Murder of Dr. Elana Fric highlights dangers of trying to leave a volatile relationship, experts say

Two days before Dr. Elana Fric was brutally attacked and killed by her husband while their three young children were asleep in the family home, she had served him with divorce papers. The headline-making case is once again thrusting a spotlight on domestic violence and the dangers spouses face when trying to leave a volatile relationship.

Headline-making case puts spotlight on domestic violence, life-threatening risks facing people who leave

Dr. Elana Fric was a well-respected family physician at Scarborough and Rouge Hospital and a dedicated mother of three young children. (Twitter)

Two days before Dr. Elana Fric was brutally attacked and killed by her husband while their three young children were sleeping in the family home, she had served him with divorce papers.

The headline-making case is once again putting a spotlight on domestic violence and the dangers that people face when trying to leave a volatile relationship. Fric, a family physician, faced years of escalating emotional and physical abuse.

Longtime family lawyer Steve Benmor said it's the moment someone is served with divorce papers "that is the most explosive," noting that they then read vivid details about their often-troubled relationship.

It's unclear how Fric served Mohammed Shamji with the divorce papers. But they should not have been served while the couple lived together due to the history of domestic violence, Benmor said.

"A person gets served, reads what their spouse says about them in the papers and that's the moment where there's the greatest risk," he told CBC Toronto.

Dr. Mohammed Shamji pleaded guilty to second-degree murder of his physician wife, Dr. Elana Fric, in 2016. The guilty plea carries an automatic life sentence with no parole eligibility for 10 years. (Pam Davies/CBC)

Shamji, a world-renowned neurosurgeon, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder of Fric in a packed downtown Toronto courtroom on Monday.

Shamji, now 43, repeatedly beat Fric on the night of her murder, breaking her neck and ribs before choking her to death, the court heard.  

He then stuffed her body in a suitcase, drove 35 kilometres north of Toronto and dumped it in the Humber River.

The next morning Shamji returned to Toronto Western Hospital, where the sought-after specialist performed spinal surgeries. 

"My sympathies are with the children who are going to have to live with this for the rest of their lives," said Dr. Larry Erlick, the director of family medicine at the east-end Toronto hospital where Fric worked.  

Mohammed Shamji has admitted to killing his physician wife, Dr. Elana Fric, in December 2016. Shamji pleaded guilty to second-degree murder as two of the couple's three children and Fric's parents sat in court. It was the first time the kids, now 11 and 14, have seen their father since his arrest. 4:19

The case rocked Canada's medical community and sparked dialogue about domestic violence.

Marlene Ham, executive director of Ontario Association of Interval & Transition Houses, points out that intimate partner violence can appear in multiple forms, either in one explosive incident or a slow climb to danger.

"It doesn't always have to happen in terms of an escalation. It can happen in many different ways," she said.

Domestic homicide really crosses all boundaries, all backgrounds, all income levels.- Marlene Ham, Ontario Association of Interval & Transition Houses

Emotional and verbal abuse, name calling and controlling access to family and friends can all be signs of domestic violence, she says.

Women make up the overwhelming majority of domestic violence victims in Ontario.

According to a 2016 report by Ontario's chief coroner, there were 388 homicides involving intimate-partner violence in the province between 2002 and 2015. Of that number, more than 80 per cent were women. Couples with a history of domestic violence were almost three times more likely to be killed. 

History of emotional, physical abuse

Fric and Shamji were both successful doctors.

Colleagues remember Fric, 40, as a vibrant and dedicated family physician at Scarborough and Rouge Hospital and a well-respected member of the Ontario Medical Association. She was devoted to issues concerning health care for women, the underprivileged and refugees. Fric, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, juggled motherhood with her academic duties. 

For his part, Shamji's career as a neurosurgeon brought him accolades and television appearances. An assistant professor of surgery at the University of Toronto and a staff neurosurgeon with Toronto Western Hospital, he holds a master of science degree from Yale University and attended medical school at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.  

'Been a great 13 years, looking forward to the next 50!' tweeted Fric when she posted this photo of her and husband in February 2015. (Twitter)

On the surface, the pair appeared to be a medical power couple and dedicated parents. Photos shared on social media documented family trips and included smiling snapshots of the couple.

But the pair — who met during medical school in Ottawa and married in 2004 — had a troubled relationship.

Benmor points out the grisly details of this case are "tremendously important" to remind people that domestic violence can affect anyone.

"This behaviour is applicable within all stripes, within all classes, within all colours and professions," he told CBC Toronto. 

Ham added: "Domestic homicide really crosses all boundaries, all backgrounds, all income levels and that's something we definitely want to pay attention to."

The marriage was volatile and dysfunctional.- Agreed statement of facts

Typically, intimate-partner violence involving people who are highly-educated and wealthy takes place behind closed doors.

"When they do occur, the professionals around them do a very good job at throwing a blanket over it," Benmor explained.  

Details previously reported by CBC Toronto shed light on the state of the couple's relationship. 

A year after they were married, Shamji was charged with threatening to kill Fric and their now-eldest daughter — who was an infant at the time — along with assault. The charges were ultimately withdrawn by the crown in 2005 in return for a peace bond with various conditions. Shamji was required to continue counseling and treatment with a psychiatrist and was not allowed to possess any weapons. 

It's not clear what led to the couple's reconciliation, or when it exactly happened. 

Fric tried to end marriage many times

But in May 2016, Fric began divorce proceedings following "years of unhappiness," the court heard on Monday.

"The marriage was volatile and dysfunctional, marred by reports of verbal, emotional and at times physical abuse," said Crown prosecutor Henry Poon, reading a brief agreed statement of facts. 

Shamji resisted the divorce, according to the documents, and pleaded for more time to better himself in the relationship. 

Fric agreed, but the marriage "continued to deteriorate" throughout the summer, the Crown said. She then gave up on the marriage for good and began an affair with another doctor.

In October of that year, she retained a lawyer and moved ahead with the divorce. Once again, Shamji requested more time for the sake of the children.

She relented, only to serve him with divorce papers a month later. 

"I believe that women have an intuitive sense that something might be going on that they're not comfortable with," Ham said of the tug-of-war in the couple's marriage. 

"It doesn't necessarily mean they're able or necessarily prepared to leave in that particular moment because abusive relationships are very complex and nuanced."  

Violence escalated in the home in November 2016, the court heard, as Shamji "[imposed] himself on her in an attempt to change her mind."

Two days later, he attacked and killed her during an argument. 

"We know that puts her at the greatest risk of experiencing violence and worse," said Ham, referring to the life-threatening danger a partner faces when trying to flee an abusive relationship.

If a woman is experiencing violence, Ham explains there are social services in place across Ontario to help them.

With files from CBC's Jasmin Seputis