LETHBRIDGE, Alta. (CP) – A city alderwoman who made headlines earlier this year after disappearing while in Montana on a business trip pleaded not guilty Monday to a charge of public mischief.
Lethbridge Ald. Darlene Heatherington did not appear in provincial court. Her defence lawyer, Tracy Hembroff, spoke on her behalf. Hembroff indicated Heatherington, 40, has opted to be tried by judge alone and has waived her right to a preliminary hearing. A 10-day trial is to begin January 26.
“I thought about it long and hard and hate to say it, but I would probably have to go half way around the world to find a jury that hasn’t heard about this case,” Hembroff said outside court.
“It’s my opinion that a jury would have been a gamble.”
Police laid the charge against Heatherington in June following an eight-month investigation they initiated after she said she was being stalked by an unknown male.
Hembroff said Heatherington is happy a trial date has been set.
“It gives her a timeline. She’s glad to know that at some point in time, one way or the other, it’s going to be over and done with.
“She’s quite satisfied with the route we’re going and happy to put herself, her family, the community and myself through this once.”
Hembroff also said there will be a number of charter issues and challenges of evidence at the trial.
Meanwhile, as a result of public outcry over the incident, Lethbridge city council voted Monday to bar Heatherington from serving as deputy mayor when her name comes up for the rotating job next week.
Council voted 7-1 to strike her name from the rotation. Heatherington was the only member of council to vote against the resolution. She sat stony-faced during the council meeting without lifting her head from her paperwork. Her husband, David, who sat through the vote, declined comment.
All council members traditionally serve a four-month rotation as deputy mayor, but members didn’t think it was a good idea for Heatherington to hold the post at this time, said Ald. Ryan Parker.
“It’s a lot of responsibility and I think when any member of council is under investigation, or probation, or anything – guilty or innocent – it doesn’t matter,” Parker said. “Deputy mayorship isn’t the right place to be at the time.”
Parker stressed that it wasn’t a matter of whether Heatherington was capable of performing the function, but how residents felt about her in that role.
“And the community has been calling us day in and day out asking for her not to be deputy mayor at this time,” he said.
The alderwoman made international news in May when she disappeared for three days after a PKV business meeting in Great Falls, Mont.
She appeared disoriented and distraught when she turned up three days later in Las Vegas, where she told police she had been kidnapped and sexually assaulted.
She recanted her story during questioning by Great Falls police, who charged her with lying.
Heatherington pleaded not guilty to the charge and accepted a deferred prosecution deal. That means the charge will be dismissed in a year if she sees a psychiatrist and stays out of trouble.
It was some weeks later, back home in Lethbridge, that Heatherington held an emotionally raw news conference during which she said she had been bullied into a confession. She refused to resign her city council seat despite calls from the public to do so.
Court documents filed to support a search warrant application against Heatherington say David confided to investigators in January that he had begun to question whether his wife was telling the whole story about a stalker and whether his family was in any real danger.
The documents say he turned over a computer disk which he had secretly copied from one he found in his wife’s jacket. They say he also forwarded a draft of a stalking letter he found stored on his wife’s Palm Pilot.
Police said the letter contained a direct quote from one of seven books on stalking and rape, which undercover officers said they witnessed the alderwoman reading at the Lethbridge Public Library.
The Crown has proceeded by indictment on the mischief charge, meaning the alderwoman could face prison time and be dismissed from city council if convicted.
She has her supporters, but other Lethbridge residents have demanded her removal from city council and signed petitions to that effect.
Lethbridge Mayor Bob Tarleck has said it’s clear to him the public would prefer her to leave.