Vermette case rouses spousal abuse issues – July 24, 2009

Being emotionally and physically abused spared Rhonda Vermette jail time, but her sentencing brought up the sometimes glazed-over issue of spousal abuse.

Vermette, a convicted drug trafficker, was an integral part in a massive drug ring that spanned several provinces, but was based in the Prince Albert area.

Her common-law spouse, Donald Fiddler, was the admitted ringleader, but he used Vermette to do much of the groundwork.

Throughout a year-long investigation into the drug operation, police found evidence that Vermette was often beaten badly by Fiddler and feared for her life.

An audio recording of one beating in June 2007 was extremely horrific, the court heard during the Wednesday sentencing.

Sandy Pitzel, Community Against Family Violence co-ordinator, said that abusive intimate partner relationships are still too hush-hush an issue.

Society still sometimes blames victims for their inability to escape, according Pitzel.

"To some degree it has been accepted that it's (the victim's) fault she's still in there," she said.

Money and social status don't deter abuse, added Pitzel.

Brian VallÉe, author of several books on spousal abuse, including The War on Women, said a woman being forced into crime by her abuser isn't uncommon.

"They would do pretty much anything out of fear and they'll do whatever they're told to do," he said. "It's been driven into them that it's their fault … their self-esteem is shot."

Now that Fiddler – who suffers from HIV – is too ill to physically abuse her, Vermette may still live with him for a number of reasons.

"Despite all the abuse, now she's got some control and she may feel that he really needs her this time and there is no abuse in it, so it gives her probably a good feeling that he is dependent on her," he said.

Whether that was a healthy feeling or not, he said, varied from case to case.

Provincial legislation addressing domestic violence only came into play in the mid-1990s.

The Victims of Domestic Violence Act allows an emergency intervention to occur, which allows a justice of the peace to immediately order the protection of a domestic abuse victim.

Vermette didn't get off a totally free woman, however.

While Judge Hugh Harradence ruled that she did many of her illegal acts based out of fear of Fiddler's hands and words, he handed her a two-years-less-a-day conditional sentence.

It included a house arrest condition for the first year.

She must also take counselling as directed by her supervisor, particularly counselling that deals with spousal abuse.

VallÉe said any counselling geared toward domestic abuse would help any woman in an abusive relationship, especially one who feels the abuse is her fault.

Even Crown prosecutor Kathy Grier accounted for the abuse, asking for a prison sentence of 18-20 months, which included credit for time served.

She said in court that she would have asked for three to four years in prison, if not for the abuse factor.

Vermette did attempt to flee from Fiddler after a beating that left her limping and badly bruised in the summer of 2007, the court heard Wednesday.

She fled once he fell asleep and police had wiretap evidence of Fiddler trying to track her.

Vermette and Fiddler have been in a common-law relationship for 13 years, the court heard.

Joshua Pagé
The Prince Albert Daily Herald

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