Ottawa

Joshua Boyle's estranged spouse details physical abuse

Caitlan Coleman, the estranged spouse of former hostage Joshua Boyle, begins her testimony in his assault trial by describing how they met and their tumultuous relationship.

Warning: This story contains details some readers may find disturbing

Caitlan Coleman leaves court in Ottawa on Wednesday. Coleman is the Crown's star witness at the trial of her estranged husband Joshua Boyle. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Caitlan Coleman, the estranged spouse of former hostage Joshua Boyle, testified Wednesday about prolonged physical and emotional abuse that intensified when the couple was being held captive in Afghanistan.

Coleman is the Crown's star witness at Boyle's criminal trial in Ottawa where she appeared Wednesday through closed circuit television.

Boyle has pleaded not guilty in provincial court to 19 charges, including assault with a weapon, sexual assault and forcible confinement.

Coleman, 33, is the alleged victim in 17 of the offences Boyle, 35, is facing.

He was charged a few months after the couple returned to Canada in October 2017 with the three children they had while in captivity for five years in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Tension in captivity

Coleman described to the court what happened during their time in captivity, when, she said, Boyle became increasingly abusive, both physically and emotionally. 

She said the abuse included hitting her on the face with a fist, slapping her with an open hand, choking her and biting Coleman all over her body. 

Coleman also told the court he engaged in what she called "physical punishment" that included spanking her buttocks when she argued with him. 

She said this happened before they were captured but intensified to three or four times a week. 

At times Coleman said she would try to run away, but the family was normally kept in a room together, with a small attached bathroom area. 

This was probably the darkest period of my whole life.- Caitlin Coleman

She said Boyle would also joke about lighting her on fire to kill her.

During their last year in captivity Coleman told the court Boyle would intermittently force her to stay in the bathroom area for the entire day. 

"This was probably the darkest period of my whole life," Coleman told the court. 

Crown lawyer Meaghan Cunningham was questioning Coleman in a room outside the courtroom, where she was joined by her aunt to offer personal support. 

Boyle was inside the courtroom taking notes on a yellow pad of paper.

A still image from a video posted by the Taliban on social media on Dec. 19, 2016, shows Coleman and Boyle while they were being held in captivity. (Taliban/Twitter via Reuters)

Forced to take pills

When the family was released in October 2017, Coleman said she hoped the abuse would stop and that things would work themselves out. 

After flying to Canada, the family spent about six weeks living at the Embassy hotel in downtown Ottawa.

Coleman testified that she had no control over their finances, nor did she have control over what she could wear or when she could contact her family. 

"At this point in my marriage I didn't feel I had a choice in anything," she said. 

Coleman broke down in tears when describing events on Nov. 5, 2017. 

I knew if I didn't, he would hit me harder.- Coleman

She told the court she and Boyle had been arguing and that she was crying, so he told her to take off her clothes and get in the shower stall. 

Coleman said Boyle was trying to prevent her from running away and knew she wouldn't if she was naked. 

Once she was in the shower, Coleman said Boyle brought her three Trazodone pills — his antidepressant drug — insisting she take them. 

She argued with him about the dosage, saying he only was supposed to take half a tablet at a time. 

When he left the room, she testified that she threw the pills down the drain. 

She said when Boyle returned and realized what she'd done, he hit her in the face and brought another three pills. 

I thought this sort of thing was a thing of the past, but clearly it wasn't.- Coleman

This time Coleman said she took the pills, for fear of what Boyle would do if she didn't. 

"I knew that if I didn't, he would hit me harder," she said.

After Coleman took the pills she said Boyle demanded she get dressed to go to the park. 

She told the court she felt dizzy, as though she was quite drunk, and sat down on a bench in a park on Elgin Street.

"I was feeling really, really devastated because I thought this sort of thing was a thing of the past, but clearly it wasn't," Coleman said. 

Highs and lows 

Coleman was only 16 when she and Boyle first met online in a forum for Star Wars fans. She was living with her parents in Pennsylvania. She first met Boyle in person when she was 20 years old.

She described a tumultuous relationship, full of highs and lows.

She said that at 20, she had never been kissed and fell in love with him when he came to visit her for three days and two nights.

Coleman said that when Boyle returned to Canada, the relationship went back to what she described as a "tug of war," with Boyle still pining over an ex-girlfriend.

In September 2006, Coleman went to visit Boyle in Toronto, where he was putting pressure on her to do things she didn't want to do, things she wasn't comfortable with, she told the court.

Self-diagnosed 

Later that winter, Coleman told the court, their relationship was going downhill, and that they would often have big fights where Boyle would call her a slut, or an alcoholic.

However, in the summer of 2007 Coleman moved to Toronto where she lived briefly with Boyle in a bachelor basement apartment.

She testified that even during that time Boyle wasn't committed to the relationship, and still wanted her help getting back with his ex.

In November 2007, Coleman returned home to Pennsylvania.

Joshua Boyle arrives for the start of his trial in Ottawa on Monday. The former hostage is charged with 19 offences, including assault and uttering a threat to cause death. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

In her testimony Coleman described how she began having mental health problems after meeting Boyle.

She told the court her mood was up and down and that she had periods where she was self-harming, often triggered by a fight with Boyle.

Coleman said she diagnosed herself with borderline personality disorder because the research she had done matched her symptoms.

She was never professionally diagnosed, or medically treated for the disorder, but told the court how Boyle would tell her she had a serious mental illness.

Going separate ways

By summer 2008, Coleman said, she told Boyle that they should go their separate ways, but then he started calling her a lot.

She testified that sometimes he would call 20 times a night, often threatening to take his own life if she didn't take him back, or come visit.

At one point, Coleman said she was so worried she contacted emergency officials in Toronto to go check on Boyle.

Their contact began to lessen and a few months later Coleman said Boyle called her to inform her he was marrying another woman.

She later found out the woman was Zainab Khadr, the older sister of former Guantanamo Bay detainee Omar Khadr and the daughter of a senior al-Qaeda financier and associate of Osama bin Laden.

Coleman described how she began moving on with her life, but stayed in touch with Boyle casually.

Getting back together

In 2009, Coleman returned to Toronto with her new boyfriend and agreed to meet with Boyle.

She told the court that he told her that his marriage to Khadr was just a show for the media, and that he wanted to be with Coleman.

Coleman said his change of heart made her feel happy, and that even though she was moving on, she still thought Boyle was her true love.

The pair moved to Perth-Andover, N.B., while Boyle was finalizing his divorce from Khadr. They were married in Costa Rica in July 2011, Coleman told the court. 

They had been backpacking in Central America, and when they returned she went to live with her parents again so she could work and save money. 

Coleman said their relationship deteriorated to the point where she considered divorce, but again the pair reconciled and decided to travel to Central Asia, where Boyle had wanted to go. 

The understanding was that they might visit what Coleman described as the tourist area of Afghanistan just to say they had done it. 

When they arrived she said Boyle informed her that the entire goal of the trip was to go to Afghanistan. 

Coleman, who was pregnant at the time, testified that she felt as though she didn't have a choice.

They were captured within about a week of entering the country, Coleman said. 

Coleman's testimony is expected to continue Friday. 

The 19 charges Boyle faces are:

  • One count of sexual assault while threatening to use a weapon (ropes).
  • One count of sexual assault with a weapon (ropes).
  • One count of uttering a threat to cause death.
  • Nine counts of assault.
  • One count of assault with a weapon (a broomstick).
  • Three counts of unlawful confinement.
  • One count of administering a noxious substance (the antidepressant Trazodone).
  • One count of public mischief (misleading a police officer into believing that someone was suicidal and missing, causing the officer to start an investigation, and thereby diverting suspicion away from Boyle).
  • One count of criminal harassment.

About the Author

Robyn Miller

Journalist

Robyn Miller is a multi-platform journalist at CBC Ottawa. She has also worked at CBC in Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador.

With files from Kristy Nease