By Grant Fleming
STRATFORD, ONTARIO – The parents of a young woman who was sexually assaulted by a star hockey player have difficulty believing the club’s boss.
Dan Mathieson, the president of the Sratford Cullitons’ junior team, told reporters in early February of this year that he was unaware he had a convicted rapist playing on his team. Mathieson is also the mayor of Stratford.
In an exclusive interview, the mother of the victim offered a firm response to Mathieson’s official line.
“If someone asks me, ‘do you think they knew,’ I say, yes, I think they knew,” the mother said.
The couple added that they have no proof club officials knew about the rapist. They spoke calmly during the 35-minute interview, providing careful answers to questions.
In July 2013, Mitch Vandergunst, of Exeter, Ontario, was charged with two counts of sexually assaulting a young woman. The incidents happened in South Huron, Ontario.
On October 3, 2014, Vandergunst, who was 18 years old when he assaulted the woman, was convicted on both counts. The judge described his crime as “predatory in nature.”
Vandergunst was sentenced on February 3, 2015 to one year in jail plus two years of probation. He is appealing the decision.
The victim’s identity and, by extension, the identities of her parents are protected by a judge-imposed publication ban. The trial was held in Goderich, 75 kilometres west of Stratford.
Despite his criminal proceedings, Vandergunst remained with the hockey team for two seasons, including for four months following his conviction. He was officially dismissed from the team on February 5th of this year, three days after he was sentenced to a year in jail. He is out on bail pending an appeal.
The head coach and director of operations for the Cullitons, Phil Westman, was forced to resign the same day Vandergunst was kicked off the team.
Shortly after Vandergunst was handed a jail term, Mathieson, who’s serving his fourth term as the mayor of Stratford, told reporters he didn’t know about the player’s criminal proceedings, including the rape conviction.
Mathieson went on to say that none of the 24 board members knew, either. Mathieson has instructed all board members not to speak with the media.
The team’s executive includes a vice president, Jerry McEwin. He’s the former chief of police for Stratford. He hasn’t responded to interview requests.
The past president of the club, Don MacArthur, who’s been with the team for 33 years, ignored Mathieson’s directive when he spoke to this reporter last week. MacArthur said he didn’t know about Vandergunst’s rape trial or his conviction. MacArthur admitted that he could understand why the public would have doubts.
The parents of the victim count themselves among the skeptics.
The mother said she knows that people in Stratford were talking about Vandergunst’s rape conviction.
“We have a lot of friends, clients and colleagues in the Stratford area,” she said. “People mentioned to us that they had heard about (the trial and rape conviction).
“It’s very difficult to believe the Cullitons didn’t know,” she said.
The parents said they don’t know if any of their friends or business associates contacted Culliton officials to complain about Vandergunst’s presence on the team.
At a news conference he organized in early February, Mathieson explained that the coach, Westman, was the only club official who knew about Vandergunst’s rape conviction but didn’t report Vandergunst to the board of directors.
Accoring to Mathieson, Westman didn’t think he could tell his bosses about the sex offender, or even drop him from the team, because of the publication ban.
Mathieson’s explanation fell short with the victim’s mother.
“When I heard that statement from the Cullitons, I was not impressed,” she said.
Mathieson won’t say when Westman learned about the player’s criminal proceedings and eventual conviction.
Westman wouldn’t answer this reporter’s questions when he was approached at his home.
Both parents said none of the officials connected with the Cullitons, including Mathieson, have reached out to their daughter or them to apologize.
Mathieson claims he first learned about Vandergunst’s criminal proceedings when the editor of the Stratford Gazette newspaper contacted him on January 30th of this year.
The father of the victim said he was the one who called the editor because no one was paying attention.
“The media was never at the trial. We felt so isolated.”
The father said a lawyer he knew advised him to contact reporters. When asked if they considered calling Cullitons officials, the father said, “I didn’t think it was a good idea.” The father described that period of their lives as painful and confusing.
The mother added that the family’s concerns grew after Vandergunst was convicted of rape.
“We were frustrated,” she said. “His life was going on. He was still playing hockey. (We) couldn’t understand why he was still playing.”
Weeks before he was convicted, the Cullitons promoted Vandergunst to an assistant captain’s position. He served as one of the team’s ambassadors at community events.
The parents talked about their daughter’s struggles as well as her courage.
“She’s doing the best that she can do,” the mother said. “But we really don’t know. This is going to be a long-time healing process.
“You don’t ever get over this. She will always live with the repercussions. She will always be a victim. But she’s studying and working. She’s doing her best.”
The Cullitons’ president, Mathieson, says the team’s lawyer and senior officials with Hockey Canada have advised him not to answer this reporter’s questions.
Stratford (pop. 32,000) is located 150 kilometres west of Toronto. It’s best known as the hometown of pop superstar, Justin Bieber. The small city hosts a world-famous Shakespeare theatre festival each year. Its junior hockey team is popular, too, drawing more than 1,000 supports to its home games.
To date, there is no indication that any parents of Cullitons’ players or fans petitioned club officials to have Vandergunst removed from the team.