An Alberta couple has pleaded guilty to failing to provide the necessaries of life in the death of a developmentally-challenged woman.
Denise and Michael Scriven faced charges after Denise Scriven’s sister, Betty Anne Gagnon, was found dead in the front seat of a truck east of Edmonton in November 2009.
Gagnon, 48, was legally blind and described as having the mind of a five-year-old. The medical examiner found she died from blunt force injury to the head, but could not determine if it was caused by a blow to the face or by a fall.
According to the agreed statement of facts, the couple locked Gagnon inside a number of locations on the their property -- including a chicken hutch, a dog run and an unheated school bus with no toilet or running water while she was in their care.
Gagnon was sleeping in the bus on the night of her death. Denise Scriven took lunch out to the woman in the afternoon, and found her lying on her side, having trouble breathing. Later, when Gagnon started seizing, Denise says she took her back to the house, tried to use a funnel to force her mouth open, and started giving CPR.
Denise then dragged Gagnon off of the bus and drove her to a nearby gas station, as the couple’s rural property was hard to find.
Gagnon died in the vehicle.
Gagnon found underweight, bruised
The Medical Examiner noted that by the time of her death, Gagnon weighed only 65 pounds. She also noted bruises to the woman’s body, eyes and head.
The statement of facts said that Gagnon had lived in a private group home until 2005, when a lack of space prompted the Scrivens to take care of her.
The couple applied for support with programming and transportation for Gagnon, but both were denied, although they did receive some money from the province’s Assurance Income for the Severely Handicapped program.
"It is not disputed that both accused had tried very hard between 2005 and 2009 to provide the care Betty Anne needed," the document reads.
But the couple had trouble coping with Gagnon’s care. Denise Scrivens, who had been a registered nurse, had a breakdown in 2008 followed by declining mental health.
RCMP find video of abuse
Michael and the Denise Scrivens told RCMP that they began having trouble with Gagnon, who they described as stubborn.
They started locking the woman in the basement, and then later in the garage, which Michael described as a "jail cell." Gagnon did not have running water when in the garage, and was given a toilet filled with kitty litter.
He told police that there were exposed nails in the garage to discourage Gagnon from leaving. He admitted that one time, he watched her try to escape the building, falling off a table and striking her head against the ground, without attempting to help her.
The RCMP also found videos of the couple punishing Gagnon, slapping and spanking her for offences such as not saying good morning and "brainwashing" Michael Scrivens by "getting in his head."
In one video, Denise can be heard slapping Gagnon while Michael laughs.
"This is funny," he says on the tape.
Others charges may be dropped
The couple was originally charged with manslaughter, assault, unlawful confinement and failing to provide the necessities of life.
The plea only covered the final charge; it is expected the others will be dropped in the future.
Gagnon’s former roommates from her time at the group home say they are saddened by the plea.
"We are disappointed that the dropped charges are those related to the horrific conditions that Betty Anne lived in and the inhumane, cruel and abusive way that she was treated," wrote Suzanne Jackett, Sue Thomas and Heather O’Bray in a statement.
"This is one of the worst cases of neglect and abuse of a vulnerable person that has occurred in Alberta. We want and need something positive to come out of this. Then and only then will we be able to heal and move on."
The judge accepted the couple’s pleas and has ordered a pre-sentence report. The couple is set to return to court for sentencing April 19.