London Community News
By Paul Everest/London Community News/Twitter: @PaulEverest1
It’s impossible to know if it would have possibly changed the course of the tragedy that unfolded on March 8, 2010.
But Fred Preston’s estranged wife was considering informing police about why she had sought refuge at a North Bay women’s shelter in the days before the shooting that would ultimately claim the lives of Preston and OPP Const. Vu Pham.
Five staff members from the Nipissing Transition House shelter testified Tuesday (April 10) before the coroner’s inquest into the deaths of Pham and Preston about Barbara Preston’s arrival at the shelter on March 5, 2010.
Although her husband had tried to choke her more than once and had, just two days before, threatened to kill her, himself and harm her sister — to make Barbara feel the pain he had endured after finding out she had been cheating on him for years — Barbara gave only a few details about the abuse she had endured upon her admittance to the shelter.
She told Michelle Chartrand, a frontline counsellor at the shelter who admitted Barbara just before 2 a.m., that Preston had yelled at her and that he had a controlling nature. “She was very calm,” Chartrand told the inquest. “She was just relieved to be there.”
When filling out paperwork to admit Barbara to the shelter, Chartrand asked her if the police had been involved in the domestic dispute, to which Barbara answered “No.”
“She did not see herself to have threats against her at the time or she did not want to divulge it,” Chartrand testified.
She added that had Barbara mentioned the choking or the threats of physical harm, she would have been deemed a “high-risk” client.
In that case, the police would have been informed and the shelter would have been put in “lock down” to protect Barbara and the other women and children staying there. Shelter policy at the time, however, was not to call the police without a client’s consent unless there was a risk someone could get hurt.
“Our role is to make sure the women in our house are safe,” Chartrand said.
Sometimes women fleeing abuse who stay at the shelter need time to get comfortable enough with shelter staff and other clients, she added. Barbara was left alone with a reassessment of her situation scheduled for a week from her admittance.
Later that day, Barbara approached Chartrand with the idea of asking the OPP to check on Preston to ensure he was taking his medication. She made it clear, however, that she did not want to have police charge Preston.
“She did not want Fred to get in trouble,” Chartrand said. “She said he’s very well known where he’s from.”
Chartrand said she told Barbara that it was unlikely the OPP would carry out such a task and it would be better to ask a family member.
Two days later, on the eve of the shooting, Barbara asked Michelle McCabe, a crisis resource counsellor at the shelter, if the OPP would speak with Preston to let him know why she had fled to the shelter. McCabe said Barbara had told her that she wanted the police and Preston to be aware of the reason she had gone to the shelter, but again stated that she did not want Preston to face any charges.
A shelter log entry from March 7 also indicated that Barbara wanted to speak with police about her husband. At this point McCabe said, Barbara still only described the abuse she had received from Preston as “yelling” and added that Barbara was only considering involving the police at that point and still wanted to think the decision over.
“At the time, there wasn’t a sense that it was urgent. It was just something she was thinking of doing,” McCabe said, adding that she told Barbara that if she did go to the police, it would be up to them, not her, to decide if charges were necessary.
McCabe also warned Barbara about the possibility of “dual charges” where police could charge her as well for any involvement in a domestic altercation.
Shona Miller, counsel for the OPP Association at the inquest, asked McCabe if she thought this warning might dissuade Barbara from going to the police. McCabe said she was in the habit of giving all of the shelter’s clients the same warning so they were aware of all possible outcomes should police get involved. She added that in her experience such a warning had not discouraged any other women from going to the police.
Maureen Godon, another crisis counsellor at the shelter, told the inquest that she received a call from Barbara’s daughter Cindy on the morning of March 8.
Cindy told her they had learned that Preston had left his home in Sundridge and travelled to Barbara’s sister’s home in Huron County. Although she advised Godon not to tell Barbara, Cindy did say the police had been notified of Preston’s whereabouts.
At noon that day, Marguerite Chaput, an outreach worker with the shelter, accompanied Barbara to the OPP’s North Bay detachment where she gave a statement to police and learned about the shooting incident between her husband and two OPP constables.
“She kept repeating that she should have stayed,” Chaput said.
When they returned to the shelter, Barbara opened up to Chaput about some of the abuse she had endured at Fred’s hands, especially after learning of her infidelity. Choking back tears, Chaput told the inquest how Barbara recounted a confrontation with Preston where he demanded the other man’s name. When Barbara refused, she said, Preston said he would take her to a hotel bar and would shoot any man who bought her a drink.
Janine Lafreniere, the shelter’s executive director, was the last person to testify Tuesday and she said a number of the shelter’s policies changed due to the shooting.
For one, she said, every woman who comes to the facility is now given a high-risk assessment that includes a profile of the “alleged abuser” since clients aren’t always forthcoming about the domestic violence they’ve experienced upon admittance.
“The women aren’t seeing the level of domestic violence we’re seeing because they’re living it everyday,” she said.
When Miller asked Lafreniere for her opinion about the possibility of a legal requirement for shelters to notify police upon the arrival of any client, she said that might deter some women from seeking refuge as police involvement could intimidate them.
The inquest will hear from two final witnesses Wednesday (April 11).