London Free Press

Thursday, October 18, 2001

Ex-husband first witness at triplets' mom's trial

Craig Merkley tells a jury of his ex-wife's bizarre behaviour.

By JANE SIMS, Free Press Justice Reporter
London Free Press

In testimony fraught with emotion, the father of Stratford triplets recalled for a jury the bizarre behaviour of his ex-wife, the court battles and the three frantic months he spent searching for his children.

Craig Merkley, 45, was the first witness for the Crown in the trial of Carline Vandenelsen, 38, his ex-wife charged with three counts of abduction in contravention of a custody order. Vandenelsen, 38, the mother of Peter, Gray and Olivia Merkley, 8, was arrested in Acapulco, Mexico, Jan. 21 after an international search for the children, who went missing Oct. 14, 2000.

During questioning by assistant Crown attorney Henry Van Drunen, Merkley recounted the happier early days of their marriage living at a cottage on Fanshawe Lake and their efforts to have children.

"It was kind of the next natural step for two people who love each other to have children," Merkley told the jury of eight men and four women.

When their attempts failed, the couple went to a London fertility clinic, he said. Nearly a year after they became patients at the clinic with no luck, the couple turned to in-vitro fertilization with the help of donor sperm.

When the triplets were born Jan. 1, 1993, social agencies and neighbours provided help.

Merkley said Vandenelsen was fine for the first year. However, in the second year he noticed extreme mood swings in Vandenelsen, from carefree to yelling at the kids.

The couple separated in September 1995 because Vandenelsen had grown "unsettled" and talked about moving to Saltzspring Island in British Columbia. Before the separation, Merkley said Vandenelsen told him, "You're nothing but a babysitter to me."

She moved to London and Merkley took over the care of the children.

In December 1995, concerned about his wife's "bizarre" lifestyle and the children's unstable behaviour, he applied for and received interim custody.

"I felt I needed to take some action to stabilize the situation," he said.

The access order was not fixed and Merkley said he would take his children to Vandenelsen's home on Fanshawe Lake on his way to work at the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority.

He became concerned at the children's aggressive behaviour and in June 1996 said he found the cottage in disarray and marijuana sitting on a counter. A lighter was taken from Gray's hands.

Eventually, Vandenelsen was given access every other day and weekend.

The children were assessed several times by professionals and the Children's Aid Society was also involved, he said.

Merkley said Vandenelsen talked of moving to Costa Rica and moved briefly with a boyfriend to Toronto before returning to Stratford.

Merkley was granted full custody in March 2000 and Vandenelsen's access was reduced to every other Saturday and seven days in the summer. The access order was temporary, to be decided Oct. 23, 2000.

On Oct. 13, 2000, the day before the children disappeared, Vandenelsen's mother, Antonia Vandenelsen, was to pick up the children, but Carline arrived instead.

Merkley confronted her, worried she would take the children for good. He said she replied: "If I was going to do that I would have taken them in the summer when I had them for a week."

Antonia Vandenelsen returned to pick the children up, however, the grandmother later called Merkley to see if the triplets were home, explaining her daughter had taken them to her sister's. Merkley said he immediately called the police.

Merkley described the reunion with his children when authorities tracked them down in Mexico three months later.

"(Olivia) just stood there and looked at me. Then she slowly came to me and gave me a hug and wouldn't let go."

Merkley returns to the stand today.

Copyright (c) 2001 The London Free Press,