Trying to Turn His Life Around

The death of a loved one is a terrible thing to get over, if that’s even possible. The prevailing wisdom of these modern times tells us there are stages of grief, from the initial shock and denial, through pain, anger, loneliness, and the “upward turning” point that leads finally to acceptance and even hope.

It almost sounds easy, like, you get on that track, get the process going and one stage leads to another -stations along the way where you park for a while, take a breath, and then move on to that inevitable final destination called, “getting back to normal,” whatever that is.

Of course, as anyone who’s been there knows, it’s never easy. Some people never get over their grief. Sometimes it’s just too much to bear, or the crucial moment that gives us closure never happens for one reason or another.

That moment may be the opportunity to say good-bye in life or in death to the lost loved one, to share one’s grief with others. Or it may be finally getting clear and certain knowledge about how one’s loved one died. That’s how it is with the Bartley family of Owen Sound, still reeling in shock, pain and anger over the death of their cherished son, brother, and father, Wilbert Bartley, in Kamloops, B.C. this past July 30. They quite clearly – to anyone who spends any amount of time in their presence – can’t get past those first stages of grief until they finally hear the results of an “independent” investigation into his shooting death at the hands of an undercover RCMP officer.

But their greatest fear is that even then the results of the investigation being carried out by Calgary police will end up being a cover-up, that the truth about what happened that early evening of July 30 in the parking lot of a Kamloops strip mall will be “swept under” the proverbial rug.

“That’s what scares us the most,” said Wanda Doubt, one of Wilbert Bartley’s three sisters who shared their thoughts and feelings, and their ongoing frustrations about their brother’s death with me in an emotional interview earlier this week.

“We’re tortured souls, that’s what we are, and I’m afraid we’re going to live the rest of our lives as tortured souls,” said Wanda’s older sister Anne Cochrane as the tears welled up.

Their late brother’s youngest sister, Catherine Bartley, was also there. But his elderly parents, Wilbert Bartley Sr., 85, and Catherine Bartley, 74, were not. Given their age and health the death of their son has been especially hard on them, the sisters said. On her birthday, Sept. 16, their mother sat by the phone as usual, waiting for her son to call, as he always did, to wish her a happy birthday. Indeed, she spends most of her time waiting by the phone for any new information about the circumstances of her son’s death, they said.

Or perhaps, I couldn’t help imagining to myself, she waited for news that he’s not dead after all, that the little “coffin” of ashes they buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery near Hepworth weren’t his. The sisters said as much about holding out such faint hopes that he was after all still alive, that news of his death was a big mistake.

But this past Monday any such hopes were finally dashed with the delivery at his parents’ home of a small box containing some of Wilbert Bartley few personal belongings. The box, with a cautionary label warning of potentially hazardous bio-material inside, contained his bracelet, watch, and ring. Shockingly, they still bore traces of their dead son’s blood.

The family knew the package was coming. It was shipped by the Calgary police officers involved in the investigation, the sisters said. “They said they did their best to clean it, but (they suggested) it needed professional cleaning.”

The arrival of the box with the blood-stained remnants of their son’s life, traumatized their parents yet again. “Mom’s in pretty bad shape,” said Wanda. “She just spent the last two hours cleaning blood off her son’s . . . “

The tears came again, as they often do, and she couldn’t finish the sentence. It happens like that a lot for them, the sudden overwhelming flood of grief wherever they are, including at work. Anne owns and operates the aptly named Family Ties restaurant in downtown Owen Sound. This is a family bound together by strong emotions. Wanda and her partner Mike Meier run Wanda and Mike’s restaurant at the Travellers Motel on the east side. Anne said someone came into Family ties recently who reminded her of her brother and she “collapsed” in the kitchen.

My partner and I were at Wanda and Mikes for breakfast recently when Wanda told us about a customer who suddenly started taking down family photos she has on the walls because he thought it was time she started “getting over” her brother’s death, and told her so. He may have been well-meaning, but, not surprisingly, she “went to pieces,” Wanda told us. At times like that Cathy makes herself available to help her older sisters, though she too is hurting just as much.

Wanda was also in tears as she told us the Calgary police investigating her brother’s death were refusing to send his personal belongings to his family in Owen Sound because he had died without a will and the items had to be subject to the legal process known as probate. The items that arrived this past Monday were just some of his most precious things. They still have his computer, cell phone, eyeglasses, and wallet. Wanda also said friends of her brother’s in Kamloops were planning a march, scheduled to take place Oct. 30, to protest alleged police violence and demand answers about the circumstances surrounding his death.

The photos are back up on the wall at Wanda and Mike’s. The sisters said they and the rest of their brother’s family can’t begin to deal with their grief until they get some kind of “closure,” and especially keep the promise the whole family made to their brother, son, and father at his burial. Wilbert Bartley Jr. is also survived by four children, Ryan Bartley, Crystal Bartley, Jessie Bartley-Donnelly, and Dylan Bartley; by a brother, Clayton Bartley; and by two grandchildren, Brandon Bartley and Brayden Dyer.

“We all placed our hands on his little casket,” Wanda said, with Anne and Catherine by her side. “We all made a pact with Wilbert that he would be able to rest in peace, that we’re going to get justice for him.”

The Bartley family was told after the Calgary police began their investigation that it would take three to six months.

The results of the investigation, and whatever light it sheds on the circumstances of Wilbert Bartley’s death remain to be seen. Hopefully, as one of the investigating officers promised the Bartley family, they are leaving “no stone unturned” in their pursuit of the truth. It doesn’t seem right for me here to argue some of the points possibly in dispute about what happened. Let’s wait and see what the investigation reveals, or not.

The bare facts that appear not to be in dispute are that Bartley was going to start driving home to Owen Sound at 7 p.m. on the evening of July 30. About 6:15 he went to the strip plaza in a borrowed Toyota SUV, parked it, and walked into a convenience store to buy something. While he was in the store undercover Kamloops RCMP officers, either on or off duty, pulled up behind the SUV and blocked his parking spot with their unmarked van. Bartley came out of the store, got into the SUV and backed into the police vehicle. Meanwhile, the RCMP officers had gotten out of their van and walked around to the front of the SUV Bartley was driving. One of them opened fire. I’ve seen a photo that shows two bullet holes in the Toyota’s windshield. Bartley, who was not armed, was hit in the head and killed. The Toyota accelerated forward through the front window of a donut shop. The two officers involved were put on administrative duties pending the outcome of the investigation.

“Why didn’t they shoot the rad or the tires?” Anne asked.

No one denies, least of all his family, that Wilbert Bartley “was well known to police,” as they say, in Kamloops. And so he was in Owen Sound too, for that matter. He had a criminal record for petty thievery and drug offences. But there was nothing violent in his record, nothing involving firearms. His sisters were adamant that he was not that kind of person, that he was “a lover not a fighter.”

“We’ve got people coming up to us all the time saying ‘Wilbert didn’t deserve that,’” said Wanda.

They said he suffered serious injuries – broken facial bones and a broken neck – in incidents in Owen Sound years ago because he couldn’t or wouldn’t fight back. But the pain associated with those injuries got him into hard drugs.

They said their brother left Owen Sound in hopes of turning his life around, and because he felt so guilty about the pain he was causing his family here. But he fell into the drug scene again in B.C. He spent time in jail. But at the time of his death there were no charges or warrants against him. For the first time in a long time he was free to go where he wanted, and where he wanted to go was back home to Owen Sound. His mother Catherine said in a story published in this newspaper shortly after his death that her son was “trying to turn his life around.”

Wanda said her mother hopes to travel to Kamloops to take part in the Oct. 30 march Wilbert’s friends and sympathizers, “from all walks of life,” have organized. That could help her deal with her grief. Wilbert Bartley Sr. Isn’t well enough to go. The sisters said one of their worst worries is that the strain of coping with their grief and the uncertainty about how their son died will kill one of their parents, or both, before all the facts are known.

Hopefully the results of the investigation will give this hurting family the “closure” they need to deal with their grief. Above all the work of the Calgary police has to be seen as thorough and truly “independent,” and not, as Wilbert Bartley’s sisters fear, a “police investigating police” cover-up.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2010.

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