10/31/2013 12:14 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Betty Anne Gagnon Trial: Alberta Couple Faces Prison Time For Caging Mentally Handicapped Relative


EDMONTON - They called it a "jail cell," a makeshift cage in a garage made of chicken wire and blankets, trimmed with sharp nails so the mentally handicapped woman wouldn't try to escape.

Inside, police found a cuff tethered to wall and a toilet bowl filled with kitty litter.

It was just one of the wretched enclosures police found on a rural Alberta property where 48-year-old Betty Anne Gagnon had been kept before she died in 2009.

On Thursday, a judge sentenced her caretakers to jail cells of their own. Gagnon's younger sister, Denise Scriven 47, and brother-in-law, Michael Scriven, 33, must serve 20 months each.

Justice Sterling Sanderman said the couple failed to give Gagnon proper housing, hygiene, medical care and nutrition.

"It was degrading, it was humiliating and cannot be justified in any fashion," he said. "They engaged in atrocious behaviour that offends the sensibilities of any rational person."

The judge added that some of the cages Gagnon was forced to live in "did not meet the standards some pet owners demand for their dogs."

Friends and former caregivers of Gagnon wiped away tears outside court as they talked about how they were glad the couple is going to jail, although they had hoped it would be for more time.

"I just wouldn't treat any human being, living being like that, whether animal or otherwise," said Sue Thomas.

The Scrivens were originally charged with manslaughter and unlawful confinement. But those charges were dropped earlier this year when they pleaded guilty to failing to provide the necessities of life.

A medical examiner determined Gagnon's death could have been accidental. She died of a head injury that was caused by either a blow to the face or a fall.

Defence lawyers had asked the couple be able to serve sentences in the community, arguing the pair had become overwhelmed caring for Gagnon and had asked for help from family and government programs.

The lawyers said the couple struggled with their own mental-health problems as Gagnon began acting out, smearing her feces in the house. They then took misguided measures to correct her behaviour.

The judge agreed the couple were not motivated by malice but said they didn't try very hard to get help either. He said conditional sentences were not appropriate for the crime.

Court previously heard that Gagnon lived her last months in misery. And the couple videotaped her as she was repeatedly spanked and had her mouth washed out with cleaner.

An autopsy showed she was covered in bruises and underweight when she died. There were just 30 kilograms on her tiny five-foot-two frame.

Gagnon had lived in a private care home in Calgary until the placement ended in 2005. When workers were unable to find a new residence for her right away, she went to live with her sister, a registered nurse, at her rural home near Ardrossan, Alta.

The Scrivens received government assistance payments to help them care for Gagnon, who had the mental capacity of a child and was hampered by vision problems.

A court document said that in 2008, Denise Scriven had a mental breakdown and went off work. She also had a miscarriage and tried to kill herself.

By February 2009, the couple told government workers they could no longer cope and Gagnon had to go somewhere else. That July, a spot in a home had opened up and staff tried to reach the Scrivens by phone and mail. But they received no response.

At some point, the couple had started using crack cocaine.

Michael Scriven later complained to RCMP that Gagnon had taken to smearing her feces, so he "kicked her out of the house." Sometimes she was locked in the basement or in what he called the "jail cell." Other times, Gagnon was put outside in the fenced dog run or old school bus.

Michael Scriven said his practice was to lock Gagnon on the bus, but his wife didn't lock the vehicle. Instead, she took away Gagnon's boots so she wouldn't get far.

He also told police that one time Gagnon climbed on top of a table in the "jail cell" and climbed over its wall. She fell and struck her head on the hard garage floor. He admitted he did nothing to help her.

Court further heard the spankings were punishment for sleeping all day and not saying "good morning." Michael Scriven videotaped the abuse.

In one of 21 videos found by police, Denise Scriven spanked her sister about 75 times. In another, Michael Scriven laughed and said, "This is funny." Gagnon can be heard crying and screaming.

On Nov. 20, after taking drugs, Denise Scriven went to check on her sister, she told police. Gagnon had been sleeping in the bus, even though the temperature dipped to below freezing at night.

Scriven found the woman on the floor. She was wet with urine and struggling to breathe. Scriven performed CPR, dragged her sister towards the house, then drove her to a nearby gas station to ask for medical help. When police arrived, Gagnon was dead.

Michael Scriven told an officer at the scene that Gagnon was "so much work" and "the government won't do anything."

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