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Victoria mother gets life sentence for second-degree murder of toddler

Kaela Mehl, who killed her daughter in September 2015 by administering a fatal dose of Zopiclone and smothering her, was previously convicted of first-degree murder but successfully appealed
Kaela Mehl, accompanied by her lawyer, leaves Victoria courthouse on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. (Image is a still from a video.) CHEK NEWS

A Victoria woman who killed her 17-month-old daughter by feeding her yogurt laced with a fatal dose of Zopiclone then smothering her has been sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 10 years.

On Monday, Kaela Janine Mehl pleaded guilty to the second-degree murder of Charlotte Cunningham in the early hours of Sept. 16, 2015.

Mehl had been embroiled in a custody battle with her ex-husband, Daniel Cunningham, and became increasingly concerned that the little girl was at risk with him and his family.

Mehl also tried to take her own life that morning and was found by first responders unconscious in the hallway with a fatal dose of Zoplicone in her blood. She spent the next five months in the psychiatric ward at Royal Jubilee Hospital.

Weeping, Mehl stood in the prisoner’s box in front of members of her own family and the Cunningham family and told the court the loss of Charlotte has profoundly affected everyone who knew and loved her.

“I deeply regret what I did and I wish I could undo what has been done. I do not seek forgiveness for myself. I only hope everyone involved can find a measure of peace,” she said, through tears.

Justice Jennifer Power accepted a joint submission from Crown and defence, finding that Mehl was suffering from “mentally disordered thinking” at the time of the murder and that her remorse is genuine.

“Not only will I be imposing a life sentence, but Ms. Mehl will for her lifetime have to acknowledge and come to terms with the death of Charlotte at her own hand,” said Power.

It was the end of a lengthy court process that began six years ago. Mehl was convicted in October 2017 of first-degree murder, but successfully appealed her conviction in July 2021 and was released on bail.

Now 39, she has already spent three years and nine months in prison, and must serve a further six years and two months before being eligible for parole.

Mehl and Cunningham met in 2009 and married on Nov. 11, 2011. Charlotte was born on March 29, 2014. Although the couple had spent lots of time with the Cunningham family, Mehl became uneasy about spending time with them after Charlotte’s birth. The marriage became rocky and Mehl and Cunningham separated in May 2015. Mehl and the baby moved in with her mother, who had re-entered her life.

The breakdown of the marriage was acrimonious. Crown prosecutor Clare Jennings played surreptitious recordings made by Mehl when she exchanged Charlotte with Cunningham at the Saanich police station.

Mehl’s voice is terse, rapid-fire and argumentative. Cunningham sounds perplexed, his voice remaining calm. Cunningham wiped away tears as he heard the baby’s gurgles on the recording.

Mehl hired a private investigator and insisted on family members blowing into a breathalyzer before she would hand Charlotte over to them. At the same time, the courts were increasing the family’s access to the child.

On Sept. 15, 2015, Mehl had a significant argument with her mother. She was losing hope in the custody battle and did not see a future in shared custody. Mehl decided to kill herself and her daughter because she did not want to leave the child behind to be raised by her ex-husband’s family.

Mehl began researching fatal doses of Zopiclone and started writing a suicide note. She fed the drugs to the child and smothered her. Then Mehl took a fatal dose of the sleeping pills and finished writing her suicide note, which she emailed to the family of her ex-husband and the family lawyer.

In his victim impact statement, Cunningham said he continues to be devastated by not having Charlotte, who would have been nine in March.

“We made such a beautiful girl together. It has taken me a long time to realize that you are missing her as well … Charlotte was and still is to me a kind, beautiful, happy amazing little girl. She was all that I wanted in life. I love her more than I thought I could ever love someone, and as much as you didn’t want to see it or acknowledge it, she loved me so much, too,” he said.

Charlotte would have had love, happiness, fun and big family gatherings, said Cunningham.

“You stole that from me and you also stole that from her.”

Defence lawyer Marilyn Sandford told the court that Mehl moved around a lot as a child. She attended Parkland Secondary in Grade 11 and 12 and was a strong student. Her parents were extraordinarily supportive when she was in hospital and both were in court Monday, said Sandford.

Although friends rallied round Mehl during her separation from Cunningham and their support was well-intentioned and kind, Mehl was developing disordered thinking.

“No one was saying: ‘There might be something wrong. Some of your ideas are getting pretty strange.’ ”

The possibility of another rupture with her mother made her think she could end up in a shelter and lose custody of Charlotte, she said.

“Things took on a different and absolutely tragic turn and she went down the hole of despair and formed a clearly disordered view that her life was not worth living,” said Sandford. “In her disordered thinking, she viewed it as them both escaping the spectre of some imagined peril.”

Court heard that Mehl wants to become a social worker after her release from prison.