Andrew Berry told his neighbour and confidant that he believed his ex-wife Sarah Cotton was out to destroy him.
“He said that she wanted to take him down completely. He used the word ‘raped,’ that he felt raped by the process … He used the word repeatedly. He was very upset,” Vallie Travers testified Wednesday in B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver.
Berry has pleaded not guilty to the second-degree murders of his six-year-old daughter Chloe and four-year-old daughter Aubrey on Christmas Day 2017 in Oak Bay.
Travers, who moved into the apartment directly above Berry’s in July 2015, became close to him in the summer of 2017. Neither was working and the two often spent hours talking and drinking coffee at her kitchen table.
The first time she saw his apartment, it was messy and dirty and the walls were lined with children’s toys and clothes.
“It was actually severe,” Travers told prosecutor Patrick Weir.
Travers testified that she regularly saw Cotton dropping the children off and picking them up. Berry would usually come out front to meet the girls. The estranged couple did not talk to each other and seemed to be looking down at their cellphones a lot, she recalled.
“Did Mr. Berry tell you about the breakup of their relationship?” asked Weir.
“He told me that Sarah’s father died and that she was set to inherit a sizable amount of money. And as soon as that happened, she wanted him out of the house,” Travers testified.
Berry told her that Cotton told the Ministry of Children and Family Development that he had interfered with the children and he was forced out of the house immediately and ordered not to return, Travers said.
Berry complained to her that the legal process dragged on, with Cotton making accusations and forcing him to jump through hoops to defend himself.
“He said she was really wearing him down and he thought that was her goal. He said he felt that she wanted to destroy him.”
Berry was always soft-spoken and controlled, but angry and bitter, at the same time, when he told her about things that had happened to him, she said.
Berry told Travers that he felt bad that his mother sided with Cotton against him. He told her that his mother had complained to social services that he was putting the girls in danger, she testified.
“I said: ‘Andrew, I would really feel betrayed if my mother did that to me.’ ”
Berry just looked away, she recalled. The trial has not heard any evidence of that complaint.
Berry told her he was close to his sister and that they had always confided in each other.
But in December 2017, he said his sister had taken two holidays to Cuba.
“I know she can afford one, but I know she can’t afford two holidays. The parents must have given her some money and she hasn’t told me,” she recalled Berry telling her.
“He was discouraged. He was upset. He felt betrayed.”
Berry also talked to Travers about his gambling. He told her he placed sports bets and had won $100,000, but lost it all again in a week.
“Prior to Christmas, he was continually betting and talking to me about it,” she testified. “He told me he was down to his last $10,000 and was waiting for the results. We didn’t directly talk about it after that. He deteriorated pretty hard after that. I observed him to be isolating more.”
Berry told her that if he won money, he wanted to buy a house for himself and the girls.
Travers described an incident in September or October 2017 when Berry came to her apartment with an envelope bulging with cash and asked if she would help him pay a bill to the lottery corporation. Berry pleaded with her and said it was really important.
Travers said no.
Around dinnertime, still upset and disturbed by Berry’s persistence, Travers went down to his apartment.
“I said I’m not going to do it. I’m not comfortable. He suddenly took three swift steps toward me and his face was right in my face and he softly said: ‘We’ll talk about this later.’ ”
Berry later apologized and said he had handled it badly, Travers testified.
At one point, he told her: “I’m in so much debt, Val, you wouldn’t believe it.”
A few weeks before Christmas, Berry came to her door, head down, arms hanging by his side.
“He hadn’t shaved for a few days. His hair didn’t look clean. His teeth didn’t look clean. His clothes didn’t look clean. He said: ‘Vallie, the girls are coming and I don’t have any food for their lunches,’ ” Travers testified.
Berry apologized for bothering her and she gave him lots of fruit and peanut butter. A few days later, about two weeks before Christmas, Berry asked her for food again and she gave him some.
“I was a bit terse that second time. He was humble. He was very polite. He asked me: ‘Please, I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t really important.’ ”
Berry also asked Travers for a $30 loan. He was anxious and tense. Travers testified that she had anticipated the request and planned ahead of time that she would give him some money on condition that he never ask her for a loan again.
“I only had $15 in my wallet and Andrew said: ‘That’s OK. That’s OK. I’ll take that.’ ”
A few days before Christmas, Berry asked her to cash a cheque from the City of Victoria and she refused, she said.
“I was a little bit annoyed at his persistence. … I felt bad for him. Again, he said he was embarrassed and ‘please.’ But I said: ‘Look I’m not your ATM and I’m not going to be your ATM.’ ”
On Dec. 22, Berry knocked on her door, came in and sat down in an easy chair.
“I sat on the couch and kind of waited. He said: ‘It’s just so nice to be here with you.’ And then we had this wonderful visit. We didn’t speak about money. We didn’t talk about family … it was quite lovely .”
That was the last time Travers saw Berry.
On Christmas Day around 8 a.m., Travers heard a big thump from Berry’s apartment and assumed the girls were up, although it wasn’t the usual noise they made in the morning.
“Within about an hour, I was hearing real loud crashing. And it wasn’t non-stop. I would hear something really heavy. It sounded to me like a bookcase coming down, crashing on the floor. And then there would be nothing. It would be quiet for a while. I was thinking to myself this was very odd … . and then there’d be another crash.
Travers didn’t hear the girls running down the hall or hear their voices that morning.
“I just heard this crashing. At one point, I was standing above his big oak table and I heard what I believe was that table coming down. That floor, the walls, the windows, everything would move. It was loud and there was movement in the building.”
Concerned and confused, Travers went to visit David McDonald, the neighbour who lived on the third floor above her. Both heard one more really loud thump, she testified.
“It sounded like something large being dropped.”
During the afternoon, Berry’s mother buzzed her apartment and asked Travers if she had seen him because she was worried about the girls.
She told Berry’s mother that she thought she’d heard the girls in the morning.
“I told them he’s probably taken them tobogganing,” said Travers. “I felt conflicted saying it because I didn’t hear the usual pitter patter down the hall. I was kind of confused, and concerned myself.”
Berry’s mother’s concerns hit her hard, Travers testified, and she found herself listening for him and the girls.
During the afternoon, she heard a little bit of water running.
Later in the afternoon, she heard persistent buzzing at the front door of the apartment building and went down to let a police officer in. Travers escorted him to Berry’s front door.
“I could hear the police officer pounding on the door loudly. He had a raised voice and identified himself, calling out Andrew’s name.”
Getting no response, the officer went to her apartment and asked her to put him in touch with the landlord, which she did.
Around 5 p.m., police and other first responders arrived with lights and sirens. Travers heard yelling and thought she could hear Berry’s softer voice amidst the noise.
“It was like a wail,” she testified. “It also sounded like there was anger in it directed toward the intruders.”
Defence lawyer Kevin McCullough noted that in her Dec. 26 statement to police, Travers described Berry as the nicest person you could meet, a man who would never hurt his girls.
“I certainly felt that way,” Travers agreed. “He respected them. He was soft-spoken with them. They minded him. … I felt there was a real nice rapport between them.”
Travers recalled the girls crying and not wanting to leave their father.
“At the beginning, it seemed they were having trouble with the separation itself. I would see crying, whether they were coming or going,” she said.
McCullough asked Travers why she didn’t go down to Berry’s suite and knock on the door to find out what was going on on Christmas morning.
Instead, she went upstairs and talked to McDonald about the noise.
“I was minding my own business, or so I thought. … In hindsight, the things you would change … I thought I was giving Andrew space. It was Christmas morning.”
Travers said she was unnerved by the loud and startling noises, the chaos below her, and was seeking solace upstairs.
“In my brain, I was thinking: ‘Are they building a fort? Are they using flashlights?’ I was trying to stitch together possibilities. But I kind of knew and felt this is kind of wrong. This is new and loud.”
Travers told McCullough she never heard any screaming.