London Free Press

October 27, 2001

Runaway mom walks

By Jane Sims -- Free Press Justice Reporter
London Free Press

STRATFORD -- A defiant mother acquitted of abducting her triplets says she'll turn her attention to gaining custody of her children.

"Would I do it again? No," said Carline Vandenelsen, 39, outside the Stratford courthouse with her arm around her mother, Antonia Vandenelsen. "I am hoping this verdict will take me into a family court of law to show I've only acted in the best interests of my children. I mean, I'm their mother."

Fresh from the stunning legal victory and circled by reporters, Vandenelsen said "justice was served" when an eight-man, four-woman jury found her not guilty by reason of necessity yesterday on three abduction charges in contravention of a custody order for taking Peter, Gray and Olivia Merkley, now eight, to Mexico.

"I still have a ways to go because I'm not putting my children to bed and that is my goal. It was always my goal," she said.

Her ex-husband, Craig Merkley, 45, the triplets' custodial parent, told reporters the decision "declared open season" for parents who want to abduct their children.

"Anybody who is at least thinking about it can look at this case and say, 'What have I got to lose?' There is nothing to lose," he said with his wife, Jan Searle, at his side.

"What do the police and the authorities do now? Their hands are completely tied. If there is an abduction, what's the point in trying to bring the abductor back? They're going to get off."

Merkley said he has lost faith in the justice system.

"There's absolutely no reason why she (Vandenelsen) shouldn't do it again," he said.

Moments earlier, in the ornate courtroom where she lost full custody of the children last year, Vandenelsen sat in the prisoner's box as the three not-guilty verdicts were read, with her head bowed and her body shaking with emotion.

Her family cheered and embraced. Merkley and Searle stared solemnly straight ahead.

Vandenelsen was arrested last January in Acapulco, Mexico, where she'd been living in an apartment with the kids.

Merkley had spent three harrowing months in an international search for the triplets, who disappeared with Vandenelsen Oct. 14, 2000.

Almost a year earlier, in March 2000, Merkley had won full custody. But Superior Court Justice Robert Abbey adjourned a decision on Vandenelsen's access to Oct. 23, 2000, and left open the possible termination of her visits with the children.

Using a defence outlined in the Criminal Code, Vandenelsen's lawyer, Clay Powell, argued his client believed it was necessary to take the children because they would have been harmed emotionally or psychologically if they were cut off from their mother.

"I think (the verdict) should send a message to mothers they have a special relationship with their kids," Powell added.

He said he only knew of three other cases since 1982 in which the defence had been used, resulting in one conviction, one conditional discharge and one acquittal.

"That's not a floodgate," he said. "The sections have been there and people aren't running off with their kids."

Vandenelsen has regained supervised visits with her children every other Saturday. She's also pondering a career as a mediator for divorced families.

She added children should be nurtured by both parents, meaning she should look at finding some common ground with Merkley.

"I am hoping today's verdict will bring us one step closer to that and that we can reach some consensus about how these children are going to continue on in their childhood."

The verdict, she said, should not be taken as permission to breach custody orders, but as a message "to take a closer look at the goings-on in the family court."

Merkley said he never sought to terminate Vandenelsen's access to the kids.

"I said after a period of time there would be access. I was concerned about all the things I laid out in the criminal court and also in the family matters."

There is little room for consensus-building with his ex-wife, Merkley said, particularly because of the "taunting" behaviour of Vandenelsen's sisters after the verdict and the reporters had left.

Merkley said Maureen Davidson pointed at assistant Crown attorney Henry Van Drunen "and uttered a lot of rude things."

Van Drunen had no comment after the verdict.

Copyright (c) 2001 The London Free Press,