Understanding an act of madness that can never be fully explained

Ron Corbett, The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Tuesday, April 04, 2006

It's hard country up the Dunning Road. You see it in the houses. You see it in the land.

The fallow fields are coarse and rocky, the farm equipment old. Houses alternate between traditional red-brick farm, and traditional red-brick bungalow. If anyone is getting rich on this street, they're keeping it secret.

Yesterday, the road was closed with police cruisers and crime tape. A strange sight to see on the Dunning Road; so strange, more than a few pick-up trucks and service vehicles -- Brasseau's Roofing and Siding; Lapointe's Furnace Cleaning -- stopped to ask police officers if it were really true, that they couldn't go any farther. On the eastern outskirts of the City of Ottawa, in this francophone community, this is a main thoroughfare.

By mid-morning, news of what might have happened on Dunning Road had started to seep -- like the melting ice on the nearby creeks -- throughout Cumberland. Shock. Disbelief. It was all that, and more.

A few hours later, the road was briefly opened, to allow members of the media to travel to the farmhouse at 2315 Dunning Rd., and see for themselves the location, perhaps, of an inexplicable tragedy.

The road didn't get any better beyond the crime tape. This is hardscrabble country. And it was a day that seemed to suit it, with a cold wind and grey sky, rain threatening to turn into hail at any minute.

And then, just one of those jarring sights that resonate at the time, and resonate later even more, a beautiful country farmhouse is seen on the right hand side. It is half a kilometer away, and it is beautifully painted -- at this time of year -- beautifully gabled, circular driveway in front, lilac bushes waiting to bloom.

As you drive by, you see a sign: "Careful please. Children at play."

It sends a chill up your spine.

- - -

The French Catholic school board is preparing for a hellish day.

How do you tell children -- between the grades of pre-school to six -- that three of their classmates have been killed? If you're having trouble with that one, then add this to the story: The killer was their father.

And yet that will be done this morning, at Ecole des Pionniers in Orleans. This was the school the Mailly children attended -- Jessica Mailly was 12; Brendon Mailly was nine; Kevin Mailly was six -- and the school board is already planning to have an emergency response team at the school first thing this morning.

"If this is the tragedy we are hearing it may be, then we will be at the school" today, says Roxanne Deevey, a spokeswoman for the board. "We have grief counsellors trained for this sort of thing. For both the students and the staff."

Think about that one for a minute. Imagine being a teacher. Knowing these children. Seeing them every week-day. Watching them grow. And then the story ends. Like some dark hole just sucked them up, never to be seen again. That's how ugly murder is.

It's true, not only the children will be hit by this story. So will the teachers. So will everyone who ever knew the Mailly children.

Ms. Deevey talks some more. About what will happen today at the grade school in Orleans. About what will happen over the next few days.

She has three children herself in the school board, and like any parent, she can't fathom this story. How could it happen? What would make a person do such a thing?

She hopes the grief counsellors will do some good. At the same time, she admits this is a hope that will run butt-end into reality first thing this morning.

"Really," she says, "How can you explain this?"

- - -

At the top of a hill on Dunning Road is the farmhouse owned by Francois Mailly, now a burned shell of a building, little left but the foundation walls. Inside this building, police believe Mr. Mailly murdered his estranged wife, Francine, and his three children.

Directly across the street is the home of Isaie Henrie, a 77-year-old retired farmer, who still has an apple orchard behind his house, that blooms in magnificent colour every spring. He was home Sunday, around 9 p.m, when he heard a "loud explosion" at the Mailly home, and then watched, in horror, as the house, and a nearby garage, lit up in flames.

"It was right away," he remembers of the fire. "There was the explosion, and then I saw a fire out my window. Both the house and the garage were in flames. It made no sense to me. They are far enough part, those buildings, I didn't know how they both caught fire at the same time."

He ran from his house with a fire extinguisher, a futile act that he shrugs his shoulders about the following day. How could he know? An accidental fire, perhaps he could have been some help.

Murder. He was no help at all.

When he reached the farmhouse, Frank Mailly was lying on the ground in front of the house, engulfed in flames. A volunteer fireman, who lived on the Dunning Road, was also there, and covered the man with a tarp. Mr. Mailly was already dead.

Later that night, when he went back home, Mr. Henrie spent a long time looking out his windows, at the fire trucks and ambulances and police cars that had gathered on Dunning Road, and it was only after looking out the window for a long time that he suddenly realized -- Francine Mailly's car was also out there.

Even though she had moved out some time ago. Even though the car had not been seen in several weeks. "I went to bed," says Mr. Henrie, "wondering what had happened across the road."

- - -

The city of Ottawa is waking up this morning, with much the same question.

What could make a parent kill his children? What could drive a person to that level of despair and self-loathing; to pity your own life so much you would take the life of another -- even one who loved you -- just so you don't have to suffer alone?

Ottawa police confirmed late yesterday afternoon that the body of a woman and a young boy had been found in the rubble of the farmhouse at 2315 Dunning Rd. They expect to find the bodies of a young girl, and another young boy, some time today.

A family has been destroyed. An act of madness that can never be fully explained, even though a lot of effort will be spent in the next few weeks, trying to come up with such an explanation.

You get the impression, driving up this road, that there have been sad stories here before. Maybe some that were just as mad, just as tragic, and just as unexplainable.

This one, however, will never be forgotten.

From the latest foibles at City Hall, to an elderly man reading Anne Bronte novels next to the worst crack house in the nation's capital, award-winning journalist Ron Corbett offers a unique vision of our city every Saturday in Life in the City. If you have a story idea for Ron, contact him at rcorbett@thecitizen.canwest.com.

Police Chief Vince Bevan's Remarks

I can confirm at this point in time that the body of Mr. Frank Mailly was found outside the home. I can also confirm that the remains of a woman and a male child have been found thus far inside the residence. Officers continue to search for the bodies of two other children, a boy and a girl, still believed to be inside the house. We believe that individuals who were found, and those who are still missing, are Mr. Mailly's wife Francine, their daughter Jessica, 12 years old and their two sons Brandon and Kevin, six and six years old respectively. Autopsies will have to be conducted to confirm the identities.

While we are loath to rush to a conclusion, items found on the scene have assisted us in confirming certain facts. Among those items, a note, presumed to have been written by Mr. Mailly, was found in a van parked in the driveway at 2315 Dunning Rd. The note stated his intention to kill his family and his reasons for doing so. I cannot provide further details about the note's content. A firearm was also found near what had been the front doorway of the house.

Late this afternoon, I spoke with the regional coroner for Eastern Ontario, Andrew McCallum, about this incident. It is still too early to decide whether there will be an inquest. ... Dr. McCallum indicated the incident would be referred to the domestic violence death review committee, a multi-disciplinary advisory committee of experts set up under the Coroner's Act that reports the results of domestic violence fatality investigations to the chief coroner. ...

I can confirm additional information about the contacts with Mr. Francois Mailly and Francine Mailly and the Ottawa police.

I can confirm that we had a single contact in April 2002, concerning threats and harassing phone calls by Francois Mailly.

I can confirm that we had a single contact with him in May 2003 concerning a co-worker of Francine Mailly.

The next contact was in September 2005, when Francine contacted our service to inform us that she had left Francois.

The next series of contacts came in early February, where she made reports indicating some fear for her children's safety. This culminated in the arrest of Mr. Mailly in Embrun, where he allegedly threatened Francine's brother.

This matter resulted in conditions being set in February, prohibiting Francois from associating with Francine.

We understand, from information I have been provided at this point, that she moved back in with Francois sometime around March 10.

She then attended court with him last Thursday, March 30, in L'Orignal, to get a variance to this order. Sometime since that date, they apparently separated again and the subsequent tragedy on Sunday, April 2, is now well-known.

The investigation continues and an update will be sent as soon as we have more information.