On a clear September morning in 2015, 57-year-old Basil Borutski left his apartment in the Eastern Ontario hamlet of Palmer Rapids for the very last time. He slid behind the wheel of a silver Chrysler Cirrus borrowed from a friend, drove by thick forests, through the quaint village of Combermere and pulled up beside a small brown cottage on Lake Kamaniskeg. He had spent a lot of time there that summer, fixing up the property and trying to get closer to its owner, Carol Culleton, a 66-year-old public servant from the Ottawa area he’d casually dated a few years before. Culleton had grown tired of Borutski’s recent advances and repeatedly told him to stay away. Just two days earlier, she let him know she was seeing someone else. Borutski arrived at her cottage in a jealous rage. After Culleton locked him out, he smashed the front door window, let himself in and wound a coaxial television cable around Culleton’s neck and jaw, cutting off her airway. He left her body slumped on the floor beside her bed, covered in a blanket.
Borutski headed back outside and, in Culleton’s Mazda 3, drove 30 km to Wilno, arriving at the home of his former girlfriend, Anastasia Kuzyk, just before 9 a.m. The 36-year-old didn’t recognize the car that pulled into her driveway, but she knew the bald, burly man who stepped out of it. She’d lived in fear of Borutski for more than a year. Her sister, Eva, who was staying with her at the time, was folding sheets on the bed upstairs when she heard a scream. Eva came downstairs and saw Kuzyk cowering behind the kitchen island. “It’s Basil,” Kuzyk whispered to Eva, who looked up and saw a man through the window. Eva ran outside and told Borutski she’d kill him if he hurt her sister. He went to his car and pulled out a gun. Then she ran as fast as she could, in her bare feet, to call for help. Within seconds, she heard him shoot. Kuzyk died of a gunshot wound on her kitchen floor.
Borutski’s third victim that day, his ex-girlfriend Nathalie Warmerdam, 48, had taken precautions since their relationship ended three years earlier. She kept a gun beside her bed and regularly wore a panic button that would alert police to his presence when pressed. That morning, as she sat down to breakfast at her home in Foymount, a small community east of Wilno, Borutski burst through the front door. Her 20-year-old son, Adrian, was watching TV on the couch in the living room and heard his mother scream. At first he thought she had seen a spider. But Warmerdam kept screaming as Borutski chased her through the main floor. Adrian fled out the back and heard the gunshot that killed his mother as his feet hit the driveway. Borutski fled in Culleton’s car, and drove until police arrested him after a five-hour manhunt just outside Ottawa, 100 km away.
More than two years later, in an Ottawa courtroom on Nov. 24, 2017, Basil Borutski was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Kuzyk and Warmerdam and of second-degree murder in the death of Culleton. Over the course of 19 days, the jury heard the mountain of evidence linking Borutski to the killings, including a remorseless confession Borutski gave police the day after the murders and DNA evidence of the women’s blood on his clothing. Silent throughout the trial, Borutski, now 60, refused to enter a plea, didn’t hire a lawyer and said nothing in his defence before the jury. He will be sentenced a in Pembroke court on Dec. 5 and 6, the 28th anniversary of the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre and the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.
The details of Borutski’s case are exceptional: Rarely has a perpetrator killed three former partners in the span of mere hours. The general pattern, however, is anything but. The well-documented escalating history of violence that characterized Borutski’s relationship with these women precedes three out of four cases of domestic homicide in this country. The recent spate of mass shootings in the United States has highlighted the link between domestic abuse and gun violence — 54 percent of these killings between 2009 and 2016 were linked to domestic or family violence, according to an analysis by gun safety advocates Everytown USA. And the ineffectuality of law enforcement and the justice system in preventing domestic homicides is sadly familiar. On average, a woman is murdered by her intimate partner every six days in Canada, according to national homicide statistics. Indigenous women in Canada are eight times more likely to be victims of a domestic homicide. Each year, the Department of Justice estimates $7.4 billion of taxpayer dollars a year are spent dealing with the aftermath of domestic violence.
What the Renfrew County murders tell us about rural violence
Before the murders, Basil Borutski had faced more than 30 criminal charges in his life — most of them related to intimate partner violence — and had been convicted of nearly half of them. At the time of the murders, he was on probation and subject to a weapons ban. While one of his victims clipped a panic button to her belt each morning when she dressed, Borutski was under no such surveillance — even with his history of repeatedly breaching probation, ignoring weapons bans and carrying out increasingly violent incidents. After serving one sentence for domestic assault, Borutski flat-out refused to sign an agreement saying he’d stay away from his victim, but walked out of prison just the same. Nine months later, three women were dead.
The triple homicide in Renfrew County is one of the most extreme cases of multi-partner domestic homicide this country has ever seen. In this sense, it should have become a galvanizing case in a Canada perhaps more attuned to violence against women than ever before. But more than two years later, little has changed. If the statistical pattern holds, another 150 Canadian women will have died at the hands of their partners since the murders of Culleton, Kuzyk and Warmerdam, but few of them ever capture the public’s attention. Now, as Borutski awaits sentencing, the deaths of these three women serve as a symbol of our inability to keep perpetrators like him from slipping through the cracks. “I think this case represents a condemnation of the entire system that is supposedly there to protect women but isn’t,” said Leighann Burns, executive director of Ottawa’s Harmony House shelter, on the courthouse steps after the verdict. “Starting tomorrow, what are we going to do to make things different for all of the other women who come forward and disclose the violence in their lives?”
Renfrew County is as sprawling as it is beautiful — dotted with glittering lakes surrounded by forest. Geographically, it’s larger than Prince Edward Island, with a rocky Canadian Shield landscape that makes lumber more lucrative than farming, and the local economy is largely seasonal thanks to cottagers from Ottawa to the east and Toronto to the southwest. Highway 60, which links the area’s small communities, now has signs warning night drivers of deer, but in the early 1990s, there were billboards with a message for local men: “Don’t beat a woman.” The working-class county was, back then, the subject of a documentary about domestic violence. Four years ago, the Renfrew County Committee of Abused Women got a monument erected in memory of all the women killed by their partners in the area since 1969 — the first names of 19 women, aged 16 to 55, were carved into a nearly six-foot-tall slab of rock on the banks of the Petawawa River.
Despite its vastness, Renfrew County is still very small. Families are interconnected and people don’t tend to move away, says JoAnne Brooks, executive director of the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County, who moved to this part of the Ottawa Valley from Southern Ontario in 1981. That means the responding police officer or emergency room triage nurse might well be someone you know. There’s a real “truck culture,” she says, and the area is “very conservative” in its views on gender.
Basil Joseph Borutski is a native son of Renfrew County, and a notorious figure in this close-knit area. He was the third of eight children born to Walter and Beatrice, second-generation Polish immigrants, and grew up in a bright blue house on the edge of the Round Lake. His father worked as a trapper and he had a strained relationship with his mother, who ruled the house, says a former childhood friend. “She didn’t treat [Borutski] well — that was well known,” the friend says.
Borutski’s strained romantic relationships began in his 20s, when a girlfriend named Lynn moved with him from Kitchener to Round Lake. According to the friend, Lynn stayed in the area for less than a year, but “left as fast as she’d come” after Borutski started hitting her.
Not long after the breakup, Borutski got together with a woman from Round Lake, named Mary Ann Mask. Their abusive on-and-off relationship spanned more than 25 years. At the couple’s 2011 divorce proceedings, two of their children recalled Mask being nearly pushed out of a moving vehicle and returning from an encounter with Borutski bloodied. According to divorce documents, Mask would make allegations against Borutski and then take them back, even after police had laid charges. “She kept recanting and kept getting beat up,” says the former childhood friend, who also knew Mask. “She wouldn’t personally come and tell me what he was doing, but people sort of knew what was going on.”
After he and Mask split for good, Borutski aimed his violence at a string of other women — remaining true to a pattern experts in six provinces have identified through their annual reviews of domestic homicides. He met and quickly moved in with Nathalie Warmerdam, a hospice nurse who was caring for his father and in the midst of a separation from her husband. “Anything you need to know about Basil can be summed up by the fact that his father was dying in hospice and he was hitting on his father’s nurse,” says Danielle Pécore-Ugorji, a close friend of Warmerdam’s, who used to work at a rape crisis centre.
But Borutski charmed Warmerdam, in part with a hard-luck story — Warmerdam believed him when he said his ex-wife was out to get him, and even supported him in court proceedings against her. “He was telling [my mother] she was beautiful, telling her she was the most amazing woman in the world,” says Warmerdam’s daughter, Valerie. “She was head over heels.” Borutski seemed normal at first, says Valerie, and then became manipulative and controlling, isolating Warmerdam from her friends and family. He drank heavily and berated Valerie and her brother, Adrian, who was also the target of increasingly violent threats from Borutski. “We all lived under a cloud of fear that Basil might ‘blow up,’” says Nathalie’s ex-husband, Frank, also the father of her children.
In August 2012, after months of escalating tension, Warmerdam reported Borutski to police. She stopped at a station in London, Ont. where she had driven to pick up Adrian from a gaming camp. “Basil did say [to my mother], ‘If Mary Ann ever puts me in jail, don’t wait for me because if I get out, I’m going to kill her.’ Clearly the same rules should apply [to her], right?” Valerie says. “She didn’t want to be anywhere near him when this might go down.” He was charged with assault, but Warmerdam was reluctant to testify. In the end, Borutski was convicted of uttering threats and sentenced to 150 days in jail, minus the 117 he’d spent in custody. “We all stupidly breathed a sigh of relief,” says Warmerdam’s mom, Maz Tracey. “Little did we realize just how much danger she was still in.”
This would be the first time Borutski was put behind bars for domestic violence (he’d successfully appealed a conviction related to his run-ins with Mask), and it angered him. The court ordered Borutski to attend Living Without Violence, the county’s only partner-assault-response program, meant to teach abusers healthier ways to deal with their anger. Ironically, it was located across the street from Warmerdam’s work. Every day she feared running into Borutski — she backed into parking spaces in case she needed a quick escape, rented the panic button she kept by her pillow, and bought a gun, which she stashed under her bed. But Borutski never showed up for the counselling, says program facilitator Mike Richard. It was one of many times Borutski disobeyed a court order with little or no consequence.
Run-ins with police now became part of Borutski’s beleaguered personal narrative, one he used to disarm his next target, a casual friend named Anastasia Kuzyk. She was a local realtor and a beloved server at the Wilno Tavern, one of the few nightlife spots in the area. Borutski had a reputation there — when he occasionally dropped by, some locals would move to the other end of the bar to steer clear of the guy who’d posted a list of enemies on a makeshift sign at the end of his driveway. But Kuzyk got closer to him and let him help her around the house. She had just gotten out of an emotionally abusive relationship in late 2013 and Borutski came forward “as a protector,” says her friend Johanna Zomers. Borutski wove a story that he was a victim of his exes, and of the police, too. If Kuzyk was aware that another server at the tavern had charged Borutski with criminal harassment in 2010 — the woman alleged he called her incessantly and repeatedly showed up at her home following their break-up — she looked past it. (The charge never went anywhere.) “She was quite charmed and didn’t believe some of the warnings other women were giving her,” says Tavern owner Corinne Higgins.
It didn’t take long before Borutski became manipulative and controlling with Kuzyk, too. Friends say he would come by the home drunk, demanding sex. “Basil couldn’t take no for an answer — when you defied him, he had this huge anger,” says Zomers. On one such occasion, Kuzyk wouldn’t comply, and according to court documents, Borutski beat her to the point that she begged him to kill her. Kuzyk called police after another argument days later, and he was charged with assault, choking and mischief for setting fire to her belongings, and taken into pre-trial custody. At Warmerdam’s urging, Kuzyk testified against him in court. (The two women had met when Borutski was living with Warmerdam.) Borutski was found guilty of choking Kuzyk and sentenced to 17 months in prison and two years’ probation. Five months later, having served a year in pre-trial custody, he was released and ordered to attend the Living Without Violence program he had previously shirked. For the second time, he never showed.
By the summer of 2015, Borutski fit the profile of a domestic abuser to a tee. He had racked up 14 convictions in three years, violated court orders and refused to promise to keep away from Kuzyk and not possess weapons. (The Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services has not commented on the case.) Borutski was also unemployed, broke and living in a social housing apartment complex in isolated Palmer Rapids, a town nearly an hour’s drive from Round Lake and not far from where Al Capone hid out from the FBI in the 1940s. Getting by on a disability pension he received after a 1994 car accident, Borutski eased his back pain with rye and Percocet. He picked up odd jobs here and there, including for his former casual girlfriend, Carol Culleton, a soon-to-retire public servant who was widowed and fixing her cottage to sell.
Culleton’s neighbours say she complained about Borutski’s shoddy workmanship and suggested he might be trying to sabotage her efforts to sell the cottage. Also concerning was his jealous and threatening behaviour. On one occasion, he showed up at her home in North Gower, without her having given him her address. Culleton started to get spooked, and her friends warned her that this was dangerous behaviour. In the weeks before the murders, Borutski and Culleton were at a party and Culleton sat on another man’s lap. It angered Borutski, who wanted to pursue a relationship, though she’d previously shunned his advances. He texted Culleton incessantly. On the Friday before he killed her, Culleton retired as a public servant. On Sunday, she texted Borutski to say she was seeing another man and to “please stop.” Culleton returned to her cottage Monday morning to find Borutski had posted menacing signs around her property, one of which said “Happy Positive Retirement – Sorry I’m Such an Asshole.” She texted her boyfriend that night to say she was keeping her phone by her pillow in case she needed to call 911 — determined to stick around for an appointment with realtor Cathy Pitts on Tuesday in order to put her cottage on the market. When Pitts arrived for their meeting, she found the front window of the cottage smashed and asked the next-door neighbours for help. Once inside, Pitts discovered Culleton’s body.
Everyone — from the courts to the locals to the police to the shelter and sexual assault centre — knew Borutski could potentially cause greater harm. So why couldn’t they stop him?
“Doing this work, there are people who say, ‘Oh, you really can’t do anything — if somebody wants to kill somebody they’re just going to do it.’ Well, that’s simply not true,” says national domestic homicide researcher Peter Jaffe. Every year, provincial death review committees comb through the histories attached to their domestic homicide cases looking for patterns, and there are many programs in place to deal with offenders like Borutski. Police officers throughout Canada are trained in the nuances of this kind of violence, too, particularly since it’s the most common call they get. Across the country, Mandatory Domestic Violence High Risk Committees, made up of local Crown, police and social-services agencies, meet twice a month to discuss cases where they might need to intervene. The victim or their representative is often present.
Most Canadian provinces also have special domestic violence courts with judges and Crown attorneys specially trained in the complexities of this type of crime — all 54 court jurisdictions in Ontario have them. But according to a 2011 analysis of these courts by University of Ottawa criminologist Holly Johnson, in which Renfrew County women were interviewed, “women lack choice and control over critical decisions during court proceedings.” And while most provinces have counselling and support for perpetrators, Ontario, for one, has shortened the length of its Partner Assault Response programs, the kind Borutski was supposed to attend, from 16 weeks to 12.
That Borutski passed through the criminal justice system and went on to kill the very women he’d been charged with harming in the past exposes a wide gap in these processes, says activist lawyer Pamela Cross, who works with victims of domestic violence. “Here’s somebody who’s got a long track record [of violence] and, in many cases, charges were stayed,” she says. “I would hope most judges would say, ‘There’s a clear and persistent pattern of behaviour here — we need to do more than give a tap on the wrist.”
And without monitoring and oversight, court orders are useless, says Jancy Brown, public education coordinator at Renfrew County’s sexual assault centre. “A piece of paper can’t stop a bullet,” she says. As one of her clients put it, court orders can be like waving a red flag in front of a bull. In fact, for many women, reaching out for help means putting themselves at greater risk of abuse at the hands of their partner. Research shows 25 percent of women murdered in Canada by their spouse had left their relationship not long before they were killed. In one study, half of the murdered women were slain within two months of breaking it off.
Risk factors vary among women, too. Rates of domestic violence against Indigenous women are three times higher than for non-Indigenous women. Immigrant and refugee women are more likely to be killed and also the least likely to access services. Rural women, are also considered vulnerable. A 20-year U.S. study found more domestic violence in rural areas than in urban ones, and a 2016 report from New Brunswick found that this combination — scant services, isolation and a lack of anonymity — kept women in abusive relationships.
In the case of Renfrew County, “it’s very multi-layered and very complex,” says local sexual-assault centre executive director JoAnne Brooks. There’s the isolation, the high poverty and addiction rates. There is zero public transportation and patchy cell service. Warmerdam’s panic button, for example, was meant to elicit immediate response from police when pressed, but she would likely have to wait at least 40 minutes for them to arrive, Brooks says. Then there’s the hunting culture. A 2015 University of Western Ontario study on the differences between urban and rural domestic homicides found perpetrators in rural areas are far more likely to have access to a gun and use it to kill their partner. The realities of rural women facing domestic violence are only starting to be studied in a comprehensive way, by researchers like Jaffe at the University of Western Ontario, who recently received a federal grant to study how to prevent domestic homicide in vulnerable populations.
“It’s not a surprise that rural populations are recognized in many countries as facing increased vulnerabilities in many areas, including violence against women,” says Myrna Dawson, a co-director of the federal grant with Jaffe and the Canada Research Chair in Public Policy in Criminal Justice at the University of Guelph. “Practically speaking, it is often that [the women] just have nowhere to go and oftentimes, if they did, no way to get there.”
And all women face serious barriers to engaging with the criminal system in cases of domestic violence; 70 percent of spousal abuse is not reported to the police, according to Statistics Canada. Many who do report fear testifying against their abuser face-to-face — something the women in Borutski’s life were extremely hesitant to do. When victims don’t testify in domestic-violence cases, a conviction is unlikely and charges are often stayed or dropped. Kuzyk’s friend, Ann Fleming, spent the year after her murder lobbying then-interim federal Conservative leader Rona Ambrose to prepare a private members’ bill that would give victims the option to testify by video link, as child victims often do. Ambrose instead introduced the JUST Act, to require judges hearing sexual assault cases to have specialized, up-to-date training. Fleming calls it “a start.” Ambrose’s bill is still at Senate level.
The trouble is, even with multiple efforts to improve the status quo, domestic homicide presents a unique challenge that’s part jurisdictional (murder is a federal crime the provinces prosecute), part sociological (it’s tough to get women to come forward with complaints, particularly in certain communities) and part ethical (is it fair to restrict a person’s liberties to prevent a crime they may or may not commit?). There’s also a not insignificant economic factor: Governments and institutions face constant pressure to cut costs. Probation officers are oversubscribed: The Renfrew office has three officers who supervise 168 clients. “We recognize that though we’ve made progress, we still have work to do to reduce each officer’s caseload,” Ontario’s Corrections ministry said in an emailed statement.
And across the country, there is a patchwork of policies with different levels of care. Ontario created its Domestic Violence Death Review Committee in 2003, for instance. Meanwhile, Saskatchewan — which has the highest rate of domestic homicide in the country — conducted its first review of domestic homicides in 2016. Likewise, police don’t all use the same risk assessment tools. “If you’re a domestic violence victim,” says Western’s Peter Jaffe, “it shouldn’t matter whether you live in Yellowknife or Churchill or Kitchener — you should be expecting similar police standards.” Jaffe’s team is working to create a national database of domestic homicide prevention tools that will help improve the response across Canada. The federal grant Jaffe received was a long time coming — governments have known the urgency of the problem in rural communities for years. A 2008 Senate report on rural poverty in Canada highlighted domestic violence in rural Canada as one of two pressing crime-related issues that needed federal attention, Dawson points out, adding that it identified “inadequate services” as part of the problem. “I am not sure what has changed since then, if anything.”
That said, “I think we’re probably at a tipping point for social change,” Jaffe says. Governments have started taking action, but the progress is slow and halting. 2012, Manitoba launched a multi-year domestic violence prevention strategy. Nova Scotia, British Columbia and Ontario have followed suit. The Liberals have sent the message that they take violence against women seriously with its gender-based violence strategy, although they’ve been criticized for mishandling the national inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women. In her mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould was directed to toughen up criminal laws and bail conditions related to domestic assault. A Department of Justice spokesperson said they are actively working to fulfill this commitment.
Conservative Status of Women critic Rachael Harder favours a crackdown on repeat offenders and points to the Harper government’s measures to better protect victims, including eliminating the use of conditional sentencing and house arrest for serious offenders and sex crimes registries. But neither of those measures prevented Warmerdam, Kuzyk or Culleton from being murdered, and for that, she blames a breakdown in the justice system. “It really is up to the judicial body to then take those legislative acts and enforce them or interpret them in their rulings,” she says. “I would say, in this case, that wasn’t done adequately.”
Harder also believes it should be required by law for police and courts to notify victims when their abusers are released from prison — Kuzyk was not notified when Borutski was released back into the community after serving nine months’ time for assaulting her.
Another possible solution favoured by some tough-on-crime proponents is to label more repeat offenders of domestic violence as dangerous offenders, a rare designation for especially violent perpetrators. Some American courts have “dangerousness hearings,” designed to assess whether someone charged with domestic violence is at risk of re-offending, and soon. We don’t have those in Canada, and that may be for good reason, says lawyer Pamela Cross. “Are we going to deny bail to every man who’s charged with, say, their second or third domestic assault? The jails don’t have room for them. They’re not guilty until they’ve been proven guilty. It’s hardly going to help them learn better behaviour, it might make them angrier.” In the meantime, new danger assessment tools are being used more and more to help women come up with a better safety plan. The onus still remains on the woman.
This week, a scraggly long-haired and goateed Basil Borutski sat despondently in the prisoner’s box as a woman jury foreman delivered the trio of guilty verdicts on Friday. He will not be eligible for parole for at least 25 years, and will more than likely spend the rest of his life behind bars. As the judge wrapped up the trial, Borutski yawned repeatedly, as if bored by an entire process in which he refused to participate.
A lot has changed in Renfrew County since the murders shattered the community — and a lot has remained the same. Last July, the Ontario government announced $1 million to fund 16 rural, remote and northern anti-violence against women agencies, which has helped them boost resources, for the short term anyway. The local women’s shelter in Renfrew County got $8,000 of it, and used it to train staffers to identify service gaps in the region. But the murders have struck fear into the area. Many people who knew Borutski were reluctant to speak for this story — afraid he’d be released from prison with an even longer list of enemies. The local sexual assault centre now regularly hears from women whose abusive partners use the murders as a warning. Other women see shades of Borutski in their partners and reach out for help. “This act of violence opened up the door for lots of uncomfortable conversations about our lives and about how many of us have been in abusive relationships at one time or another,” says Maureen MacMillan, a neighbour of Kuzyk’s in Wilno. “It also made us realize that we need to stretch our arms out a little further, to ensure some of our fellow sisters have some safe arms to fall into if they need them.”
Warmerdam’s friend, Danielle Pécore-Ugorji, expressed relief at the jury’s decision. “I feel satisfied with the verdict. The man is 60 years old, he is not getting out of prison before he dies,” she says. “But I’m very cautious with the word ‘justice’ because there is no justice in this case. We can’t bring these women back.”
On occasion throughout the trial, Pécore-Ugorji has visited the monument to women killed by their partners that stands by the Petawawa River. “There’s definitely a spiritual sense of peace there,” she says. She expects to travel directly to the monument after the sentencing hearing on Dec. 6. “We know there are more women’s names that are going to be added to that monument,” she says. The last three were inscribed in a single day. Anastasia. Nathalie. Carol.