Jordan Heath-Rawlings: An Ontario woman charged with manslaughter has a court date tomorrow for a death that happened in 2015. The death was a child named Nathaniel, whom the woman was babysitting on the day he died. Why are we telling you this in July of 2021? Well, the babysitter was just charged a few weeks ago.
News Clip: On October 31st, 2015, Nathaniel McClellan, 15 months of age of the municipality of North Middlesex, died in a London hospital. Megan Van hoof, 42 years old of Strathroy, has been charged with manslaughter.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Had police spent the past six years methodically building a case against this woman? No. And that’s why we’re telling you Nathaniel’s story. Nathaniel was a toddler. He was somehow injured and collapsed, and he later died in hospital. That is every parent’s worst nightmare, except for Nathaniel’s parents, that wasn’t rock bottom. In the hours and days, and then continuing for the weeks and months and years following Nathaniel’s death, the police investigation focused relentlessly on his parents. They were the prime suspects in the death of their own child. Everyone they knew knew that. Thousands of people they didn’t know knew that. And for years, while the case remained open, they lived that way until someone else began looking at the story and looking at what happened that day and talking to people and asking questions and questioning what police did and why to the parents of a child who had died. And once that happened, all of a sudden, in a matter of weeks, five years later, the babysitter, and not Nathan’s parents, was facing charges. So what happened here?
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Kevin Donovan is the chief investigative reporter at the Toronto Star. He’s the author of the investigative series, ‘Death in a Small Town’. You can find that series at thestar.com. And Kevin, I want to start, like you could do a whole podcast series on this investigation, but maybe just to give us a sense of where to begin. Who was Nathaniel? Who are his parents? Tell me about the family.
Kevin Donovan: Well, Nathaniel McClellan, who died in 2015 at the time, was 15 month old boy. Part of a growing family, mother is Roseanne McClellan. She’s a teacher in Strathroy, which is in the London, Ontario area. And father, Kent, owns a heating and air conditioning company out there. Both busy parents cobbled together various daycare situations for their youngest, for Nathaniel, the older three boys were all in elementary school at the time, and they had something very awful and unsurprising happen to them on what really was just another day for them.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Why don’t you tell me about that day and sort of what happened and take me through a little bit of, if you can, the chronology of it.
Kevin Donovan: Yeah. And I say just another day, that was the heading of our first chapter in the series, because people know we have hopefully a life that goes without these tremendous shocks. And they were just going about their daily routine that morning, Tuesday morning in October, a couple of days before Halloween. They got up in the morning, as they normally did, made oatmeal for the kids. The three older boys headed off to school. Nathaniel had been seemed totally fine and was totally fine, was eating Cheerios after he was eating his oatmeal, had a good breakfast, and dad went off to work and then Roseanne, the mum, she took Nathaniel and drove him about 20 minutes to Strathroy. They live in Parkhill, which is a rural neighbourhood about 20, 25 minutes away from both London and from Strathroy. And she, Rosanne took Nathaniel to the lady who had looked after him for the last a month and a half. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, she had arrangements for other days, dropped him off at Megan Van hoof’s house at 8:30 in the morning and just before 12 noon she got a call from the babysitter who said that something is wrong, can you come and get Nathaniel? Roseanne was just about to teach a class. She made arrangements for a substitute, got in her car and drove a very short distance towards the babysitter’s house but saw the babysitter approaching on the street holding her son, holding Nathaniel, in what another bystander said was a very awkward position. Nathaniel is clearly in distress. Roseanne had a couple of words with the babysitter and grabbed her son and raced off to the hospital, getting there just after noon. The doctors found him unresponsive. His pupils were blown, signs of the tremendous brain injury. Eventually he was taken to London Hospital down the road for more intensive care. But everything was tried and they weren’t able to save him and he died a couple of days later.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: That’s such an awful story, particularly for anybody who’s a parent. And it’s kind of your worst nightmare. Or at least I would have thought that until I read about what happened in the immediate aftermath. Can you explain once Nathaniel passed, what began to happen as the police tried to figure out what exactly had happened here?
Kevin Donovan: Well, actually, within a couple of hours of Nathaniel being in the London Hospital, the Strathroy police showed up. A senior detective spoke to Kent separately, the dad, and spoke to Rosanne, the mom separately. Kent recalls being asked questions like, Do you have a life insurance policy on your son? Do you own an ATV? Kent said, I don’t have a life insurance policy on my son, but we live in the country and I do have an ATV. Within a couple of days, the OPP became involved in the case and eventually took it over. And from my investigation documents I’ve obtained and interviews I did, they really went hard on the parents. They seem, in my opinion, to had a tunnel vision approach to this case and decided that the parents were somehow at fault, and they were pursuing a manslaughter charge against the parents.
Ultimately, they didn’t lay a manslaughter charge. But the parents, who were quite understandably grieving Nathaniel’s loss, were then faced with this second barrage on their senses, felt they were being implicated in the death of the their son. And one of the things that came out of this from getting some access to the police search warrant documents in this case is that the police with this tunnel vision were talking to people who had interactions with the parents of Nathaniel, interactions in the hospital, nurses and doctors, social workers, and those nurses and doctors and social workers are quoted as saying that the parents were acting quite odd. And if you step back from this, I mean, your son is in critical condition, you’ve been told he’s probably not going to make it. And to put it in Roseanne’s words, she said, You judged us at our darkest moment.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And so when you say that the police had tunnel vision, can you give me an example, or some examples, I guess, of the kind of questions they were asking or what their working theories were?
Kevin Donovan: Well, they seemed to think that Nathaniel, at the time he was dropped off that Tuesday morning, that something must have happened to him before that. And so they were quite interested in what I referred to in the story is a door bump from the day before. Roseanne was getting something from their mudroom, and she opened the door and couldn’t see that little Nathaniel on the other side. And she opened the door and he fell back on his bum was crying. She picked him up, a couple of tears and he was fine. And I mean, I know kids are older now, but I know that these things do happen when you’re a parent, unfortunately, and they’re inconsequential in the long run. The police seemed to think that there was something to that. And what’s so interesting to me end up setting to the McLellan family is that within a couple of days, the police were told by top doctors that whatever happened to Nathaniel did not happen the day before. Whatever happened to him, some sort of an impact which caused a nine to 10 centimeter fracture on the back of his skull. Whatever happened happened close to the time that he went unconscious that morning. And so the police had this expert information, but for a reason I do not understand. They discounted it.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How did you and the Star get involved in this story?
Kevin Donovan: Well, I got a call in 2017 from a sister-in-law of Roseanne and Kent. She’s the wife of Ken’s brother, and I had coincidentally coached, for many years I coached soccer in Etobicoke, and I knew the family, and she hadn’t talked to the sister-in-law for many years. But she said, you know, I want to have a coffee with you. And my extended family is going through a heck of a time. And this was two years after Nathaniel died. And so I sat with her and and the story she told me, stories that I get from people don’t always hold up. But what she told me that day really did hold up. There was this concern that the parents were being railroaded, concern that there was more at play in this case than the police had turned up. So that’s how I got on to it. And I’ve worked on it off and on over the last three and a half, four years, and it seemed like the time was right to publish it.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So what happened to over the next weeks and months as police continued the investigation? And since you just mentioned it, why weren’t they looking at what had happened to him that morning at the babysitters?
Kevin Donovan: Well, that question is, to me, is still unanswered then. The McLellan family feels that the local police, they were outsiders there from 25 to 30 minutes away from Strathroy. They feel that there is some of connection between the local police and the babysitters family. There’s some peripheral connections with officers, but I didn’t find anything related to that. What happened was the Strathroy police and the OPP continued investigating. And there were three searches of the McLellan’s residence, only one with a search warrant. And the McLellan’s three older boys, who at the time were 6, 8 and 10, were all interviewed in a very unusual circumstance. They were interviewed in their Kent’s father-mother’s basement by an OPP officer, sorry, by a Strathroy officer with a children’s aid person there but no other adult. And there was this feeling, which really didn’t evaporate until our stories were published, that this cloud of suspicion over the McLellans. Their friends and family, there’s a tremendous outpouring of support for them, both from their Church and other people in Parkhill where they live. They’re good people and their good friends really stood up for them. But they still every time they remember they said, you know, we just out of this experience, we feel we don’t trust the police, and we worry that they’re still coming after us.
When I got involved in 2017, I reached out to the police right away, both the Strathroy and OPP, to try and get some answers from them. And I got stonewalled constantly. The parents did something unique. They set about in 2017 and 2018 talking to people that were involved in their case. Roseanne became a real advocate for the open justice principle. She really wanted, as did Kent, to find out what had gone on behind the scenes. And these were people who didn’t know anything about the justice system. They’re not journalists. They’re not politicians. They’re just normal people who don’t normally interact with police or crown attorneys. And they started meeting with the doctors who had treated Nathaniel both before Nathaniel died and after. And they got those doctors to say some quite stunning things to them. And they recorded those conversations that they had. I’ve got a hold of those recordings and informed the doctors before we published that we had this information. And I didn’t really get any pushback from the doctors. I have a feeling that they didn’t mind that this got out. And what it is that got out was the following that the police were pressing from day one, that Kent and Roseanne were somehow involved, and that the police were told at an early stage that if you follow the timeline, they couldn’t be involved.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What did the police say to that? Have they commented on this since those tapes became public through your writing?
Kevin Donovan: No, the police haven’t commented on that at all. I mean, what did happen is seven days after our series was published, the police announced that they had made an arrest in now five and a half year old case of Nathaniel McLellan. They charged Megan Van hoof, the babysitter, with manslaughter, and that case is just in the courts right now. There’ll be a hearing on July 15th just to set a date for a trial.
But the police have, and I see this a lot, I’m sure you see this a lot with police forces in Ontario. They don’t like to talk too much about their actions. That can be either because they think that would jeopardize the court case or that they don’t want to talk about any missteps they may have made. But, so no, they haven’t responded. And hopefully, in the court process, there will be some answers on why they did what they did and why they didn’t do other things.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Did this charge come about, and I’m trying to ask this in a tactful way, did it come about because of the coverage of this incident, or had there been signs that the investigation was still ongoing and that it might have led to something like this naturally? Or was this out of the blue? These stories come out in the Toronto Star, and then there’s a charge, and I’m not asking you to insinuate anything with that, but it seems very convenient.
Kevin Donovan: Well, prior to publication of the story, in going back several months, I had been reaching out to all the police officers involved in both the OPP and Strathroy, including reaching out to the Chief of the Strathroy police and the Commissioner of the OPP. So this would not have been a surprise for them to see it on the front pages of the Toronto Star, because I told them that this is what’s coming, and we’re going to publish this information and asking them for comment, which we never received. I expect that that got the senior brass to say we should reactivate this case. The OPP had been saying for a couple of years that it’s an active and ongoing case. But police say that about everything, certainly that I’ve ever looked into. In the Sherman, Barry and Honey Sherman case is a good example of that. Everything is active and ongoing. That’s why we can’t tell you anything.
But the key thing that the OPP said that they were waiting for, and they said this two years ago was a new medical report from Toronto Sick Children’s Hospital from a pediatrician there. And I know they got that report over a year ago. I had this horrible feeling that they didn’t examine it properly. And then once the OPP knew that our series was coming, then somebody senior said, well, Let’s have a real look at this so that we’re not behind the 8 ball when these stories come out.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Now that the charge has been laid, are we closer to knowing exactly what happened? Does the actual charge indicate what police think happened?
Kevin Donovan: Well, parts of the actual charge is subject to a ban on publication that the Toronto Star is seeking to overturn. I don’t think we’re going to get too much in those actual documents. The police, the Crown is going to have a theory of the case, and the Crown and the police may know pieces of information that neither I know or the McLellans know, that that’s quite possible. I think it’ll unfold in the court. And to give Megan Van hoof her due, she, through her lawyer, Kevin Egan from London, say that all matters will be revealed in court. So once you get into a situation where there is the spectre of a trial, I think we do have to respect that process and wait to see what comes out in testimony.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What about the McClellans? How do they feel about this? It’s been six, almost 7 years. Now that they’re here, what does it mean to them?
Kevin Donovan: Yeah. The McLellan family, I went to see them a couple of days before we published in June, and they’re both very bright, very articulate people. But I wanted them to know the effect of a story in a large newspaper might have on them. They were nervous. And when the stories started coming out and then other media picked up on it, too, they were delighted. It’s the thing that they’ve wanted. They wanted to honour their son’s memory by seeing if this situation that we’ve all seen happen in Ontario so many times, problems with the investigation of child death, can somehow finally be sorted. And I’m not saying that that’s going to happen because of this, but it certainly has shone a spotlight on it. So they’re pleased. And as far as when the police laid the charge, they were shocked that it happened. And they’re pleased that a step has been taken in their pursuit of justice for Nathaniel.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: My last question is just beyond this family in particular. What does this case mean in the big picture in terms of how these kind of deaths, which are, you know, catastrophic enough to a family as it is, don’t get caught up in this kind of investigation? Could this happen to other families? What’s preventing it?
Kevin Donovan: Well, it could happen to other families. And I know just anecdotally from families that have reached out to me who read the story. There’s been, I’ve heard some kind of similar stories, which I’m looking into now. Look, you can’t live your life worried about something that’s going to happen. You have to just do your best to keep your family safe. But I do think you have to be prepared if something happens, to just, to know your rights and to try and understand the system. And I tell you that if anybody came to me and said I’m in a situation, who would I talk to? I think I might say talked to Roseanne and Kent because they, in a very unfortunate way, have become experts on this. And I mean, this is from me, Roseanne didn’t have a cell phone in 2015 when this happened, and five and a half years later, she’s, I tell her that she’s a bit of a computer sleuth now. She’s kind of halfway between private detective and investigative reporter. And they really have learned a lot, and they ask questions, and they ask the right questions. And I think that’s all the people in the situation can do.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Kevin, thank you so much for taking the time and thank you for your hard work bringing the story to light.
Kevin Donovan: Thanks for having me on.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Kevin Donovan, the chief investigative reporter at the Toronto Star. You can read all of ‘Death in a Small Town at thestar.com. That was The Big Story, for more head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. Find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. Talk to us anytime via email with congratulations or criticism or questions or whatever is on your mind, email@example.com. And lastly, find us in your podcast player, press Play, press Subscribe, press Follow, press Like, press Rate, press Review, do all of the things, we appreciate every one of them.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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