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September 8, 2001

Crying wolf

In a system that assumes children don't lie and women are victims, false allegations happen with alarming regularity and frequency

Christie Blatchford
National Post

Jean Levac, Ottawa Citizen
Mitchell Roe, left, directs Cathie Fordham from a Toronto courthouse while Jamie Nelson, far right, looks on. It was the first time Mr. Nelson had seen her since he was wrongfully convicted on rape charges. Fordham was eventually convicted of public mischief for the false allegations.

Kevin Van Paassen, National Post
Jamie Nelson was retroactively acquitted of assaulting Cathie Fordham after he served 1,047 days in prison.

In a Toronto courtroom last spring, a trial began. The defendant was a man accused of criminal harassment, that newish crime against women popularly known as stalking.

His accuser, a young woman he had dated for a year before she broke things off, was soon in the witness stand, and by noon, the defence lawyer had begun her cross-examination. Shortly before the lunch break, she elicited from the victim her contention that, why, goodness gracious, in all that time, she and the accused had only ever held hands, and certainly had never had sexual relations.

Court adjourned.

About an hour later, Toronto Police Detective Bob Brown walked back into the courtroom expecting the trial to resume momentarily.

"The Crown said, 'We've got a problem,' " he told the National Post last week.

The defence lawyer had just handed her a videotape.

"She pops in the tape," Det. Brown remembered, "and there's our victim, stark naked, pumping away with this guy, Latino music blaring in the background."

As the detective said with monstrous restraint, the woman's credibility was shot. The Crown attorney explained the development to the judge, and the charge against the man was withdrawn.

Lest anyone conclude this was a rare occurrence, it was, but in only one regard -- that Det. Brown went on to charge the woman with perjury and obstructing police, the case yet to come before the courts.

It doesn't often happen that "false allegators," as the women who cry wolf are called by those police officers who keep track of them, are themselves charged criminally.

"Why not?" Royal Canadian Mounted Police Staff-Sergeant Christine Wozney, the manager for the British Columbia computer analysis unit which tracks violent crime in that province, snorted in a recent interview.

"Because our policemen are lazy!"

What does occur with both alarming regularity and frequency is the false allegation.

The numbers for sexual assault alone are sobering.

Ontario-wide, about 5.7% of all sexual assault allegations are demonstrably false.

In the approximately four and a half years since the province made record-keeping of violent crime mandatory, 2,233 women (this includes a small number of men) out of 39,223 sex-related complainants have lied, said Ontario Provincial Police Detective-Sergeant Darryl Doak.

In the 33 months British Columbia has been keeping the same statistics using the same computer program -- police forces in all provinces use the Violent Criminal Linkage Analysis System, or VICLAS, but only Ontario must -- proven false allegations of sexual assault are running 6.7% of the total, or 986 of 14,586 cases.

That translates to about 41 Ontario women, and 29 in B.C., each and every month falsely cloaking themselves in the most sacred of robes, those belonging to the female victim of intimate sexual violence.

And these numbers represent bare minimums, because both Ontario and B.C. have adopted strict definitions of what comprises a false allegation.

Unfounded complaints, where police determine there was no crime but also that the victim did not intend to mislead investigators, are not tracked at all.

And in those cases where an investigator suspects the victim is lying, but cannot prove it and she does not recant, the assaults are counted as genuine on the VICLAS books. Only another police officer, seeking information either on an offender or a victim in another case, would ever see his predecessor's full notes and get a whiff that the original complaint might not have been legitimate.

Indeed, at the Toronto Police Hxeadquarters-based sexual assault squad, which handles only those major incidents where the alleged attackers are unknown to the victim (where they are identified, the investigations are handled at the divisional level), of 232 cases last year, at least 30% -- or 69 allegations -- were bogus.

In many of the Toronto cases, because the "victim" offered only a vague description of her purported attacker, no one was wrongly arrested, Det. Wendy Leaver said. As she put it, most of these women "don't want anyone to be caught."

But not always, Det. Leaver said.

She cited the East Indian girl, promised in marriage by her family, who sneaked out of the house to attend her high school graduation with a white boy. "She goes to a motel with him after, and has sex. Then it was, 'Uh-oh': She's no longer a virgin." The 17-year-old said she was raped.

And often, when an individual isn't accused, an entire race, usually the same one, is slandered: Det. Leaver said many "unknowns" are alleged to be black, "I suppose because of how blacks are portrayed in the media."

In this regard, she remembered the woman "of high standing in the community" who was a senior executive with a bank.

This woman was slated to make a major speech to her peers. The night before, she checked in to a downtown hotel, ordered room service, and then "said some black guy raped her. It solved her problem; she couldn't give the speech."

False allegators are "a very significant problem," she said. "We do see it a lot. There are always reasons: Sometimes the woman just gets in a situation where the big blue machine takes over."

Though VICLAS was established to allow police forces to "talk" to each other about violent criminals who move from one jurisdiction to another -- on Feb. 15, 1997, Ontario became the only province to legislate such reporting by police -- the program also captures false accusers.

Thus does it provide protection both for the genuine victim, whose attacker may have been convicted elsewhere (and who could end up deemed a serial or "dangerous offender" as a result), and the innocent man, whose accuser may be revealed as a false allegator, even a chronic one.

The Post recently interviewed a veteran Ontario police officer who was a victim of such a woman.

Because the officer managed to keep the fact that he had been charged with sexual assault from his former wife and children for the almost three years it took his case to wend through the justice system, he asked not to be identified.

In August of 1998, he was arrested at home and was immediately suspended with pay and forced to report daily to the very station where he had worked for decades.

"It was the singular most humiliating experience of my life," he said of how, when he would duly check in, his former colleagues would not allow him to move unescorted down the very hall he had walked for so long.

His accuser was both a known "cop groupie" and a suspected street prostitute in the officer's regular patrol area. She was infamous for flashing her breasts, and so fond of police paraphernalia that one of the exhibits at trial was an ordinary force business card he had once given her and that she had had laminated as a souvenir.

A stocky blonde, now 39, she proved to be a false allegator. Unfortunately for the officer, most of her complaints -- she has alleged numerous offences, including two separate assaults in less than 24 hours -- post-dated his arrest.

In one of these instances, she alleged a sexual assault by an unknown dark-skinned man. When after several months, the investigating officer phoned to tell her he was closing the case, within days she was at the station, announcing she had just spotted her attacker and got his licence number.

This man was duly arrested, but when he was able to prove he was out of the country at the time of the alleged attack, the charge was withdrawn.

By the time the police officer's case finally made it to trial last spring, his lawyer, Bill Bain of Toronto, had a sheaf of paper showing the woman was either the unluckiest dame in the world -- she couldn't walk a block without being indecently assaulted, raped or propositioned by unknown men -- or a most dubious witness.

In mid-trial, with the case briefly adjourned, the woman again turned up at the police station with a new and improved version of the officer's purported attack on her.

Sadly for her, this new version was in direct contradiction to her original statement and her own testimony: On July 30, two years and 11 months after the officer was first arrested, the Crown pulled the plug and asked the judge to withdraw the charge.

But the officer was left in ruins, with legal bills, his long and respected career in tatters, and deserted by even life-long colleagues.

As Det. Leaver said of all such fake charges, "The impact, whether it ends in withdrawal or acquittal, is huge. People will always look at the men and say, 'Oh yeah, right.' "

The officer's lawyer is blunt about the root causes.

"There are two principles at work in the system right now," Mr. Bain told the Post. "That children don't lie, and that women are victims."

The remark echoed what another Toronto lawyer, Todd Ducharme, said one day last month outside the Ontario Court of Appeal.

His client, a shy 34-year-old chef named Jamie Nelson, had just seen the court strike down his sexual assault conviction and in its stead enter an acquittal.

Mr. Nelson's accuser, Cathie Fordham of Ottawa, was revealed as a false allegator only after he was safely in federal prison, on his way to serving the 1,047 days he would eventually spend there.

She was eventually convicted of public mischief in connection with a false allegation of assault, the judge in that case deeming her to be a theatrical and inventive witness, and is now before the courts on charges of making another false complaint.

After Mr. Nelson was retroactively acquitted, Mr. Ducharme told reporters, "This is a cautionary tale for anyone who suggests that people who make allegations of sexual assault must be telling the truth because why else would they go through the process?"

The fact is, as Det. Leaver said, some women enjoy the process. "It's a sex assault," the veteran investigator said, "and as a society, we accept that as horrendous. You wouldn't believe the attention we pay to you." And some women are outright malicious, and see a rape claim as a way to punish a boyfriend or a former spouse, especially if they are locked in a custody or support battle. Some are mentally ill.

And some, as Det. Leaver said, make an impulsive allegation and then, before they know it, are swept away by a justice system in which the political masters have spent the better part of the last decade telling public servants -- police and prosecutors -- that, as she put it, "Women will be believed. That was rammed down police officers' throats," she said, "and you know why? As I always say when I lecture about this, because of the way you assholes [police] did things 15 years ago."

Those were the dark days for genuine victims: Sex assault was not treated seriously; women were often disbelieved by police and grilled unfairly about their sexual histories; there was little sensitivity to be found anywhere in the system.

But things changed, and dramatically. Staff Sgt. Wozney told the Post, "There was a train of thought in this province, maybe 10 years ago, that when we got a call at the hospital, Women Against Violence Against Women or another of the groups would be there, and when I asked for a blood sample, to determine if the woman was drunk, there was a huge outcry. They wouldn't allow that, they felt it was evidence that shouldn't be put forward."

But evidence is evidence, Staff Sgt. Wozney said, whichever way it cuts. It's the quality of the investigation that redeems the day. Det. Leaver framed it another way: "We run everyone through [the computer]. We have to know our accused. We have to know our victim; the defence sure will. There should be the same thorough investigation. It's the work that saves you. The majority of the time, the false allegators will give it up, as we say."

Det. Leaver fears for smaller Canadian forces, where police may have been thoroughly inculcated in the school of woman-as-victim, but less well-trained in investigative basics: "That is putting people at risk," she said.

Mr. Bain said that over the years, as women's groups and rape crisis centres came to dominate the sexual assault landscape -- in Ontario, a 1994 Crown policy manual typical of the times warned that sexual assaults "must be prosecuted with vigour" -- police became afraid of not laying charges even in dubious cases, demurring that "the courts will decide," while Crown attorneys grew "loathe to exercise their discretion and to live in fear of screwing up a sexual assault trial."

Those days, Det. Leaver said, should be gone. "Our responsibility is to ask, do I have reasonable and probable grounds? Do I have doubts? Do a decent investigation. Once I lay the charges, the man will live with that for the rest of his life."

Det. Leaver, Staff Sgt. Wozney, and Det. Sgt. Doak at the Ontario VICLAS centre run out of OPP headquarters, each in their interviews took extraordinary pains to point out that most women who claim rape are telling the truth; that sometimes an allegation deemed false may later prove to be genuine (Staff Sgt. Wozney said this is especially true, still, of prostitutes whose allegations are too easily dismissed) and that VICLAS is in no way a tool used against women.

Det. Leaver said when she first began lecturing about false allegators, "People said, 'But aren't you concerned about the harm you're doing to valid victims?' " Her answer? "Let's not send an innocent man to prison."

Ironically, it is the notorious case of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka which may provide the bookends to this treacherous territory.

As the rapist who eluded police by moving from Toronto to St. Catharines, Ont., where he married Homolka and launched his career as a killer, Bernardo provided the tragic rationale for Ontario legislating VICLAS.

His former wife, on the other hand, was arguably the ultimate illustration of the way women came to be seen in the justice system.

After Bernardo's 1994 trial at which she testified at length, with her husband convicted of murdering teenagers Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy, several jurors wrote letters to Homolka's family, expressing their sympathy for the woman who cheerfully had handed over their youngest daughter, her sister Tammy, to Bernardo, then just Homolka's boyfriend, for drugging and raping one Christmas.

Tammy choked on her own vomit and died during the pair's attack.

It was clear Ontario prosecutors had achieved the improbable and managed to turn Homolka into a victim, albeit a repellent one.

There were all sorts of reasons for that portrayal -- chiefly, that it served to justify the plea bargain the government had reluctantly made with her -- but the message was nonetheless stark.

If Homolka was a victim; if the Crown could argue she was telling the truth in court; if psychiatrists could testify this was a battered spouse of a sexual sadist, any woman -- all women -- must be surely viewed through the same distorting prism.

As for the young lady whose stalking claim went into the toilet with that videotape of her sexual gymnastics with her former boyfriend Det. Brown said, "She still says they never had sex.

"I said, 'Oh come on, honey. I saw the tape.' "

Christie Blatchford can be contacted at

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