Marsha Boulton is best known as a Stephen Leacock Award-winning humour writer, but her latest book is taking her real life deep into crime-thriller territory, with many volleys and ripostes between her and the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney-General.
Last July, Boulton had her computer, which contained the only copy of her novel in progress, seized during a police raid of the Harriston, Ont., home she shares with her husband, writer and journalist Stephen Williams, who was being investigated for allegedly violating a publication ban in connection with the Paul Bernardo-Karla Homolka sex slayings.
It wasn't the first police visit to their home -- last May, Ontario Provincial Police arrested Williams and held him overnight, releasing him the next day on $25,000 bail. Williams currently faces 97 criminal charges in connection with his controversial books Invisible Darkness and Karla: A Pact with the Devil and his website, which examined the legal investigation behind Canada's most infamous serial-killer couple.
Since May, Boulton and Williams have become a cause célébre for organizations championing freedom of expression. PEN Canada, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and Writers' Trust of Canada have been lobbying on behalf of the couple.
But recently, the plot has thickened. In response to a Feb. 13 Globe and Mail editorial that criticized the attorney-general's office for its handling of Boulton's case, director of Crown operations John McMahon sent The Globe a letter stating: "In fact, three separate offers (Dec. 1, 2003; Dec. 23, 2003; Jan. 16, 2004) have been made through counsel to return to Ms. Boulton, copies of all computer files not relevant to the investigation. These offers were made to facilitate the return of her draft novel and any non-relevant e-mail messages. The Crown has never received a response to any of these offers."
McMahon's letter also advised it would be inappropriate for the Crown to make any additional comments on the matter since Williams's case is before the courts.
Boulton however, maintains that she is only aware of one offer made some time in December, but that it was as an aside made to her husband's lawyers, not to her.
"They've never sent me anything, they've never sent me a letter, they never called me. I'm not represented by Stephen Williams's lawyers," Boulton says. "They are really trying to play nicey-nicey -- I've never seen anything like this kind of spin coming out of the Ministry of the Attorney-General."
Her book, a historical novel about a Scottish Presbyterian cult in Nova Scotia, was supposed to be delivered to her publisher last fall but has now been delayed indefinitely. Her computer contained about half of the novel, and material for the remaining half.
Boulton has no idea when she might be able to finish her book, she says, even if the computer files are returned to her.
She has no further plans on contacting the attorney-general's office to ask for her items back. "I think it's up to them to contact me, if they can contact the media, they can contact me."
TORONTO - The Ontario government is refusing to return the only copies of an unfinished novel and personal information it seized from award-winning writer Marsha Boulton nearly seven months ago, even though she is not the subject of any criminal investigation.
The material was stored on a computer hard drive and back-up discs, seized last July when police executed a search warrant at the Harriston, Ont., home of Boulton and writer Stephen Williams.
Ontario's attorney general has filed 97 criminal charges against Williams, for allegedly violating publication bans connected to the prosecutions of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka.
In his books Invisible Darkness and Karla: A Pact with the Devil, Williams is especially critical of senior ministry officials, including Murray Segal, for the plea bargain with Homolka which will result in her release from prison next year. Segal is currently the senior official in the ministry's criminal law section, which is responsible for the prosecution of Williams.
Segal's wife was the lead Crown attorney on the case until Williams's lawyer made a public complaint last May.
Boulton, who won a Stephen Leacock award for humour in 1996, has never written about Bernardo or Homolka. The unfinished work seized by police is a historical novel set in the 19th century. Boulton said she did not store back-up copies outside her home because she never expected police to seize her work. "I am being targeted, just because I live with Stephen and I love him," she said.
Police are also in possession of private e-mails from over 200 women who belong to the same cancer support group as Boulton. At least a dozen officers participated in the raid last summer and Boulton noted that her "underwear drawer was fingered through as well," in reference to the recent RCMP search of the home and office of Ottawa Citizen reporter Juliet O'Neill.
A spokesman for Attorney General Michael Bryant has repeatedly refused to respond to requests for an interview about the conduct of police and the ministry. All questions have been referred to a ministry spokesman. "The investigation is ongoing. No further comment is appropriate," said Brendan Crawley in an interview last week.
Many of the criminal charges relate to allegations that Williams published names of some of Bernardo's sexual assault victims on a website. Legal experts have said the Crown has a very weak case against Williams, because he immediately disabled the website, which was up for less than 24 hours, when informed by police it may have contained banned information.
The province is also continuing with a civil suit against Williams. The ministry says it is acting on behalf of the people of Ontario in asking a court to award punitive damages against Williams, claiming that he was in wrongful possession of Crown disclosure material from the Bernardo case. This is despite the fact that there is no law that bans possession of Crown disclosure material, other media outlets had many of the same documents as Williams and the Bernardo proceedings concluded several years ago.
"I cannot believe they are willing to waste more public money on this case," said Kim McArthur, president of McArthur & Co., which published Invisible Darkness and nine of Boulton's books. "This is unheard of in a democratic country. There are real criminals out there."
Lorne Honickman, who is defending Williams in the lawsuit, said: "I have never seen anything like this."
The Toronto lawyer and former television news reporter said the civil action has been used to assist in the criminal prosecution, which violates Williams's right to a fair trial.
"The plaintiff is the attorney general, who is the same person who is prosecuting Mr. Williams criminally (all Crown attorneys in Ontario act on behalf of the attorney general), Honickman explained.
The Toronto lawyer has filed an abuse of process motion in Ontario Superior Court, asking for the province's civil suit to thrown out. That motion is unlikely to be heard before the spring.
The criminal trial is also not expected to begin for several months, even though the initial charges were laid last May.
TORONTO - The Canadian author of books about sex killers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka has been given a grant for writers working under repressive regimes.
Human Rights Watch -- an independent, nongovernmental human rights organization based in New York -- announced that Stephen Williams is one of this year's recipients of the Hellman/Hammett Grant.
Marcia Allina, who administers the grant for Human Rights Watch, said it's unheard of for a Canadian to win.
"What happened to Williams is an aberration," Allina said. "He's being prosecuted for information the government didn't like and there's no reason the public shouldn't have it."
Marsha Boulton, an award-winning essayist and Williams' partner, has also been named a grant recipient.
Williams, who wrote Invisible Darkness and Karla: A Pact With the Devil about the couple, was charged by Ontario Provincial Police in October 2003 in connection to a website on which he posted information about the case.
In addition, the Ontario government is suing Williams for what it says is improperly possessing evidence from the court case.
The police have also targeted Boulton: they seized her computer and the manuscript of an unfinished historical novel in the summer of 2003.
In the past, Williams has said that his criticism of Ontario's justice system, and some senior people in it, have resulted in unwarranted prosecutions designed to drain him financially and artistically.
"When you're besieged in this manner you have two choices," he said. "You lie down and die or stand up and fight."
Though he feels the grant is a moral-booster, Williams doesn't expect that international condemnation will make his fight with the legal system any easier.
Prominent attorney Edward Greenspan is handling Williams' case, which has also received support from other groups representing writers and journalists.
The Human Rights Watch award, which focuses attention on the "repression of free speech and censorship by publicizing the persecution that the grant recipients [have] endured," is financed by the estate of Lillian Hellman, the U.S playwright. Hellman, along with her companion Dashiell Hammett, was interrogated in the U.S. in the 1950s about her political beliefs.
Since the Hellman/Hammett Grant program began in 1990, more than 400 writers have received funds, including writers in Bosnia, Burma, China, Peru and Sierra Leone.
Each year, a seven-member selection committee distributes grants of $1,000 to $10,000 US to a number of international writers, whom Human Rights Watch has identified as being victims of political persecution and in financial need.
HARRISTON - When Marsha Boulton stepped up to the podium to read from her novel-in-progress at the Eden Mills Writers' Festival last month she had only three pages of the manuscript in her hand. "The rest of the book is on my computer" the Canadian humour writer told her audience. She wasn't trying to be funny. Boulton, backed by the Writers' Union of Canada and high-profile lawyer Edward Greenspan, is trying to recover her computer that was seized July 18 during a police search of the Wellington County farmhouse she shares with partner Stephen Williams.
Williams, author of two controversial books about Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, was charged in May with disobeying a court order after police alleged he posted material on a Web site that was covered by a publication ban during Bernardo's trial for murdering teenagers Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French. He was released on $25,000 bail and has his next court appearance Oct. 23. In July, 10 provincial police officers arrived at the couple's farm near Harriston with a search warrant.
Boulton said although she maintains an entirely separate office from Williams, her personal computer and computer files were seized as well as his. She lost all of the copies of her new novel, The Sea Birds, based on a Cape Breton Presbyterian cult, which was scheduled to be published this fall. When she was allowed back into her home after the search in July she discovered her underwear drawer had been disturbed and a book on the history of the New Zealand Presbyterian Church was lying open on her desk. "I never thought writing about Presbyterians was a criminal act," she said.
Boulton also lost diaries, confidential legal correspondence, financial records and material stored on her computer related to her two-year battle with cancer. Included were deeply personal e-mails to and from members of her support group for women with the same rare gynecological cancer. Some of the women have written to the investigators to express their outrage that intimate details of their medical ordeals are now in the hands of police.
Williams' lawyer, Edward Greenspan, called the seizure "utterly and totally scandalous" and has been attempting to recover Boulton's belongings. "She's entitled in law and in fact to be treated completely and utterly separate from Stephen Williams," he said. He also believes police should be returning items to Williams that are not covered by the search warrant. "They came and did a sweeping search," said Greenspan, believing that Williams has "become a target" because his book is critical of how the police and prosecution conducted themselves during the investigation leading to the plea bargain that will allow Homolka to be released from jail in 2005.
The Writers' Union of Canada has also taken an interest in the case, calling for a public inquiry. The national organization especially criticized the seizure of Boulton's computer when she was never charged with an offence. "It interferes with her livelihood," said Penney Kome, an author and journalist and chair of the writers' union. Kome said on the surface there would appear to be an element of retribution in what she feels was harsh and unprecedented treatment of the two writers. Police are keeping quiet about the case.
Det. Insp. Steven Rooke of the OPP Criminal Investigation Branch, who is in charge of the investigation, said he could not comment because the case is still under investigation. He confirmed that items were seized from the couple's residence during the July search but said police were there lawfully. He would not say if any steps would be taken to return Boulton's property or copies of the data on her computer. "I can't comment on the status of her computer," he said.
Boulton and Williams are back at their farm after spending several weeks in New York where she said they went because they were too uncomfortable to stay in their home. "For the first time in my life I was almost ashamed to be a Canadian," she said, recalling the pounding on their farmhouse door at 6 a.m. "They were pounding so hard the windows were rattling," she said, adding that her first instinct was that there was a fire or a neighbour was in trouble.
Boulton won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour in 1996, "the fourth woman and first shepherd" to receive the honour. She was a people section editor at Maclean's magazine before moving to Harriston in 1981. She has written three books in the Just A Minute series on Canadian history and several books based on her syndicated column about country life called Letters from the Country. Boulton said the loss of her new manuscript and other information stored in her computer has been personally and financially devastating. She stands firmly behind Williams who she believes is being harassed because of the criticism of the police described in his books.
Illustration(s): Photo: JOHN REEVES, SPECIAL TO THE MERCURY Novelist and Wellington County shepherd Marsha Boulton, with her dog Wally and another furry friend, is trying to recover her computer, containing personal medical information and the manuscript of her new novel. It was seized in July during a search of the Harriston-area farm she shares with partner Stephen Williams.