An Ottawa man accused of second-degree murder in the death of his partner of 46 years is expected to raise the issue of mercy killing as part of his legal defence.
In a series of interviews, the friends and family of Philippe Hébert, 69, have portrayed him as a consistent, loving and devoted caregiver to Richard Rutherford, the former principal dancer of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, to whom he was legally married.
Hébert has spoken to some of them by phone from the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre where he remains in custody.
Rutherford was 87 and in failing health — he suffered from mobility issues and cognitive decline — when he was killed in the Smyth Road home that he shared with Hébert on April 15, Good Friday.
In Canada, people who face “intolerable suffering” can seek medical assistance in dying (MAID), but they must have the mental capacity to consent to the procedure.
At the time of his death, Rutherford was facing a move to long-term care, according to Hébert’s sister Annette McCoubrey, who was planning to travel to Ottawa in late April to help her brother sell the house and arrange a move.
“This would have been heartbreaking for both of them,” she said.
Rutherford was taken to hospital by ambulance on the Monday before he died. He was confused and unresponsive, said friend and neighbour Franklin Rodriguez, who drove him home late that same evening. Rodriguez said Rutherford vowed never to return to hospital.
“When he saw that age had caught up to him, it was so devastating for him,” said Rodriguez. “He just gave up. I’m telling you. You could see it.”
There’s no information available about Rutherford’s cause of death, but it is known that Hébert was treated after his arrest for self-inflicted injuries.
Hébert, a retired physiotherapy assistant at The Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre, is being represented by defence lawyer Solomon Friedman, who will ask an Ottawa judge next week to release his client on bail to await trial.
“As this case moves through the legal system, there will be a tragic and profoundly human story revealed in the fullness of time,” Solomon said in a prepared statement.
He added: “Philippe is overwhelmed by the outpouring of support that he has received from friends, family and the wider community as he navigates the loss of his precious Richard.”
Rutherford’s death and Hébert’s arrest were made public by the Ottawa Police Service in a news release on April 16. The disturbing events came as a shock to all of those who knew the couple.
“It was definitely a shock,” said retired Ottawa Citizen journalist Paul Gessell. “They were very devoted to each other, and both very kind-hearted, generous people.”
“I was like, woah! Woah!” said Michael Crabb, a Toronto-based arts journalist and broadcaster who read the news online. “I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone had called and said, ‘Have you heard the sad news Richard Rutherford has died?’ Because he was of a particular age. But then to discover that his spouse has been accused was surprising and grim.”
Hébert and Rutherford met in a Winnipeg gay bar called The Happenings Social Club, a place fashioned from an abandoned synagogue in the city’s Jewish district. It was April 1976. Hébert was just beginning his career in health care as an orderly at St. Boniface Hospital. Rutherford was then associate artistic director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet after 13 years as an acclaimed soloist and principal dancer.
The two quickly became a couple that did everything together. “They were rarely apart,” said McCoubrey, “and seemed to complement each other perfectly.”
The American-born Rutherford, a native of Augusta, Ga., was embraced by Hébert’s large, Franco-Manitoban family. One of nine children, Hébert had grown up in the small town of St-Pierre-Jolys, south of Winnipeg, where his father worked in construction and his mother managed a restaurant.
Hébert and Rutherford moved to Ottawa in 1977, bought a home on Smyth Road in the early 1980s, and were married at city hall on April 1, 2006 – less than a year after Canada legalized same-sex marriage. After the ceremony, the wedding party visited the human rights monument that Rutherford had helped to establish in downtown Ottawa.
“He (Rutherford) was very proud of the fact that finally, in Canada, same-sex married couples could be married,” Crabb said.
They were even featured in a privately-published coffee table book, Portraits of Couples, that celebrated same-sex unions in Canada. “The key ingredient is sharing,” they said of their success as a couple.
“To my mind, they were the ultimate, comfortably married couple,” said Crabb, who stayed with them when he visited Ottawa. “They just seemed joined at the hip.”
Hébert and Rutherford were regulars at the National Arts Centre, and always enjoyed its dance season. They gardened together and often entertained in their stylish home, which was filled with plants, artwork and tapestries.
Hébert did all of the cooking; he was renowned for his baking and particularly his cakes. He was also a talented needlepoint artist who often sent visitors home with embroidered cushions.
Former Citizen arts writer Paul Gessell regularly gathered with Hébert and Rutherford for Christmas dinners. “They were very devoted to each other,” he said. “They were the kind couple who didn’t seem to have much need for a lot of other people.”
Rutherford, he said, was more talkative than Hébert, and was always the one to send email and to answer the phone. Rutherford also did all of the driving, but he was forced by medical officials to give up his licence two years ago.
“Richard’s health had been fading for years,” said Gessell. “I sometimes felt like he didn’t know who we were anymore.”
Claudia Buckley, a former producer at CBC Winnipeg, first met Rutherford during the 1970s while he was at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Later, they both worked at the Canada Council for the Arts, where Rutherford served as a dance officer.
She used to visit Rutherford and Hébert in their Smyth Road home, which she described as a “garden paradise.” Rutherford was an enthusiastic gardener, and his front and back yards were filled with exotic plants.
The couple kept bird feeders in the yard, and spread peanuts for the chipmunks and squirrels. They had a screened-in porch which they called “the cottage.”
“They just seemed to be such a together kind of couple,” Buckley said. “They entertained well and beautifully.”
Buckley said her mind “has been going in circles” trying to imagine what happened inside the couple’s home on Good Friday.
There are rumours of a mercy killing followed by a suicide attempt. Such a scenario, Buckley said, “makes much more sense” than some kind of violent clash between the two.
“Phil is a very gentle person,” she said, adding: “I think if Richard was in real decline and asked…knowing them as I did, it makes more sense that Phil would do something in a huge act of generosity.”
Long-time neighbour Charles Wendt said Hébert was Rutherford’s sole caregiver. Hébert had tried to hire a caregiver last year, but Rutherford “would fire anybody that Phil would bring in to try to help him.”
“Richard didn’t like anybody else around,” Wendt said.
Rutherford also didn’t like to use a walker or cane, and was always in danger of falling, Wendt said, particularly since he lived in a two-storey home where the bedrooms and bathroom were upstairs.
The COVID-19 pandemic made the situation still worse, said Hébert’s sister, Annette McCoubrey. Rutherford rarely left the house and often said he did not have the energy to get out of bed.
“Richard would say he hated the idea of being in a nursing home,” McCoubrey said. “Hearing stories of neglect and awful conditions during the COVID pandemic solidified his opposition to the idea of being in an institutional setting…He wanted to stay in the home that he knew and loved.”
Michael Crabb said Rutherford, like many ballet dancers, was a disciplined and strong-willed individual. “My own gut feeling is that I could just imagine Richard saying, ‘For God’s sake Phil, can’t you help me? I’m in so much pain, can’t you do something for me?’ I could just imagine that.”
Wendt called it all “a sad story.” “It’s just a terrible ending, really, to a beautiful relationship,” he said.
Franklin Rodriguez, 33, immigrated with his family to Canada in 2006 from Honduras and moved into the home across the street from Rutherford and Hébert. “They were the first people who welcomed us to Canada,” he said. “Richard and Philippe have always been there for us.”
Rodriguez tried to help Hébert as he cared for an increasingly ailing Rutherford. His physical decline began in 2018, Rodriguez said, and accelerated during the pandemic.
Rutherford was twice admitted to Élisabeth Bruyère Hospital, but he always wanted to return home, said Rodriguez. He assisted Rutherford to his upstairs bedroom on the Tuesday night before he died.
“Richard has always been an extremely active man,” said Rodriguez. “But he started getting weaker and weaker and weaker, and it was very hard for him not being able to take care of himself. He was just giving up because he didn’t want to live how he was.”
Rodriguez said Hébert exhausted himself caring for Rutherford since he could never secure the help he needed from the Champlain LHIN.
It’s why he believes that Rutherford’s death was the result of some kind of desperate agreement between the two men.
“This is, for me, not a criminal case: This is a tragedy,” he said. “Phil would never, never, never harm Richard: They couldn’t live without each other…In my mind what happened is not a murder. It has to be a mercy.”