The trial of two people accused of physically and sexually abusing a London woman held in captivity for four years was adjourned abruptly Wednesday afternoon (Jan. 23) after a relative of the victim was overheard by lawyers possibly discussing her testimony during a recess.
Johnathon Rick, 38 and Cynthia Anderson, 36, have jointly pleaded not guilty to aggravated assault, sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, assault with a weapon and unlawful confinement. Rick has pleaded not guilty to another six charges: two counts of aggravated assault, two counts of assault and one count each of assault with a weapon and sexual assault with a weapon.
The woman’s identity is the subject of a publication ban.
The 27-year-old suffers from cerebral palsy, which causes her to shake, especially when “nervous.” She also has an intellectual disability. She testified she completed high school through a program for students with developmental disabilities and described herself at trial as a “slow learner.”
She was partway through testifying, getting to the more graphic details of her ordeal when assistant Crown attorney Fraser Ball requested a recess to allow her to compose herself.
During that 15-minute recess, a relative who was in the courtroom watching her testimony, piped in via closed-circuit television from a suite elsewhere in the courthouse complex, visited her and was overheard by Ball and defence attorney Wally Libis allegedly speaking to the woman in a loud voice.
Libis and fellow defence counsel Antin Jaremchuk told Justice Lynne Leitch they were concerned about the potential “irreparable contamination” of evidence.
They said the conversation sounded like there could have been coaching taking place.
“(Ball) and I were taken aghast at what transpired,” Libis said.
After some discussion Leitch agreed to adjourn the trial until 10 a.m. Thursday (Jan. 24) to allow the attorneys time to consider how they would like to proceed. She also directed the woman not to discuss any of the facts of her ordeal with anyone, nor the questions she was asked or the answers she gave during the Crown’s examination.
Further, Leitch called the family member who spoke with the victim before the bench and asked that the person volunteer to stay away from her while she testifies and that depending on what the defence has to say Thursday morning, she may make that request an order.
“I want to hear from you that you won’t be encouraging her to talk about (the facts of the case),” Leitch said.
The relative made a bob of the head and muttered an agreement.
Prior to the interruption, the woman’s testimony began to paint a picture of her life for the four years, held captive for most of it in a storage closet and subject to what assistant Crown attorney Ball has described as “torture.”
Answering carefully worded questions from Ball, the woman said she met Rick through a former boyfriend around 2003, and began playing Dungeons and Dragons with he and Anderson. She moved into an apartment with the defendants — who were romantically involved at the time — in 2007 when she returned to London after living in another city for a time.
She said back then they were “friendly,” noting Rick would hug her and say nice things when she was feeling down.
Asked to describe the relationship between the three, she said initially she had her own bedroom while Anderson and Rick shared another. She said she was involved in “sexuality stuff” with the couple.
Asked if she considered herself Rick’s girlfriend she said no, because Rick and Anderson were dating. She said she knew because she saw them “hugging and kissing.”
The alleged ordeal took place in two different apartments. It ended one afternoon in August 2011 when the victim was discovered by paramedics with infected burns and scarring on a number of places of her body.
She testified that she was struck and burned with boiling water poured from an electric teakettle when she broke the house rules, which ranged from not touching Rick’s stuff (a computer, a television, a gaming system and the contents of a storage closet) to not eating Anderson’s food.
Court heard of three such incidents as the woman was asked to describe nine photos, one at a time, which were taken of her by police at the hospital in August 2011 and entered as evidence by the Crown.
Based on her descriptions, the photos depicted infected burns and scarring on her legs, back and shoulders. She described the pain she felt when burned by boiling water and lighter fluid as an “11” on a scale of 1-10.
“Hot water burn,” she said over and over as she was handed the photos: “my right leg … my right side, looks very infected … my back of my right leg, looks infected … my left shoulder and part of my neck … my back, infected skin.”
She testified the abuse began before any burning incidents with physical assaults by Rick. She said Rick threw away her bed, which she described as small and belonging to one of Rick’s children, after she had she urinated on it. She said she “peed” because she was nervous.
Asked what made her nervous, she responded: “probably because he was hitting me.”
The bed was thrown away when the three moved to a second apartment. There, the victim slept on the floor with just blankets and a pillow until another peeing incident, again brought on by her “nerves.”
“I thought he was going to do the same thing to me,” she explained. Asked why, she said “because I know Johnathon. If I lied or touched any of his stuff he would hit me.”
She said after that incident Rick cleared out a storage closet and forced her to stay inside unless given permission to move about the apartment.
She said she wasn’t allowed to leave the storage closet when Rick and Anderson left the home.
That formed the third house rule that allegedly led to the worst of the punishments exacted on her by her roommates. It’s when the alleged boiling water assaults began.
She said the first time she was being punished for leaving the closet.
“I think I was lying to him but I don’t remember,” she said. “I think because I came out of the storage closet.”
She said once Rick got her to admit she had snuck out while he and Anderson were away, Rick brought her to the kitchen, filled the kettle and told her to pull her shirt away from her neck. She made a motion imitating pulling the collar of her t-shirt down away from her left shoulder with her right hand.
She said she didn’t want to do that because he told her he was going to pour the hot water on her. When Ball asked if she tried to get away, she said “I couldn’t get out of the apartment … because if I left he would have threatened to kill me or hurt me.”
She said she felt “worried, scared and nervous” as she and Rick waited for the water in the kettle to reach a boil. She recalled the sound of the bubbling water, and the “pop” as the kettle kicked off.
She said Rick poured the boiling water onto her left shoulder, and some splashed on to her neck as she tried to move away. She said he then told her to take a cold shower to stop the “stinging.”
She was burned a second time, from her shoulders to her tailbone, after she admitted to touching Rick’s computer. She told Ball she hadn’t, but that she was trying to tell Rick what he wanted to hear. She said she was afraid he would burn her for lying.
“He would have burned me and done other stuff,” she said.
She said he burned her anyway, at one point grabbing her when she tried to run, topless, from the kitchen. She described the pain on that occasion as an “11 or more.”
She testified she was burned with boiling water from the kettle a third time the very next day, this time with Anderson pinning her shoulders to the floor, on the right side of her rib cage.
She said she knew Rick was upset because he used an “angry voice.”
“I was rolling around on the floor trying to get away from the water,” she said. “Cynthia was holding me still.”
She said the couple made her take another cold shower, then sprayed rubbing alcohol on the burn, telling her it would take the infection away.
“It stung like 11,” she said. Asked by Ball if they were angry when they applied the alcohol, she said “they were trying to be nice.”
The trial resumes Thursday (Jan. 24).