Wife watched as fire killed her 6 children

Abusive husband tried to kill self too, she testifies at his B.C. murder trial

CAMPBELL RIVER — Jay Handel looked his wife in the eye as the fire consuming the bodies of their six children lit the sky in front of them and slit his throat with a utility knife, Sonya Handel testified yesterday.

“I have nothing to live for,” she remembered her husband saying while he sat in the driver’s seat of a Chevy van parked about 50 metres from their burning home in the remote Vancouver Island community of Quatsino.

Ms. Handel banged on the window and yelled at her husband that rainy March 11, 2002 morning, demanding to know where their six children were. He didn’t answer. Instead, he cut his neck open from just under his right ear to about mid-throat.

Mr. Handel, now on trial in B.C. Supreme Court for six counts of first-degree murder, admits he killed his six children, from two to 11 years old. But his lawyers argue he is not criminally responsible for the crime because he was suffering from a mental disorder.

Mr. Handel was a depressed and devoutly Christian man who was suicidal over his wife’s perceived adultery, defence lawyer John Green said. Rather than leave his children behind without his protection, he killed them to take them with him to the afterlife, Mr. Green said.

But in court, Ms. Handel laughed when asked if her husband was a religious person.

“He let me have some Christian content in the homeschooling, but wouldn’t let me say grace at the table or pray in the van,” the 33-year-old woman testified in a quiet voice.

He went to church twice with her in their 18 years together, said Ms. Handel.

The 10-man, two-woman jury heard intimate details of the couple’s disintegrating relationship, one that had started when Ms. Handel was a 15-year-old high school student on Saltspring Island and Mr. Handel was a 29-year-old bartender with a live-in girlfriend. They eventually had six children together, and moved to the isolated north Island community of Quatsino in the fall of 1996.

In four hours of testimony yesterday, which will continue today, Ms. Handel painted a picture of a domineering and verbally abusive husband who was critical of her housekeeping and who sometimes called her names. “I thought I was a deeply flawed human being.”

He accused her of having an affair with another man, and became angry and suspicious. She denied having an affair, although she did tell a friend she was infatuated with the other man.

She told how one day in January, Ms. Handel woke to see him standing above her by the bed. “I told him I was afraid he’d have a gun in my back or something,” she testified. “He said, ‘Don’t worry. I decided at three of clock this morning I wouldn’t kill you.’ “

The weekend before the fire, Ms. Handel told him she wanted to separate. She’d told him that before, but “he’d always talked me out of it.”

Ms. Handel ended up staying at friend Debbie McNabb’s the Sunday before the fire. There, Ms. Handel talked with Mr. Handel on the phone and told him she wanted a divorce.

That night, she told Ms. McNabb that she hoped Mr. Handel would commit suicide.

Ms. McNabb testified yesterday that Ms. Handel told her there was no need to worry about the children, who were alone in the house with Mr. Handel, because Mr. Handel “would probably just go across the street and kill himself.”

But he didn’t kill himself. Instead, in the morning, Mr. Handel picked her up to bring her home as they had arranged. He stopped the van at a high point on the road and stared at her, gauging her reaction to the fire.

“Take me home,” she said.

“There’s no reason to go home,” he said.

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