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British Columbia Obituary for noted UBC professor Cyril Belshaw left out one key fact – he was acquitted at famous trial of killing his wife

At the start of December, 2018, a notice appeared in the obituary columns of Canadian newspapers for Cyril Belshaw, a noted professor who taught at the University of British Columbia. Prof. Belshaw had died on Nov. 20, just short of his 97th birthday.

The notice listed his many accomplishments as an “international academic, observer and writer.” It described him as a kind and generous man who “delighted in good food, travel, politics, gardening, music and his great passion, tennis.” It listed those he left: his daughter, his son, his grandchildren. What it failed to mention was that four decades earlier he had been arrested, jailed and put on trial in Switzerland, charged with murdering his wife. The case caused a sensation in Vancouver. Reporters came from all over to cover the trial in the picturesque Swiss town of Aigle. I was one of them.

Murder suspect Cyril Belshaw and his dead wife, Betty Belshaw, published December 4, 1980 in The Globe and Mail, page A13.

Prof. Belshaw and his wife Betty were well-known figures in the UBC community. He was an anthropologist and she taught English. The Swiss court described her as “expansive, warm and sensitive in all her personal relations, very attached to principles, rather dependent, and particularly faithful to her husband.” He was “intelligent, ambitious, proud, calm.”

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In January, 1979, while the couple was spending time in Europe on sabbatical, Prof. Belshaw called home with some distressing news: Betty had gone missing. She was doing research at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris about the short-story writer Katherine Mansfield, who, like the Belshaws, was from New Zealand. By his account, the couple parted ways at a Metro station one morning. She set off for the library. They planned to meet later for an aperitif at the Galeries Lafayette, the famous department store. She never appeared. He reported her disappearance to the police, told his adult son and daughter back in Vancouver and returned to Switzerland, where the couple had rented a place at a fashionable ski resort. All of UBC wondered: What on earth could have happened to Betty?

Then, on March 28, the Swiss police made a gruesome discovery: a woman’s naked, badly decomposed body, wrapped in three plastic bags, abandoned on a forested slope a short drive from the Belshaw rental. Police asked Prof. Belshaw for the address of his wife’s dentist so they could get her dental records, in case the body was hers. He told them not to worry – he would get hold of the records himself. He wrote to the dentist in Vancouver, saying that the authorities had been searching for Mrs. Belshaw and might need her charts.

At this point the professor made the mistake that would see him stand trial for her murder. When the charts arrived, he carefully altered them, covering some of Mrs. Belshaw’s dental work with white ink and drawing in other, imaginary work. Then he gave photocopies to the police. Suspicious investigators obtained the original, undoctored records and identified the body as Mrs. Belshaw’s. Prof. Belshaw then admitted doctoring the records “on impulse,” saying he could not face the “psychological trauma” of identifying his wife’s remains without his family by his side.

The authorities were not buying it. A pair of Swiss cops came to interrogate him after he had returned to Vancouver. When he unwisely decided to travel to a conference in Paris, police met the plane and placed him under arrest.

A year later, as his trial approached, I was travelling in Italy with my future wife. We had both studied at UBC. Her father had been an English professor there and her parents knew the Belshaws. She had once been hired to serve at a dinner party at their house.

I sent a telegram to the Province, the Vancouver paper where I had worked as a part-time and summer reporter through university. Did they want me to cover the trial? We called the courthouse. Officials told us that the trial would take place over three days in December, concluding on a Friday. With Swiss precision, the court would pronounce a verdict the following Monday, Dec. 8, 1980, at 5 p.m.

The snow-draped French-Swiss town of Aigle was all abuzz when we arrived by train from nearby Geneva. Quiet, conservative, upright, it had never seen anything quite like this: a distinguished Canadian professor accused of killing his wife and dumping her body in the forest. French, German, Canadian and Swiss reporters lined up for seats in the wood-panelled courtroom in the Hôtel de Ville on the town square. Joining us was an author of mystery novels, Ellen Godfrey, whose 1981 non-fiction book on the Belshaw affair, By Reason of Doubt, I have drawn on here to bolster my notes and memories.

The trial got underway just as scheduled at 9:15 a.m. on Dec. 3. The tribunal assembled to hear the case was made up of stolid Swiss burghers straight out of central casting – three judges and six jurors, all of them, of course, men. Presiding over the proceedings from a high bench was the president of the tribunal, Jean-Pierre Guignard, a striking figure with a sweeping mane of hair.

One of things about the trial that surprised us was how he jumped in to question and challenge the defendant, making no attempt at the impartiality expected of Canadian judges. At one point, he demanded in a voice filled with anger how Prof. Belshaw explained the fact that he reported his wife missing in Paris and yet she turned up in Switzerland, “wrapped in garbage bags and thrown away like a piece of garbage.”

Hour by hour, Justice Guignard and prosecutor Willy Heim hammered away at Prof. Belshaw and his tale of his wife’s disappearance. Middle-aged tourists don’t usually vanish into thin air on the streets of Paris. If the Belshaws had really made a trip to Paris, why had no one seen her either there or on stops that Prof. Belshaw made on the way from Switzerland to Paris? Why would an innocent man doctor his missing wife’s dental records? Wouldn’t he want to know whether the body found by the road was hers? How, demanded Mr. Heim, could he bear the idea that it might have been Mrs. Belshaw’s corpse lying there “like a piece of putrefying meat.”

The prosecution had another arrow in its quiver: a possible motive. The trial was told that in July, 1979, Vancouver police found a couple parked on the university campus in a red sports car. When a policeman approached, he observed the pair in what the court demurely called “an equivocal position.” It transpired that Prof. Belshaw was having an affair with a married woman. In fact, she visited him in Switzerland and lived with him there quite openly before Mrs. Belshaw arrived. Prof. Belshaw admitted the affair, but said the idea he would have sex in a car was simply “disgusting.” He told the court to keep in mind that his wife was not an intolerant woman and “didn’t attach too much importance to the physical act.”

But as suspicious as Prof. Belshaw’s actions seemed, the prosecution was holding a weak hand. They had no witnesses, no murder weapon and, in the time before the rise of DNA testing, no physical evidence to link the professor to his wife’s death. They certainly had no confession. “I had nothing to do with the loss of my wife,” Prof. Belshaw proclaimed, thumping his hand on the table where he sat facing the jury. He said he was in anguish after her disappearance, seeing “all the beauty of the countryside without Betty.”

His family and friends backed him up. Colleagues testified to his good character and the strength of his bond with his wife. His daughter Diana, an actress, gave emotional testimony that had the normally stone-faced jurors wiping away tears. She called her father a reserved, affectionate man who loved his wife. When asked if he could have committed murder, she replied: “Absolutely not.”

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Prof. Belshaw had a top-notch defence team made up of Jean-Félix Paschoud, who was the lawyer for British author Graham Greene, and Eric Stoudmann, an elegant, often flamboyant figure in flowing lawyer’s robes. Mr. Stoudmann mercilessly mocked the prosecution’s case, calling it a “total fabrication.” In the absence of material evidence, he said, “we don’t know if she was killed, nor how she was killed, nor when she was killed, nor where she was killed.” In any event, he said, how could a five-foot, six-inch man carry his dead wife from their home to his car, scaling a wall of snow like an alpinist. “Messieurs,” he said to the judges and jury, “look at those little hands.”

The court was as hushed as a chapel when Justice Guignard began reading the verdict on Dec 8. As he totted up the damning evidence – the affair, the falsification of the dental records, the lack of any proof that Mrs. Belshaw had even been in Paris – it was looking bad for the 59-year-old professor. But in the end the court decided it could not convict him, despite his “deceptive and morally shocking actions.” By reason of “very light doubt” – and Justice Guignard stressed the “very” – it ordered the immediate release of the defendant.

Even if the verdict struck in the judge’s craw, it was not hard to understand. The Swiss court system is different than ours, but defendants still enjoy (as Justice Guignard put it) “the presumption of innocence from which every accused benefits.” A defendant cannot be convicted simply because his version of events seems suspect; it’s up to the prosecution, not the accused, to make its case. An accused cannot be convicted of murder for deceiving the police. An accused must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, as in Canadian courts. If that means that some defendants walk free despite our suspicions, it is the price we pay.

Prof. Belshaw returned to Vancouver and continued teaching at UBC. Although his death notice overlooked the dramatic events in Switzerland all those years ago, it did make brief reference to Mrs. Belshaw, his partner of 37 years. When he did his early field work in places like Fiji, New Guinea and northern British Columbia, it said, “he was supported, as in life, by his wife, Betty.”

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