Father admits killing his six children, but claims mental disorder

CAMPBELL RIVER, B.C. (CP) – A father admits he killed his six children because he wanted to save them from hell on Earth, a B.C. Supreme Court jury heard Tuesday.

Lawyers for the Crown and defence presented as facts a chilling series of admissions about the deaths of six children in the remote northern Vancouver Island village of Quatsino. Jay Handel is charged with six counts of first-degree murder in the March 2002 killings. The Crown and defence agree Handel, 45, killed his children – three girls and three boys aged between two and 11. But the 10-woman, two-man jury must decide if Handel is criminally responsible or not criminally responsible by reason of a mental disorder, the court heard.

Handel pleaded not guilty Monday at the beginning of a trial expected to last two weeks. His wife, Sonya Handel, is scheduled to testify Wednesday.

“Something terrible, almost unimaginable, occurred in the early morning hours of March 11, 2002, in Quatsino,” defence lawyer John Green said.

The children “died at the hands of their father,” he said.

Handel, a devout Christian, had become so distraught at the disintegration of his marriage to Sonya Handel, he decided to kill his children, then himself, to protect them from what he perceived as harm on Earth, Green said.

Handel has a history of low-level depression and other personality problems, and on March 10 “Mr. Handel reached a point where he was severely, suicidally depressed,” he said.

Handel believed he and his children would be better off in heaven than alive, said Green.

“He decided that the only way he could adequately protect his children was to kill them,” he said. “The children’s life would be hell in his absence. (If) that sounds crazy, so be it.”

Prosecutor David Fitzsimmons said the Crown and defence agree the six children were dead before a massive fire destroyed the Handel home.

Police investigators found evidence of codeine and acetaminophen in at least two of the dead children. Metal bullet fragments were found in the bedroom area where the charred, skeletal remains of their bodies were found, he said.

Neighbour Alan Johnson testified that Jay Handel was known in the tiny community as a kind and caring parent.

He said he saw Handel playing outside with his four older children on the morning of March 10, 2002, less than 24 hours before their deaths.

Jay and Sonya Handel had been separated at the time of the deaths of their children and the marriage breakup played a role in the tragedy, Fitzsimmons said.

On the weekend of the deaths, Handel had accused his wife of adultery, which she denied, he said.

Fitzsimmons said Handel told her to leave Quatsino, but she returned on March 10 to attend church.

Quatsino has a population of about 80 people and is only accessible by floatplane or boat.

Fitzsimmons said Jay Handel approached Sonya at church and asked her to come home with him on his terms or never come home. She refused his offer.

Handel then handed his wife a note that said: “You are alone,” Fitzsimmons said.

Sonya Handel, 32, then stayed overnight at a friend’s home in Quatsino while her husband stayed at the family home with the children.

Jay Handel arrived at the house where his wife had stayed early March 11 and offered to drive her home in the family van, Fitzsimmons said.

She arrived at the property to see their home and several surrounding buildings in flames, he said.

A letter to Sonya was pinned to a fence post of the perimeter of the property. It read: “Dear Sonya, like I said, ‘you’re alone,’ Fitzsimmons said.

RCMP Const. Robert Pikola read part of the letter to the court, before Green objected to its contents being made public, except to the jury.

The court heard Jay Handel sent two other letters to people following the deaths of his children. The letters, which arrived on March 12, were sent to a neighbour and the Handels’ family doctor.

Pikola was permitted to read a note on the back of the envelope of the letter sent to the doctor. It said: “Why would she leave the kids with me? The victim is left with no way out.”

RCMP Sgt. Cam Davidson, a forensic identification expert, and Pikola, stationed in the nearby coastal community of Port Alice, both testified seeing blood in the Handel family van.

Pikola said he was told Handel attempted to slash his throat, but when he arrived at Quatsino, Handel was already gone.

A blood-stained utility knife was found on the dash of the Handel van, Davidson said.

“I remember that Mr. Handel had a wound,” he said. “There was blood on the driver’s seat area, driver’s door, across the dash. The amount of blood there I don’t believe was excessive.”

RCMP Const. Trevor Tribes, the first officer at the fire scene, said he found an injured and bleeding Handel seated in the driver’s seat of the van.

Tribes said a cut on Handel’s neck “was a large gaping wound.”

The children were Sebastian, 11, Roxanne, 9, Martial, 7, Moriah, 6, Levi, 4, and Ledia, 2. Almost half the children living in Quatsino died in the incident at the Handel home.

Handel sat impassively in the prisoner’s box Tuesday.

He appeared to weep Monday when he entered not guilty pleas and during the selection of the jury.

Handel was dressed in the same dark clothes he wore Monday – a black shirt, no tie, navy blue pants without a belt and sandals. He was wearing a gold band on his left ring finger.

At the time of his arrest, Handel had bushy sideburns and a thick, Quaker-style beard but now is clean-shaven.

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