Losing Ashley, twice: Mother reflects on shooting, paralysis and death 4 years later

Wendy Kearse's only daughter, Ashley MacLean, died four years after she was shot at a home in Cole Harbour, N.S. She was a bystander, and left paralyzed and suffering emotionally. Her mother believes she survived in order to testify.

Wendy Kearse believes her only daughter survived long enough to testify against alleged shooter

Ashley MacLean, in this selfie at age 13 or 14, loved swimming, four-wheeling and hanging out with her friends. She died July 2. (Submitted by Wendy Kearse)

Wendy Kearse says she lost her only daughter, Ashley MacLean, not once — but twice. 

It happened the first time after MacLean was paralyzed when four masked males burst into a Cole Harbour, N.S., home in a triple shooting four years ago.

Kearse said she lost her again when the 22-year-old died in hospital on July 2 from a blood clot in her heart. The Nova Scotia Medical Examiner Service has determined she died as a result of injuries sustained in the shooting in November 2014.

"You have to get used to something so horrible happening to your child where everything is taken from them," said Kearse in her first news interview since her daughter's death.

Then "she's taken for good."

"I got mad at God for a little while, wondering why He would not take her when she was first shot, then to let her live through what she had to live through," said Kearse.

Markel Jason Downey, 22, has been charged with first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder.

This is the second time he's faced charges in the incident. In the original trial, Downey was acquitted of all 28 counts against him. Earlier this year, the Crown successfully appealed the trial judge's decision to dismiss the case. 

MacLean was a bystander in the home invasion. 

A bullet severed her spine and left her a quadriplegic, requiring help with basic functions like washing, using the bathroom and turning to avoid pressure injuries.

"It's unfair, she didn't deserve this, she did nothing," said Kearse.

A breeder donated a German shepherd puppy to Ashley MacLean after the shooting. (Submitted by Wendy Kearse)

MacLean had other brushes with death: there were two heart attacks and pneumonia. She spent a year in hospital and at the provincial rehab centre.

Her family eventually moved to Windsor, N.S., so she could try medical exercise to try to regain movement. The therapy, led by Dr. Matthias Jaepel, is not covered by provincial medical insurance.

She was able to regain some movement in her arms, but "no matter how hard she tried, she was in for an uphill battle to get whatever she could back," Kearse said.

MacLean was constantly in the "pursuit of happiness" even after the shooting — from challenging her grandmother to races at Walmart to finding love online.

But her smile and jokes masked sadness. She experienced daily panic attacks. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, they happened "at least 10 times a day," requiring her to take stronger medication, going from Atavan to Clonazepam.

Ashley MacLean on her Grade 9 semi-formal day. (Submitted by Wendy Kearse)

Her depression deepened as she was unable to enjoy the things she loved: swimming, camping and hanging out with her friends who were moving on to college, getting married or having babies. Doctors told her surviving a pregnancy was unlikely. 

She was afraid of dying.

"To be that scared of her heart, she was scared of blood clots. And I used to tell her all the time, 'Don't worry. I'll get you down to the doctors before anything ever happened to you.'"

Her private thoughts

Kearse has recently started going through MacLean's laptop. She has found her daughter's poetry about her physical pain and struggle with loss. MacLean typed using her knuckles after her fingers curled from paralysis.

Kearse says the poems are "heartbreaking" and "eerie" — it's as if she foreshadowed her death.

"She would hide that from me though, so I wouldn't worry or hurt," she said.

Kearse recently returned to work. She styles hair for seniors at a nursing home and plans to open a business doing hair for people confined to their homes.

She will donate MacLean's wheelchair to a young stroke victim.

"A lot of people might think I would be mad at the wheelchair. It's quite the opposite — it was Ashley's freedom, it was her legs."

Ashley MacLean returned to high school and graduated in June 2015. (Ashley Corbett Photography)

The day MacLean died, she complained of a pain in her belly. Her mother turned her over and found her lips turning blue. Paramedics rushed her to hospital in Windsor, where she was airlifted to Halifax and died.

"I didn't realize myself how fragile she was, that she would be taken by something like that," said Kearse. "I thought the worst was over."

She survived to testify, mom says

To Kearse, there's no question her daughter's death was connected to the shooting. Blood clots are linked to lack of movement and poor blood circulation.

She believes her daughter survived the shooting in order to testify. She was the only victim able to identify Downey as the alleged shooter. They attended the same school and were on good terms.

Kearse has kept her daughter's ashes. "Children aren't supposed to go before their mums. I won't bury her. She's still with us until my end comes." (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

After walking away from his first trial, RCMP issued a Canada-wide warrant for Downey's arrest in April. He was arrested during a traffic stop in May. On July 11, he was taken into custody on a charge of first-degree murder.

"She needed to testify. She was the only thing to put him in jail. And she saved a lot of lives by being brave enough to speak up," said Kearse.

MacLean's grandmother, Pearl Hebert, says it was a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

"It rips the heart out of me that she's gone, and she doesn't have to be. That's the worst, worst part of it all," said Hebert.

A new trial is scheduled next May. Kearse says her confidence in the justice system has been shaken.

"I can't say I'm not scared because of what's already happened," Kearse said.

But she hopes justice is served. "I wish she was here to see it," she said.

Kearse created a collage of some her favourite photos of Ashley. The one in the top centre shows mother and daughter together. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

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About the Author

Elizabeth Chiu

Reporter

Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter with CBC Nova Scotia and host of Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7, 7:30 in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at elizabeth.chiu@cbc.ca.