September 29, 2016

UPDATE: Elmer Raycroft was acquitted of all charges against him in a second trial in October 2017. "Such a conclusion does not mean that I necessarily prefer his word to that of Ms. Raycroft," Ontario Superior Court Justice Graeme Mew wrote in his decision. "The way that burden of proof and the standard of reasonable doubt operate in a criminal case requires me to be sure that Mr. Raycroft is guilty as charged ... On my assessment of all of the evidence, applying as I must, the legal principles that I have explained, I am not sure." Read the full ruling.

1/ The 'big wheel'

It was on a whim that Isabelle St. James decided to try online dating.

The 69-year-old had been single for more than 40 years, after divorcing her first husband and raising three daughters by herself on a farm in Quebec.

Isabelle went out with men from time to time but was largely content to enjoy retirement in her Ottawa-area apartment, reading books and playing bridge with friends.

Besides, she’d never met the right guy.

Watch the National documentary on this case

She had signed up on Plenty of Fish, but it was still very new to her. When a man pinged her on the popular dating site in 2009, she was initially reluctant to continue the conversation.

For one thing, he didn’t have a profile picture. He told Isabelle he was also cautious about using his real name, because he was a “big wheel” in the town of Arnprior, Ont. He was a widower and using what he later revealed was his late wife’s email address.

He greeted her with a bottle of maple syrup and a rose, a gesture she found endearing.

He told Isabelle that if she was curious about his identity, she should click on the website of the Township of McNab/Braeside.

And so she did.

Elmer Raycroft was his name, and he was the deputy mayor of McNab/Braeside, a region with about 7,500 residents.

He was tall and hefty with close-cropped silver hair and a big smile.

She was intrigued. After a few messages back and forth, Isabelle and Elmer agreed to meet at a Baton Rouge restaurant in nearby Kanata.

He greeted her with a bottle of maple syrup and a rose, a gesture she found endearing.

Still, Isabelle says she wasn’t initially attracted to him.

“I didn’t like the brush cut,” she says bluntly. “I thought at first… the word that comes to me is, like, a thug — like somebody who works in the woods. But that soon wore off.”

Elmer and Isabelle on vacation in Florida. (Courtesy Isabelle Raycroft)
Elmer and Isabelle on vacation in Florida. (Courtesy Isabelle Raycroft)

Isabelle was touched by his easy-going and affable demeanour. She says they didn’t appear to have a lot in common, but unlike her first husband – whom she describes as a “deadbeat” – Elmer Raycroft seemed like a responsible man.

Those initial feelings, however, soon faded. During their brief, turbulent marriage, Isabelle says Elmer's impressive public image masked a dark, abusive personality in private.

In 2014, she accused her husband of multiple counts of physical and sexual assault.

Isabelle had hoped a criminal trial would bring closure to three years of personal trauma. But it didn’t turn out that way.

The case went sideways, in a manner that stunned Isabelle and others. It angered her so much that she took the gutsy step of fighting to overturn a publication ban – in order to tell her story to CBC.

Much like complainants in the trials of Jian Ghomeshi and Stanford rapist Brock Turner, Isabelle Raycroft is now adding her voice to a chorus of protest that insists the justice system is failing miserably in dealing with sexual assault.

2/ 'I loved Elmer'

Elmer Raycroft is a native son of Arnprior, a town of 10,000 in the Ottawa Valley with a proud heritage in farming and lumber.

Now 78, Elmer was a car salesman for more than 40 years — having at one point owned a Ford dealership — in addition to running the farm where he and his wife, Beulah, raised four children.

Elmer was active in the Pentecostal church and spent nearly three decades on town council and the school board. As deputy mayor, Elmer chaired the planning and fire committees and was heavily involved in decision-making on things that mattered most to townsfolk — everything from property taxes and hospital renovations to traffic lights.

Elmer was often seen about town, fulfilling the duties of his office.

“He was very outgoing, very happy, and everyone saluted him in Arnprior — ‘G’day, Elmer!’” says Isabelle.

Elmer Raycroft. (Courtesy Isabelle Raycroft)
Elmer Raycroft. (Courtesy Isabelle Raycroft)

He may have had a friendly reputation in Arnprior, but Isabelle’s daughters ­– Debbie McCarthy, Janet Methot and Sharon Palmer, who are all in their 50s – didn’t exactly take a shining to their mother’s new beau.

“Elmer was never my cup of tea,” Janet says. “He struck me as self-absorbed… we’d spend a lot of time listening to his stories and his latest feats. We humoured him.”

As their relationship progressed, Isabelle found Elmer started becoming “clingy.” After spending a few days with him on his farm, she says he would get upset when she tried to leave.

“He would just about break up and cry and throw himself on the floor. I couldn’t get away.”

The couple split up at one point early in their courtship, but Isabelle says Elmer was on her doorstep a week later. She invited him in for tea, and before long, they had agreed to get back together.

"That’s the trouble with Elmer — there’s such a need in him."

After a year and a half of dating Elmer, Isabelle announced they were getting married. Whatever reservations Isabelle’s daughters had about Elmer, they weren’t going to stand in the way of their mother’s happiness.

“We were very aware that Mom’s getting older, and we’re getting older,” says Janet. “We’ve all been married more than 25 years, my sisters and I, and we have good, happy marriages, and we wanted Mom to have that — somebody who’s your partner when you have tea in the morning, and watches the news with you at night.”

If Isabelle’s kids were unsure about Elmer, it’s clear his children had similar misgivings about her.

In May 2011, about 10 days before the wedding, Elmer insisted Isabelle sign a prenuptial agreement. It favoured Elmer’s kids, spelling out that in the event of his death, 80 per cent of his estate would go to his four children and 20 per cent to Isabelle.

She signed. The marriage was never an attempt to get at his assets or his farm — Isabelle loved life in the country and was happy to start a new life with him.

“I loved Elmer,” she says. “I’m a caregiver. That’s the trouble with Elmer — there’s such a need in him.”

Isabelle was excited about the wedding, and the prospect of a gathering of the families.

On the big day, Elmer’s cream-coloured tuxedo vest and tie matched her elegant dress. In a video taken at the event, you can see that Elmer stands a whole foot taller than his bride. They’re both beaming as Isabelle slices a wedding cake topped with a curvy “R” for Raycroft.

Elmer and Isabelle's wedding

Elmer and Isabelle cut their wedding cake in 2011. (Courtesy Isabelle Raycroft)

About six weeks later, Isabelle Raycroft was at a police station, filing a report alleging her new husband had physically abused her.

3/ 'Episodes of irrational jealousy'

Isabelle calls them Elmer’s “episodes of irrational jealousy,” and claims they started even before they were married.

“He would go from zero to 60 in seconds,” says Isabelle. “After he’d done all his yelling and I wasn’t co-operating, then he would throw something.”

The first episode was unpleasant enough – she says that during an argument, he tossed a glass of water in her face.

According to her, the incidents became more violent.

One night in 2011, when Isabelle wouldn’t come to bed as Elmer requested, she alleges he tipped over the chair she was sitting on, throwing her to the floor and, in so doing, bruising her knees.

The next day, Isabelle packed her bag. When she tried to leave, she says he reached for her duffel and pushed her against a dresser.

“I said, ‘I’m leaving, Elmer, I can’t live like this anymore.’”

Her first stop was the Arnprior detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police. She told officers she was leaving her husband, but had forgotten her pills and needed help in retrieving them. She claimed she had a sore knee, but wouldn’t elaborate further. She told the police there was no physical violence in the relationship.

"What went through my head was, 'You shouldn’t stay with him.'"

Elmer Raycroft did not respond to a CBC request for an interview, but his lawyer, Rodney Sellar, agreed to speak: “He’s a very decent, outstanding citizen, but I’m going to leave it at that.”

Transcripts from the trial in the Ontario Court of Justice show that Elmer had a different account of Isabelle’s trip to police that day. He testified that when Isabelle first left the house, she said she was going to a local Tim Hortons, and that he set out in his car to find her. When he couldn’t locate her, Elmer says he “happened” to be driving past the OPP station when he came upon her vehicle. And so he went and knocked on the window of the station.

Either way, Isabelle ended up on her daughter Janet’s doorstep that night.

“Mother was upset and said that Elmer had… roughed her up in some way,” Janet recalls.

Isabelle stayed at Janet’s house that night, and the sisters urged her to make a proper police report, which she did the next day, at the Kanata detachment of the OPP.


Two days later, Isabelle told her daughters she was going back to Elmer.

They were shocked, but bit their tongues.

“What went through my head was, ‘You shouldn’t stay with him,’” says Janet. “But it’s not for me to make that choice for my mother, and it’s not for me to live her life.”

Isabelle with her daughters in 1966. (Courtesy Isabelle Raycroft)
Isabelle with her daughters in 1966. (Courtesy Isabelle Raycroft)

Isabelle returned to the farm. When the Renfrew OPP approached Isabelle about her statement to Kanata police, she and Elmer drove to the Renfrew police station, where she recanted what she had said and emphasized that she didn’t want to pursue charges.

Looking back now, Isabelle feels that was a mistake.

“I should have pressed charges, but I didn’t,” Isabelle says. “Because I loved him, because I hoped that he would change. He cried and I cried.”

Isabelle says that what unfolded over the next 2 1/2 years was something she didn’t want to admit — to herself or her family.

4/ 'You're under his thumb'

When he first met Isabelle, Elmer was hoping to cap his career in local politics with a run for mayor. As he told the Renfrew Mercury, “I feel I’ve represented the ratepayers for 27 years in a honest and fair manner… As mayor I would continue to serve with experience, integrity and commitment.”

Elmer did mount a campaign for mayor of McNab/Braeside in October 2010, but lost. Even so, he was still a congenial presence in town, whether working the phones at nursing home fundraisers or donating a bus to his church to help transport kids.

But Isabelle says he wasn’t as sunny as he appeared.

“He has that public persona, and then he’s got that private persona,” she says. “Once you step in the door and you’re in his kingdom, you’re under his thumb.”

She says Elmer’s abuse began as temper tantrums and escalated rapidly to what she describes as bullying, threats and intimidation. What put her in a state of constant fear, she later told the court, was Elmer’s verbal, physical and sexual abuse.

There was the time she says Elmer threw a mug at her.

“It just missed me and it made a hole in the wall,” she testified. “When he got into these rages, then everything would fly."

"He has that public persona, and then he’s got that private persona."

Elmer denied hurling the mug at Isabelle. When shown a photograph of the dent in the wall, he maintained it happened when his granddaughter and her fiancé moved a bed from his home.

Isabelle alleged other assaults. She said that on several occasions, he tried to smother her with a pillow. She also recalled an incident in which he put a belt around her neck and tried to choke her.

“I managed to get my fingers between the belt and, you know, I was beginning to struggle,” Isabelle told the court. “I was beginning to sweat and I managed to get my fingers in, and he removed it, and I was upset and I was crying, and he said, ‘That was nothing.’”

Elmer denied it happened. “It's completely fabricated. I did not do this with my wife," he told the court.

It was the allegations of sexual assault that Isabelle found most difficult to share in court. But she did, holding nothing back.

On two separate occasions, Isabelle alleged Elmer grew suspicious that she’d had sexual encounters with men — and insisted on checking her for evidence by forcibly spreading her legs.

“He said, ‘OK, let's see if there is any semen there from whoever this man was that you met.’ Well, of course, he didn't actually put his hand there, but he bruised me. I had a bruise on the inside of my thighs,” Isabelle testified. “I don't know how to explain it… I was just devastated."

Elmer denied ever checking his wife for semen. “That never happened. I did not do that,” he testified.

Perhaps the most brutal incident Isabelle recounted was sexual intercourse without her consent. She couldn’t remember the exact date, but said the details remained vivid in her mind.

She was lying on their couch, reading a book with an Afghan shawl spread over her, when she says Elmer initiated sexual contact.

“I said, ‘Don't do anything, I don't want to do anything.’ Then he proceeded to pull off my pyjamas and, you know, I said, ‘No, I don't want to do this, stop.’

“Then he had his way with me and then he got off and left. He never said a word.”

Isabelle described his actions as “robotic” and left no mistake about how she perceived the event, or how she reacted afterward.

“He had sex with me and I didn’t want to have sex,” she told the court. “There was no love, there was no kisses, there was no nothing. It was just a plain rape. He raped me and I walked around the house for days telling him he raped me.”

"I could no longer live like that. I could no longer live on the edge."

Elmer said the incident never happened. He had no recollection of Isabelle ever accusing him of rape, and denied they had ever had sex without her consent.

“Any intercourse or any intimacy we… had with Isabelle was always consensual,” he told the court.

Elmer did more, in fact, than deny Isabelle’s accusations. He made assertions of his own — that his wife suffered from volatile mood swings, that she had on several occasions threatened and attacked him and that she was angry because he refused to sell his farm.

“I was concerned that she wanted me to bring new money into the marriage,” Elmer told the court. “She didn’t like the farm and she just constantly pressured me to sell the farm.”

According to Elmer, Isabelle wanted more money to take cruises and trips, and that was why she often lashed out.

“She told me numerous times that I had this money all marked for my children at my death and that my children were all making a lot more money than I was… [She said] as her husband I had responsibility to bring the money into the marriage and she wanted to go on cruises,” he testified.

“She wanted to go overseas and over to Europe and travel a bit with that money and I said to her that I have prostate cancer aggressive type 4 and she also has heart problems and I said to her, ‘I don’t know what money it’s going to take to look after our health.’” (Elmer was diagnosed with cancer in July 2012.)

Isabelle says she understood how important the farm was to Elmer and helped him fix it up, but denies badgering him to sell it.

“There’s no truth in that at all. Absolutely none,” she says. “I would have stayed there if Elmer had been normal. I love the country, I love the farm… but I could no longer live like that. I could no longer live on the edge.”

5/ The rural experience

The ugly situation that had developed in the Raycroft household is not unusual in the picturesque Ottawa Valley.

“Many of us would like to believe that sexual assault only happens in the big city, that it doesn’t happen here locally,” says JoAnne Brooks, director of the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County.

But it’s not true. Volunteers at the centre’s rape crisis hotline fielded more than 2,700 crisis calls last year alone. Only 37 of those became formal complaints to police, highlighting the low rate of sexual assault reporting in rural areas, Brooks says.

Family violence against seniors higher in rural areas

While many believe that rural areas are safer, statistics on family violence do not bear this out.

In 2014, the rate of family violence against seniors living in urban areas (Census Metropolitan Areas, or CMAs) was 51.1 per 100,000 seniors. The rate outside CMAs was 1 1/2 times as much, or 75.3.

“Everyone knows everyone else. Everyone is often related to everyone else,” says Brooks. “It’s really hard to examine yourself and ask, ‘Is it possible that my neighbour sexually abuses his daughter? Is it possible that my uncle sexually abused me?’ Those are hard truths that are really hard to live with.”

That lack of reporting may lull many into a state of denial, but a triple homicide last year made it harder to ignore the scope of violence against women in Renfrew County. In an incident that made national headlines, Anastasia Kuzyk, 36, Nathalie Warmerdam, 48, and Carol Culleton, 66, were all found dead in their homes on Sept. 23, 2015.

Basil Borutski, who was known to all three women, faces three counts of first-degree murder in a trial that begins in September 2017.

Brooks says the brutality of those killings brought attention to domestic violence in the Ottawa Valley. She says they also brought to light the dangers of a gun culture in a rural community where men love to hunt, and underscored how isolation and poverty force many women to stay in abusive relationships.

"We don’t talk about those kinds of things publicly."

She says the notion of keeping abuse under wraps is especially persistent among the older population.

“Do not air your dirty laundry in public,” says Brooks, describing a common sentiment about sexual abuse in the area. “Put it away because that’s our neighbour or that’s our pastor or that’s our pharmacist. We don’t talk about those kinds of things publicly. Just carry on, and probably you had a short skirt on and you might have had one drink too many.’”

Isabelle says that’s the kind of hush-hush mindset she found herself in after she filed her first police report, only to return to Elmer in the hopes of making the marriage work.

Over the next two years, Isabelle’s daughters noticed troubling signs that the relationship was deteriorating.  Janet says that Isabelle constantly tried to hide bruises on her arms by wearing long sleeves, and would signal with her eyes that she didn’t want to get into it in front of Elmer.

Eventually, the sisters devised a ruse to rescue their mother.

6/ Rescue

Isabelle and Elmer spent their winters in Florida and would return in the spring. In March 2014, Isabelle’s daughters grew deeply concerned when they hadn’t heard from their mother weeks after she should have been back from down south.

When they finally did get her on the phone, Isabelle told them she’d been suffering from a cold.

They didn’t believe her.

“She had a very weak little voice that wasn’t even the flu,” recalls her daughter Debbie. “She couldn’t get me off the phone fast enough: ‘OK, honey, thanks for calling. OK, bye-bye.’”

Debbie says that after the conversation with her mother, “my hair was standing on the back of my neck.”

The sisters agreed it would be best if Sharon got in touch with Isabelle. Sharon had always had a soft touch with their mother.

“I said, ‘OK, Mom, what’s going on? You haven’t come to see us, you’ve been home two weeks now. I know you’re sick, but what’s going on?’” Sharon says.

“She started to cry.”

That's when Isabelle told her daughter Elmer had been abusing her over the course of their marriage. Isabelle said she’d been trying to get out of the situation, but Elmer had a rifle and was threatening to go out in a field and shoot himself.

The sisters devised a scheme. They told Elmer and Isabelle that Janet’s daughter was sick, and asked if Isabelle could come care for her so that she wouldn’t be home alone while Janet and her husband were at work. Isabelle packed a small overnight bag and had Elmer drop her off at Janet’s house.

When Isabelle walked in, she found Janet and Sharon there.

It was the first time the two sisters had laid eyes on Isabelle in months. Sharon says her mother had aged over the winter and looked “haggard and beaten down.”

They told Isabelle that no one, in fact, was sick — but asked her if she wanted to stay.

Their mother’s happy-go-lucky spirit had deserted her. She was quiet and seemed in shock.

She spent the next few days at Janet’s house — in bed.

Isabelle with her daughters in 1981. (Courtesy Isabelle Raycroft)
Isabelle with her daughters in 1981. (Courtesy Isabelle Raycroft)

Isabelle Raycroft never did go back to her husband. A few days later, the sisters took her to a family law centre and later to police, where she gave a video statement recounting all the incidents of abuse.

On April 18, 2014, police came to the farm and arrested Elmer, charging him with four counts of assault and three counts of sexual assault. All the firearms were removed from the farmhouse. While Elmer was being processed at the police station, Isabelle was escorted to the farm to gather her clothes and medication.

Isabelle was relieved to get out of a toxic situation. But she was also despondent about the collapse of her marriage. She phoned Elmer several times after his arrest, which eventually led him to apply for a restraining order against her.

She could no longer contact him. But the pain persisted.

And six months later, Isabelle found herself in the middle of a criminal trial that would dissect the most intimate details of her marriage and sex life.

7/ A complicated trial

The wheels of justice grind along at the best of times. But the criminal case against Elmer Raycroft was uniquely slow and complicated.

The trial began at the Renfrew court house on Aug. 14, 2014, and ran for five days. The testimony was fairly straightforward. Isabelle and Elmer gave their versions of events. Janet Methot was called to explain her recollections of her mother’s various trips to police as well as the bruising she’d observed on Isabelle’s hands, arms and legs.

The defence witnesses included a retired pastor and Elmer’s co-workers at the Arnprior Truck Centre, who testified they’d heard the couple argue over finances and Isabelle express dislike for the farm.

Domestic violence

In 2013, 41 per cent of women in Canada who reported being the victim of a violent crime accused an intimate partner of the abuse.

Many sexual assault trials are of the he-said-she-said variety – there’s rarely any other evidence that can be brought to bear. This one was no different. Isabelle’s accusation of multiple physical and sexual abuses all happened behind closed doors. Elmer countered with explanations or denials for each allegation.

After hearing the evidence, Justice Jane Wilson announced she would deliver her verdict within two months, but asked Elmer if he wanted to hear her verdict before or after Christmas. He opted for after Christmas, and so a date was set: Jan. 14, 2015.

But when that date arrived, the lawyers learned Wilson was ill.  

A new date was set. That came and went, too, when the judge’s health didn’t improve.

After more than six months had passed since the conclusion of the trial, Wilson, still too ill to preside, authorized her written decision to be read in court by another judge – Justice Hugh Fraser, the most seasoned adjudicator in Renfrew County. (There has been no indication of what Wilson’s medical condition is.)

Justice Wilson’s decision didn’t leave much ambiguity about who she believed.

Finally, on June 9, 2015, the new judge read Wilson’s verdict. In a case that hinged on credibility, Wilson’s 40-page decision didn’t leave much ambiguity about who she believed.

Wilson found Isabelle “a well-spoken, credible witness,” while repeatedly rejecting Elmer’s version of events. At various points in the decision, Wilson describes his testimony as “contrived and self-serving” and “suspicious,” and concluded that one explanation “defies common sense.”

In the end, the court found Elmer Raycroft guilty of throwing a mug at his wife, attempting to smother her with a pillow and choking her with a belt.

The court also found him guilty of touching her vaginal area during a car ride, “checking her” for semen and forcing his wife to have intercourse – all without her consent.

Excerpt from Justice Jane Wilson's decision

June 9, 2015 (as read by Justice Hugh Fraser)

It is the case where there is recorded or actual evidence which would support Ms. Raycroft's allegations, Mr. Raycroft has very specific recollections of events. Where there is not, he simply gives a blanket denial. The specificity of innocuous details of events far in time detracted from his credibility.

The Court rejects his evidence as it relates to the assault with the belt, the choking, the sexual intercourse, the checking for semen and the sexual assaults in the vehicle. His evidence does not give rise to a reasonable doubt in the Court's mind.

The reasons for the rejection are as follows; Mr. Raycroft's evidence with respect to those allegations which have more specificity and detail and which can be independently verified in certain aspects from the recollection of Isabelle Raycroft, lacks credibility.

It is far too detailed in terms of peripheral matters. In certain cases, it defies common sense.

Mr. Raycroft's blanket denials in matters where there is nothing other than the evidence of Isabelle Raycroft are of concern.

Read the full document

Wilson did acquit Elmer on one count, an allegation that he had thrown an alarm clock at Isabelle. The judge had a reasonable doubt about whether the object was thrown for the purpose of an assault, given that Isabelle’s back was turned at the time.

With the accused convicted on six of seven counts, all that remained was sentencing.

8/ 'A gathering of the old boys'

When Isabelle walked into the Pembroke courtroom for pre-sentencing submissions on Sept. 3, 2015, she was taken aback to see dozens of Arnprior residents lined up to support her husband.

“These were all people I knew. People I had had at my house for dinner, I’d play euchre with them,” she says.

Since the verdict, Elmer had fired his attorney and hired a new lawyer named Rodney Sellar. On this day, Sellar submitted letters from locals of good standing testifying to Elmer’s solid character.

Members of the Glad Tidings Pentecostal church described him as “kind and generous,” emphasizing his donations of time and money to the needy. The former director of the Renfrew County Board of Education praised him for 17 years of volunteer work. Elmer’s son, Rev. Randy Raycroft of the HiWay Pentecostal Church in Barrie, Ont., wrote a letter saying his father had provided a “loving, peaceful family home life” for his children and grandchildren.

The defence also called upon the region’s political elite. McNab/Braeside Mayor Tom Peckett showed up in person to say he’d known Elmer for more than 40 years, in which time he estimated he’d purchased 15 to 20 vehicles from him.

Janet and Sharon were galled that the mayor was there.

“He’s always been fair and honest with me,” Peckett testified, lauding Elmer’s contributions to his church and town politics.

Sellar also introduced a letter to the court written by John Yakabuski, MPP for Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke, who had attended Elmer and Isabelle’s wedding and wrote about how much Elmer had helped the community.

Isabelle and her daughters were stunned to hear so many townsfolk line up behind a man convicted of sexual assault, but it was the character references from politicians that especially frustrated Janet.

She calls it “a gathering of the old boys to save one of them.”

Janet and Sharon were galled that the mayor was there.

"To see a sitting mayor ... stand up there under oath, and to say what a wonderful guy he was, knowing that he had just been convicted of three counts of sexual assault," Sharon said. "I was speechless."

They were also surprised that an MPP would offer a character reference in court for a convicted sex offender. The Office of the Integrity Commissioner of Ontario (OICO), which reviews the ethical conduct of Ontario’s public servants, suggests MPPs shouldn’t submit letters of reference for constituents unless compelled by subpoena.

“Any involvement might be interpreted as an attempt to interfere with and/or influence the legal process,” the commissioner warns in a decision posted on the OICO website.

(Days later, the MPP stood up in the Ontario Legislature calling for tougher laws to protect victims of domestic violence, saying society should “not tolerate any form of abuse or violence against women.”)

"My sense of trust and security are gone."

Sellar wrapped up his pre-sentencing submission by suggesting the judge should take his client’s ill health into consideration; Elmer had been diagnosed with incurable prostate cancer.

Sellar concluded by asking for a sentence of nine to 12 months in jail.

The judge then asked Isabelle to give a victim impact statement. She told the court the assaults had left her homeless and traumatized.

“I felt used like a piece of meat, there at Elmer's disposal,” said Isabelle. “My sense of trust and security are gone.”

Crown lawyer Anya Kortenaar asked for a sentence of 2 1/2 to three years. “Other offenders will look to the sentence that Your Honour imposes and there needs to be a loud message that there will be serious consequences for a husband who sexually assaults, more than once, his spouse,” Kortenaar said.

Having heard the pre-sentencing submissions, Fraser sat down with four volumes of transcripts from trial.

Two weeks later, he delivered a verdict that caught everyone off guard.

9/ 'We were blindsided'

By this point, the criminal case against Elmer Raycroft had lasted over a year, and when he reconvened the participants in an Ottawa courthouse on Sept. 18, 2015, Fraser acknowledged that everyone was expecting some finality.

But what he gave them was unexpected.

“Having read the trial transcripts,” he wrote in his decision, “I have a reasonable doubt as to the guilt of Mr. Raycroft on any of the charges before this court.”

It was a dramatically different conclusion than the one reached by his predecessor, and Fraser gave only one reason for how he reached it.

In the original decision, Wilson had weighed Elmer and Isabelle’s differing accounts of alleged sexual abuse while they were driving in their car. Elmer admitted to touching her, but insisted it wasn’t her vaginal area.

“The Court accepts that Mr. Raycroft's version of events is plausible," Wilson wrote, but also said that she “rejects the evidence of Elmer Raycroft. The defence evidence does not raise a reasonable doubt.”

In his decision, Fraser seized on this nuance. He pointed to the dictionary definition of “plausible” – “appearing worthy of belief, credible, possibly true, realistic” – and decided that on those grounds, he could not sentence Elmer Raycroft.

"I've never seen anything like it."

Without inviting any submissions from either lawyer, Fraser delivered his ruling:

“The only appropriate remedy in these very exceptional circumstances is to declare a mistrial.”

Elmer was free to go.

Isabelle was devastated.

“We were blindsided,” she says. “We couldn’t believe it. We were stunned.”

Elmer’s lawyer, who had already prepared for an appeal, was surprised Fraser had read five days of trial transcripts.

“It would have been very easy for him to go along with the decision that had been made by the earlier judge,” says Rodney Sellar. “But he looked at it and said, ‘I can’t find this man guilty.’”

While Sellar insists the mistrial verdict was “fair” and that Fraser’s decision is not unusual, other legal experts have a different take.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Robin Parker, who teaches international criminal law at the University of Toronto and has two decades of experience as both a Crown and defence lawyer.

Indeed, in his own decision, Fraser said he’d never made a ruling like it in his 22 years on the bench.

Excerpt from Justice Hugh Fraser's decision

Sept. 18, 2015

The trial of Elmer Raycroft, the defendant in this matter, was conducted by Justice Wilson. She was the trier of fact and she was satisfied on the evidence before her that the accused was guilty of six charges beyond a reasonable doubt. I was not the trier of fact. I did not have an opportunity to observe the witnesses as they testified. However, having read the trial transcripts, I have a reasonable doubt as to the guilt of Mr. Raycroft on any of the charges before this court.

There is one finding made by the learned trial Judge that I agree with. In her reasons she states, “the Court accepts that Mr. Raycroft's version of events is plausible.” The dictionary definition of the word plausible is “appearing worthy of belief, credible, possibly true, realistic.”

The Crown is seeking a sentence in the penitentiary range, as much as three years for Mr. Raycroft. My respect for the administration of justice is such that I cannot proceed to sentence a man whose evidence at trial was considered worthy of belief, credible and possibly true. In my opinion, those words alone should be sufficient to maintain a finding of reasonable doubt. I repeat the words of the late Justice Rosenberg:

“a judge cannot be required to sentence someone who he believes has not been proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

What then is the appropriate remedy? I have come to a determination that the guilty verdicts should be set aside. Credibility was a central issue in this trial and since I did not take part in the first phase of this trial, it would not be appropriate to substitute the guilty verdicts with verdicts of acquittal even if, as the case law suggests, this court has the power to do so. That is why I have not asked for submissions from counsel on the question of a possible reopening of the trial.

I can say without hesitation that these circumstances are extremely unique. I have been on the bench for over 22 years and have never before made the ruling that I am about to make.

I recognize that this matter has been quite protracted and all parties came here today expecting some finality.

Notwithstanding that acknowledgment, I conclude that the only appropriate remedy in these very exceptional circumstances is to declare a mistrial. Mr. Raycroft, I am declaring a mistrial. The guilty verdicts rendered by Justice Wilson have been vacated by me. The Crown will have to determine whether it is in the best interests of justice to pursue further proceedings against you.

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Parker says it’s troubling that Fraser made the decision on his own, without inviting the lawyers to make submissions, given that the previous judge’s decision provided a lengthy explanation of her findings on credibility.

“It’s pretty unusual for a judge who is sitting at the same level of court to review all of the same evidence, then come to a different conclusion and speak it publicly,” says Parker.

What also stands out for Parker is that Fraser didn’t comment on the character references he had heard.

“The judge heard all of that evidence, none of which would have been admissible at the trial itself,” says Parker. “It’s not clear whether that influenced him or not.”

Parker says the justice system must be transparent and that “the duty to be heard also comes with a duty to give reasons.” But she argues that Fraser didn’t spell out how he had reached the mistrial verdict.

“He didn’t really explain it, based on the facts of the case,” she says. “So — nobody knows.”

Fraser himself will not answer any questions about his decision — judges never do.


In the days and weeks following Fraser’s decision, the Crown lawyer assured Isabelle she would attempt to have the guilty verdict restored. But an appeal of the mistrial verdict failed, as the Ontario Superior Court of Justice determined Fraser was within his rights to make the declaration because he had stepped into the shoes of the original judge.

That left no option but to set a new trial, which is scheduled for January 2017. But Isabelle isn’t confident that will bring her the justice she seeks.

She had another idea in mind.

10/ 'Cowboy justice'

On a chilly day this past May, more than 20 women gathered at the Pembroke courthouse, all with purple ribbons pinned to their chests.

They were there to support Isabelle as she petitioned the court to overturn the publication ban on her name in the case against Elmer.

Publication bans on the identities of alleged victims of sexual assault are common practice. The bans first emerged in the early 1980s as a way to encourage women to come forward in such cases and to protect them from the humiliation of publicity.

But in the wake of the mistrial verdict, Isabelle’s family felt the justice system had failed her.

"Let’s show the world what they do to sexual assault victims."

“She did everything she was supposed to do,” says her daughter Janet. “She reported it, she went to trial, she testified, she worked hard, and she was honest, and we supported her, and he was found guilty, and it still didn’t work. That a sexual assault victim could go through all of that, and it still doesn’t work, is outrageous.”

Isabelle herself was livid. “You know, how dare he get away with all that? How can other women come forward? You know it, nobody’s gonna ever come forward. How many women are sitting around there in Arnprior being slapped around and pushed around and beaten and sexually assaulted?”

Given the problems of prosecuting sexual assault, JoAnne Brooks at the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County says many women refer to it as the “injustice system.”

Isabelle and her daughters decided the publication ban was more of a hindrance than a benefit, and the only way to get accountability was media attention.

“It’s like cowboy justice,” says Janet. “Let’s show the world what they do to sexual assault victims and let’s shame him. Let’s shame the officials. Let’s shame them.”

Brooks helped organize women to attend Isabelle’s court hearing, silently back her and act as witnesses to the court process.

Unlike the trial, the decision on the publication ban came swiftly, and was delivered the same day. When Isabelle got the news that she had won the right to tell her story to media, she did a little dance outside the courtroom.

Isabelle celebrates the lifting of the publication ban

(Diane Grant/CBC)

She wanted to go public, much like complainants in several recent high-profile sex assault cases.

In May, Kathryn Borel, the accuser in the last case against former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi, won the right to have a publication ban on her name overturned after settling the case with a peace bond. (Ghomeshi admitted no guilt but apologized to Borel in court.)

That day, Borel read a statement to the media about her experience, saying, “Every day, over the course of a three-year period, Mr. Ghomeshi made it clear to me that he could do what he wanted to me and my body.”

In June, the victim of former Stanford University student Brock Allen Turner released a statement online after Turner was found guilty of three counts of sexual assault. Although Turner faced a maximum of 14 years in prison, the judge in the case sentenced him to only six months in county jail, concerned a longer sentence would have a “severe impact” on the champion swimmer.

Disappointed by the decision, Turner’s victim, who withheld her name, released her court statement on social media.

In it, she wrote that during Turner’s court testimony, “I learned what it meant to be revictimized.”

Towards the end of the statement, she writes, “to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought everyday for you.”

It’s a sentiment Isabelle Raycroft shares.

"Her generation of women was so very much encouraged to keep your secrets at home."

“We women are not worthless,” she says. “We make the world go around, and if you’re being abused, then you must tell someone.”

Brooks hails Isabelle’s determination and courage.

“Her generation of women was so very much encouraged to keep your secrets at home, to be silent about what happened,” says Brooks. “Given his position within the community in terms of municipal politics, it’s a huge thing and extremely brave.”

Isabelle with her daughters, Sharon Palmer, left, Debbie McCarthy, middle, and Janet Methot. (Duncan McCue/CBC)
Isabelle with her daughters, Sharon Palmer, left, Debbie McCarthy, middle, and Janet Methot. (Duncan McCue/CBC)

The future for both Isabelle and Elmer holds more in the way of legal battles. Their divorce proceedings are ongoing, as Isabelle seeks to have their prenuptial agreement overturned.

And of course both of them face the unpleasant prospect of testifying all over again next year.

“He’s not in very good shape,” says Elmer’s lawyer, referring to his client’s cancer fight. Sellar points out that Elmer is in his 70s “with no criminal record at all, and he’s facing a second trial.”

Isabelle, on the other hand, says she’s in “a good place” in her life. After camping out with her daughters for months, she has her own apartment in a senior’s facility. She says she still suffers post-traumatic stress, but has found some measure of healing in group therapy for survivors of domestic abuse. She has also enthusiastically taken up painting.

And while it is bound to be gruelling, Isabelle is resolute: when the second trial comes, she will be ready to take the stand again.

“I want my story told,” says Isabelle. “I want him to own it… and if I don’t do it for me, let me do it for somebody else.”

With files from Diane Grant

*Clarification: Owing to an error in the court transcripts, a previous version of this story referred to a character reference letter written for Elmer Raycroft by the director of the Renfrew County Board of Education. It was in fact written by the former director of the Renfrew County Board of Education, Peter Hiscott. The error has been corrected in the story.