Campbell River, B.C. — Jay Handel killed his six young children less than 24 hours after a bitter fight with his wife over accusations of adultery, a B.C. Supreme Court jury heard yesterday as the veil was lifted for the first time on what happened on a cold, rainy morning last year in the isolated community of Quatsino.
Admissions by Mr. Handel and prosecution statements recount a grim narrative of escalating emotions that ended with all six Handel children dead, their bodies burned almost beyond recognition in a fierce fire set by their father after he had already ended their lives.
According to the Crown’s opening statement, all this happened after a confrontation between Mr. Handel and his wife, Sonya, outside the Quatsino school where a Sunday morning church service had taken place. Ms. Handel had left home the night before when her husband accused her of adultery, an accusation she denied.
Outside the school, Crown lawyer David Fitzsimmons said, Mr. Handel gave his wife an ultimatum: Come home on his terms or don’t come home. She declined, the court was told.
At that point, Mr. Fitzsimmons continued, Mr. Handel held his wife’s hands and said, “You are alone.” Then he left.
Ms. Handel spent Sunday night at the home of a friend, Debbie McNabb, while Mr. Handel remained at the family home with their six children. Both women are expected to testify today.
Mr. Fitzsimmons said Ms. Handel will testify that her husband picked her up at Ms. McNabb’s to drive her back home very early Monday morning. On the way, he stopped at the highest point of land along the Quatsino road from where their property was visible.
“Sonya could see that it was in flames,” the Crown lawyer said.
An admission of facts presented at Mr. Handel’s trial on six counts of first-degree murder says simply, “Jay Handel caused the death of the six children.”
The statement, agreed to by both sides, added, “The children were deceased before the fire that destroyed the Handel family home. . . . [and] Jay Handel set the fire.”
The remains of two children contained traces of codeine and acetaminophen, while the remains of two others had traces of metal fragments consistent with being shot. Mr. Handel was known to have owned a rifle. There was no evidence on what caused the death of the other two children. They ranged in age from 2 to 11 years old.
Although he admitted killing his six children, Mr. Handel has pleaded not guilty on the grounds he was suffering from a mental disorder at the time. Defence lawyer John Green told the jury that his client killed the children because he felt they would not be safe with his estranged wife.
Mr. Handel intended to end his own life over his increasingly serious marital difficulties, Mr. Green said.
“He decided the only way to adequately protect his children was to kill them.
“He is a devout Christian who believes in a better afterworld. . . . [so] he decided they would all be together in a better place and he would be there to protect them. That sounds crazy. So be it.”
Neighbour Alan Johnson, who dashed to the Handel home when he saw the fire in the predawn darkness of March 11, 2002, told the court what happened when Mr. and Ms. Handel got to the house.
“I could hear yelling and screaming and Sonya came running out of the dark. . . . She ran up to the house and yelled and screamed: ‘My babies! My babies! He killed my babies! He’s over there and he killed my kids!’ “
Mr. Johnson said he could see Mr. Handel sitting in the driver’s seat of his van, parked close to the property. “She [Sonya] ran around to the front of the van, beating and kicking on the driver’s door.”
He recalled her screaming: ‘You asshole. You son of a bitch. You killed my kids!’. . . . Jay was just sitting there. His head was turned to the left and he was looking at her.”
Under cross-examination, however, Mr. Johnson said he found some of Ms. Handel’s reactions “very controlled.”
“When Sonya told me to phone the police, she spoke very calmly, and the way she ran up to the fire, to me it seemed very in control for a situation like that.”
Asked by Mr. Green whether he felt her actions were contrived, Mr. Johnson replied, “To some extent.”
In a day full of chilling admissions, statements and testimony, the court was also told of three letters written by Mr. Handel, apparently to explain his actions.
One letter was attached to a front post at the scene of the devastating fire on the Handel property. Addressed to Ms. Handel, it began: “Dear Sonya. Good luck. Like I said, you’re alone.”
At that point, Mr. Green objected to the reading of the letter in court and those few words were all that was made public.
A letter from Mr. Handel to Quatsino resident Russell Lubrick came through the mail two days after the deaths. It began, “An afterthought, Russel [sic] . . .”
And a third letter was sent to the Handels’ family doctor, Marlene Smith. On the back of the envelope to Dr. Smith were the words: “Why should she leave the kids with me? The victim is left with no way out.”
Shortly after the confrontation with his wife outside the burning home, Mr. Handel made an effort to slit his throat, using a utility knife to open a large, gaping wound in his neck. RCMP witnesses testified, however, that the wound seemed to be healing by the time they arrived, and Mr. Handel quickly recovered from his self-inflicted injury in hospital.
At times during yesterday’s proceedings, Mr. Handel hung his head and occasionally dabbed at his eyes. Most of the time, however, he stared straight ahead, appearing much more composed than during his distraught appearance Monday as the trial began.
He also acknowledged Ms. Handel’s sister sitting in the courtroom, gesturing toward her in a friendly manner and, at the end of the day, giving her a wink.
The sister, who declined to give her name, said she had no comment on the trial. “It’s obviously a very difficult and emotional tragedy and we don’t want to talk about it.”