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Martensville: Sterling Trial Part 1

Although they are two distinctly different cases, many people who saw the Fifth Estate's story on the Foster Parent Trials, Scandal of the Century continue to confuse the case with Martensville.

The players are quite distinct: different prosecutors, different witnesses, different cops and different accused. The two stories share the predominent feature of having fed Saskatchewan's lurid appetite for the bizarre and for putting us on the map for malicious treatment of our citizens. From David Milgaard to Foster Parents and Martensville, and continuing with the criminal tolerance we have shown to police departments who approve and cover-up murders of Natives, we have earned our position as a place Amnesty International is keeping an eye on.


'Our life can never be normal'

Ron, Linda Sterling

Emotions run high as Ron and Linda Sterling leave courthouse after being cleared of all charges

"We're going to be tainted as the most vile child molesters for the rest of our lives," Ron Sterling knows.

"No matter that I've been found not guilty, there are going to be people out there forever who believe I am guilty.

"I used to have great faith in the justice system but I've learned a lot in the past two years," he said.

"Our life can never be normal. We've lost two years of our lives."

Ron and Linda Sterling, key figures in the most infamous sexual abuse trial ever held in Saskatchewan, Wednesday were found not guilty of 32 crimes against 11 children.

Their son, Travis, 25, was convicted on eight charges against six children -- four boys and two girls. He was immediately taken into custody by RCMP and will be sentenced at 10 A.M. Friday by Justice Ross Wimmer.

Travis, an artist, was convicted of five counts of sexual assault against three boys and two girls. He was found guilty of sexual assault, assault and attempting to engage in anal intercourse involving a fourth boy.

Five of the children testifying against Ron Sterling alleged he also abused two others who didn't testify. In total, he was charged with abuse of five boys and two girls/

Six of the children testified against Linda Sterling and alleged she abused three others who ddn't testify, so five boys and four girls were involved in the charges.

After deliberating for eight days, the 11 member jury acquitted the two 46 year old Sterlings on charges arising from an investigation of their unlicenced day-care home in Martensville between 1988 and 1991.

The jury verdict casts doubt whether the Crown will proceed against four others charged in the case.

"We can't give you an answer on that," Crown prosecutor Leslie Sullivan said when asked if the next trial, involving former Martensville police officer James Elstad, would go ahead.

"That's not our call," she said.

Hugh Harradence, Linda Sterling's lawyer, was scathing in his criticism of the police investigation of the allegations.

"Linda didn't get off on any technicality," he said. "What happened to her is an injustice."

Harradence said the family is considering filing a civil suit against the police and prosecutors.

Lawyer Don Mullord, who represented Ron Sterling, said he believes the Crown will have to drop any further action. Mark Brayford, who represents Elstad, said he wants a decision immediately.

The parents who filed the 1991 complaint that sparked the entire Martensville investigation were not in the courtroom when the jury filed in. They were there 15 minutes later when the jurors were asked if they were unanimous in their verdict and, when they then heard them say yes, they appeared dazed and unbelieving.

An aunt of a 10-year-old boy, standing outside the court later, wept in disbelief, saying "They don't believe the children. I can't believe it."

She and her husband had listened to much of the children's testimony and he shook his head and said: "It's difficult to believe all these kids are liars."

In an exclusive interview, Ron Sterling was critical of the way his family's case was handled.

"There are a few people in this system whose brains have been on scramble and they don't know how to stop," he said.

"If we had our preliminary hearing back in 1992, this case would never have come to trial," he said, estimating he's now $80,000 in debt in addition to losing his Martensville home, his vehicles and his job.

"I was told way back when that, even if I was not convicted, I couldn't have my job back (as deputy director of the Saskatoon Correctional Centre)."

Life has, in some ways, been very difficult since he was charged.

"We were treated like animals in our own home," he said. "My daughter (Tracy) has taken this the hardest. My other son, Troy . . . we had to tell him to stay away while all of this was going on.

"I know in my heart my son Travis is not guilty of anything. This is a very hysterical type of crime and that's what happened. They (police and prosecutors) got hysterical and ran with it.

"We told people two years ago we weren't guilty. Neither is our son. We're going to fight this right to the bitter end."

"These kids have gone through hell, but so have we."

Sterling said the family's first priority now is to appeal Travis's conviction.

Ron's father, Burt, died on the opening day of the trial. "This killed him," Sterling said at the time.

Today, he says, I'd like to be able to walk down the street with him again but I'll never be able to do that."

He also says there have been some blessings in all of this.

"Our friends have really stood behind us and we'e got some new friends. I've only lost one friend through all of this."

When they were released on bail, they were ordered to live with Ron's parents on an acreage north of Prince Albert. They began attending St. Alban's Anglican Church on a regular basis, and the "people have been tremendously supportive."

Now Sterling says, "There are things I'd like to do for the people who helped us, but I don't know how. Saying thanks just doesn't seem to be enough.

"I'm bitter," he says of the case, but "I'm not bitter with the kids"(who made the accusations.)

"I fee sorry for these kids, but the hell they put us through, what it caused us . . . somebody has to know.

"These kids have been abused, but it's been the system that's abused them. What's going to happen when they come to their senses and realize nothing happened?"

Sterling was on Workman's Compsnsation for the first year of his ordeal because of a neck injury he suffered while working as an ambulance attendant with Rosthern Ambulance. Then he collected unemployment insurance and lately, welfare.

He said he's owed a lot for what has happened to him and his family.

"I want more than just my back salary," he said, but wouldn't disclose whether he plans legal action.

"I invested 24 years of my life in that job. I lost my pension, my disabiity rights. Linda will never be able to operate a day care again.

"I know our names will always be in police files, on police computers, in Social Services' records. I'm going to fight that, but I knnow what that's like.

"All I can tell you is that I'm going to fight this to the bitter end.

"There's a lot of things that went on that people owe us apologies for. Some we'll get. Some we'll never get."


Investigation into sex abuse case needs investigating

NOT GUILTY VERDICTS in the Sterling trial raise disturbing questions about the investigation and prosecution of sexual abuse in this jurisdiction.

Clearly the jury had doubts about much of the most bloodcurdling testimony from seven different children.This was not at all surprising. There was a near total absence of corroborating evidence and the presiding judge all but invited jurors to dismiss some of the more grotesque charges against the Sterlings.

Normally, in a criminal conspiracy involving no fewer than nine individuals, one of the accused will cut his losses and testify against the others. That none of the Martensville defendants have done so further undermines the case against them.

To see two of the Sterlings acquitted is to confront the possibility that someone put some very strange ideas into the heads of the children who testified against them. We are left to wonder if someone has done likewise in similar cases, perhaps resulting in wrongful convictions.

That such a thing is possible is supported by expert testimony condemning the interviewing techniques of police and social workers who conducted the investigation. Videotaped interviews of the child witnesses were variously characterized as suggestive, leading and coervice, raising serious doubts about the accusations that emerged.

Significantly, the Crown prosecutors hardly took issue with this expert analysis. They were unale or unwilling to call independent evidence to the contrary and declined even to cross-examine the one expert who might have done the most damage to their case. It was as if the prosecution conceded the investigation was seriously flawed and the children's evidence therefore suspect.

I attended the trial on a couple of afternoons and came away with the impression the Crown was unconvinced that at least one of the accused was guilty of anything.

I'd expected to see Linda Sterling subjected to a tough cross-examination by veteran prosecutor Leslie sullivan. Instead, it was more like a polite formality, with Sullivan lobbing softball questions and repeatedly looking up at the clock as if she had better things to do.

Sterling was asked about her housekeeping standards (they're quite high). She was asked whether the children she babysat ever played outside (sometimes, on nice days). She was asked where she kept toys for them to play with (in the closet) and how often she took them to the grocery store (once).

She was not asked why children she'd earlier described as "great kids" would accuse her of such vile crimes. Nothing of the kind.

Darren Sabourin

Here was the one and only chance for the prosecution to question the accused under oath and it was more like a pleasant chat than a cross-examination.

Granted, it could have been part of some grand prosecution strategy that was not apparent to me. Or it could have been that the Crown simply never had a credible case against this woman.

Which brings us back to the investigation. The same investigation, incidentally, that also resulted in charges against Saskatoon City Police officer John Popowich. These charges were stayed when his alleged child victims could not identify him. The presiding judge went further, declaring Popowich to be "totally innocent."

Was he the only one scooped up in a net too wide?

Perhaps not. Four other men charged in connection with the same investigation are to go on trial individually, starting Feb. 14. It remains to be seen how or even if those trials will proceed.

Guilt or innocence aside, the Sterling and Popowich trials at least served to reveal unfortunate flaws in the Martensville investigation. An independent review of the investigative procedures employed in this tragic case would seem appropriate, if only to reassure the public that police and social workers are not overzealous in their pursuit of monsters, real or imagined.


Future of remaining cases now placed in doubt

The Crown's future action in the Martensville sexual abuse matter could be revealed at 2 p.m. today (injusticebusters' note -- they did decide not to proceed).James Elstad

The Crown Wednesday asked for a 24-hour postponement in pretrial discussions about how it would proceed against former Martensville police officer James Elstad and Queen's Bench Justice Marion Wedge rescheduled the hearing for this afternoon.

"Given what happened this morning (Wednesday), we're asking for an adjournment," said prosecutor Judy Halyk, referring to the acquittal of Ron and Linda Sterling and the conviction of their son on eight secual abuse charges.

During the Elstad pre-trial conference, which began Monday, there has been discussion on how the two-month trial would proceed. None of what has been discussed can be reported.

The conference was scheduled to continue Wedsnesday afternoon, but the Sterling jury's decision forced the Crown to reconsider its future actions.

Halyk's comments fueled speculation that the Crown's case has gone down the drain with Wednesday's verdicts.

Three relativers of the children, including one of the mothers, say the youngsters are devastated by the whole process.

The jury decision makes it obvious that jurors didn't believe anything happened at a quonset 10 mintes northwest of Martensville.

Of the eight charges Travis was convicted of, six had to have occurred at his John Popowichhome. The other four could have occurred either at his home or at the Storey-Bishoff quonset, but it appears obvious any charge specifically referring to "The Place," "The Fort" or "The Devil's Church" -- as one child called it -- was rejected.

Three of the children who testified in the Sterling trial also testified in the trial of Saskatoon Police Cpl. John Popowich last year. After they failed to identify Popowich as one of the abusers in a lineup, Justice Ted Noble said the 20 year veteran as clearly a victim of mistaken identity, and was innocent.

Two of the children testified against a 20 year old female who was charged under the Young Offenders Act early last year and convicted of seven of 10 sex-related charges and sentenced to two years. She has since appealed that verdict and it's before the Court of Appeal. (injusticebusters note: all her convictions were overturned).

After the jury verdict, there was immediate speculation the Crown would have no alternative but to call a halt to proceedings against all the remaining defendants -- Elstad, Ed Reverz, Darrel Ford and Darren Sabourin.

Ed Revesz

Elstad's trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 14 and involves 13 charge, with five of the children who testified in the Sterling case also scheduled to testify against him.

Suspended Warman RCMP Const. Darren Sabourin faces eight charges involving three children and two of the Sterling child witnesses are scheduled to testify against him. His trial is scheduled to begin April 11.

Former Martensville Police chief Darryl Ford faces 10 charges involving five children, four of whom testified in the Sterling trial. His case goers June 13.

Another former chief, Ed Revesz, faces eight charges involving four children and, again, four children from the Sterling trial are scheduled to testify. His trial begins September 7.

Prosecutors Leslie Sullivan and Bruce Bauer would not comment on what may happen now, other than to indicate Saskatchewan Justice officials would have to make any decisions.

Darryl FordSenior Crown Prosecutor Wilf Tucker, asked if the Sterling trial should have gone ahead based on the evidence that came out during the trial, replied it's not the Crown's aim simply to get guilty verdicts, but to present all the information and let the jury decide.

While the Crown wasn't giving any hint of its intentions, some observers in the courthouse figured the Crown had no alternative but to close the book.

Lawyer Don Mullord, who represented Ron Sterling, believes the Crown would have to drop any further action. Mark Brayford, who represents Elstad, said he wants a decision immediately.

Mullord said it's obvious the jury didn't believe there was widespread sexual abuse as the Crown contended, so "the policemen (still facing trial) have been vindicated."

Ford and Revesz sat in the back of the courtroom with Popowich when the jury reported. Sabourin and Elstad weren't present.

Popowich said the decision now begs for an inquiry. Three of the children who testified against him also testified against the Sterlings.

Ford and Revesz wouldn't comment.