For many years after the senseless, violent death of Nicholas Battersby in 1994 and the following murder trial, I would receive Christmas cards from his parents Gay and Charles – who lived in England – but had been here during the trial which I’d covered.
Somehow, it was at times hard simply to look at them, their pain so apparent, their bewilderment understandable and their love for their son almost physically tangible.
An electrical engineer, Battersby, just 27, had just left England for a new life and a new job at Bell-Northern Research in Ottawa.
This perfectly normal, seemingly as average as the rest of us, Gay and Charles Battersby hugged and waved their son goodbye as he left to create a life for himself in a different country. And on a simple stroll down Elgin Street on a Sunday in late March, 1994, with a light rain coming down on the city, their son Nicholas was shot in the back by a single bullet. His life was over, the lives of his parents forever altered and always sadder.
So yes, there was something incredibly jarring – after all of these years – reading that Reubens Henderson, convicted of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Battersby, has just been released from jail.He was 16 at the time of the crazy, senseless murder which rocked this city back in 1994. And he’d been in jail for about 25 years.
As most anyone would, I tried to show the Battersbys some kindness as they struggled to get up everyday to attend the trial. Always in the back of my mind was the wonderment of how they could even manage to put one foot in front of the other to attend the trial, to face another day. And as a new mom of a beautiful one-year-old baby boy, his sweet life was always in my heart.
In fact, it seemed the entire city wanted to help the Battersbys. Many of us somehow felt a sense of responsibility – feeling a collective guilt that this young man who’d come to our country with the promise of something good – was gunned down.
At the time, the death of the the city’s visitor from England was described as the loss of the last vestige of Ottawa’s innocence. (In fairness, the same thing was essentially written a couple of years after that when CJOH sportscaster Brian Smith was gunned down in the station’s parking lot.)
That being said, there was absolutely a sort of collective guilt felt by many of us, that a young man from a different country could come here to our city to start a new life, only to be murdered. It was so horribly random, it was senseless and it was violent, and Ottawans struggled because they hadn’t been able to protect him.
Case in point. On the day of Battersby’s public memorial service, the St. John Evangelist Church was packed with so many people, the overflow crowd ended up out on street. There were more than 2,000 people – some friends, but mostly strangers, wanting to pay their respects to the young man this city couldn’t keep safe.
Of course, the Battersbys weren’t the only people who saw their lives changed forever that day.
Rubens Henderson was an out-of-control 16-year-old. With drugs and alcohol in his system, he told his friends as they were cruising in a stolen jeep down Elgin, that he was going to shoot at someone walking on the street. With impossible odds, the only bullet he shot hit Battersby in the back and hit his heart. In fact, the randomness of the hit became a pivotal point in the trial, with Justice Dan Chilcott alluding to the faction the charge to the jury that to have intentionally hit Battersby where he did and kill him, he would have had been an incredibly skilled marksman. Following the charge to the jury, Crown prosecutor Celynne Dorval ran out of the room, clearly emotional with what Chilcott had said and what it might mean to the verdict.
But when the jury came back, finding him guilty of murder, I gave a bit of a silent thanks to the the power of a jury, 12 men and women who judged a situation and did what they believed was right.
But yes, the life of Henderson changed that day too, though appreciate his life story won’t generate much sympathy. Maybe you can find it in your heart to offer some sympathy for Ina Henderson, his adoptive mother. Her son was born in Brazil and placed in an orphanage before she adopted him when he was eight-years-old. I spoke to her several times over that trial, hearing her speak of a broken system, one that she was always fighting to try to find help for her son – knowing he needed intervention – but unable to get it for him. Seemed simply being out of control wasn’t enough to warrant help. She was incredibly frustrated, and her worst fears came into reality when her son went on an out-of-control joyride. Now about 42 years old, Henderson has been released into the community, free to attempt to live a better life.