lies, she just said, 'Who are they going to believe, me or you?'" Ms. Lemieux says in the affidavit.

In the end, Ms. Lemieux and Mr. Crozier say the home devolved into little more than a drug den and flop house.

"(It) was totally inappropriate and dangerous," Ms. Lemieux's affidavit says. "The (home) was now more like a zoo full of drunks and drug users now that the men had inevitably relapsed."

Mr. Crozier says he couldn't believe what he was seeing.

"There were booze bottles everywhere," he says. "She had a needle exchange, but the only people exchanging needles were people in the house. Cocaine dealers were showing up at the door."

Phil Francois, who eventually helped blow the whistle on Ms. Fordham and the house, testified that living there was a harrowing experience. During his stay, Mr. Francois befriended Alan Kamen, who was trying to kick a drinking problem. By the end of July, neither man could stand it any longer. They moved out and contacted authorities.

Ms. Fordham had confiscated Mr. Francois' and Mr. Kamen's belongings before they left. On Aug., 12, 1997, a nasty dispute erupted when they showed up with a police escort to get their things. According to police notes, Ms. Fordham was menacing and manipulated the situation to thwart the men's efforts.

But they eventually got their belongings and left.

A day later, Ms. Fordham told police Mr. Kamen had beaten her at about 1 a.m. that night. But after an investigation, she ended up being charged with public mischief for filing a false complaint.

Under withering cross-examination during her trial last month, Ms. Fordham suddenly accused Mr. Kamen of sexually assaulting her -- the first time she had made that allegation.

Justice Jack Nadelle, who heard the case, didn't believe her. "I didn't find Ms. Fordham to be a believable or credible witness," he said in court. "She changed her testimony when it suited her, she cried at strategic moments, other times she was combative or evasive."

Ms. Fordham is now out of the outreach business. The home shut down for good in January 1999 after defence lawyers, police and Crown attorneys refused to send more men there because of the many complaints.

Ms. Fordham says she's trying to put it all behind her and get on with her life.

"It's too bad," says Staff Sgt. Leo Janveau, the Vanier community liaison officer who helped get the home going.

"It (the home) was designed to do some good things, and it did, but I guess things just went off the rails."

Copyright 2000 Ottawa Citizen Group Inc.