On the morning of June 27, 2016, Jean Hennig got a phone call that has haunted her every day since. She was told her beloved daughter Arlene was dead.
“The biggest heartbreak anybody will ever have is to lose a child. You can’t sleep, you can’t eat. You’re just missing a part of yourself.”
Arlene, a 56-year-old nurse, had spent the previous day canoeing and picnicking with her husband Bert Westervelt on Okanagan Lake. He claimed the Lake Country, B.C., couple was paddling back to their vehicle, when the boat tipped and his wife disappeared.
The next day, RCMP pulled Arlene’s lifeless body from the lake.
Bert told police and Arlene’s mother it was an accidental drowning. Right away, Arlene’s sisters Debbie and Wendy were suspicious.
“I knew instantly that he killed her. I just screamed it, he killed her. He killed her. I know he killed her,” Wendy said.
“As soon as I heard that, I just screamed, literally screamed,” Debbie said in an interview with Global News’ The New Reality. “I said, ‘Mom, this is not an accident.’ I said, ‘He’s done something to her.’”
While Arlene’s family has publicly accused her husband of murder since she died and Bert Westervelt has always maintained his innocence, he has never said anything publicly, until now. He broke his silence to “The New Reality” in an exclusive sit-down interview.
But a drowning on the many lakes in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley is a common event, and at least initially, the Mounties believed Bert’s version of events: that he was innocent and that his wife’s death was an accident.
“It’s a tragic accident that possibly could’ve been avoided, and we feel for the victim and the families and everybody involved,” RCMP Const. Kelly Brett said at the time.
In the days and weeks that followed, however, it became clear that this case was not that simple, and jumping to conclusions may have contributed to turning Arlene’s death into a long-running mystery.
Arlene was known as a lover of travel and outdoor adventures, with an infectious laugh.
“We called her giggly Gerty, and she was just, she just laughed at everything and it was always fun to be around her,” Wendy recalls.
“When one of us had birthdays, her sisters or myself, and we’d celebrate that,” Jean says.
“She was just such a joy to our family.”
But they say Arlene’s marriage with her husband Bert seemed to be deteriorating in recent years.
“My last visit with her, which was about two or three weeks before she died, I sensed there was tension,” Jean told Global News. “She and Bert would talk in private, and she’d come back with tears in her eyes.”
She recalls an emotional scene when she left her daughter to fly home to Quebec.
“There was just something strange about that last hug. And she was crying, and I was crying, and her body was trembling and I said, ‘Honey, it’s going to be all right.’”
“The next contact was from Bert to say she had drowned.”
Arlene never came out and said it, but her sisters believed she was preparing to leave him.
When Arlene died, they say they made repeated calls to police and the BC Coroner, begging officials to take a closer look at the circumstances surrounding Arlene’s death and calling for an autopsy.
Their pleas fell on deaf ears, and eight days after Arlene’s death, a funeral was held. But the RCMP got a fateful phone call that changed their whole theory of the case.
“That’s the moment that changed everything,” Debbie Hennig remembers. “That is when her divorce lawyer contacted RCMP and told them that she was his client.”
With that call, the police and Coroner sprung into action. They opened a suspicious death investigation, retook custody of Arlene’s body, and ordered an autopsy.
While Arlene’s family has publicly accused her husband of murder since she died, he has never said anything publicly until now. He broke his silence to Global’s current affairs show, The New Reality, in an exclusive sit-down interview.
“We’ve had a tumultuous, you know … we’ve never gotten along,” Bert Westervelt said of his relationship with Arlene’s sisters.
“They hate me. So, it’s as simple as that, really.”
He admits he and Arlene had disagreements over their 34-year relationship but said the overwhelming majority of their time together was “wonderful.”
“Arlene and I had ups and downs, but when it came down to it, there’s nobody I’d rather travel with than Arlene. There is nobody I’d rather golf with than Arlene. There’s nobody I’d rather hike with than Arlene. There’s nobody I’d rather bike with than Arlene.”
While there were years of bad blood between Arlene’s sisters and husband, Arlene’s uncle Don Hennig says he was on friendly terms with Bert.
That began to change when word leaked out that Arlene had been speaking to a divorce lawyer, and Don realized police had opened a murder investigation.
“When I found out the RCMP were involved, I suspected something wasn’t right.”
Don says in retrospect, there were signs that things between Bert and Arlene were not going well. He keeps a daily diary and showed Global News an entry he wrote less than two weeks before her death.
“Arlene stopped by for a few minutes last night … was crying,” it reads.
“I asked her what was wrong and she didn’t want to talk about it. And finally, she said to me, ‘I guess all married couples fight.’”
“And that was the last time I saw her.”
Looking back, Don says there were other things that stick out in his mind.
He says Arlene was physically fit, a good swimmer who was comfortable on the water and always wore a life jacket. But she wasn’t wearing one when she died.
Don says he became more skeptical when Bert’s story about what happened changed in the aftermath of Arlene’s death.
He says Bert initially told him Arlene reached for a bottle of water, and when the boat started to tip, he overbalanced too far the other way, and the boat overturned. He says Bert claimed he saw Arlene surface, so he dove for the life jackets, and when he came back, Arlene was missing.
Don says Bert later changed his description of what happened when he and Arlene surfaced after the canoe tipped.
He says Bert claims Arlene was reaching for the canoe. “I guess Bert thought that she was going to pull the canoe over herself, which seems strange to me. And, so he pulled her off and then, he said she went under and I guess he grabbed her arm or something, and she punched him. I find that very odd.”
That’s when Don says he believed Bert had killed Arlene.
“Your story shouldn’t change if you tell the truth. … I think she was murdered.”
Three years after Arlene’s death, the RCMP apparently believed it too. In 2019, Bert Westervelt was charged with the second-degree murder of his wife.
He declined to answer questions about exactly what happened in the canoe on the advice of his lawyer because the case is technically still before the court.
However, he says he understands why changing his story might raise suspicions.
“Apparently, that’s a large part as to the reason why I was arrested,” Westervelt told Global News.
But Arlene’s family says there was much more to it than that.
“When he was arrested, the RCMP detectives talked to me,” Don Hennig says. “That’s when I asked, ‘You’ve got evidence to lay charges?’ And (a detective) nodded her head and said, ‘Yeah, we’ve got lots.”
Debbie Hennig said she met with detectives in the homicide office in Kelowna.
“I saw black boxes stacked up on the desk, her files with her name on them. There were thousands of documents. And statements, interviews.”
But in yet another stunning reversal, two months before the preliminary hearing was to begin last September, the Crown announced the case was not going forward. The murder charge was stayed. The Crown said only that the decision was based on “new evidence.”
The Hennigs were devastated, but not ready to give up. They rallied in front of the Kelowna courthouse to demand answers. They also hired lawyer Anthony Oliver to push authorities to answer the big question: what had changed so drastically?
“We had a preliminary inquiry that was scheduled for multiple weeks with dozens of witnesses. And for whatever reason, the Crown’s office blew the whole thing up.”
Oliver says the Crown has refused repeated requests to provide more information about why the murder charge was stayed. Neither has the family gotten a satisfactory response from writing letters to provincial and federal politicians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Family of Lake Country woman renews calls for justice
AN INVESTIGATION GONE WRONG
Anthony Oliver, the family’s lawyer, says the investigation began to go wrong almost immediately after Arlene’s body was recovered from the lake. He believes it started with an RCMP officer named Brian Gateley.
“Now, what occurred in those early days is still unclear. And it certainly does have something to do with Brian Gateley, who was then an inspector with the RCMP,” Oliver claims.
In the days after Arlene’s death, Bert Westervelt asked Gateley to take his deceased wife’s cell phone to be unlocked, saying the phone had photos of their last day together that he wanted.
Gateley was not assigned to the case, so this wasn’t a formal request, but a personal one. He gave the phone to a fellow officer, who used RCMP technology to unlock the phone for Bert.
As a veteran Mountie, Gateley should have known that could be a serious breach of the RCMP’s code of conduct.
And eventually, Gateley’s actions would be the subject of an internal RCMP investigation. Global News obtained a copy of the conduct letter alleging Gateley had Arlene’s phone unlocked using a tool called “Cellebrite” for “personal or unauthorized reasons.”
Arlene’s sister, Debbie Hennig, believes Bert wanted the phone unlocked not for the pictures it contained, but to see, and potentially wipe clean, any secrets it might hold.
“He wanted, obviously, to get into the phone and maybe read past texts and conversations and see who she’d been communicating with.”
Gateley declined to answer questions, but Global News obtained a letter he wrote to Debbie. In it, he claims that he and Bert were casual acquaintances, that their wives worked together, and that the two couples had socialized a few times.
Gateley admits in the letter to having the phone hacked, but says he only did it after he was assured by investigators on the case that Arlene’s death was being treated as an accident.
But there’s a problem with that too, because the RCMP investigation into Gateley’s actions includes another allegation: that Gateley “provided his personal opinion” to investigators and engaged in “a potential conflict of interest.”
In his letter to Debbie Hennig, Gateley claims he wasn’t involved in the case, and did not “in any way compromise the investigation or the prosecution.”
However, the impact of Gateley’s actions on the case is unknown. Before the conduct allegations against him could be resolved, Gateley resigned from the RCMP, effectively ending the investigation.
He was subsequently hired by BC’s Organized Crime Agency, which partners with BC’s Integrated Anti-Gang Agency.
Gateley already had connections with the agency. He’d worked with them on investigations when he was still with the RCMP.
Arlene’s sister Debbie has now filed a complaint with the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP, requesting an investigation into the force’s decision to accept Gateley’s resignation before the internal conduct investigation was finished.
Arlene’s family believes Gateley and Bert Westervelt were actually friends, not mere acquaintances.
Debbie can’t shake the feeling Gateley influenced detectives to treat Arlene’s death as an accident early on, and that his actions are being covered up.
“I had a lot of fear. I was terrified of their connection.”
“If he knew a party in the matter, that being Bert Westervelt, and knew that certain RCMP members were saying, no, this doesn’t look to be a drowning, this needs to be investigated as a homicide, we need an autopsy, he should have checked himself out immediately and he didn’t,” Oliver says.
The RCMP have always maintained that the stay of proceedings made by the prosecution is unrelated to the conduct of any officers.
Okanagan woman’s family pleading for closer look at murder investigation: Lawyer
Whatever the reason, the decision to treat Arlene’s death as an accident in the early hours after her body was found may have been a turning point in the investigation.
“I’ve never been involved with, investigated or experienced a case like this that has so many gaps and shortcomings early on in the investigation,” says former homicide detective Mike Cavilla.
Cavilla was asked to provide an independent assessment of the case by Anthony Oliver.
There were no independent eyewitnesses close enough to see exactly what happened when Arlene and Bert Westervelt’s canoe tipped. He says that under those circumstances, the Coroner’s Service should have ordered an autopsy immediately.
“Was this accidental? Was this non-accidental and inflicted? Is this a homicide? None of those decisions can be made within the first hours of the events unfolding,” Cavilla told Global News.
“The body is like the crime scene. You only have one crack at it and you’ve got to do the best job you possibly can in order to arrive at the truth.”
Whether they were influenced by Gateley, or for other unknown reasons, police treated Arlene’s death as an accident until they got a call from her divorce lawyer and opened a murder investigation days later.
An autopsy was finally performed 10 days after Arlene had died — and after her body had already been embalmed.
The family says they had been begging authorities to order an autopsy earlier, but as Arlene’s next of kin, Bert Westervelt rejected the idea.
“I wasn’t crazy about it because I just felt Arlene had been through enough, you know, and I just wanted, I really just wanted to leave her be.”
Bert also says Betty Noble, the Coroner called to the scene of Arlene’s death, told him there were no signs of any injuries to her body when it was first inspected.
“I asked her for signs of physical trauma. And Betty Noble said, ‘No.’ Was emphatical. ‘No, none.’”
The Coroner’s report confirms no injuries were found at first.
But later, when the autopsy was eventually done, it raised the possibility that Arlene may have been murdered. It found hemorrhages on the strap muscles of Arlene’s neck and hemorrhages to both eyes.
“Hemorrhages in the eyes can occur and hemorrhages in the neck can occur from strangulation,” says retired forensic pathologist Dr. John Butt.
Those findings may be why Crown prosecutors laid a second-degree murder charge against Bert Westervelt in 2019.
But the fact that the body was embalmed prior to the autopsy is another issue that may have muddied the legal waters. Embalming is a procedure that preserves the body for viewing at a funeral by draining the blood and pumping in chemicals through an incision in the neck.
“The incision can of course mask other evidence that might have been present or create evidence that may be misleading,” Butt told Global News.
The Coroner’s report found no marks on Arlene’s neck and no injury to the hyoid bone, which is located under the chin.
It also claims the embalming did not interfere with the investigation of the hemorrhages.
Yet Butt disagrees. He says the delayed autopsy may have been part of the prosecutor’s calculations when it decided not to proceed with the murder prosecution against Bert Westervelt.
“It’s my opinion in this case, that that was one of the reasons why the charge against the accused was stayed.”
He says regardless of any confusion around the neck hemorrhages, the eye hemorrhages haven’t been explained to his satisfaction.
“The hemorrhages in the eyes are not common with drowning, that’s for sure. I would say in this case that my index of suspicion is sustained. The best way to put it is I don’t think this is the end of the matter.”
Ultimately, the Coroner’s report found the cause of Arlene Westervelt’s death to be “undetermined,” explaining that it could neither confirm nor rule out the possibility that she died of strangulation, by drowning, or from an underlying heart condition.
In retrospect, Bert Westervelt agrees that the autopsy should have been done earlier. But all along, he has stuck to his story that Arlene’s death was an accidental drowning and maintained his innocence.
“I still, to this day, don’t know how it got this far. It’s been hell. But it’s not just on me. It’s my friends, my friends, family, my family — it’s been hell for a lot of people.”
Asked point-blank whether he killed his wife: “No. God, no.”
Allegations of interference from Mountie Brian Gateley and questions about the competence of RCMP and the BC Coroner’s Service may have contributed to the Crown’s decision to stay the murder charge against Bert Westervelt. Or, there may be other evidence that the Crown is not disclosing, leaving both Bert Westervelt and Arlene Westervelt’s family in legal limbo.
“We are left with a very, very large hole in our hearts. Our family is so broken. We miss her so much and we want to know why she died,” says Arlene’s mother Jean Hennig.
The Hennig family still believes Bert killed Arlene. They are clinging to hope that the BC government will appoint an independent forensic pathologist to review the evidence, so they can possibly, finally, find out why Bert’s trial was cancelled, or maybe get the prosecution restarted.
Debbie is pleading with anyone who has any information to come forward to police, or contact them at their Facebook page. “Justice for Arlene.”
“Make no mistake, we are not going away and we are not going to give up our fight.”
But time to find out the truth is running out. The one-year stay of the murder charge expires on July 14. Debbie says her family just wants Bert to finally see his day in court.
“The man charged with murder is walking free, not because he’s been found innocent, but because something has gone wrong with the prosecution, and that’s not justice.”