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Why Ellard's grandmother cannot keep the tears at bay

In some ways, yesterday morning was no different than most weekday mornings for 70-year-old Helen Sims. She went to the same McDonald's restaurant she's gone to for years. She placed her order with the same pleasant woman who now knows her by name.

"Just a coffee," Mrs. Sims said. Then she broke down in tears.

This was no ordinary day.

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"What's wrong Helen?" said the woman behind the counter.

"I can't talk about it," Mrs. Sims said at first.

But the longer she stood there, the more she realized how unfair that was. The woman was genuinely concerned and could only imagine what the problem might be. What if she thought Mrs. Sims was grieving the loss of her husband?

"That girl who was convicted of murder yesterday," Mrs. Sims finally blurted out. "That was my granddaughter." The woman behind the counter put a hand to her mouth.

"I'm so sorry," she said.

Mrs. Sims is standing in the Victoria home of her daughter, Susan, the mother of Kelly Ellard, convicted Tuesday of second-degree murder in the 1997 killing of Victoria teen Reena Virk. Barring an appeal, the verdict marks an end to one of the most notorious murder cases in recent B.C. history, one that involved three separate trials and brought nationwide attention to teen violence.

Reena was 14 at the time of the attack and Ms. Ellard was 15. Now 22, Ms. Ellard is to be sentenced on April 25. Because of her age at the time of the murder, she will be eligible for parole in seven years or less.

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"It's been devastating for the entire family," said Mrs. Sims, who was dropping off some flowers and the family dog. "For a grandmother, you can't imagine what it's like.

"I remember the day Kelly was born like it was yesterday. She had to be put in an incubator because she was so tiny and I remember crying because I didn't think she was going to make it. But she did and we were all so thrilled. You just never imagine something like this happening. Our lives will never be the same, ever. None of ours."

Suman Virk, Reena's remarkable mother, said after Tuesday's decision that two families had been devastated by what happened: her family, and the Ellards. There may be no mother in Canada who has had to endure the kind of pain Mrs. Virk has in the past seven-and-a-half years -- no mother who had to sit through three separate trials for Ms. Ellard alone (a co-accused, Warren Glowatski, was found guilty of second-degree murder in an earlier trial) that each time exhumed painful memories and heart-piercing details of her daughter's last minutes on earth.

It makes the compassion and sympathy Mrs. Virk extended to the Ellard family all the more extraordinary.

"That meant a lot," Mrs. Sims said. "As you can imagine this has been just devastating for my daughter. She's really been struggling throughout all this. But one of her best days was the day Mrs. Virk gave her a hug at the earlier trial. That meant a lot to Susan. I think there was a bond there as mothers."

Others, of course, have not been so kind. Living in Victoria as a relative of Killer Kelly (a moniker Ms. Ellard was given by high-school friends and which the media borrowed occasionally during the trials) was at times a living hell. Susan (she divorced Lawrence Ellard many years ago and married George Pakos) works at city hall, where she deals with the public every day.

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"You can imagine how hard that's been on her," Mrs. Sims said. "I mean you're embarrassed and ashamed but you still have to be there for your daughter. . . . You can't just abandon her and say she doesn't belong to you any more. No, Susan, to her credit, has been there for Kelly every step of the way, the same with George, Kelly's stepdad."

Mrs. Sims recalls walking into a corner store one day to buy a newspaper, one that happened to have her granddaughter's face on the front page.

"Boy," said the woman behind the cash register. "Is that Ellard girl guilty or what? Just look at her."

Mrs. Sims stared at the woman.

"Well, she's not guilty," she said.

"How do you know?" asked the woman.

"Because I'm her grandmother."

When the woman apologized, Mrs. Sims put her hand up.

"It's not your fault," she said. "I've heard it before. But it just hurts to hear these things said about your granddaughter. It really, really hurts."

For the record, Mrs. Sims believes in her granddaughter's innocence. She doesn't deny that Ms. Ellard was involved in the gang-beating of Reena, and that she punched her in the face, but she doesn't believe it went beyond that. She said the testimony of many of Ms. Ellard's accusers changed from one trial to the next.

Mrs. Sims said her granddaughter was a good kid devastated by her parent's divorce when she was eight years old. As a teen, she started to hang out with the wrong crowd. She knows that when she talks about her granddaughter's love for animals and poetry, a lot of people shake their heads and say, typical grandparent, head in the sand, defending a child who shouldn't be defended.

Maybe so, Mrs. Sims said. But a bond occurs when blood links two people, a bond that is almost impossible to sever regardless of the circumstance. Many don't care about the family of Kelly Ellard, or are not willing to consider their pain for even a second. To do so, they would argue, dishonours the life of an innocent teenaged girl who's now dead.

"But I also know," Mrs. Sims said, "there are grandmothers out there who will appreciate our position and how it is being in it. How it feels to have your grandchild depicted as a monster and to see how that makes your daughter feel. We're not looking for anyone's sympathy and that's why we've been very reluctant to talk. What do you say?"

Yes, what do you say?

Susan Pakos called her mother Tuesday afternoon with the news.

"Mom," she said. "It's over. She's guilty. Please phone the family."

Mrs. Sims did just that, phoning her other children to give them the news.

That night, she again spoke with her daughter. She was, according to Mrs. Sims, numb, drained of emotion, almost unable to speak. Susan Pakos was convinced the trial would end like the second one did, in a hung jury. It didn't.

Now, two families are trying to put their lives back together, if they can. Mrs. Sims wonders if her granddaughter, when she is finally released from prison, will be able to live in British Columbia given her notoriety. She has her doubts.

Meantime, she and her husband, Bill, wake up most mornings crying and go to bed most nights crying, too. That's their new normal. The stress associated with her granddaughter's troubles has ignited all sorts of different medical ailments. It's aged her significantly, too, she said.

She relates one last story.

"I talked to Reena's grandmother at one of the trials," Mrs. Sims recalled. "I went up to her and told her how sorry I was about what happened. And she looked at me and said: 'Well, you lost a granddaughter, too.' And in some ways she was right. That's why it hurts so much."

And will forever.

gmason@globeandmail.ca

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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