‘Why the hell do they let him out?’

Bonnie
Bonnie Belec
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Murdered woman’s family felt powerless to stop killer’s parole

A convicted murderer from Newfoundland has received every form of leave possible through Correctional Service Canada and the National Parole Board, despite being considered highly likely to reoffend in a domestic situation, and despite opposition from the police and the more than 1,600 people who signed a petition protesting his release from prison.

After receiving a life sentence in 2002 for the brutal shooting of Brenda Gillingham in her Torbay Estates apartment in St. John’s, Cecil Joseph Pendergast is out on day parole, working full time and getting counselling to help him deal with why he turned into a jealous killer.

According to documents The Telegram obtained from the National Parole Board, Pendergast was released on day parole in June 2013 and that privilege was renewed in December 2013 for a further six months.

Gillingham’s family has been coping with the devastation of her death in different ways.

Her then 18-year-old daughter, Laura Lee, told The Telegram she’s just started trauma therapy — more than 13 years after her mother was shot in the face with a 12-gauge by a drunken Pendergast on a tirade.

Gillingham’s young son was in the next room at the time.

“(My two brothers) have been in denial,” Laura Lee told The Telegram.

“They don’t want to talk about it. Don’t want to think about it. Don’t want anything around. Don’t want to hear what’s going on. But the women talk about it and what’s going on and discuss what we don’t like, the things that  have improved and things that need to be improved,” she said, sitting next to her aunt, Barbara St. Onge, her mother’s sister.

Brenda Gillingham succumbed to her injuries on June 28, 2000. She was 40 years old.

Pendergast, now 63, was initially charged with first-degree murder, but prior to trial he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced on April 19, 2002 to life in prison with no parole eligibility for 15 years.

He appealed the sentence, but it was dismissed.

The court was told that even though he had been drinking extensively that day, “the level of impairment didn’t diminish his intent to cause her death.”

 

Why Pendergast was eligible

A National Parole Board spokeswoman told The Telegram Pendergast’s time toward parole eligibility  began ticking from the day he was arrested on June 29, 2000, and not when he was convicted in 2002.

Under the law, he was able to apply for day parole and unescorted temporary absences in June 2012 and will become eligible for full parole in June 2015.

At first, in 2011 and early 2012, he  was granted a series of escorted temporary absences (ETAs) for administrative, family contact and personal development reasons.

In August 2012, Pendergast applied for an unescorted temporary absence (UTA).

 

‘In the background like shadows’

Laura Lee and St. Onge attended the hearing and read their victim impact statements.

“Your voice doesn’t mean anything,” said St. Onge.

“I said to my husband, it was such a waste of time and so stressful to get the words on paper. No matter what we say or do, or how many people are behind us, he’s getting whatever he wants and that’s it,” she said.

She called the hearing a joke, saying Pendergast answered the board’s questions and the panel praised his progress and the treatment he has completed.

“And here we were sitting in the background like shadows. They didn’t even know or care that we were there,” said St. Onge.

Laura Lee, a 32-year-old student of social studies and women’s issues, said the panel had their minds made up even before they heard from her and her aunt.

“There’s no justice in Canada,” she said.

Seeing Pendergast for the first time since he appealed the sentence — when Laura Lee knocked him to the ground as he was being escorted back to Her Majesty’s Penitentiary — the women said they felt sick at being in the same room with him.

“It was funny, because I walked in with all of the confidence and strength, not feeling anything other than we are here to hear this and see he’s not getting out,” said St. Onge.

“The minute I saw him, I had a panic attack. I just went into massive shakes. I couldn’t talk. I was surprised at myself that I lost it.”

Now a mother herself, Laura Lee said the board should give more weight to what victims’ families have to say instead of making it seem like a  mere formality.

“Did our statements give any weight to their decision? No, and the proof is in this document,” said Laura Lee, shaking the sheet of paper containing the most recent decision from the parole board renewing Pendergast’s day parole.

“The board notes the seriousness of your offence and as a result your victim has lost her life,” it states.

“The family has had to endure the tragic loss as a result of your actions.”

 

Fearful he will harm someone else

Laura Lee and her aunt said they wrote pages about how they were affected by Gillingham’s horrific murder.

“We gave them a petition with 1,649 signatures on it opposed to his release — the police didn’t want him out and he’s a high risk to reoffend in a domestic situation. The one thing I can’t get out of my head is if they consider him a high risk to commit domestic violence, why the hell do they let him out?” said Laura Lee in disbelief.

St. Onge said there’s a new sense of urgency now that he’s out.

“It’s not about Brenda and us anymore. Now he’s out, it’s about the next relationship he has; the next woman and children. That is what we are more concerned about now.”

The parole board says Pendergast told the panel reviewing his case that he is determined to change and address his violence and alcohol issues. He said he was learning how to communicate openly and was embracing his aboriginal background.

The six-month day parole granted to Pendergast in December  was news to Laura Lee and St. Onge until they received documentation in the mail.

In that decision, Pendergast is rated as one four out of five offenders who will not reoffend within a three-year period.

However, it goes on to say that “results from the spousal assault risk assessment indicate you are a high risk to reoffend in a domestic situation.”

“So which is it? Is he a risk or not?” Laura Lee asked.

 

bbelec@thetelegram.com

•••

(Earlier story)

Murderer from N.L. released on day parole

He might not have been home for Christmas but a convicted murderer from Newfoundland wasn’t behind bars, either.

Cecil Joseph Pendergast, now 63, was sentenced to life in prison after he brutally shot Brenda Gillingham, his ex-girlfriend, at her Torbay Estates apartment in 2000.

He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was deemed ineligible for parole for 15 years.

According to documents The Telegram obtained from the National Parole Board, Pendergast was released on day parole in June 2013 and that privilege was renewed in December 2013 for a further six months.

He was sent to prison on April 19, 2002, but according to the board, Pendergast’s time began ticking after his arrest for Gillingham’s death in St. John’s in June 2000, which means he was able to apply for various forms of leave earlier.

His eligibility date for day parole was June 28, 2012, which was granted, with a further six-month extension to a halfway house in New Brunswick in December 2013.

 Pendergast was 51 when he shot Gillingham in the face with a 12-gauge shotgun in a jealous rage after she had told him their on-again, off-again five-year relationship was over.

He had originally been charged with first-degree murder when the single mother of three succumbed to her injuries on June 28, 2000. She was 40 years old.

“It’s not about Brenda and us anymore. Now he’s out, it’s about the next relationship he has; the next woman and children.” Barbara St. Onge, Brenda Gillingham’s sister

According to the board’s decisions, Pendergast applied for and received a series of escorted temporary absences (ETAs) in 2011.

“The board authorized these ETAs for administrative, family contact and personal development reasons,” states the decision filed in August 2012.

The board also granted ETAs in November 2011, January 2012 and an extension in March 2012.

In the same August 2012 decision, the board reviewed Pendergast’s request for unescorted temporary absences (UTAs). He was granted six — three each to two community-based residential facilities for 72 hours a month, involving up to three hours’ travel time.

The board told Pendergast his case management team recommended the UTAs to give him “an opportunity to experience the next step in your gradual release plan to the community.”

Special conditions of the leave included no alcohol, reporting any romantic relationships he might have and having no contact with the victim’s family.

These conditions are still in effect as part of his day parole.

Pendergast told the board he had abused alcohol as well as Gillingham during their relationship and that he would lash out at her in an alcohol-fuelled rage when things weren’t going his way.

“You were angry and jealous prior to the commission of your offence and you attempted to deal with it by drinking excessively, but it only fuelled your anger towards your victim,” the decision says

According to the board, Pendergast told the panel reviewing his case that he was focused on changing and addressing his violence and alcohol issues. He said he was learning how to communicate openly and was embracing his aboriginal background.

“The board notes the seriousness of your offence and as a result your victim has lost her life. The family has had to endure the tragic loss as a result of your actions,” it said.

The panel took into account that Pendergast’s criminal activity occurred later in his life but noted, as well, that the offence falls into the criteria of serious harm.

“Should you re-offend  you would most likely commit an offence of violence in a domestic setting. Considering your limited criminal history, the board is of the opinion that you do not have ingrained criminal values and attitudes,” it says.

Despite strong opposition from authorities to Pendergast’s release in 2012, the board concluded his successful completion of ETAs and his progress in programs and treatment were enough to warrant granting him UTAs.

When he applied for day parole in July 2013, there was a split decision regarding leave privileges from the halfway house. One board member was in favour of granting leave while another member opposed it.

The decision was reviewed by another panel, which decided not to grant leave.

However, when his day parole was renewed in December, leave privileges were granted.

At that time, the board noted Pendergast has been deemed at low range to reoffend but at high risk to reoffend in a domestic situation, according to a spousal assault risk assessment.

Program facilitators have said his managed behaviour in the community and participation in counselling and treatment have been “stellar.”

Pendergast will go before the board again in May.

He can apply for full parole in June 2015.

 

bbelec@thetelegram.com

Organizations: National Parole Board

Geographic location: Torbay Estates, New Brunswick

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Recent comments

  • Louis Humphreys
    April 21, 2014 - 07:57

    This country's legal system is so soft. There's no way this man should be out. He should really be doing like 40 years.

  • Lauralee
    February 09, 2014 - 12:48

    Thank you everyone for your voices, I agree with you all, and thank you for your condolences. The Prosecutor and Defence agreed on a Plea Bargain of 2nd Degree Murder if he pled guilty, the family has no say. And now the Parole Board of Canada is giving him yet another 6 months of freedom even though tests he endured proved he is a High Risk to Reoffend in a Domestic Situation! There is NO JUSTICE IN CANADA!!!!!!!

  • Alicia
    February 07, 2014 - 01:09

    I am disgusted by this! Where is the justice? Brenda doesn't get her life back why on earth should her killer??? A life for a life, that's what I believe!

  • gb
    February 06, 2014 - 16:09

    "and getting counselling to help him deal with why he turned into a jealous killer." seriously? my taxpayers dollars are being spent to helpthis prick deal with something? omg I'd vote for a return of lethal injections in a heartbeat after reading that.

  • WHAT!!!
    February 06, 2014 - 15:12

    I'm still not clear on how this went to a second degree murder charge. You take a shotgun which you know to be loaded; point it at the face of a woman with whom you are squabbling and squeeze the trigger. Ahh that could not be more first degree. Yes, like many of the other commenters to this article my pity is for the next individual in his cross hairs

  • Where is Justice
    February 06, 2014 - 10:20

    "He had originally been charged with first-degree murder when the single mother of three succumbed to her injuries on June 28, 2000. She was 40 years old." He caused a death of a mother...she can't come back!

  • Joe Schmoe
    February 06, 2014 - 09:21

    Life is rarely fair, but this is just cruel. He should never have been set free. We need a new system. One that works.

  • sick of this silly justice system
    February 06, 2014 - 08:00

    this justice system really needs to be shaken up.you know theres something wrong when the murderer gets everything he wants and the family is not even listened too. probley only a matter of time before it happens again then what they are going to say "I'm sorry"...this is sicking....to the family my heart and prayers are with you.

  • sad
    February 05, 2014 - 22:03

    we have gone ben there and its sad how the victims family has to suffer because some asso gets out lock him up it only gets worst been there