Mother ‘screamed like never before’ when told of daughters’ deaths on Christmas Day

Sarah Cotton remembers two Oak Bay police officers sitting her down in a chair in the chief’s office on Christmas Day 2017.

“And they held me so tightly and they said: ‘Chloe and Aubrey have been injured.’ And I thought they were alive. And then they said: ‘They’re dead.’ And I screamed like never before. I was just in shock.”

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Cotton buried her face in her hands and wept as she testified Monday in B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver.

It was her first time coming face-to-face with her former partner, Andrew Berry, since she dropped off a beloved stuffed toy for six-year-old Chloe at Berry’s Beach Drive apartment on Dec. 22, 2017. Berry is now charged with the second-degree murders of his daughters Chloe and four-year-old Aubrey.

Cotton, a communications professional, breathed deeply and talked through tears as she described her frantic search for the girls when Berry failed to return them as required by a court order. The order said Berry was to have the girls from 5 p.m. on Dec. 21 until noon on Christmas Day.

But on the morning of Dec. 21, Cotton’s birthday, she received an email from Berry asking if she wanted to keep the girls overnight. The offer was unusual, because Berry typically would not give up any parenting time with the girls, she testified. She thanked him, but said she’d made plans and would stick to the schedule.

As she drove to his house later that afternoon, Cotton noticed the lights weren’t on.

“I believe I stopped for a minute. I said to the girls: ‘It looks like Daddy isn’t home. His lights aren’t on.’ And Chloe said: ‘Oh no. He’s home. We use flashlights. It’s just like camping,’ ” Sarah’s voice broke. “It made me think his hydro was off.”

She asked them if the apartment was cold and they said it wasn’t.

Through tears, she testified that she got out of the car to say goodbye to her girls. Berry came toward the sidewalk where she had parked.

“I didn’t ask him about the hydro. I just wanted to keep the peace because it was Christmas,” she said, crying.

Prosecutor Patrick Weir asked if she was concerned about the girls’ safety. Cotton said she was concerned for their well-being and hopeful she could work out some arrangement with Berry to get the girls back until his electricity was restored.

That evening, she sent Berry an email asking him to let her know by noon if he didn’t have electricity. He did not reply, she testified.

The next day, Cotton dropped by with Lamby, Chloe’s favourite toy. Because Berry’s phone wasn’t connected to the apartment building’s front buzzer, she knocked on the front window.

“And the girls put their heads through the blind and I showed them that I had Lamby. So I walked to the front door, where they met me in the lobby. … They were so happy and Chloe was in a little dragon costume,” Cotton said, crying. “And they said: ‘Mummy, how many nights until we see you?’ And I said: ‘It was supposed to be three.’ I was hoping to get them back from Andrew. I told Andrew I sent him an email and I wanted him to check it out.”

It was the last time she would ever see her daughters.

“I told them that I loved them and hugged them,” said Cotton, wiping her eyes.

Berry looked distant, very far away when she asked him to check his email, she recalled.

Her emails suggested a modified schedule for the girls for the next nine days until his apartment had electricity.

“Could you take them to your sister’s for a few days?” she wrote. “One or two days without power can be an adventure for them, but I’m worried there isn’t any working heat or fridge and stove. How are you cooking meals for them and keeping food fresh? … For the girls’ sake please respond.”

On Christmas Day, Cotton stuffed Christmas stockings and placed presents under the tree. She phoned relatives in England, texted friends and began cooking Christmas dinner.

At 12:20 p.m., she texted Berry, asking if he was on his way. At 12:34 p.m., she left a voicemail on his phone asking when they would be arriving. She called his phone again at 12:52 p.m. At 12:53 p.m., she sent another text.

Just after 1 p.m., Cotton texted Berry’s sister and asked her to call him and make sure everything was OK. Cotton testified that she was afraid to leave the house to look for them in case he came by and dropped off the girls.

Berry’s sister replied that she had sent him two messages urging him to comply with the court order.

When her in-laws, Brenda and Malcolm Berry, arrived at her house at 2 p.m., Cotton opened the door in tears and said: “They’re not back yet.”

His parents reassured her. “They’ll be OK. They’re OK.”

Malcolm stayed at the house while Cotton and Brenda went to Berry’s apartment. They got out of the car and knocked on the window. It was closed and there was no light coming from inside. They buzzed the front door. They called Berry’s cellphone.

“I did not hear any sound coming from inside,” Cotton said.

The two women looked for the girls at Windsor Park, the Oak Bay Recreation Centre, Willows Beach and Cattle Point. They returned to Berry’s apartment and asked a neighbour, Val, if she knew where the girls might be.

“Andrew’s mum spoke to her because I was in such a state. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. Val said she had heard the children up at 8 a.m. and maybe they had gone out tobogganing.”

They drove to Beacon Hill Park and Cedar Hill Recreation Centre, then drove home and walked to the police station.

Cotton showed police the family court order. The officers said they would go to the house to locate the girls.

“We waited outside in the front lobby. It felt like forever,” Cotton said.

Cotton couldn’t hear any radio transmissions. But when Saanich police officers began arriving and when police brought Malcolm Berry to the detachment, she knew the news wasn’t good.

“But I thought it would be more like he had taken off with them somewhere,” she testified.

Earlier, Cotton testified that her relationship with Berry changed after the birth of Chloe in 2011. By September 2013, it was “very bad, very tense, very strained,” she said.

The trial has heard that Oak Bay police investigated allegations that Berry assaulted Cotton on Sept. 12 and 13, 2013. Berry was placed on a no-contact order and prohibited from going to the family home.

The jury heard that when Berry appeared in court on Nov. 19, 2013, he was placed on a peace bond, requiring good behaviour.

Police and the Children’s Ministry investigated Berry for inappropriate touching of Aubrey and a large soft spot on her head. But there were no findings of anything criminal or sexual, the jury heard.

She told defence lawyer Kevin McCullough she was shocked by the B.C. Supreme Court decision that set out their parenting responsibilities.

“It didn’t go the way I thought it would go. I wasn’t happy with certain aspects of the decision,” she said.

ldickson@timescolonist.com

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