Officer tells of alarming signs before children found dead

At murder trial, Oak Bay sergeant recounts events leading up to discovery of bodies

Advisory: This story has graphic and disturbing details about a murder case.

As the warning signs escalated, so did Sgt. Michael Martin’s concerns for the safety of Sarah Cotton’s two young daughters on Christmas Day 2017.

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On Wednesday, the Oak Bay police officer testified in Vancouver at Andrew Berry’s second-degree murder trial in the deaths of his daughters, six-year-old Chloe and four-year-old Aubrey.

Martin told the jury that he was the officer in charge that day when Cotton and her mother-in-law, Brenda Berry, came to the police station just after 4 p.m.

Cotton told him she was going through a separation from Berry, her former husband, and he was late returning the children.

“She’s perturbed and concerned,” Martin testified. “She’s a little annoyed he hasn’t returned the children on time.”

When Martin asked her for a copy of the custody order, Cotton forwarded an electronic version of the order from her phone to his email.

Martin said he also asked Cotton for Berry’s email address and phone number. The sergeant testified that he then left Const. Piotr Ulanowski in the front lobby with the two women and went to his office to verify the separation order was correct.

“In odd years, Mr. Berry had custody of the children from Dec. 24 at noon and was to return them to Sarah Cotton on Dec. 25 at noon. It was approximately 4 p.m. It was four hours late,” he testified.

Martin asked Ulanowski to go and talk to Berry at his Beach Drive apartment. Then he tried to call Berry on his cellphone, but couldn’t reach him.

At 4:20 p.m., Martin sent Berry an email, telling him that Cotton was at the Oak Bay police station and citing the custody order.

“I was trying to let Mr. Berry know he was late in returning the children and we wanted to facilitate an easy return of the children,” Martin said.

“Were you going to arrest him if he attended to the station?” asked prosecutor Patrick Weir.

“No, sir, I was not. … It was Christmas Day and I didn’t want to tarnish the children’s day or discredit either parent,” Martin said.

The sergeant took the women into an interview room and asked Const. Julie Chanin to join them. Martin asked them about Berry, his friends and associates, and where he might be. Martin said he learned Berry was quite reclusive, with few social contacts, but has a sister.

Martin reached Berry’s sister by phone.

“She said Berry was depressed and encountering some financial difficulties. She stated that he was a good father, that he would not harm his children. He was not suicidal. Financial difficulties had caused the electricity to be shut off in his apartment, but there was still heating in the apartment,” Martin said. “He had some trust or distrust issues with the police because of previous dealings, but was generally respectful. She stated [that] if we needed her assistance, she would be happy to come down and join us.”

After that, Martin received a phone call from Ulanowski, who had gone to the apartment and tried to contact Berry by knocking at the door, but got no answer, he testified.

“He told me he had seen men’s winter boots outside the door and he saw what he referred to as sliding apparatus or floatie toys, inflatable plastic chairs or animals you could throw in the pool or use for sledding.”

That information raised some concerns, but there was other information as well, said Martin.

“Const. Ulanowski phoned Berry on his phone number and he could hear the phone ringing within the apartment. … That raised concerns for me very much,” said Martin.

“Now, we’re at a point where it’s dark outside. The children aren’t tobogganing. Mr. Berry isn’t in his winter boots. The phone is ringing in his apartment. That was most alarming.”

Martin said he knew Berry wasn’t with any family members.

The children were unaccounted for and Martin could not raise him on the phone or by email.

“In this day and age, I attribute a lot of importance to carrying a cellphone with you if you’re the guardian of a child,” Martin told the court.

“I know how important that cellphone is to me if I’m providing stewardship to a child.

“If I got injured or the children got injured, I would have access to 911. ... It’s a virtual lifeline.”

Martin was concerned that Berry was either inside his apartment and separated from his phone and everyone was unaccounted for, or that he was inside the apartment and not in a position to answer the door.

Martin called the building manager, who said he had keys to the apartment. Then he called Ulanowski and asked him to pick up the keys.

Chanin was still talking with the two women, said Martin. He opened a file and began to input the names of people the officers had been dealing with.

Then Chanin came into his office with photos of the girls, said Martin, choking up on the stand.

“Excuse me. … She had obtained pictures of Chloe and Aubrey and had attached clothing descriptions of what they were wearing that day to those pictures.”

Martin scanned the photos to a computer and told a dispatcher what the girls were wearing and what they looked like.

“And I asked our communications bureau to send them to the other police departments in the Capital Regional District and neighbouring jurisdictions and to B.C. Transit buses and taxi systems as well,” Martin testified.

“At that point, with my heightened concerns, the more sets of eyes we have out there the better to locate Mr. Berry and to attempt to facilitate the return of the children. … I had great concerns.”

Martin is expected to continue testifying this morning.

On Wednesday, Ulanowski, the first officer at the scene and the first officer to testify during what’s expected to be a four-month trial, refuted defence allegations that he made no note of or told no other officers of his difficulty in opening the door to Berry’s apartment.

ldickson@timescolonist.com

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