June 11, 2013 - 6:00 AM
TIMELINE: TAYLOR VAN DIEST WOULD BE 20 YEARS OLD TODAY
In a courtroom a few months ago, an Okanagan mother watched the man accused of murdering her daughter, and the trial she prays will bring justice, shift out of reach as the trial was pushed back a year, leaving painful waiting and the torment of indecision.
It's been over a year and a half since Marie Van Diest's daughter Taylor was killed while walking to meet some friends Halloween night, 2011, in Armstrong. Matthew Foerster, 27, of Cherryville, was arrested five months later and charged with the 18-year-old’s death. Within his legal right, Foerster has changed lawyers multiple times, setting the trial date further and further back. The pace of the justice system grates on the Van Diest family, and Taylor's mom says despite the aching sorrow and heartbreak, one emotion burns hotter than the rest: frustration.
Still dressed in her work scrubs around suppertime, Marie, a care aid, sits down at a table in an empty A&W to tell her family's story. Her other daughter, Kirstie—Taylor's twin sister—has just finished her shift at the restaurant and quietly pulls up a chair beside her mom. Their hair is a dark glossy brown, like Taylor's, and the way the corners of their mouths crook up, lightly dimpling their cheeks reflects the hundreds of smiling pictures of Taylor on her Facebook page. Marie's brother Paul Albert sits down at her other side, his face already grim with the knowledge of what he must talk about.
The family has made a choice to speak out after all the choices Taylor would have made in her life were suddenly ripped away. They could have suppressed the memories, blotted out the horrific details, quarantined the pain. But that wouldn't have done Taylor justice.
THE WORST NIGHT OF THEIR LIVES
The night, they say, began happily. Halloween was Taylor's favourite holiday. She loved dressing up, and Marie recalls how she was in the bathroom for hours putting on make-up for her Zombie costume. It was the first Halloween Taylor and Kirstie, usually inseparable, wouldn't be trick-or-treating together. Marie laughs that her girls never got too old for trick-or-treating.
As night fell on Armstrong that Oct. 31, 2011, Taylor headed out to join her friends. Normally, she would have walked along the city's residential streets, lit that night with flickering jack-o-lanterns.
"We're not certain as to how or why she rerouted onto the tracks," Marie says, her voice soft and hollow. "It was not the path she should have taken."
Taylor always had her phone with her, and that night was no exception. With a classic eye-roll only mothers are capable of, Marie says the phone was like an appendage to her teenage daughter.
So when Taylor didn't show up to the rendezvous with her friend, and no one got a text from her explaining why, Marie felt a sickening knot form in her stomach.
"I knew right away," she says, her face deadpan.
With flashlights cutting through the darkness, Marie, two of Taylor’s close friends, and Taylor's boyfriend went out in search of their loved one. Taylor's boyfriend of over a year was in front, and found his high school sweetheart unconscious on the tracks.
Taylor's uncle, Paul Albert was at the annual Halloween bonfire at the fairgrounds when he heard sirens wailing in the distance. Minutes later, Marie called and told him his niece had been found, brutally beaten and left for dead.
In a blur, Marie remembers ambulance personnel whisking her daughter away. The family raced behind the ambulance to Vernon Jubilee Hospital, where they were questioned by investigators and asked to surrender Taylor's personal items to evidence. Marie recalls looking at her daughter lying on a hospital bed, unconscious and fading from life.
"I knew deep down, by looking at her eyes," Marie says. "In the field I work in you know that look."
Taylor was transported to Kelowna General where her family continued to wait and finally be told Taylor was dead. Aching to see Taylor one last time, to say goodbye and tell her she loved her, Marie was told that wasn’t possible.
"They announced we weren't allowed to say goodbye because Taylor was evidence," Marie says.
As a care aid, Marie can't understand why she was denied that last chance to see her daughter. She would have worn gloves, refrained from damaging the 'evidence'.
Taylor was kept away from her family for a while longer as she underwent an autopsy in Kamloops. It was a few weeks before she was cremated and returned home. A large funeral was held in Taylor's honour, but her ashes do not reside in a cemetery. They are nestled in her bedroom, at home.
"I can't think of scattering her ashes, we'd rather have her here with us," Marie says.
BANISHING DARKNESS WITH LIGHT
After Taylor's death, Marie says she wanted to curl up and hide from the world. She was crushed. No more curling up on the couch and watching movies with Taylor. Never hearing her play the saxophone again. No postcards from the places she longed to visit.
It took time for Marie to revisit the place where Taylor was killed. The train tracks intersect Armstrong down the middle, providing a short cut to different corners of town. Taylor wasn't the first to walk them. Young people are often seen traversing the route with slushies in hand from nearby Deep Creek store, where Taylor worked.
"At first I was hiding and cowering, but then I realized, I couldn't let (her murderer) win," Marie says. "Armstrong had become a ghost town after dark. People were afraid."
Not only did Marie return, she found the courage to revive it. In her daughter's name, Marie is working with local authorities to open a safer path illuminated with solar lamps.
"We wanted to turn a site of horror into something positive and safe. We wanted to walk through there without any concerns," she says.
Taylor’s family will officially be opening the trail June 23, though walkers are already frequenting the route which is bordered by wild rose bushes and tall trees.
THE ONGOING BATTLE FOR JUSTICE
Taylor may have died in 2011, but her family's fight to see justice is just in its infancy. The man charged with Taylor's murder, Foerster, will go to trial in March 2014 before a judge and jury, almost two and a half years after her death. Foerster faces charges in two unrelated attacks against Okanagan women, including a home invasion with assault in 2004 and the sexual assault of a Kelowna escort in 2005. He will be tried on those counts separately, before a judge alone.
For Taylor’s family, justice is a moving target. They know the trial won’t heal their pain, but waiting for it is like bearing an open wound instead of a scar.
“When you’re looking for justice, you want it to be swift,” Marie says. “The person who did this must be held accountable.”
She says the looming trial crowds her thoughts, and can’t help wondering what will happen when it’s finally concluded. She envisions the years lapping out in front of her, the battle for her daughter’s justice never truly ending. Instead of birthdays and movie dates, she pictures herself at parole hearings and appointments with Victim’s Assistance.
"I daydream about ways I can hurt the monster that killed my daughter, it's become a hobby," she admits. "But it won't bring Taylor back, and it makes me a monster too."
Instead, she focuses her energy on making noise about her frustrations with the justice system in the hopes of saving families some of the hardship it entails. Taylor’s relatives and friends all have things to say about the slowness of the system and the allowance for the accused to repeatedly change lawyers. Being thrown into the nightmare of a slain child changed everything about what they think about Canada's justice system. Now, being part of it, they're seeing blemishes on the system they weren’t exposed to before. They know they can't change what happened to Taylor, but they're determined to influence the future to make things easier for families who have lost a loved one in the same sudden and shattering way.
But being vocal at this stage could come with negative effects on the trial. For fear of impacting it, they are keeping their opinions out of the press until a verdict has been reached. When they do speak, they hope their words garner action and go straight to the Prime Minister.
"It's something I never would've dreamed of, but I'll make it one of my life goals to make change in the justice system," Marie says. "People say I'm so strong, but I think no, I pale in comparison to Taylor. She had the strength to take him on and fight back. She was the brave one."
To contact the reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (250)309-5230. Follow on Twitter @charhelston
News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2013