Sue Thomas was partway through the Sunday-morning paper, a coffee at her side, when these words splintered the calm. “The headline was sister charged with manslaughter in disabled woman's death.” The room fell away. Her pupils raced the page. “The name Betty Anne Gagnon. My eyes couldn't read that story fast enough.” When she finished, another race — down the stairs to make a phone call she dreaded. She had to tell her friends Suzanne and Heather.
Three friends shocked by the loss of a loved one. Betty Anne had once lived with them for nearly two decades, but they were finding out about her death six months afterward. “All I could think of was sweet, vulnerable, shy Betty Anne,” Thomas said. “I just wanted to know more, what could have possibly have happened to Betty Anne?”
Betty Anne Gagnon was born in Pincher Creek, Alberta, one of four children. Mentally and developmentally delayed due to oxygen deprivation at birth, her family moved often so she could access a school for the handicapped. “I think we had quite a normal life, as normal as we could,” her father Don Gagnon said. A tradesman, he moved the family to Calgary, Victoria and Fort St. John, looking for better job opportunities. When Betty Anne was 19 her mother died. Life got tougher, but Don had help from her brothers and sisters, including younger sister Denise. “I think we had a good life,” he said. “Much better, much better than I ever thought she would have, in her facilities. And her abilities, they kept getting better.”
At age 18, Betty Anne left school, started work and lived in a series of group homes. She was shy, but an avid reader with a voracious appetite for pop culture. “She was not stupid,” Don said. “She liked movie stars. She could give you the life of pretty near every movie star.” Betty Anne’s sharp memory was evident in other ways. Her dad piloted planes as a hobby, and when they hit bad weather, he would invite her to help navigate the way home. “I would ask her should we go this way or that way and she would say, ‘Oh no, don't go that way.’ She seemed to have, what do you call it, one of those kinds of memories where you never forget nothing?”
In 1990, Betty Anne went to live in a private home in Calgary, owned by Suzanne Jackett and Sue Thomas. Jackett had worked with persons with disabilities in the past and her former colleagues asked the pair to become her supportive roommates. “We felt that it was something we would enjoy doing because it would be a way to give back to someone who was starting to come out of a group home and into the community.”
Betty Anne worked five days a week at a car wash and took the bus on her own around Calgary to do her favourite things: shopping at 7/11, going to the movies and bowling. Don Gagnon paid the rent out of Betty Anne's Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) money, which was about $600 of the $1000 benefit each month. The Calgary Developmental Disabilities Resource Centre also paid Thomas and Jackett to help Betty Anne with cooking, grocery shopping and budgeting. “She was funny,” Jackett said. “And she was sweet. And she was stubborn.” She described Betty Anne as her perpetual teenager. “She lived with me for 18 years, and in all of those 18 years, she never wanted to do her housework and never wanted to shovel the snow.”
Their perpetual teenager was also a dreamer who devoured Teen Beat magazines and hung posters of the latest young hunks in her bedroom. She collected other things too. When Betty Anne first moved in, her roommates worried she might be a hoarder, as she would keep newspapers in her room long after she read them. “We couldn't figure out why she cut out little pieces of the classified section, for example,” Jackett said. “We found out a number of years later that it was all of her hopes and dreams. So if she wanted to go to Paris, or if she wanted to go to Disney Land, or if she wanted to own a motorhome, or a puppy – whatever. She would cut those things out and keep them.”
The dream of one day owning and driving a motorhome became even more distant possibilities on the Saturday her friends lost her the first time. The day started like any other, Jackett said. Betty Anne got up, read the paper and took the bus to the mall. “Typically, she would go bowling and be home in time for supper. You could count on [the fact that] she is going to be at this place at this time and very rarely late.” But that night, she didn't come home. Her friends tried not to worry, but after a couple of hours they phoned her dad who said he had not heard from her. They called the police.
They later found out Betty Anne had stayed on the bus because she couldn't see the stop. A doctor told them that severe glaucoma had left her legally blind. Friends and family were baffled they had not noticed sooner. “She was brilliant at hiding her glaucoma,” Jackett said. “For years, her dad didn't catch on, her workers didn't catch on, no one knew.”Betty Anne soon learned to use a white cane and handicapped transportation so she could still get around the city. Her friends would soon discover her streak of independence was even stronger.
Betty Anne lived with Suzanne Jackett even after she and Sue Thomas broke up, and Jackett's new partner, Heather O'Bray moved in. “I was the 'good cop' and I got to be Betty Anne's friend, sister, somewhere in between,” O'Bray said. They bonded over a popular home makeover show called Trading Spaces, laughing at some of the more outrageous designs. That inspired them to do their own makeover on Betty Anne's suite: new paint, bed, shower curtain, all in a dolphin and whale pattern she loved. But even in her new space, Betty Anne yearned for a better, different life.
They found that out when they participated in a communications exercise with a support worker. Betty Anne used pictures and conversation to express what she wanted. “We found out that she didn't want to live with us,” Jackett said. “That she didn't want to go to work. She wanted to be retired. She wanted to travel to Paris. She wanted to swim with the dolphins.” Around that time, O'Bray and Jackett were planning to buy a new business in Bragg Creek, a rural community outside of Calgary. It wasn't close to transit, didn't have street lamps or a bowling alley for Betty Anne. So her family decided she would move in with her sister in Edmonton.
The last time Sue Thomas saw Betty Anne was at the grocery store. They still shopped together once a week even though they no longer lived together. “It was a sad day, but she was excited at the same time. We joked, wiped away our tears,” Thomas said. “We all trusted in what her future would be and everybody's life moves on.” Now, Thomas wishes she had never let Betty Anne go.
On the day Betty Anne left in June 2005, her support worker snapped photos on the back deck. It is a memory O’Bray and Jackett hold onto tightly now. “Betty Anne always wanted to aspire to something new or different,” Jackett said. ”I had no idea what was ahead for her. If I had known, I never would have suggested that she move away from us.”
When Betty Anne first moved in with her younger sister Denise and her 15-year-old niece Hailey, it was just the three of them. “It just seemed like one of those seamless things, she was just there,” Hailey said. “And it actually worked out for a long time.” In the years before, Denise had left an abusive relationship, took high school equivalency courses and earned a nursing degree. She had regularly taken Betty Anne into her home for visits and it seemed like a good fit.
Denise soon decided to move in with her boyfriend, Michael Scriven, a contractor who took her out to a nearby pub most evenings. They sold the house in the city, married and moved to an acreage in Ardrossan, a rural area about 30 km east of Edmonton. Their lives seemed full, with relatives and the fun of living in the country. Mikaela, Michael Scriven's mother, lived just down the road. “Betty Anne loved the acreage,” she said. “There was never a family function when Betty Anne wasn't included. Whether it was quadding, dinners, fires. Betty Anne was always a part of the family. They always treated her very well. And nobody loved her more than Denise.”
Betty Anne's dad was also pleased with the change. “She called it the farm. She would go and visit my son down in Guelph and she would only be there a week or so, and she would want to go back to the farm,” he said. Don remembers how she liked to “play” on a school bus, converted to a motorhome, on the property. The bus would become one of the last places Betty Anne Gagnon was seen alive.
Hailey describes what happened next as a “slow change.” She and Betty Anne shared the basement at the acreage, while Denise and Michael lived upstairs. “We used to spend a lot of time being in the same room, not necessarily doing stuff together, but being around each other,” she said. “It slowly changed to…there was the upstairs for them and the downstairs for us.” Denise and Michael put a lock on the upstairs door. They started charging Hailey, then 16 years old, $250 a month in rent and made her buy her own groceries from a nearby gas station, expenses she paid with two part-time jobs after school. Betty Anne and Hailey would sometimes go days at a time without seeing the couple.
Betty Anne’s old friends also had a hard time keeping in touch. “For three years, we phoned,” Jackett said. “But Betty Anne didn't have her own phone there. At their place, you had to leave a message and go through Denise.“ But Denise never called back.
Michael Scriven’s mother remembers him calling to talk about some challenging behaviours. “The only warning signs I think were probably that Michael was saying Betty Anne was smearing feces on the walls and stuff like this and that they were having problems with her that way and that they were getting very frustrated,” Mikaela said. “And I just told him at that point that I felt maybe she should be in a group home. And he says, ‘You don't do that with family. We will work through this.’”
The couple tried to get professional help. Denise and Betty Anne met with the Robin Hood Association, a non-profit disabilities support group, in January 2007. Like the Developmental Disabilities Resource Centre in Calgary, this organization receives funding from the province to provide services for the disabilities community. Ann Marie LePan,its director of adult services, helped Denise start an application.
LePan said Denise seemed like a competent, professional woman but she couldn’t remember if the application was completed. A year later, Michael phoned LePan. He was upset, and threatened to drop off Betty Anne at the agency’s doors. “I did not have the information or had ever supported Betty Anne. I directed him to contact his worker at Persons with Developmental Disabilities (PDD) if he was feeling that he couldn't handle it and if it was really urgent he should be going to emergency [at the hospital].” Michael’s call rattled her so much she called the PDD caseworker with a warning. “Heads up,” she told them, ”because he is very upset.”
The tension peaked in late summer, 2008. Michael and Denise were fighting a lot, and even when they weren’t, Hailey felt she was walking on egg shells. “I think it must have been September 11, maybe September 10, somewhere around there,” Hailey said. “Mike and my mom had gotten into a big fight, a huge fight. There were plates smashed everywhere and Betty and I were in the basement just listening to all this happen.” Four days later, Hailey got off the school bus to find her mom waiting in the driveway with her hair straightener. She yelled at her for leaving it on, gave her $600 dollars and told her she had two weeks to leave. Hailey moved in with her boyfriend’s family.
Alarmed at the couple’s increasingly erratic behaviour, Mikaela called the police. “Denise was no longer working. She was on stress leave. Michael was no longer working,” she said. “I knew that financially they were strapped. Their power wasn't even on. There was just so many changes that didn't add up.” But the RCMP told her they couldn't get involved. She and Hailey phoned social services. Social services referred them to another department, which referred them to Alberta Elder Abuse. Elder Abuse referred them back to the RCMP, who recommended they go visit Betty Anne to see if she was alright.
“When we got there the yard was in complete disrepair, there was furniture and desks and garbage everywhere and it just felt wrong to be there, like, it was a very uneasy feeling,” Hailey said. They knocked at the door. The Scrivens answered. “We were told she was in the bathtub and that she couldn't talk to anybody,” Hailey said. “And then we were asked to leave the property, which we had to because it is private property.”
Court documents show Denise had a breakdown in December 2008 and was placed on disability from her job as a nurse for depression, stress and anxiety. Her mental health continued to decline. She attempted suicide.
After they were turned away at the acreage, Hailey and Mikaela tried once again to get the RCMP to intervene.Instead, they were told to contact Betty Anne’s family. Hailey organized a conference call with Betty Anne's father Don and her two brothers. “I said, ‘You have to stop giving [Denise] money and you have to get Betty Anne out of there. This is not normal.’” But Don decided to trust Denise and leave his daughter where she was.
“She would never do anything to hurt Betty Anne,” Don said, adding later that, “You have to have to somebody to look after those kinds of people, you just can’t leave it to the government.”
Mikaela stopped phoning the authorities. Michael and Denise cut off all communication with her, and she wasn't sure if Betty Anne was even living with them anymore. Strathcona RCMP spokesman Wally Henry said they have no record of any calls from any members of Betty Anne's family.
Denise also called for help. She told someone at Persons with Development Disabilities in February 2009 that she could no longer cope and to find a new placement for her sister. They told her finding a spot could take up to a year. The Robin Hood Association found a possible placement for Betty Anne in July 2009. A PDD support worker tried but failed to contact the Scrivens by phone. On July 27, 2009, PDD sent a letter to the acreage. It warned if they did not hear from Denise by August 27, 2009, Betty Anne’s file would be closed. Court documents state Denise and Michael never received the letter.
Friday, November 20, 2009. According to claims, not proven in court, that police made to obtain a search warrant, this is what happened the day Betty Anne died.
Between 9:00 and 10:00 am, Denise brought breakfast and a change of clothes to Betty Anne in the school bus where she had stayed overnight. The bus had no running water, heat or toilet facilities. The temperature the night before had dropped to minus 5.9 degrees C.
At 12:00 p.m., Denise left for Edmonton to buy a piece of crack cocaine. She returned about an hour later to smoke it with Michael. Then she brought Betty Anne her lunch on the school bus.
3:10 p.m. is when Denise says she found Betty Anne wet and lying on her side in the school bus. She was having trouble breathing, so Denise pried open her jaw, placed a funnel in her mouth, then attempted CPR.
At 5:57 p.m., an Emergency Services worker declared Betty Anne dead at a gas station down the road from the Scrivens property. Denise says she brought her sister there so it would be easier for police to find.
The report from the medical examiner says Betty Anne died from an acute subdural hematoma, which is a severe brain injury. The trauma may have been caused by a fall or a blow to the face. Betty Anne was 48 years old when she died. At 5'2, she weighed 65 pounds, and had bruises on her body, eyes and head. She had a fecal stone in her intestine and feces in her ears.
That evening, RCMP brought Michael and Denise Scriven in for questioning. Four days later, police filed for a warrant to search the property.
In that same search warrant request, police allege Michael Scriven told them that night he had kicked Betty Anne out of the house because he was angry with her “shit-smearing behaviour.” He had set up seven-or-eight areas outside the house where she could be locked up, including the garage, a chicken hutch, the basement and a bus. He described another structure as a “tent city” inside a dog run in the yard. The dog run was fenced with a locking gate, and he said the tent had to be thrown out as it was covered in feces.
Her former caregivers said they find these details difficult to reconcile with the woman they knew. “In the 14 years that Betty Anne lived with us, there was never anything, feces smearing, behaviours of any sort, acting out, aggression, nothing,” Sue Thomas said. “I can't explain it. Maybe a psychologist can explain it, but that is not Betty Anne. Never would she have done that.”
During a search of the property, RCMP seized 21 videos the Scrivens had recorded. In two of the videos, Denise is seen or heard assaulting Betty Anne. She is heard saying, “You want some more Mr. Clean in your mouth?” and “They get a lot harder when you make me mad.” In each of two other videos, Denise is heard spanking Betty Anne between 70 and 75 times.
Denise and Michael Scriven originally pleaded not guilty to five charges, including assault, unlawful confinement and manslaughter, which carries a maximum life sentence. They were not held in custody and their first court appearance was July 7, 2010. In March 2012, a preliminary hearing found there was enough evidence to go to trial, which was eventually scheduled for January 21, 2013.
In the months between the preliminary hearing and the trial, the Scrivens fired their lawyer and hired two new representatives. On the trial’s first day, the prosecution and defence filed a joint application to change the plea. In a plea bargain, the Scrivens agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a lesser charge: failure to provide the necessaries of life, which carries a maximum of five years in prison.
“How we got to the point where all the charges - very serious charges - have been dropped to one charge with maximum five years, it is mind-boggling,” said Sue Thomas, who attended every court date over the years. “I'm sure it has been explained to me, but deep in my heart I can't understand it.”
Robert Gordon thinks he knows why the Crown made a deal. Gordon is director of Simon Fraser University’s School of Criminology. He believes the RCMP may have made what he calls a “procedural error,” highlighted in documents obtained by CBC News. The Scrivens’ court file includes two motions, filed in the weeks leading up to the trial. In them, their lawyers argue their constitutional rights were violated during police questioning, specifically the right to silence and the right to counsel.
“While Mr. Scriven might initially have been dealt with as merely a witness, he quickly became a suspect and was interrogated as one,” reads the notice filed by Michael Scriven's lawyer on January 14, 2013. “He asked police at one point during the interrogation, ‘Is this going to be held against me in court?’ and was advised ‘No. You're not under arrest. We told you that already.’”
A notice filed January 7, 2013 by Denise Scriven's lawyer makes a similar argument. “While Ms. Scriven might initially have been dealt with as merely a witness, she quickly became a suspect and was interrogated as one.
“Ms. Scriven was not informed of her right to counsel until the completion of the interview, when the decision was made to arrest her. This was over two and a half hours after the interview had commenced.”
Both notices argue the statements the Scrivens gave to police the night of November 20, 2009 were not voluntary, were in breach of their rights, and shouldn't be allowed in the trial. Gordon said the threat may have been enough for the prosecution to believe some of the evidence was in jeopardy, forcing him to make a deal.
The Strathcona County RCMP insists it maintains a high standard during questioning. “We do the best job that we can at the time with the information that has been provided to us,” spokesman Wally Henry said. He referred all other questions to Alberta Justice, which declined interview requests.
The couple's sentencing hearing was scheduled for June 27, but it is expected to be adjourned until August or September while the court awaits the results of a psychiatric assessment. A 37-paragraph agreed statement of facts was read into the court record on March 1, 2013. The last paragraph states: “It is not disputed that both accused had tried very hard between 2005 and 2009 to provide the care [Betty Anne] needed. Several witnesses and family members saw, for the first few years, no reason for concern about Betty Anne's care and that Betty Anne seemed happy to be living with the accused.”
“The accused's mental health deteriorated, along with some of the challenging behaviours Betty Anne displayed. And by early 2009 the accused were failing badly. The situation described above developed in the last months of the deceased's life when they could no longer cope. They believed that if they could change Betty Anne's behaviour she would not have to go into an institution where Denise believed Betty Anne would be chemically restrained.”
One day after attending a difficult court hearing, Sue Thomas decided to visit the acreage where her friend Betty Anne had lived out her last days. She looked in the garage where Betty Anne had been caged. The school bus was gone. “I stood in that property and looked up at the sky and I said, ‘Betty Anne, I'm here now. I'm sorry I'm too late but I'm here now,’” she said. “The world had forgotten about Betty Anne Gagnon. And I wanted her to know that I hadn't forgotten about her. She was loved, even in those moments, those terrible moments. I want her to know she was loved.”
Heather O’Bray also catches herself talking to Betty Anne these days. Usually when she is sitting in traffic watching a blue-dolphin key chain sway as it hangs from the rearview mirror.
The government plans to hold a fatality inquiry about what happened, the results of which will be made public. Hailey looks forward to a time when all the hearings are over so she can mourn the loss of her aunt.
“I just think no matter what happens here, once you pass on, then you get what you really deserve,” Hailey said. “She just deserves to feel happy and free, which is what she didn't have at the end, unfortunately.”
Betty Anne has been cremated, but there has been no funeral. Her ashes sit in her father's Calgary apartment.
This feature is based on more than 10 hours of interviews with Betty Anne Gagnon's family, friends and service providers, and corroborated by public documents.
Producers: Gillian Rutherford, Joan Webber
Reporter: Marion Warnica
Design and Development: Mike Leschart, Scott Lilwall
Videographer: Dave Bajer
Editor: Charles Rusnell