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October 18, 2001

Triplets behaved strangely in mother's care, father testifies

Ex-wife accused of abducting children

Francine Dubé
National Post

STRATFORD, Ont. - Now they occupy separate corners of a criminal courtroom, but Craig Merkley and Carline Vandenelsen were once a contented couple eagerly expecting the birth of triplets.

Yesterday, Mr. Merkley trembled and cried as he testified against his former wife, who stands accused of abducting their eight-year-old children.

Peter, Gray and Olivia, he told jurors, went missing last October after a supervised access visit with their mother, and were discovered living with her in Acapulco in January.

He recalled how he felt when he was driven by authorities to the Mexican home where his children had been living and he saw his two sons walking down the driveway. "I walked up to them slowly. I didn't want to scare them. I didn't know what they had been told or not told about me," he said. "I kneeled down. They both came running and jumped in my arms and grabbed my neck."

Later, authorities brought his daughter to him. "She gave me this huge bear hug and wouldn't let go," he said.

Ms. Vandenelsen, 38 and Mr. Merkley, 45, met in 1987, when they were both working for the Upper Thames Conservation Authority. They married in October, 1988, and lived for a while in a cottage overlooking a lake near London, Ont.

"We talked about having children. It was kind of the next natural step for two people who love each other," Mr. Merkley testified yesterday.

The couple had difficulty conceiving, but with the help of an in-vitro fertilization clinic in London, and sperm from a donor, they were able to conceive triplets.

The final stages of Ms. Vandenelson's pregnancy were difficult and she was hospitalized. The situation drew them together, said Mr. Merkley. "I think it was a very, very happy time in both our lives. It had been a long struggle to become pregnant. It was a time of great closeness."

It wasn't until about a year after the children were born that he began to notice changes in his wife's behaviour. At times she would be carefree, at other times, she would yell at the babies. One evening over supper in a restaurant, she told Mr. Merkley that she thought of him as nothing more than a babysitter.

The couple separated in 1995. Mr. Merkley was awarded interim custody of the children, but Ms. Vandenelsen had visiting rights.

Mr. Merkley testified that he continued to have concerns about Ms. Vandenelson's behaviour with the children. He said that by the summer of 1996, the triplets were becoming aggressive with each other -- they had marks on their faces from biting and scratching. They talked of killing animals and putting out their eyes. One night he brought them to their mother's house and found a lighter and marijuana scattered on the table. The children began playing with both.

He also testified his wife told the children he was not their biological father, even though they had agreed as a couple to keep that information from them. One of his sons was deeply upset at the time although the children are not bothered by it now. Nor is he. "If the intensity of the hugs I get at night are any indication of fatherhood, I'm somewhere off the end of the scale," he said.

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