New details in B.C. woman Arlene Westervelt's death emerge in report on police disciplinary action

Arlene Westervelt, 56, died on June 26, 2016. An investigation of an officer who knew her and her husband has resulted in new details being released about her death. (Brady Strachan/CBC - image credit)
Arlene Westervelt, 56, died on June 26, 2016. An investigation of an officer who knew her and her husband has resulted in new details being released about her death. (Brady Strachan/CBC - image credit)

A police complaints adjudicator has ruled that instead of a one-day suspension, a former RCMP officer will face a written reprimand for his conduct while RCMP were investigating the death of a woman who died in Okanagan Lake seven years ago.

Arlene Westervelt, 56, died on June 26, 2016 during a day of canoeing and picnicking along the shores of Okanagan Lake with her husband, Lambertus "Bert" Westervelt.

Though it was initially believed her death was an accident, Lake Country RCMP went on to charge Bert with second-degree murder in relation to her death.

He maintained his innocence. In 2020, the charges were stayed following new information in the case.

Arlene's family has argued that she has not received justice and the investigation was mishandled. In 2022, the coroners' service re-opened their investigation.

CBC
CBC

Now, a report from the Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner (OPCC), which investigates the conduct of police on the job, has shed more light on the case, as an adjudicator weighed in on the disciplinary action meted out to gang unit sergeant Brian Gateley — to whom Bert had confessed being untruthful with the RCMP about his wife's death.

In 2022, Gateley admitted to performing discreditable conduct when he reached out to Arlene's sister after charges against Bert were dropped, intending to clear the air following sustained media attention and allegations of corruption, the report says.

CBC
CBC

"Although [Gateley] has admitted the discreditable conduct, the evidence in the record suggests that he did not deliberately contact a witness in a homicide investigation in contravention of direct orders from his superiors," reads the report from retired judge James Threlfall.

A locked cell phone and an admission

According to the OPCC report, Gateley and his wife — a nurse who worked with Arlene — went to the Westervelts' home to comfort Bert following her death.

"During one of these visits, Mr. Westervelt mentioned that his wife's phone had been returned to him by the RCMP and that there were photos on it taken the day of her death that he wanted for the funeral," the report reads.

The report says Gateley said he would look into unlocking the phone using a machine available to the RCMP.

Gately, then a sergeant with the Organized Crime Agency of B.C., cleared with investigators whether this would be allowed. At the time, Arlene's death was still considered an accident.

After confirming there was no problem with doing this, the photos Bert requested were subsequently provided to him.

"Sometime later, Ms. Gateley received a text from Mr. Westervelt asking if Sgt. Gateley would come over and talk to him.

Debbie Hennig/Facebook
Debbie Hennig/Facebook

"[Gateley] agreed and during an initial brief discussion Mr. Westervelt indicated that he had not been truthful with the RCMP about the facts surrounding his wife's death," the report states, although it does not go into further detail about those facts.

According to the OPCC, Gateley immediately took Bert's statement and contacted RCMP officers, informing them of the statement and his helping Westervelt access Arlene's phone.

Media pressure

Second-degree murder charges were recommended against Bert Westervelt following RCMP's investigation.

Gateley was set to testify in a preliminary inquiry in September 2020 — until charges were stayed by Crown prosecutors due to an "issue with the pathologist's report," according to the report.

But the reasons for dropping Bert's charges, which remain unclear, weren't relayed to Arlene's family, who were "concerned that there was an RCMP cover-up," according to the OPCC.

"[Gateley] understood that Ms. Westervelt's family was concerned that [his] actions had resulted in the stay of proceedings," Threlfall wrote.

Submitted by Debbie Hennig
Submitted by Debbie Hennig

When media producers across the country approached Gately, he went to his superiors to seek permission to speak to the press, concerned they would hear only one side of the story.

His superiors advised him not to, however, and subsequent coverage largely featured Arlene's family, including her sister Debbie Hennig.

A February letter

This significantly concerned Gateley, who wanted to write to Hennig to clear his role in the investigation. Once again, his superiors advised him not to, according to the adjudicator.

However, in February 2021, Gateley did end up writing a letter to Hennig.

In the letter, he said he was "shocked" when charges were dropped against Bert, among other things, and he believed the dropped charges were not related to the cell phone.

"Significantly, [Gateley] did not mention in the letter that he had been contacted by Mr. Westervelt who confessed to [him] that he had not told the RCMP the truth," the OPCC report reads.

The OPCC initially gave Gateley a one-day suspension for his conduct. That has now been reduced to a written reprimand, with Threlfell determining there were discrepancies in previous proceedings.

Hennig told CBC News she does not believe Gateley or the RCMP are being truthful with the public over how they handled the investigation into Arlene's death.

CBC
CBC

"If this evidence came to trial and exposed all this bungling and cover-ups, that would be disastrous for public confidence in police and the justice system," she said in an interview.

"The only thing there needs to be is we have to go for an inquiry, absolutely an inquiry and total accountability."

CBC News has reached out to the coroners' service to find out when their investigation into Arlene's death will conclude. Hennig has filed a civil lawsuit against Gateley that remains before the courts.