'Shocking example of abuse' that cut 5-year-old's life short earns man 14-year sentence

WARNING: This story contains details of child abuse.

In a "shocking example of abuse" that cut short the life of a five-year-old girl in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, a Superior Court judge sentenced an Ottawa man to 14 years imprisonment on Monday.

Justin Cassie-Berube, 30, repeatedly assaulted Chloe Guan-Branch in the months before she died in 2020, for things as trifling as not writing her letters correctly, Justice Pierre Roger told court. Those assaults included slaps to the mouth with the back of his hand hard enough to cut open her lip and tear the small strip of skin connecting her lip to her gums.

And when Chloe's bladder was ruptured on May 9, 2020, Cassie-Berube took no action to get her treatment.

Even as her condition worsened in the days that followed — from nausea and vomiting, to not being able to get out of bed or walk, and then to slipping in and out of consciousness — Cassie-Berube sought to protect himself by convincing the girl's mother, Ada Guan, whom he was dating and living with, not to take Chloe for medical help.

He knew Chloe needed it and even suspected she'd damaged an internal organ, Roger noted, but Cassie-Berube also knew the injuries he gave Chloe would raise questions with medical staff.

Chloe Guan-Branch, 4, next to Justin Cassie-Berube on Feb. 5, 2020. A judge ruled in March that Cassie-Berube, who was acting as Chloe's father, caused her death.
Chloe, 4, next to Justin Cassie-Berube in a picture dated Feb. 5, 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic was declared the following month. (Ontario Superior Court)

'She must have suffered great distress'

She died alone in her room on May 15, 2020.

"It is difficult and heart-wrenching to assess the harm that Chloe endured over months, particularly over her final week. No child should endure any of what Chloe suffered," Roger told the sombre courtroom.

He called the photos of the mattress and bedsheets she spent her final hours in "upsetting, with most everything covered in excrement and vomit which had been left there for some time. The harm is great and unimaginable," he said.

"She must have wondered why this was happening, and she must have suffered great distress that nothing was done."

Roger found Cassie-Berube guilty in March of all the charges he faced: manslaughter, criminal negligence causing death, failing to provide the necessaries of life, assault causing bodily harm and assault.

He was sentenced Monday to 14 years imprisonment for manslaughter and the assault charges. Due to a rule barring multiple convictions, the other charges were conditionally stayed.

Instant photographs of Justin Cassie-Berube and Chloe Guan-Branch.
Instant photographs of Cassie-Berube and Chloe, taken during the holidays in 2019, were entered as exhibits during the trial. Court heard he ended up admitting to police that he didn't want to take Chloe to hospital because her bruises would raise suspicion. (Kristy Nease/CBC)

With credit for time served in jail, Cassie-Berube has about 13 and a half years left to serve.

Outside the courthouse, assistant Crown prosecutor Mike Boyce read a statement saying the sentence held Cassie-Berube accountable and denouncing his crimes. He also thanked Ottawa police for their "professionalism and sensitivity in the face of a very difficult case."

Standing next to him were Sgt. Dan Brennan of the homicide unit and Det. Jennifer McLinton, who used to work with Brennan.

McLinton is elsewhere in the force now, and it was working on this case that made her realize she had to leave homicide.

Det. Jennifer McLinton and Sgt. Dan Brennan of the Ottawa Police Service stand outside the courthouse after Monday's sentencing. Working on this case convinced McLinton it was time for her to leave the homicide unit.
Det. Jennifer McLinton and Sgt. Dan Brennan of the Ottawa Police Service stand outside the courthouse after Monday's sentencing. Working on this case convinced McLinton it was time for her to leave the homicide unit. (Kristy Nease/CBC)

Crown wanted 16 years

Boyce and Chantal Lefebvre had argued for a 16-year prison term during sentencing submissions in May.

Chloe was five. She couldn't defend herself or get help. She called Cassie-Berube daddy — a degree of trust "of the highest order," Lefebvre told the judge on May 10.

The girl had already been through a lot — being born to parents who had no idea she was coming, being taken by B.C.'s child protection service as an infant, and not having her biological father in her life.

"For nearly six days, [Cassie-Berube] watched the child that he claims to love suffer, and it was only when she was cold and lifeless that he called 911," Lefebvre said.

It was "cold and calculated" behaviour, putting Cassie-Berube at the more serious end of the spectrum for manslaughter.

Defence sought 10 to 12 years

Defence lawyer Kate Irwin had argued for a sentence of 10 to 12 years, minus one year for time served in jail and on bail.

She said the possibility he can be rehabilitated "cannot be lost," especially considering that he's a first-time offender who had a difficult childhood and an abusive stepfather.

A mental health assessment noted 20 suicide attempts starting at 16, including on his first night in jail where he was on suicide watch.

The assessment also noted that if he doesn't get help for his self-esteem and insecurities in relationships, as well as his alcohol abuse, he's at an increased risk of harming himself and of lashing out and causing harm to children in any future relationships.

Cassie-Berube continues to minimize his role and deflect blame for Chloe's death, according to his mental health assessment. But for reasons CBC can't get into because of a publication ban, that shouldn't hold much sway, Irwin argued.

In the end, the judge disagreed. Roger said Cassie-Berube has difficulty accepting "the monstrosity of what he did to Chloe," and has gone back and forth about his guilt.

"This apparent confusion ... shows a lack of insight into the extent of his responsibility for this tragedy and a lack of true remorse," Roger said.

Birth father 'full of sadness and regret'

Roger echoed the mental health assessment's recommendation that Cassie-Berube would benefit from psychotherapy at a regional treatment centre.

But where exactly he ends up will be up to the Correctional Service of Canada.

Sandra Branch, Chloe's paternal grandmother, said by phone from B.C. Monday that no sentence would be enough for the family or her son, who is "full of sadness and regret."

"She's in God's hands now, and out of pain. Our son will never be the same, and neither will we."

Ada Guan, Wesley Branch and their newborn daughter Chloe sit for an interview after arriving back in Canada following Chloe's birth.
Chloe's mother Ada Guan and her birth father Wesley Branch sit for an interview after the family arrived back in Canada about a week after her birth on an Air Canada flight. The Children's Aid Society took Chloe away from her parents a few months later due to concerns about the couple fighting, Guan testified. (CBC)