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Hundreds of people gather for a candlelight vigil for the three slain murdered women September 25, 2015 in Wilno, Ontario. (Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail)
Hundreds of people gather for a candlelight vigil for the three slain murdered women September 25, 2015 in Wilno, Ontario. (Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail)

crime

In shared grief, Wilno community soul-searching Add to ...

There is about a half-hour of road between each of the three murders that Basil Borutski is alleged to have committed – winding road that passes through the swamps, stands of birch trees, and granite masses that make this region popular with sightseers.

If rugged sprawl is a defining trait of Ontario’s Madawaska Valley, so is the area’s isolation: There is often nothing on the radio but static.

That remoteness has made it all the more painful to deal with what happened on Tuesday. Being alienated from the wider world has forged close ties between country neighbours here, and any death hits like a loss in the family.

But the closeness of the people has been also been a salve – residents have been leaning on each other in grief and sharing stories of the three women police accuse Mr. Borutski of killing, seeking solace in bars and gas stations and Lions halls.

The deaths have forced this place, at once remarkably diffuse and tight-knit, to reconsider what it means to experience something as a community: the sharpened pain of loss and the shared burden of guilt, but also the compounded strength of being able to heal together.

Never alone

Everybody knows everybody in Wilno. Gossip is fast and thick, especially at the Wilno Tavern.

“You’re never alone here,” said Johanna Zomers, a former journalist, sitting at the bar.

“Sometimes you might want to be,” shot back Corrine Higgins, the owner.

Ms. Zomers lived next door to Anastasia Kuzyk, the 36-year-old real estate agent whom Mr. Borutski is alleged to have shot dead in her home on Szczipior Road. Nathalie Warmerdam, another victim, was a nurse to Ms. Zomers’ father at the end of his life.

Those scant degrees of separation are the kind that connect so many in Wilno.

“Aside from maybe Newfoundland, we have the strongest family and community ties of anywhere I know,” Ms. Zomers says.

In Mr. Borutski’s case, familiarity bred contempt: The more people learned about him, the less they liked him. There’s a story circulating in town about him. A high-school teacher was about to fail him, the story goes, so the young man hung by his fingertips out of the second-storey schoolhouse window and threatened to jump unless his mark was raised.

Nice-guy routine

Mr. Borutski is variously described by people in town as a “cement head,” and a “bully.” Anger about the alleged killings remains raw.

Carl Bromwich, a councillor with the Township of Madawaska Valley, brims with rage when he talks about the murders. He’s friends with a guard at the jail where Mr. Borutski is being held and issued a barely veiled threat on Thursday. “I said: ‘Give him a warm reception,’ ” Mr. Bromwich recounted. “He said: ‘Oh yeah, something’s waiting for him.’ ”

Mr. Borutski has a long history of abusing women . Documents from divorce proceedings between him and his ex-wife in 2011 detail two decades of beatings and threats.

Ms. Warmerdam, who dated Mr. Borutski after his divorce, secured a banishment order against him in 2012 after he threatened her with violence, according to the Ottawa Citizen. At the time of her death, she was wearing a mobile alarm device used by women who have faced domestic abuse.

In December, 2013, he was charged and later convicted of choking Ms. Kuzyk, whom he was then dating, and of burning her childhood rocking horse, court records show.

Many are now asking why the three women would take up with Mr. Borutski. But some remember him as fitfully charming, able to turn on a nice-guy routine.

Shirl Roesler, his former neighbour in the small town of Palmer Rapids, said Mr. Borutski was a good friend. He planted strawberries for her, got a collar and leash for her Rottweiler puppy, even baked her cookies.

“He was always nice and kind with me,” she said on Friday.

Ms. Roesler also shared her car with Mr. Borutski in exchange for occasional mechanical work on the 2000 Chrysler Cirrus – he even had his own set of keys. On Tuesday morning, he allegedly drove it to the lakeside cottage of Carol Culleton, an ex-girlfriend, and the first of the three women killed that day.

After Ms. Culleton was allegedly strangled to death, Mr. Borutski texted his neighbour. “Bye friend,” the message read.

Ms. Roesler said her neighbour often went on rants about Ms. Culleton’s purported infidelity, and recently said his ex would suffer from “karma.”

Mr. Borutski’s violent history has prompted some in Wilno to ask whether law enforcement and the judiciary could have done more. Local residents have plenty of ideas for reform: more resources for parole officers; longer sentences for repeat violent offenders; better enforcement of restraining orders.

And some are wondering whether they could have sounded the alarm about Mr. Borutski a little louder themselves, especially women who knew the victims. Closeness means mutual responsibility – and when something goes wrong, collective guilt.

Maureen MacMillan organized a vigil across the street from the Wilno Tavern on Friday night.

She said the calls for reform are well-founded, but that the region is in for some soul-searching of its own. “There’s also a responsibility on our community to take care of itself. Nobody took it upon themselves to go anywhere with that.”

Ms. MacMillan, a support worker at a group home, said male chauvinist attitudes in town were also overdue for revision. “I sort of look for the men to step up to the plate and start protecting their wives and their daughters,” she said. “I hope, if anything, this event will wake up the men in our community, and in our society.”

Still, any finger-pointing has been tempered by a sense of solidarity, and the communal effort to process a nightmare.

Ms. MacMillan had the idea for the vigil when she realized the town felt haunted by its grief. “I walked my dog in the park, and Anastasia’s house is behind the park, and there was a darkness in the air. I feel like our community’s been marred in such a deep way, and I really want to heal our community.”

Shared memories

Several hundred people gathered for the candlelight vigil. As a local choir sang Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, a tearful procession of mourners laid flowers at a memorial to the three women.

JoAnne Brooks, director of the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County, observed how difficult it can be for women in the region to flee abusive relationships: The county’s poverty and vast open terrain can leave women isolated and vulnerable. “At the end of the day, if someone’s is bent in committing femicide, it’s very hard to prevent.”

Friends of the victims shared memories of happier times.

Ms. Kuzyk was “kindness itself,” the gathering heard.

Ms. Warmerdam was “a little ball of energy.”

Ms. Culleton liked Coors and chips and was the kind of person to “get in your heart and stay in your heart.”

Julie Keon, the secular celebrant presiding over the ceremony, urged mourners to move to the front. “Gather in close – I think we need each other other tonight.”

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