Canada

Life of girl born on plane ends in abuse, neglect, manslaughter

WARNING: This story contains details of child abuse.

A girl whose birth on an Air Canada flight made international headlines died five years later in pain and neglect in the early, isolating months of the pandemic, an Ontario Superior courtroom heard in March.

Chloe Guan-Branch’s body was found in her soiled bed in an Ottawa apartment at about noon on Friday, May 15, 2020.

She had turned five just five days earlier.

In March, her mother’s ex-boyfriend, Justin Cassie-Berube, was found guilty of manslaughter, criminal negligence causing death, failing to provide the necessaries of life, assault causing bodily harm and assault, all involving Chloe.

The details of Cassie-Berube’s crimes were kept from the public due to a publication ban that prevented CBC from naming anyone involved or connecting Chloe’s birth story to her death.

CBC is reporting the details now, months after the judgment, after successfully going to court in conjunction with Postmedia to have the ban lifted.

Chloe, 4, next to Justin Cassie-Berube, who was acting as her father at the time of her death, in a picture dated Feb. 5, 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic was declared the following month. (Ontario Superior Court)

Bladder rupture poisoned her

At the time of Chloe’s death Cassie-Berube was living with her and her mother, Ada Guan, and was acting as Chloe’s father, Justice Pierre Roger said in court while reading his judgment on March 1.

About a week before she died Chloe’s bladder had been ruptured by blunt force, causing her body to slowly poison itself, the judge said.

In addition, her small face and body were covered in “shocking” injuries from being hit, struck, grabbed and thrown out of anger by Cassie-Berube, Roger said.

In a text Chloe’s mother sent Cassie-Berube six months before Chloe’s death, she mentioned the abuse:

“… It makes me mad when we said no more slapping her face and her mouth and you go and do that … I just don’t wanna see her face all bruised and f–ked up no more.. I don’t wanna go out and have to cover her face up just cause there’s marks on it.. that’s suspicious..”

Some of the assaults gave Chloe serious head injuries, cuts on her lip, rib fractures, scar tissue in her abdomen and pancreas, serious bruises near her groin and lower back, and other bruises elsewhere, the judge ruled, recounting the evidence of a forensic pathologist.

As for the fatal bladder rupture, Roger couldn’t be sure if it was caused by a punch from Cassie-Berube or from falling on the rail of her bed.

Regardless, Cassie-Berube had a duty to take care of her, and the judge found that his inaction in the face of Chloe’s deteriorating condition and worsening symptoms fell well short of what would be expected from any reasonable person or parent.

Instant photos of a man and a little girl.
Instant photographs of Cassie-Berube and Chloe, taken during the holidays in 2020, were entered as exhibits during the trial. Court heard he ended up admitting to police that he didn’t want to take Chloe to hospital because her bruises would raise suspicions. (Kristy Nease/CBC)

Fears of repercussions kept him from going to hospital

After her bladder was ruptured, urine was leaking into Chloe’s bloodstream. The latter stages of untreated uremia, as the condition is known, can cause seizures and coma.

Her stomach was “rock hard,” according to a text Cassie-Berube sent to his mother three days before Chloe died. She was moaning and grunting in pain, and she couldn’t get out of bed to use the bathroom.

Closer to the end she was losing consciousness and passing out, Roger said, recalling the evidence heard at trial.

Still, there was no visit to a doctor or emergency room. The only actions taken were online searches about the symptoms.

Cassie-Berube knew Chloe’s bruises would raise questions if they went to a hospital, and he admitted to telling her mother as much in an interview with police, the judge said.

The day before Chloe died, Cassie-Berube’s phone records show he kept searching online about her symptoms through the afternoon and into the night.

what to get kids to eat after puking
How come after constipation it’s hard to walk
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But the next morning — her last — Chloe was perfectly fine, Cassie-Berube told police. He said her cheeks were rosy, her eyes were wide and she looked healthy.

And when he asked her how she was feeling before he went out to get diapers and food, he said she replied, “Good, daddy, how are you?”

Roger called Cassie-Berube’s word-for-word recollection “unbelievable.”

The five-year-old’s body was found by her mother about an hour later.

‘He was his own worst witness’

Roger said Cassie-Berube was “his own worst witness.”

He minimized his role, contradicted himself, embellished his narrative, and lied on occasion.

As another example, Roger said Cassie-Berube made up “a detailed, fairy-tale version” of Chloe’s birthday in his interview with police.

“Unfortunately, none of the celebrations and outings that the accused described in painstaking detail actually happened,” Roger said.

Instead, Chloe was sick in bed all day, vomiting, couldn’t walk, and wasn’t using the bathroom. Cassie-Berube also slapped her hard on the mouth, and grabbed her hand hard enough to leave a mark still visible when she died.

The couple was concerned about her condition, but Guan testified that when she suggested they take Chloe to a doctor, Cassie-Berube said they couldn’t because they’d notice the bruises.

Guan testified she didn’t push it because she didn’t want to make Cassie-Berube angry.

Cassie-Berube admitted he was drinking heavily in the two months leading up to Chloe’s death, and that sometimes he blacked out and couldn’t remember what happened, the judge said.

“If I’m the monster that hurt a little girl, I need to be helped,” Cassie-Berube told police in a lengthy interview the day he was arrested in June of 2021.

“Because I’m the one that caused everything that’s happening right now,” he added later.

A man holding a baby on a plane, standing next to a man in uniform.
A photograph of birth father Wesley Branch holding newborn Chloe next to a flight attendant onboard the Air Canada plane she was born in on May 10, 2015. Japanese citizens donated baby clothes and other items after the story generated significant coverage. (CBC)

An unusual beginning

It was an ending few could have predicted after Chloe’s birth.

Her parents — Guan, who is from Calgary, and her then boyfriend Wesley Branch of B.C. — had no idea Guan was pregnant.

Chloe came into the world thousands of metres above Russia, on an Air Canada plane to Tokyo from Calgary.

And she arrived on Mother’s Day, no less.

“I got moved to first class because I could feel something wanting to come out. So, that was probably the moment I knew,” Guan told CBC afterward.

A woman sitting next to a man feeding a newborn with a bottle.
Chloe’s mother Ada Guan, Branch and Chloe sit for an interview after the family arrived back in Canada about a week after her birth. The Children’s Aid Society took Chloe away from her parents a few months later due to concerns about the couple fighting, Guan testified. (CBC)

In an interview with the CBC’s Ian Hanomansing, Chloe was being held by her father, who did most of the talking.

When Hanomansing asked Guan how she was coping, Guan replied: “I’m definitely really emotional, I mean, really stressed out right now about this. But we’ll get through … and there’s a lot of family support going on.”

Asked about the baby, Guan paused.

“She’s beautiful, that’s all I can say.”

WATCH | 2015 interview with Ada Guan and birth father:

INTERVIEW: Surprise birth on flight

B.C. parents who gave birth on flight talk to Ian Hanomansing

Three months later, infant Chloe was taken out of her parents’ care by the Children’s Aid Society, which was concerned about fighting between Guan and Branch.

More than three years would pass before Chloe was returned to Guan’s custody, Guan testified during Cassie-Berube’s trial.

Cried as verdicts came in

On the day of the judgment in Ottawa, Cassie-Berube sat in the courtroom gallery with a trash can between his legs and the hood of his sweatshirt mostly up — something not allowed in court, though no one pressed the issue.

He seemed oblivious to the Ottawa police officers on the other side of the room — including lead investigator Sgt. Dan Brennan and assistant lead Det. Jennifer McLinton of the homicide unit — who sometimes turned their heads to stare at him as the judge went over the more difficult evidence.

Cassie-Berube’s knees hardly ever stopped frantically bouncing up and down. He bit his fingernails, picked the skin of his lips and repeatedly bent over his knees, holding his head in his hands.

He cried as some of the convictions were read, and cried again when Roger revoked his bail.

Two women sitting next to Cassie-Berube sat with straight backs and strained looks on their faces.

No one from Chloe’s family was there.

Two instant photographs of a little girl.
Instant photographs of Chloe taken on May 8, 2020, the day before her fatal bladder rupture, were exhibits in the trial. (Kristy Nease/CBC)

Mental health assessment ordered

Justice Roger ordered a mental health assessment for Cassie-Berube after a request from his lawyer, Kate Irwin.

When the proceedings ended and prosecutors Mike Boyce and Chantal Lefebvre were packing up, Cassie-Berube faced the wall at the back of the courtroom. He was handcuffed and frisked by special constables, then taken to a small ante-room before he was led away, bound for Ottawa’s jail.

During brief appearances in the weeks after the judgment, Cassie-Berube sat quietly and still in the inmate box. 

Last week, he shook his head no when a lawyer for CBC and Postmedia said a judge had found him guilty of causing Chloe’s death.

On Friday, lawyers will present their arguments on what Cassie-Berube’s sentence should be. 

He faces life in prison.

His lawyer said she and her client have no comment to make at this time.

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