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February 1, 2001

Motivated by love, says mother in Mexican jail

Lost custody battle and fled with triplets

Marina Jiménez
National Post

Yvonne Berg, National Post
Carline Vandenelsen, accused of abducting her eight-year-old triplets Peter, Olivia and Gray, above, says she felt compelled to act after the justice system denied her sufficient access to her children.

(Carline) Vandenelsen

MEXICO CITY - An Ontario mother accused of abducting her triplets says she felt compelled to act after the justice system denied her sufficient access to her children.

Carline Vandenelsen said in an interview at the prison where she is being held that she was on the verge of returning to Canada during her three-month odyssey, but the children, Peter, Gray and Olivia, requested they stay put.

"There are two sides to every story ... My children were taken away limb by limb. How many other mothers in my position wouldn't have done the same?" said Ms. Vandenelsen.

The 38-year-old woman was captured last week in Acapulco and is being held in a women's detention centre in Ixtapalapa, a shantytown on the edge of Mexico City, until her extradition to Canada, expected within the week. The eight-year-old triplets were re-united with their father, Craig Merkley, last week and are back in Stratford.

Ms. Vandenelsen, an articulate, emotional woman, wore her long, dark hair in two ponytails and was dressed in sandals, a beige sweater, beige jacket and trousers with the hems rolled up, the uniform of the 360 female prisoners here at Reclusorio Preventivo Oriente.

She disputed allegations in media reports that the triplets were mistreated during their time on the run. She said they were properly cared for, happy and well-fed. "We were not at the circus or on vacation," said the former high school teacher. "The kids were well loved. Despite all the concern, we were a family. All I care about is my children."

Peter, Gray and Olivia disappeared on Oct. 14 during a visit with Ms. Vandenelsen supervised by her mother. She allegedly drove them away from her parents' farm in Brantford in a blue 1989 Hyundai. Police believe she took the triplets on a journey that included stops in Halifax, Corpus Christi, Tex., Panama and then Mexico. In the interview, Ms. Vandenelsen declined to confirm details of her route or of how she kept the children hidden from authorities.

Police have said there is no evidence she fled with her children to harm them; rather, her flight had its roots in a lengthy custody dispute.

"You can't take parents away," said Ms. Vandenelsen, rubbing her creased forehead.

Mr. Merkley was awarded custody in 1995, when the children were two, after their marriage broke down and Ms. Vandenelsen left, announcing she was pursuing a career as a musician and had no interest in motherhood.

After travelling for two years, she moved back to Stratford and became involved in a bitter custody dispute.

The courts granted her access to see the children every Wednesday night and every other weekend.

Last March, however, a judge reduced Ms. Vandenelsen's access to every other Saturday, with no overnight stays, after hearing evidence of attempts to manipulate the children.

"It's been five years of allegations and none have been proven," Ms. Vandenelsen said in the prison interview. "But [Mr. Merkley] knows how to play the system."

The media has presented only his side, she added. In published reports, he is quoted as saying she is an extremist with a quick temper.

The mother of the triplets would not divulge how much money she spent during her time as a fugitive. But police have said the abduction was well-planned and noted she rented out her house, put her furniture in storage and cashed about $60,000 in investments.

Ms. Vandenelsen rented a house in Acapulco, on a winding road high above the tourist area. She said the children kept up with their Grade 3 schoolwork. They also went to the beach, cooked at home and decorated the apartment with photographs and their artwork.

"The whole trip was a highlight. A mother has lost her children and suddenly they come to life," she said.

Mr. Merkley was re-united with the children last Tuesday, after he and his fiancée flew to Acapulco and waited for four days while authorities closed in on Ms. Vandenelsen.

She has not spoken with her children since Mexican police captured her on Jan. 21. But a relative is attempting to arrange a phone call with them.

The red-brick prison, which is surrounded by a 50-foot concrete wall and barbed wire, was built in the 1980s, and is not considered one of the worst in the city.

Visitors must pass through a long, underground tunnel to arrive at the cells and the prison cafeteria. Visitors cannot stay more than half an hour, and are denied entry if they are wearing: platform shoes; boots; shorts or sportswear; or clothing that is black, blue or beige. They cannot carry in more than US$40 and cell phones, cameras, scissors and needles are forbidden.

Ms. Vandenelsen says she is not being mistreated but is anxious to return to Canada and leave the cell she shares with one other female prisoner.

Some of the other inmates have not seen their children for many months, and Ms. Vandenelsen sympathizes with their plight. "I look at the women in here and I have shed many tears for them," she says, her eyes filling with tears.

Ms. Vandenelsen has waived her extradition hearing and agreed to be transferred to a prison in Canada, where she will face charges of abduction.

Despite the impending criminal case, she hopes to be reunited with her children.

Her sister, Theresa DeGroote, who flew to Mexico last week to visit her, has said that while the family does not condone her behaviour, they understand her motives. The family plans to hire a lawyer who will argue for increased access to the triplets.

"In the real world as in dreams, nothing is quite as it seems," said Ms. Vandenelsen, quoting from the Book of Counted Sorrows. "I'm going home to my children where I belong."

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