London Free Press

October 27, 2001

Two parents, two versions

Vandenelsen and Merkley offer differing accounts of events.

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

Carline Vandenelsen's labour began on the last night of 1992, while she and now ex-husband, Craig Merkley, snuggled in to watch a movie in her hospital room.

At long last, after years of frustration at not being able to conceive and discomforting fertility treatments, they would have a family.

Their three babies were about to be born by caesarean section at St. Joseph's Health Care.

But with the arrival of Peter Lyle, Donovan Gray and Olivia Louise, the couple's lives began an acrimonious spiral that would lead to the criminal courts.

Vandenelsen, 39, former high school drafting teacher and night club owner, was found not guilty yesterday of abducting the triplets in contravention of a court order a year after she scooped them and fled to Mexico in October 2000.

By January 2001, the children were reunited with Merkley, 45, a water specialist with the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority.

Last week, the details of their soured relationship came tumbling out in the Stratford courtroom.

The children were born premature, but joyfully, healthy New Year's babies. They were transferred to Stratford General Hospital where Vandenelsen nursed them. Reluctantly, she stopped because of health problems.

The boys came home first, but were readmitted with croup, caught from a neighbour's child. One of the neighbours who assisted with feedings was Jan Searle, whom Merkley eventually married.

"A revolving door of people (were) coming in" to help, Merkley said, though he returned to work in January 1993.

Vandenelsen had taken on a hefty load. She was teaching, taking university courses and volunteering with the Stratford Multiple Birth Association and a centre for abused women and children.

Under all the pressures, the marriage began to show cracks.

Their family doctor suggested marriage counselling, but Merkley attended only one session, Vandenelsen said.

She decided she needed "some time out."

By the second year, Merkley said he began to question his wife's parenting, saying she was prone to mood swings and screaming fits.

He said he had safety concerns. He once found a fist-sized hole in the wall above the children's light switch. Vandenelsen, he said, giggled and blamed the children.

Vandenelsen said she rented a studio apartment in London to pursue music and writing. Merkley called the move the beginning of the couple's separation, but Vandenelsen said she was still the children's primary caregiver.

But Merkley said his wife was becoming more and more bizarre.

Vandenelsen bought a cottage at Fanshawe Lake.

In December 1995, Vandenelsen found legal papers in Merkley's car. The applications for sole interim custody, claimed she was unfit, unstable and had abandoned the children.

She confronted her husband and visited a lawyer. "I didn't know he was contemplating this," she said.

In January 1996, she said she found Merkley's custody order in a desk drawer, granted without her knowledge.

Merkley said Vandenelsen was served with papers and "she chose not to participate."

Vandenelsen said the couple formally separated that spring and she moved to her cottage full time.

Merkley said the cottage wasn't safe; the kids always had bites and scratches on their faces. He grew concerned when they talked about "killing animals."

Vandenelsen's access was reduced and she was accused of making harassing phone calls to Merkley at work. He was demanding child support, she said.

By 1997, worried Merkley began taking the children for assessment to their family doctor, a child expert and the London's Child and Parent Resource Institute because their behaviour had deteriorated.

He said Vandenelsen, who at one point had access every other day, would sometimes not show up for visits and told the children he was not their real dad, something she denied.

The cottage was put up for sale. Vandenelsen moved to Toronto briefly with a boyfriend and considered going to Costa Rica.

That winter, Merkley and Searle started a relationship.

Vandenelsen's access was cut again, she said. She moved back to Stratford.

In the fall of 1999, Vandenelsen said she found out Merkley wanted to cut all her access to the children. She was "being totally annihilated from their lives."

A year later, she said, her back was against the wall. After Merkley was granted sole custody and her access was under review, her faith in the court system was dashed.

Nine days before a judge would decide if she could see her children, she took them and began what she called a desperate flight to retain her role as a parent.

"I know I went against a court order," she said. "I did that because I was doing the right thing for my children."

Copyright (c) 2001 The London Free Press,