Ex-wife doubts bipolar claim for accused Abbotsford child-killer

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The Abbotsford Times

 By Rafe Arnott

August 13, 2010

Accused child-killer Peter James Wilson was not in a Washington State courtroom Monday for a scheduled pre-trial hearing in the slaying of his five-year-old stepdaughter, Clare Shelswell.

Instead, his defence attorney Ron Sergi filed for and received a continuance on Aug. 2 that pushed Wilson’s next court appearance to Sept. 11.

Wilson, 30, from Abbotsford, faces a first-degree murder charge for allegedly slitting Shelswell’s throat while on vacation in Washington in June.

He’s being held on $3 million bail in a Washington jail since her body was found June 27 at a vacation home in Hoodsport, Wash.

He pleaded not guilty to the murder in a Mason County courtroom on July 12.

Sergi said the court has set a tentative trial date of Nov. 9.

Sergi said he is looking into the possibility of seeking a second-degree murder charge in the case, or exploring a defence based on Wilson’s medical condition.

Wilson and his wife Sarah, Clare’s mother, told authorities he suffers from bipolar disorder – a claim Wilson’s first wife, Sherri Lynn Crawford, is skeptical of.

Crawford, 29, said she never witnessed symptoms of the disorder in the eight years she was with Wilson, from 1998 to 2006.

Speaking with the Abbotsford-Mission Times, Crawford said she is still in shock about Shelswell’s murder.

“I can’t believe it. I can’t picture him doing that. Not at all,” she said.

Crawford described Wilson as low key and quiet, a normal guy who she never pegged for being violent.

“I’m kind of shocked they’re saying he’s bipolar. I never would have thought that . . . don’t get me wrong. I’m horrified at what he did . . . I was with him for eight years, and I really, really didn’t notice anything,” she said.

Crawford saw Wilson lose his temper only a handful of times in her eight years with him.

“He had bad road rage, which was kind of scary, but other than that, no. He never touched me, never laid a hand on me, not anybody.”

Crawford said she and Wilson divorced after two years of marriage.

Most people who suffer from mood disorders have a genetic predisposition for them, said Mood Disorders Association of British Columbia executive director Rennie Hoffman.

The disorders can appear out of nowhere in one’s 20s.

Bipolar disorder affects less than three per cent of the population, said Hoffman

“It could be latent for a long period of time.”

Powerful drugs like anti-psychotics are sometimes prescribed to deal with the mania experienced by those suffering from bipolar disorder, Hoffman said.

Other times anti-depressants are prescribed, he said.

Sometimes that medication can trigger a manic episode . . . [which include feelings] of being able to do things that would not normally be within your scope,” he said.

Bipolar mania can advance to a point were psychosis is involved, he said, but added it affects just a small percentage of those diagnosed with the disorder.

If the alleged murder was a result of the pattern of psychosis, it’s possible Wilson believed he was engaged in some other act, and not in allegedly killing Shelswell, Hoffman noted.

Sergi said his client’s bipolar disorder could be used as a defense, and has arranged for a psychologist to evaluate Wilson in jail, and he was waiting to examine Wilson’s Canadian medical records.

“I don’t know if it will lead anywhere, but we’re going to explore it.”

Following his arrest at the crime scene, Wilson confessed to police, according to a statement released by the Mason County Sheriff’s Office.

The statement said he killed the girl after a fight with his wife about disciplining Clare and her older sister, Suzy, aged eight.

Wilson told his wife “not to worry” and that he would “take care of things” before taking Clare downstairs, the statement said.

A short time later, the mother heard a scream and went downstairs where she found her daughter lying in the kitchen clutching her throat.

University of British Columbia law professor Isabel Grant said from a Canadian perspective, the admissibility of Wilson’s confession depends on several factors including whether it was voluntary and whether he knew he had a right to speak with a lawyer.

“He has to be competent, obviously,” Grant said.

In Canada, there is no insanity defence, rather it is called the mental disorder defence, but Grant noted bipolar disorder would be considered a disease of the mind.

The accused would have to prove that it rendered him unable to appreciate the consequences of his actions, or unable to know they were wrong, she said.

“When an accused person is asserting a mental disorder defence the accused must prove its components on a balance of probabilities, not on the more rigorous standard of beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said.

“A mental disorder defence in Canada does not lead to an acquittal, but rather to review by the Criminal Code Review Board which will not release a person until they no longer present a significant threat to the public.”

Mason County prosecutor Gary Burleson said his office wants Wilson found guilty of first-degree murder, not second-degree murder.

“That’s our judgment of what he did,” Burleson said.

First-degree murder is premeditated murder and second-degree murder is intentional murder, but murder that does not involve premeditation, he said.

“[The defence] may be looking at second-degree murder in how it may play in terms of premeditation versus intent,” Burleson said.

“Or from a diminished-capacity standpoint which affects the mental element.”

State officials want Wilson to serve an “exceptional” sentence if convicted in the slaying, which means he would spend more time than the usual 20 to 25 years in prison .

Burleson said officials filed a notice of intent based on mitigating factors, including Clare’s age and helplessness, the cruel nature of the murder and the horrific impact on her family.

But Burleson confirmed that Wilson – who has both Canadian and U.S. citizenship – would not face the death penalty if convicted of the slaying.

Crawford said she really thought she knew Wilson after all their time together, but that obviously, she didn’t.w

“You think ‘[what] if we had a child?” she said.

“It could have been my child . . .”
© Copyright (c) Abbotsford Times

Mother of murdered girl: ‘The hardest thing I have ever had to deal with’

Mother of murdered girl: ‘The hardest thing I have ever had to deal with’


by JIM FORMAN & DREW MIKKELSEN / KING 5 News and KING5.com Staff
Posted on June 28, 2010 at 5:19 AM

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SHELTON, Wash. — A dark side of a British Columbia man is emerging after he allegedly confessed to killing his 5-year-old stepdaughter Sunday night by slashing her throat at a cabin at Lake Cushman in Mason County.

“He was in the hospital recently,” said one of Peter James Wilson’s neighbors at his Abbotsford, BC apartment complex. Wilson, 29, told investigators he suffers from bi-polar disorder and is on medication.

But nothing, say local law enforcers could explain away the sheer violence, and senselessness of Clare L. Shelswell’s murder.

“I’ve been in the business for 37 years. This is probably one of the most horrific incidents I’ve been involved with,” said Chief Deputy Dean Byrd, Mason County Sheriff’s Office.

Authorities say the vacationing family had only been at Lake Cushman for a couple of days. Dispatchers received a 911 call from someone at the house around 6:30 p.m. The caller was Clare’s mother, who pleaded for help. There was nothing medics could do, the cut to the girl’s throat was so deep, she was nearly decapitated.

According to court documents, Wilson had been in a fight with his wife Sarah about how to discipline Clare.

“He said he would take care of it. He went downstairs and the next thing the wife heard was a scream and then silence,” said Byrd.

Police say the mother found Wilson covered in blood. She said he told her, “Better call 911,” and then he went outside, sat in a swing and waited for police. When Wilson was arrested, investigators say he told them he meant to kill the girl.

“I’m not sure there’s even an explanation for something this horrific and this violent against a 5-year-old child. It’s just senseless,” said Byrd. “Our emergency response workers as well as our officers are pretty upset about this. Anytime a child’s life is taken it’s just horrific. Our sympathy goes out to the family.”

The mother’s other daughter was at the cabin with the family, but she did not witness the attack.

“They seemed like a nice couple,” said another Canadian neighbor, adding he “never heard any problems.”

The mother, Sarah Wilson, released a statement to the press Monday afternoon:

“This is without a doubt one of the hardest letters I have had to write, because it is the hardest thing I have ever had to deal with,” she wrote. “The family gratefully accepts all offerings of prayer and love.”