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Elderly man charged with killing 'soulmate' wife may have dementia, court hears

An elderly man accused of killing his wife may have been in the grips of dementia, a psychiatrist told a Calgary court, while friends of the accused wept and described him as "true incredible human being" who was “soulmates” with his wife.

'They were soulmates,' says family friend after 85-year-old charged in wife's death

Fred van Zuiden is charged with second-degree murder in his wife's death but will undergo a psychiatric assessment. He once wrote a best-selling memoir about the two years he spent dodging German soldiers in Nazi-occupied Holland in World War II. (Facebook)

An elderly man accused of killing his wife may have been in the grips of dementia, a psychiatrist told a Calgary court, while friends of the accused wept and described him as "true incredible human being" who was "soulmates" with his wife.

Fred van Zuiden, 85, is charged with second-degree murder after the death of his wife, 80-year-old Audrey van Zuiden.

Police were summoned to the home in southwest Calgary by van Zuiden who called 911 early Tuesday morning.

Forensic psychiatrist Dr. George Duska examined van Zuiden at the Calgary Courts Centre before he was escorted into a courtroom wearing a blue prison jumpsuit after spending the night behind bars. 

Duska told the court van Zuiden — who once wrote a best-selling memoir about dodging the Nazis for two years as a boy in occupied Holland during World War II — probably has dementia.

Audrey van Zuiden beams at husband Fred van Zuiden on their wedding day years ago. The photo was submitted by Valerie Walker, who had been friends with Audrey for more than 60 years. (Submitted by Valerie Walker)

'They loved each other incredibly'

A friend of the van Zuidens who was at court suspects Fred had been suffering with dementia for years but said Audrey wanted to care for her husband of 56 years by herself.

"Audrey sheltered Fred from the world, because ... they were soulmates, they loved each other incredibly," said family friend Gordon van Gunst. 

"Audrey would never have done it any differently. She would never have left him in an institution."

Duska, the forensic psychiatrist, said in court that when he examined van Zuiden, the 85-year-old thought he was being spoken to by a doctor because of a skiing accident and did not understand where he was, or why he was at court.

Gordon van Gunst cried on Wednesday as 85-year-old Fred van Zuiden, who suffers from dementia, was escorted into a Calgary courtroom, charged with killing his 80-year-old wife. 0:36

The doctor recommended that van Zuiden be moved from the Calgary Remand Centre to the Southern Alberta Forensic Psychiatric Centre, where he will undergo a 30-day examination.

"He otherwise presented as a very pleasant, courteous gentleman," said Duska.

Duty counsel lawyer Joel Livergant did not oppose van Zuiden being sent for evaluation.

"The world needs to know that this is a mental health issue," said van Gunst. "It is dementia and it's very tragic and very horrid."

Forensic psychologist Patrick Baillie told CBC Calgary News at 6 the evaluation will look at three elements.

"And if a person fails any one of them then the judge, on a balance of probability, can find the accused to be unfit to stand trial and the process grinds to a halt," he said.

"Those three conditions are whether or not they understand the general court proceedings and the fact they've been charged, whether they understand the personal outcome of that, that they could potentially go to jail and whether or not they're able to communicate with their lawyer and assist in their defence."

'This is a horrible way for ... such an honourable man to be represented'

Vince Walker, a godson of van Zuiden and his deceased wife, said his mother and Audrey travelled to Calgary from England together.

Walker said he came to court so Fred would see familiar faces.

"We wanted him to see us. We wanted him to know that he's not alone," said Walker.

The apartment building where Fred van Zuiden, 85, lived with his wife, Audrey van Zuiden, 80. Fred is charged with second-degree murder for her death. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

Walker called Fred a "true incredible human being" who survived World War II after escaping from the Nazis and wrote a best-selling memoir,  Call Me Mom: A Dutch Boy's WW II Survival Story.

"This is a horrible way for such a tremendous career, such an honourable man, to be represented in his final time," said Walker.

"I just wish people would understand that this is not domestic abuse. This is a dementia case."

Fred van Zuiden will be back in court on Nov. 4. If he is found mentally unfit to stand trial, he will be sent to a mental health facility instead of prison.

Dr. Patrick Baillie discusses what an assessment means in the trial of Fred van Zuiden. 2:29

With files from CBC Calgary News at 6

With a file from The Canadian Press