Ottawa

'Finally, we were free': Caitlan Coleman's dramatic run for U.S. border

Former hostage Caitlan Coleman fled for the U.S. border just hours after winning custody of her children in Ottawa last summer, ending an ordeal that she said lasted years and tested her in ways she's only now beginning to talk about.

Former hostage opens up about life with her now-estranged Canadian husband, Joshua Boyle

Former hostage Caitlan Coleman says she had four hours to leave Canada once being granted temporary sole custody of her children. (Doug Husby/CBC)

Former hostage Caitlan Coleman fled for the U.S. border just hours after winning custody of her children in Ottawa last summer, ending an ordeal that she said lasted years and tested her in ways she's only now beginning to talk about.

The American wife of Canadian Joshua Boyle, 35, is speaking out for the first time since she left Canada last year.

Coleman and Boyle, who married in 2011, were held hostage by Taliban-linked extremists for five years before being rescued and flown to Ottawa in 2017.

Boyle is facing 19 charges related to domestic violence, including assault, sexual assault and forcible confinement. He has pleaded not guilty to all the charges. His criminal trial began earlier this year and will resume when some legal matters are sorted out.

Joshua Boyle arrives at court in Ottawa on Monday, March 25, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"I think that Josh took a lot of the best years of my life from me," said Coleman, 33, in an exclusive interview with CBC News from her new home in the northeastern U.S.

"I feel like I've been given another chance. A lot of my life was spent under Josh's thumb."

Custody victory

CBC News spoke at length with Coleman but is limited to what it can report because Boyle's trial has not concluded.

In July 2018, a family court judge granted Coleman temporary sole custody of their children and permitted them to leave Ottawa.

Coleman, who was pregnant at the time, was at an ultrasound clinic when her lawyer called to tell her she had won her custody case.

"That was her first words to me: 'We won,'" Coleman recalled. "That meant we could cross the border, and we could go home."

Her lawyer told her she had to move quickly in case her estranged husband decided to appeal the judge's decision.

Three of Caitlan Coleman's four children were born in captivity. She says she now wants to make sure they lead 'good, happy lives.' (Doug Husby/CBC)

Run for the border

Coleman walked to her lawyer's office in the rain to pick up a copy of the legal decision while her mother, sister and aunt, who were visiting from the U.S., began packing up her apartment.

"It is just kind of overwhelming anxiety and adrenalin," said Coleman's mother, Lynda Coleman. "We'd been waiting so long ... and we had this very narrow window to get everybody out."

Their rented seven-passenger SUV was stuffed with so many suitcases and boxes "you could barely see out the windows," Lynda Coleman recalled.

At sunset, they arrived at the border at Ogdensburg, N.Y. It wasn't a surprise when American customs officers flagged them for additional questioning and asked to see the children's passports.

Clutching the court order, Caitlan Coleman went inside to be interviewed. Relief washed over her when the border agent ended the interview by extending her hand and saying, "Welcome home."

"I was pretty excited and overwhelmed and just so honoured that she made that gesture," Coleman said.

"Finally, we were free."

It had been nearly six years since Coleman had set foot on American soil.

From right to left, Caitlan Coleman, her aunt Katherine Driscoll, her mother Lynda Coleman and her sister JoAnn Rotenberry shortly after crossing the U.S. border in July 2018. (Supplied)

Conflicting accounts

During their child custody battle in 2018, Boyle and Coleman described their relationship in totally different ways.

In his family court affidavit, Boyle claimed he was the primary caregiver for the children and accused Coleman of neglect. When they were hostages, Boyle said, he often went without food so his children and wife could have more to eat. He also alleged Coleman suffered from mental health issues and would hit their children as often as "30 to 40 times daily."

Boyle sought shared custody of the children and the surrender of their passports.

But in her decision released on July 23, 2018, Ontario Superior Court Justice Tracy Engelking said other than Boyle's testimony, the court received no other evidence that Coleman had a mental health issue.

Engelking wrote that forcing Coleman and the children to remain in Ottawa "would be akin to once again holding them hostage."

This undated handout photo provided by the Coleman family shows Caitlan Coleman and Joshua Boyle shortly before they were kidnapped. (Coleman Family/Associated Press)

At her husband's trial, which began in March 2019, Coleman told the court she was subject to violence and manipulation at the hands of her husband after they settled in Canada.

In the witness box, Coleman described how when, in December 2017, she finally decided to leave her husband, she ran out of their apartment into snow-covered streets in socked feet with $20 hidden in her bra. She also gave the court a copy of rules she said Boyle imposed upon her. Among the demands: that she bring him to ejaculation 14 times a week and that she log her food intake and exercise to burn 750 calories a day.

She testified Boyle punished her by hitting her with a broom.

She also told the court about her husband's alleged physical and mental abuse during the five years they were held hostage by the Taliban-linked Haqqani network.

So far, Boyle has not testified in court.

Her 1st love

Coleman met Boyle online when she was 16. He was her first love, her first kiss.

Boyle and Coleman in 2016. They spent five years held captive by the Taliban-linked Haqqani network. (Site Intelligence Group/Canadian Press)

Coleman testified at Boyle's trial that he tried to control what she wore. She told CBC News that Boyle forbade her from wearing nail polish and demanded she wear long dresses. He also asked that she cover her face with a niqab and dress like his ex-wife, Zaynab Khadr, to whom he was briefly married.

Khadr is the daughter of al-Qaeda financier Ahmed Khadr and sister of former Guantanamo detainee Omar Khadr. Coleman refused to wear a face veil but did cover her hair.

Coleman also testified that her husband made attempts to control what she told others when they first returned from Afghanistan.

"Josh scripted any interaction I was to have with media. He also scripted my interactions with his family or with my family, with doctors, with anyone," she said.

Pregnant hostage

The couple didn't tell anyone Coleman was pregnant before leaving on their 2012 backpacking trip to Central Asia. Her parents only found out after the kidnapping, when her mother discovered an ultrasound image in the couple's bedroom.

Boyle was an aspiring journalist, and in court, Coleman testified that her husband didn't tell her of his plan to visit Afghanistan until they landed in Central Asia.

"He wanted to go and get the real story on the Taliban. He thought they were misrepresented in the Western media," she told CBC News.

See the moments that have defined Caitlan Coleman's life in the public eye. 2:38

Coleman said she felt trapped because her husband carried the passports and money.

The couple were taken hostage by the Taliban-linked Haqqani network when Coleman was about six months pregnant.

The young family was rescued by Pakistani special forces on Oct. 11, 2017.

The 'darkest' period

Boyle was not present for the birth of their first son because their captors kept the couple separated for seven months. Coleman said Boyle told her he was tortured during that time. He said he was suspended from the ceiling and kept in darkness for days at a time.

The couple had three children in captivity: two sons and a daughter. On their return to North America, they had a second daughter.

Coleman moved back to the U.S. after an Ottawa judge granted her temporary sole custody of her children. (Judy Trinh/CBC)

In court, Coleman said the last few months of their ordeal were the most painful.

While she was pregnant with their third child, Coleman said Boyle confined her to a cramped shower stall with a squat toilet.

Coleman said Boyle took care of the children, and she was only allowed to interact with her sons when he allowed it.

After she gave birth, Coleman said Boyle would only let her hold her newborn daughter to breastfeed her.

"This was the darkest point in my whole life," she said. "I'm still very traumatized by it, and it's really something I try not to think about, you know, because dwelling on it makes it harder for me to go about my day."

Boyle's lawyer, Lawrence Greenspon, challenged Coleman during cross-examination suggesting she fabricated allegations of her estranged husband's physical and mental abuse. From the witness box, Coleman steadfastly denied that suggestion.

Boyle's trial was suspended after the judge ruled the defence could ask questions about the couple's past consensual sexual activity. The ruling is being appealed by Coleman, but a decision could take months.

A new life

For now, Coleman takes comfort in the normalcy that surrounds her and hopes to pursue a psychology degree.

Caitlan Coleman's parents, Jim and Lynda, are happy their daughter has returned to the U.S. (Doug Husby/CBC)

But only a few people know her address.

Coleman has started divorce proceedings. There's also a restraining order that prevents her husband from coming near her or their children.

"I want to see my children grow, and I want to make sure that they have really good, happy lives," she said. "But I also want to have a life full of accomplishment myself."

About the Author

Judy Trinh

CBC Reporter

Judy Trinh is a veteran journalist with the CBC. She covers a diverse range of stories from breaking crime news to the #MeToo movement to human rights court challenges. Judy aims to be both critical and compassionate in her reporting. Follow her on Twitter @judytrinhCBC Email: Judy.Trinh@cbc.ca