Warning: This article contains content some readers will find triggering
When Jacquie Bartlett heard her mother’s hushed whisper on the phone, she knew something was wrong. Her normally vivacious mother started calling only when her husband was out of the house they shared on the small Caribbean island, Antigua.
“One night she called and said I’m scared, I need to you to come,” Bartlett said. That was October 2004. Bartlett, a mother of two, was on a plane by November.
But it was just the beginning.
Bartlett’s mother, Edda Schenato, had lived in Antigua since 1980 where she owned and operated a small beachfront resort. She lived a simple but dreamy life of parties and dinners with friends.
Her life ended in tragedy eight years ago, stabbed to death by her ex-husband in the middle of the day in a public parking lot.
Looking back, Bartlett has one message: listen to your intuition. If you think something’s wrong, it probably is. After eight years of trauma therapy, Bartlett is ready to share her story in the hope that other people can take action before it’s too late.
Umberto Schenato, an Italian engineer working in Antigua, rented suites for his crew at Edda’s resort. Before long, he was smitten and wanted to move in. It was quick, but Bartlett remembers the two of them giggling together. He was always the party guy, walking in with a tray of champagne glasses.
They married in 1996. There are albums of happy photos from that time — letters from guests, visits from Edda’s grandkids, parties on the beach.
But within a few years, their relationship started to change. Bartlett noticed Umberto getting irate, losing his temper. She’d see Edda hustle to get dinner, saying Umberto would be mad if it was late. He wasn’t the same man who’d first wooed her mom.
In hindsight, it all looks like a warning.
“You have to see how people treat other people. He never treated his staff well, he was rude and condescending. He called the locals ‘monkeys’ which is ridiculous,” she said. “He even poisoned stray dogs. He was complaining about them barking. He set out raw meat with some poison in it, and then would comment on how you don’t hear the dogs this morning, do you?”
Black Press Media reached out to the Victoria Women’s Transition House Society for advice for family members or friends who notice something amiss.
Susan Howard, development and communications director, first noted that the society’s call centre is staffed 24/7 with trained professionals who can give advice, find resources, and help create a safety plan. Howard stressed that the centre is non-judgmental; a woman can call as many times as she wants. The line is also there for people who are worried about a loved one.
There are certain signs to look for in a loved one, such as a covered-up black eye or wearing a sweater in warm weather to cover bruises, but not always.
“Abuse is not just physical violence. It’s psychological, emotional, mental, financial,” said Howard. She advised looking for changes in behaviour such as an outgoing person becoming quiet or withdrawn, stopping activities they used to enjoy, or becoming very private.
“Intimate partner abuse and violence is all about power and control. If you notice that someone you love seems to be controlled, or extremely manipulated in many areas of life, it could be a sign.”
Ask gentle, open-ended questions, she said. If your loved one discloses abuse, stay calm, supportive and encourage them to call the crisis line where staff can help make a safety plan.
Bartlett, an only child living in Langford with her own family, spoke with her mom often. At some point, she noticed Edda’s voice get quieter. Bartlett knew something was wrong, but it wasn’t until that call in 2004 that she realized how bad things had gotten.
Umberto had hit Edda, who was hiding at the neighbour’s place. Bartlett jerked into action and flew to Antigua. Edda went to the police, but Bartlett says their reaction was lackadaisical.
Umberto denied everything. And Edda was afraid to leave. She still loved him, and couldn’t imagine leaving the resort, which was her home and retirement plan.
He’d capitulate, she’d believe him and hope the violence was over. But it was never over.
There were threats, violence, manipulation, mental and emotional abuse. One day he was in the living room looking at the rafters. “Do you see that? he said to Edda. She’d say, yeah. He’d say, pick a beam. She’d say, what do you mean? He’d say, pick a beam, I’m trying to figure out which one I’m going to hang you from.”
Finally, Edda gathered the courage to tell Umberto to leave. Bartlett flew down to help secure the house. They installed locks, hired private security guards.
Umberto wasn’t even close to giving up.
He’d call dozens of times a day.
“When I was there it was just endless. She had to unplug the phone, and then he’s coming up the driveway banging on her doorway in the middle of the night. He was threatening to blow up her place with gasoline.”
Bartlett stayed in Antigua as long as she could, but she had a job and kids to get back to. Even when she was home, her mother’s situation consumed her.
“Mornings, afternoons, nights, I’d talk to her for hours and hours. It was MSN [Messenger] at the time, so I’d log on and we’d just talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. Hours,” Bartlett said. She remembers falling asleep with the laptop open beside her. Her own life fell apart as she struggled to be present.
And Umberto stalked Edda. He’d show up where she was doing errands. He cut the phone lines to her house — Bartlett was on the phone with Edda one time when the line suddenly went dead.
In 2006 Edda filed for divorce. They settled in court, with Edda buying Umberto out of the resort partnership. But Umberto appealed the settlement, demanding more money. Then he’d entreat her to get back together.
“‘Honey, we could build such a nice life, I love you.’ He’d send these long beautiful emails,” Bartlett said. Edda would almost believe him, desperate to put the violence and court appeals behind them. But she’d pull back, which Bartlett said triggered a reaction from Umberto.
“He’d change and threaten her again. He’d call her 70 or 80 times in a day. And the emails were just atrocious, I can’t even begin to … it was just horrible, horrible stuff. How he’s going to kill her. Every way you could imagine he threatened her.”
It became an eight-year saga of court cases, Edda cycling between fear and hope. Umberto’s threats and cajoling were relentless.
“It was like she slept with her eyes open for eight years. There was no reprieve in the day.”
Her body took the toll. Bartlett was shocked on her last visit to see her mother crippled and waif-like hiding in her house. There was some expired yogurt and fruit in the fridge. Her hair was falling out, her hands were inflamed with arthritis.
Bartlett tried to convince her to move to Canada, but there was always another court date around the corner, another lawyer appointment.
In 2013, Edda was preparing for court. Her lawyer was confident Edda would win. This time they had a briefcase of documentation proving Umberto had siphoned money from the resort for years. If she won, Umberto would have to pay her lawyers and court fees.
The day before court, June 3, 2013, Edda ran some errands, stopping at the grocery store.
Video surveillance used in the murder trial shows Edda at her car, reacting in shock when Umberto walked towards her.
They argued for a few minutes, then he attacked her with a knife, stabbing her six times. Witnesses tried to pull him off, but said his adrenaline was so strong they couldn’t separate him.
Edda died on the ground.
It’s a nightmare for Bartlett, picturing those last moments. Her mother, looking into the eyes of a man she’d loved, vowed to, as he killed her. And then being held by a total stranger, who told her everything was alright.
She was 71.
Umberto was convicted of murder, sentenced to 20 years in prison with no chance of parole for 14 years. (To the frustration of Bartlett and many Antiguans, Umberto is currently living in a retirement home, not prison.)
Bartlett and her family were left with a gaping trauma Bartlett is just now healing from eight years later.
“Killing my mom till she was lifeless, it haunts me every single day. It’s a pain so deep you can’t describe it. I’m never going to be the same,” she said.
Now that she’s able to talk about it, her message to others is to lean into intuition, and take people’s behaviour at face value.
“You’re not going to think, what a jerk, he’s mistreating me, I’m going to leave him. You think, that wasn’t nice. And then it repeats and repeats and you put up with it,” she said. “But he really is mistreating you. Like they say, a tiger doesn’t lose its stripes or whatever. That’s really who they are. It’ll just keep coming out. If you see those kinds of traits in someone, take it verbatim.”
Howard noted that leaving is the most dangerous part, which is why their staff are ready to make a safety plan, including separate emergency housing. They also have counselling, support groups for children and seniors, who sometimes don’t acknowledge abuse until after their partner dies.
Anyone in immediate danger should call 911. People not in immediate danger can call the the B.C. Mental Health Support Line, 310-6789 (there’s no prefix), or the Crisis Line at 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433) for resources and help. Both are staffed 24 hours a day.
“I didn’t believe this could happen to my mom either, but it did. And I just hope it’s a strong message for everybody: please tell someone.”
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