Cullitons coverup: What we know (so far)

By Grant Fleming
April 11, 2015

Stratford, Ontario

These are my responses to questions about the case of a man, Mitchell Vandergunst, who played for his junior hockey team, the Stratford Cullitons, even after a judge found him guilty of sexually assaulting a young woman.

Where possible, I will link the reader to relevant resources such as news stories, documents, and reports.

What are the basic details of the case?

    • According to Sgt. David Rektor of the Ontario Provincial Police, “the incident was first reported to police on July 20, 2013 and an accused (was) arrested on the 21st of July for the incident in Grand Bend and Exeter (South Huron) (Ontario).” (See transcript of email here.)
    • The accused: Mitchell Vandergunst, age 18 at the time, of Exeter, Ontario.
    • The criminal charges against Mr. Vandergunst: sexual assault.
    • The trial started on March 24, 2014, and concluded on October 3, 2014.
    • On the latter date, Mr. Vandergunst was convicted on two counts of sexual assault. Judge George Brophy of the Ontario Court of Justice called Mr. Vandergunst’s

crime “predatory in nature.”

What happened next?

  • On February 4, 2015, Mr. Vandergunst was sentenced to one year in jail plus two years of probation. Judge Brophy said, “In my view, his (Mr. Vandergunst’s) behaviour has to be denounced in the strongest terms.” (Transcript of the Sentencing Statement to be posted soon.)
  • The Crown’s lawyer, Teresa Donnelly, sought an 18-month jail term for Mr. Vandergunst.
  • Vandergunst was released on bail pending an appeal. No date has been set for the hearing.

Now that the facts of the criminal case against Mr. Vandergunst have been determined, what’s at stake here? He’s been convicted and sentenced.

At stake are answers to such questions as

  • What did club officials know about the criminal proceedings involving Mr. Vandergunst, including his conviction on two counts of sexual assault?
  • If they did know, when did they find out? What did they do about it?
  • How could so many people linked closely to the Stratford Cullitons, including club officials, players and parents, not know about Mr. Vandergunst’s criminal charges and conviction?
  • What was Vandergunst’s thought process? He’s an adult who chose to continue playing, even after he was found guilty of rape. What made him think he should stay with the team?
  • What, exactly, was the role of the coach, Phil Westman, in all this?
  • How committed are team officials to the corrective measures they announced in early February?
  • Should the team be suspended from the league for allowing a convicted rapist to play?

Other questions may arise. Readers may continue to submit their own.

When was Vandergunst kicked off the team?

Mr. Vandergunst was dismissed officially from the team on February 5th of this year – one day after he was sentenced to jail. He’d been removed from the line-up a few days earlier.

Just to be clear, are you saying Vandergunst played for the Cullitons while his case was before the courts?

Mr. Vandergunst played or was eligible to play 41 of 49 regular season games this season.

Note: On October 3rd, 2014, hours after he was convicted of rape, Mr. Vandergunst drove from the courthouse in Goderich, laced up his skates, and helped his team to victory.

While his criminal proceedings were underway, Mr. Vandergunst also played (or was eligible to play) for the full 2013-2014 season.

Note: Last August, while Mr. Vandergunst’s criminal trial was going on, the team’s coach, Mr. Westman, endorsed Vandergunst’s role as a team leader by appointing him to the position of assistant captain. The job includes serving as a team ambassador at community events.

So, this is where things get even worse, right?

A young woman was sexually assaulted. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to agrees that nothing could be worse.

But not everyone thinks it’s that simple. Ron Bilcke is an example.

Mr. Bilcke’s son, Ty, is friends with Mr. Vandergunst. They played together with the Cullitons.

Ron Bilcke believes Mr. Vandergunst should be given the benefit of the doubt until his appeal is heard. He said it’s possible new details could set Mr. Vandergunst free.

When I asked Ron Bilcke if he had evidence pointing to Mr. Vandergunst’s innocence, he told me he was simply sharing an opinion. When I pointed out that the facts of the criminal case against Mr. Vandergunst had been determined in a court of law, and that Mr. Vandergunst had been found guilty, Ron Bilcke said, “That’s true, but people win their appeals all the time.” He said he didn’t have any statistics to support his assertion.

I asked Ron Bilcke if he was sharing his views with others, including family, neighbours and clients. He told me he was. I asked if he thought it wise to do so. His response was, “I’m allowed to have an opinion.”

Where is Ty Bilcke these days?

In early February of this year, club officials kicked Ty Bilcke off the team. The reason, as explained by the team’s president, Dan Mathieson, was related to comments Ty Bilcke made in support of his friend, Mr. Vandergunst. Ty Bilcke confirmed that in a posting he made on social media.

Note: This isn’t the first time Ty Bilcke has thrown in with a friend and teammate involved in sexual assault crimes. He did the same thing in Windsor, Ontario.

Haven’t I read that the head coach knew he had a convicted rapist playing for him?

You’re referring to Mr. Westman. He held additional duties as the team’s director of hockey operations. That’s similar to being a senior manager for a company.

In early February, after Mr. Vandergunst was sentenced, the team’s president, Dan Mathieson, talked about the coach’s confusion about what to do. In other words, according to Mr. Mathieson, Mr. Westman decided not to discuss Mr. Vandergunst’s sexual predations with club officials because he thought he couldn’t. To be clear, this is Mr. Mathieson’s version of events.

Note: At no point during the criminal proceedings was Mr. Vandergunst’s identity protected by the publication ban.

Mr. Mathieson said he wouldn’t go into what Mr. Westman and he talked about. He said Mr. Westman resigned willingly.

To date, we’ve heard very little from Mr. Westman. I spoke with the deposed coach on March 27th, but he refused to answer my questions.

Further, Mr. Mathieson is on the record saying that neither he nor any member of the board of directors knew about Mr. Vandergunst’s criminal charges, trial and conviction. The team website lists 25 board members.

In addition to being in charge of the Cullitons, Mr. Mathieson is the mayor of Stratford.

Have you interviewed Mathieson recently?

Mr. Mathieson cancelled an interview with me. He left a phone message on March 28th to say the team’s lawyer, Andrew Phillips, along with senior officials with Hockey Canada and the Ontario Hockey Association, advised him not to speak with me.

I’ve continued to put questions to Mr. Mathieson.

You’re a freelance writer. Maybe they don’t take you seriously.

Mr. Mathieson may feel he has said all that needs to be said about the Vandergunst affair. Mind you, it’s possible that new developments may motivate team officials, including Mr. Mathieson, to re-visit their “issue management plan.” The club hasn’t handled the matter as openly as Mr. Mathieson promised they would.

Mr. Mathieson is seen by many as a capable politician. But I don’t know enough about him or his policies to have a clear picture. I’m working on it.

Political observers in these parts tell me Mr. Mathieson’s a rising star who may look to make a run for a major party, either provincially or federally. He’s still young – in his mid 40s – and he’s got the pedigree: four straight terms as mayor of one of Canada’s most popular small cities. He sports an extensive résumé.

Last year, Mr. Mathieson told me he’s happy to continue on as mayor of Stratford (pop. 32,000). His family’s here, he said, as are the passions and interests he pursues.

At any rate, the citizens of Stratford seem to like their mayor. Mr. Mathieson won last fall’s election by a landslide.

You’ve reported recently on your interview with the parents of the young woman who was raped by the hockey player. How are they doing?

They’re bearing up as well as can be expected. I spoke with them for 35 minutes.

How is their daughter?

As the mother said, “She’s doing the best that she can do. 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.”

What are the parents like?

I don’t know them. What I can say is that both of them were calm, thoughtful and measured with their answers.

Did you speak with the young woman?

No. At this point, any effort to reach her would be an unnecessary intrusion. As the parents said, she’s focussed on healing. There may come a time when she’ll want to talk.

Some people must be saying, “it’s over, let’s move on.” Vandergunst has been convicted. He’s been booted off the team. The coach was forced to resign. Why should we give it further thought?

Many people would argue that in no world should a convicted rapist be allowed to be an ambassador for a team that young people, including girls and women, look up to. Here’s the victim’s mother:

“[Mr. Vandergunst’s] life was going on. He was still playing hockey. [We] couldn’t understand why he was still playing. No one seemed to care.”

Earlier on in your coverage, you reported that board members for the Cullitons say they didn’t know about Vandergunst’s case, including his rape conviction. What do the parents of the victim say to that?

Here’s what the mother told me:

“If someone asks me, ‘do you think they knew,’ I say, yes, I think they knew.”

That stated, the parents told me that they have no proof that any of the officials knew. They told me they don’t know any of the board members.

The parents told me they have extensive connections with people in Stratford who knew about Mr. Vandergunst’s rape conviction and the fact that he continued to play for the Cullitons.

Did the parents of the victim contact any senior officials with the Cullitons?

They told me they did not. The dad said that period of their lives was painful and confusing.

Let’s also keep this in mind: according to the team’s president, Mr. Mathieson, at least one senior official knew he had a convicted sex offender on his team. That man is Mr. Westman, the now-deposed head coach and director of operations for the Cullitons.

For his part, Mr. Westman has said little about what he knew, and whether or not he told his bosses.

What about these other adults the parents were hearing from? Did they complain to team officials?

It’s a good question. The parents of the victim don’t know if any did. As of now, I don’t know, either. I’m trying to find out.

Is this what people call ‘a culture of silence’?

As the stories posted here show, not everyone’s staying quiet. It remains to be seen if anyone else will talk about the Vandergunst affair. But I understand your question. More later.

Do you think the citizens of Stratford care about this rape scandal? Do people care that club officials were in the dark about a rapist playing for the team they’re in charge of?

The question, “Do people care?” shouldn’t distract a reporter.

Public sentiment matters, of course, whether it registers as indifference, at one end, or outrage, at the other end. Both conditions may even co-exist. The point is, a reporter should pay attention to everything, but stay focused on getting as close to the truth as possible.

I’ve covered a number of these stories over the years. In my experience, there’s quite often a culture of silence in communities, of all sizes, about these things. People will say, “let’s move on.” This may or may not surprise you. In any event, those who say “move on” often include certain reporters in a newsroom. That may explain why, with few exceptions, reporters in Stratford won’t discuss the Cullitons cover-up. More on that in a future story. For now, though, I’ll say that I think many of them worry about the consequences of asking Mathieson tough questions.

At any rate, once people, including reporters, decide to “move on,” club officials can breathe a sigh of relief.

But hockey’s a tough nut to crack, isn’t it?

Many men who rise to the rank of coach, general manager, even board members – many of whom are former players, by the way – are good people. They perform good deeds, too. For example, they insist that players get an education. They volunteer in their towns. They care for their elderly parents. They vote in elections. They take the necessary precautions. (I once went duck hunting with a well-known hockey coach who was very serious about teaching me firearms laws and safe handling.)

Sadly, in my view, hockey’s also home to many men who are not well-rounded. They probably haven’t attended a Shakespeare play, or walked in an International Women’s Day march.

Worse, many hockey men behave badly. That includes assaulting and raping women.

Have any women other than the mom of the victim talked to you about rape culture?

Yes. On March 31, I spoke with Leslie Reynolds. For the past 10 years, Ms. Reynolds has chaired the board of directors for the county’s women’s shelter, Optimism Place. Her organization is now doing sensitivity training for the Cullitons.

Ms. Reynolds was a school teacher for 35 years. She knows a thing or two about misbehaving boys and men.

“I had a front row seat watching how boys treated girls. It was disgusting,” Ms. Reynolds told me. “They treated them like possessions, like arm candy. And nothing much has changed.

“I had boys show up at school without their lessons done,” she recalled. “I’d ask them about that. More than once, they’d tell me, ‘I’m a hockey player, I don’t have to do homework.’”

Ms. Reynolds said she doesn’t have high hopes that the workshops her shelter’s offering will do much good, adding, “I don’t think the adults who are part of the Cullitons will bother paying attention, either.”

Also, I spoke with Jasmine Clark. She’s a counsellor at Optimism Place. On February 14th of this year, Cullitons players and officials showed up for a workshop she led. The topic was sexual consent.

Ms. Clark’s comments were as noteworthy as the opinions Leslie Reynolds expressed.

Did you just say the workshop dealing with sexual consent was held on Valentine’s Day? What were they thinking?

It was. I’ll ask the people involved how that happened. But there are people who would probably say, “What better occasion to teach men and boys about sexual consent.”

That’s two women you’ve spoken to – is that it?

On April 4th, I phoned Lorraine Smith. The Cullitons website lists her as a board member as well as the head of the team’s “booster club.”

The interview with Ms. Smith was short – approximately three minutes. She told me she had “no comment.” But then she added that she knew nothing about the Vandergunst matter. I followed up that interview by emailing her a list of questions. She hasn’t responded.

Did you try speaking with other female board members?

The website lists 25 board members and executive. It looks like Ms. Smith is the lone female, but I can’t say that with certainty. There may be other members who self-identify as females or “other.” I’m trying to confirm that.

One woman on the board – is that the usual quota for junior teams?

The short answer: not many women are on boards for junior hockey teams.

I plan to conduct research on hockey teams – community-owned teams like the Cullitons, for example – and their practices when it comes to board recruitment and training. I’d like to learn if they have a charter that addresses issues such as diversity.

In my experience covering community-owned hockey teams across Canada, women usually help out on the operations side of things. They sell tickets, run concessions, and stick around to tidy up. Very few are involved with team governance. Draw your own conclusions.

Recall that I interviewed Jasmine Clark, the social worker at the local women’s shelter. She’s played competitive hockey since she was five years old. She told me that she has followed this story closely.

As far as the board of directors is concerned, Ms. Clark told me that “it’s not acceptable” to have one female member. She said she’d like to speak with club officials about ways to get more women involved on the board.

You said that the Cullitons have 25 board members. That seems to be a lot for a junior B team. Junior B is kind of rinky-dink, isn’t it?

The Cullitons are a going concern in Stratford. Hockey insiders rate the team as one of the standard bearers for Junior B hockey in Ontario. Certainly, people like Dan Mathieson do.

When it comes to annual cultural attractions in this small city, the Shakespeare Festival leads the way, of course, but the Cullitons hold their own, especially during the winter months when the theatres are dark.

Also, the Cullitons have developed many professional players.

What have the other Cullitons officials told you about the scandal?

Keep in mind that nine of the board positions are designated as “honorary.” That may mean those board members don’t do (or know) much, but it’s possible they are as tuned in as anyone else.

Don MacArthur, who’s the past president, is the only other board member I’ve talked to. As mentioned in my reporting, he said he knew nothing about having a rapist on the team. He’s been around the Cullitons for 33 years and received praise for his unstinting loyalty to the team.

Aside from the president and the past president, are there any other prominent citizens connected to the team?

Gerald (Jerry) McEwin is a former chief of the Stratford police department. He’s the vice president of the Cullitons. Find Mr. McEwin’s bio on page 12 of this annual report put out by the police force.

Mike Robinson is a constable for the city’s police force. He’s the Prevention Services Coordinator for the Cullitons. He’s in charge of making sure the team complies with the league’s code of conduct on matters dealing with harassment, bullying, assault, racial slurs, and so forth.

What did the two policemen know about Vandergunst?

I’ve tried to reach Mr. McEwin and Mr. Robinson multiple times in order to get their version of events. They won’t talk to me.

Mr. Robinson left me a phone message on April 3rd to say he wouldn’t answer my questions, including one I had about why he failed to appear at the local women’s shelter for a sensitivity training workshop the shelter conducted for the Cullitons. Again, he’s the club official who’s supposed to deal with such matters.

I’m curious – do any of the club officials with the Stratford team have daughters?

Yes, many of them do. Many have granddaughters, too.

But as a reader pointed out, “It’s about their daughters, sure, but these fathers should be teaching their sons and grandsons to conduct themselves lawfully and respectfully around girls and women. They should be teaching their boys about sexual consent.”

Let’s talk more about the team president and city mayor, Dan Mathieson? Is it even possible he had no idea Vandergunst faced sex crimes charges dating all the way back to 2013?

Mr. Mathieson asserts that he knew nothing until a local newspaper editor called him to ask what he knew about the Vandergunst case. The editor for the Stratford Gazette, Jeff Heuchert, told me the conversation took place on January 30th.

I asked Mr. Heuchert what Mr. Mathieson’s response was when Mr. Heuchert told him about Mr. Vandergunst. He said Mr. Mathieson “seemed genuinely shocked.” Mr. Heuchert said Mr. Mathieson promised to investigate the matter right away.

Did the editor ask Mathieson tough questions?

I wasn’t there.

Mr. Heuchert told me he’s dealt with Mr. Mathieson many times. He said he gave the mayor the benefit of the doubt.

Is that a journalist’s duty – to give a politician the benefit of the doubt?

It seems to me that the public, with the reporter as their surrogate, shouldn’t leave an investigation up to people who are part of the inner circle.

As mentioned, I’ll examine the media’s involvement in the Vandergunst scandal in future posts.

Okay, but hold on – the the criminal proceedings for Vandergunst stretched from July 2013 to February 2015. That’s 20 months! How could the boss not have known?

Recall what Mr. Mathieson has said: he didn’t find out until January 30th, 2015, a week before Mr. Vandergunst was sentenced.

It’s also important to note what Sgt. Rektor of the Ontario Provincial Police told me in a March 30th email: the O.P.P. chose not to send out a release about the Vandergunst case because “there was/is a publication ban in place.”

It bears repeating that Mr. Vandergunst’s identity was not covered by the publication ban. In other words, his name could have been reported on during the trial, including the day he was convicted. (See CC Section 486.4.)

Wait, that’s an important point. If there was no media release naming Vandergunst and the sexual assault charges against him, how could the media know?

There’s an expression, “you can’t report what you don’t know.” There’s much more to say about the O.P.P.’s role in this case, which I’ll get to in a future post. Stay tuned.

I’ll look forward to that story. But let’s circle back to the coach. I know you’ve reported on him, but I’m still unclear about his role. Did he or did he not know about the rapist?

I understand the concern and confusion about Phil Westman.

Recall that Mr. Westman hasn’t given his version of events. The president, Mr. Mathieson, has done almost all the talking for him. And up to now, Mr. Mathieson’s explanation for what Mr. Westman knew is shaky.

What do you know about Westman?

Very little. Here’s his bio.

Is it possible Westman will resurface elsewhere as a coach?

It’s possible. In my experience, it’s not unusual for coaches to land new jobs even after they’ve been involved with scandals of this nature.

Based on my brief encounter with him, Mr. Westman isn’t contrite. He told me, “I got put into a really, really bad position.”

Mr. Westman acted like he too was a victim in the Vandergunst rape scandal. His teenaged daughter was sitting close by when he launched into his rant.

You’ve reported on the board of directors for the Cullitons. Remind me again – how big is it?

The board of directors Mr. Mathieson leads is comprised of a five-person executive plus another 20 directors.

And you’ve talked with just a few, right?

That’s right. I’ve tried to contact others, without success.

Can we talk more about the culture of silence, especially when it comes to small towns – especially when it comes to hockey? And especially when it comes to men in hockey?

I plan to write about the culture of silence – if “culture” is the word – as it relates to the Stratford Cullitons. Of course, there other “cultures” may be in play, including rape, entitlement, and the old boys’ club. Stay tuned.

There’s much else to read about the secretive world of hockey – of many sports – that you can research online or at your library. And look in the Resources section, which I’ll update as often as I can.

Where are your stories being published right now?

I’m publishing my stories on social media.

There are many questions left unanswered, right?

It would seem so.

Can we also talk about parents of players? What did they know? What about Vandergunst’s lawyer – did he ever have contact with the Cullitons? And if he did, was it before the date that the club president, Mathieson, said club officials first found out? What about the assistant coaching staff? If the head coach knew about Vandergust, how could they not know?

I’ll get to those questions as soon as possible.

As for the coaching staff, I spoke with Tyler Canal. He’s now the head coach of the Cullitons. Prior to that, he served as an assistant until Mr. Westman was forced out in early February. He didn’t have much time for me, but what he did was interesting.

But what about you? What are your reasons for following the story?

I’ve followed hockey since I was a child.

I was a sports reporter for a major broadcaster. I’ve been inside dozens of junior and professional arenas across North America (and one in Scotland). I earned investigative journalism awards for my coverage of sex abuse in the sport. I taught investigative reporting at Thompson Rivers University.

As well, I am close to a number of other journalists and reporters who cover the sport. I’m also fortunate to have friends and mentors who know a lot about investigative reporting.

More importantly, many people I know had – some still have – sons and daughters lace up their skates and pick up a stick.

But the most compelling reason involves the case of the Stratford Cullitons: Mitch Vandergunst played hockey after he’d been found guilty of raping a woman.

More soon.

(Have a question or comment? Want to suggest an angle for this story? Reach me here.)