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October 23, 2001

Triplets agreed to run away, mother testifies

Abduction trial: 'Yes, they were seven at the time.... I believe they gave me meaningful consent'

Francine Dubé
National Post

STRATFORD, ONT. - A woman accused of abducting her seven-year-old triplets testified yesterday that she asked them whether they wanted to run away with her before she drove with them to Mexico, hiding them in the trunk to cross the U.S. border.

"They were given the opportunity that's before us always, to share their feelings and I wanted to know how my children felt about running away and if they were not comfortable with it, I wouldn't have done it," Carline Vandenelsen, 39, told the jury hearing evidence at her trial yesterday on three charges of child abduction.

Ms. Vandenelsen was charged after she was found living in Mexico with Peter, Gray and Olivia, who were then eight years old, in January, 2001.

The children were taken on Oct. 14, 2000, leaving their father, Craig Merkley, 45, frantic with worry. The case made front-page headlines and was featured on the television show America's Most Wanted.

Yesterday, Ms. Vandenelsen explained she took the children because she feared her former husband was about to win his court motion to bar her from all contact with the triplets. Mr. Merkley won custody of the children in March, 2000.

A two-day hearing was to be held seven months later, in October of that year, to determine Ms. Vandenelsen's access to the children. The judge specified he had not ruled out barring her from all contact with them.

Ms. Vandenelsen represented herself at that trial, but she testified yesterday that when she heard those words from the judge, she feared the worst -- that in October he would order all access terminated and that she would never see her children again.

In cross-examination, assistant Crown prosecutor Henry Van Drunen asked her whether she had considered simply appealing the decision.

Ms. Vandenelsen said she did not believe her children's interests would be served by further legal action. She also said she did not have confidence in the judge who was hearing the case.

She said she had not intended to run away with them on Oct. 14, but she was forced to act sooner than expected after she confided in her mother, who revealed the plans to others. Ms. Vandenelsen believed her former husband was then seeking an interim order barring her from all contact with her children, and that Oct. 14 would be her last visit with the triplets.

During the visit, she told the triplets that if she dropped them off at their father's house, there was a good chance she would never see them again. The alternative she offered was running away. They agreed, she said.

"I did not put the responsibility on my children," she said. "I wanted my children to know that any absence of their mother had nothing to do with me. I felt if my children were thinking their mother isn't any good, that would have been far more damaging than running away and being raised by her.

"In effect, I wanted to know where my children were at, where they were emotionally, how they felt about that. I know what it's like for me to go to sleep and not tuck my babies in. And I can't speak for them, so yes, I wanted them to know that there was a very good possibility that they would not see their mother for a very long time," Ms. Vandenelsen testified.

"Yes, I shared that with my children. Yes, they were seven at the time and I believed that they had a right to know what could possibly have happened.

"I believe they gave me meaningful consent," she said.

Her version of the breakdown of her marriage to Mr. Merkley was substantially different from his version, delivered in testimony last week.

He believes they separated in September, 1995, while living in Stratford, near London, Ont. Ms. Vandenelsen testified she took a studio apartment in London at that time so she could have a place to write and study music during the day. It did not, she said, signal the end of the marriage.

She also testified that Mr. Merkley, unbeknownst to her, sought custody of the children that autumn.

She said she did not know he was seeking custody until she found some papers in his car in December, a fact confirmed by his testimony. She said he told her it had been a mistake and that he was going to withdraw his petition.

In fact, he went on to pursue the matter and was granted interim custody, Ms. Vandenelsen said.

She also testified that during their marriage he refused to take time off work to help her with the triplets, even though a social worker recommended he do so. She said he refused to attend more than one marriage counselling session.

"I didn't feel that I had a partner beside me," Ms. Vandenelsen said.

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