Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Till deception do you part...

Diane Houston's wedding day was perfect. Then she started asking some questions

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Diane Houston remembers her wedding day in vivid detail.

She wore a flowing white gown. The groom was decked out in a black tuxedo. The sun was shining on the warm, green grass. Dozens of smiling faces looked on as they recited their vows before the Presbyterian minister. It should have been the happiest day of Houston's life.

But now, more than three years after the event, Houston is a broken woman. Her weight has plunged to a dangerous 92 pounds from a healthy 137 pounds. Anxiety and depression consume her. The stress is obvious in her pale face. She is filled with feelings of anger and betrayal.

"It was the most toxic relationship ever," the frail Houston says in an interview at a downtown Winnipeg coffee shop. "When I do something stupid, it's no small thing for me. It's stupid done big."

Houston, 63, is in the process of filing for divorce. The federal government employee is convinced her August 2009 marriage was nothing but a sham -- one that may have helped a convicted Winnipeg killer get early release from prison.

-- -- --

It was a surreal scene at the Health Sciences Centre in June 2002. A 32-year-old man walked into the hospital, blood on his hands, and told a chaplain he'd just killed his partner.

Officers arrived at his Burrows Avenue home and realized this was no hoax. Jennifer Creighton -- the 27-year-old daughter of a Winnipeg police officer -- was dead in a pool of blood on the bedroom floor. She had been stabbed 19 times.

"The killing of Jennifer Creighton has to be described as one of the more brutal offences of this nature I have seen in my 19 years as a judge," Queen's Bench Justice Jeffrey Oliphant said during a 2004 sentencing hearing.

Leslie Henry pleaded guilty to manslaughter, striking a plea bargain in which justice officials agreed to drop a second-degree murder charge and the automatic life sentence it carries. Henry admitted to killing Creighton in a rage after she announced plans to end their eight-year common-law relationship. Much of their issues stemmed from his crack-cocaine addiction, which Creighton was no longer going to tolerate, court was told.

Henry claimed to have no memory of the deadly attack because he was too strung out on drugs. The former radio announcer in Thompson and longtime local disc jockey was given 12 years behind bars in addition to what he had already spent in custody.

-- -- --

"I wonder what Les is up to these days?"

It was a question often asked around the Houston household, especially after the family returned to Winnipeg in 2006 following many years living in Toronto.

It didn't take long to find out.

Leslie Henry was in prison. Diane Houston and her daughter were shocked. The little boy they had known since the age of five -- that handsome, devilish kid who used to hang around their rental cottage at Betula Lake in the Whiteshell and became a close family friend -- was now a killer?

Houston figured there had to be some kind of explanation. Her daughter learned Henry was serving his sentence at Rockwood Institution, the minimum-security facility just north of Winnipeg. They soon initiated phone calls and visits that would become weekly events during the next few months.

At first, Henry spoke little about his crime. But he began to open up, talking about his chronic drug use and the grip it had on his life at the time. He described how it all went down. He spoke about remorse. He even showed off a tattoo a fellow inmate gave him with the initials of Jennifer Creighton carved into his right arm as a permanent reminder of what he'd done.

-- -- --

As the contact increased, an unexpected development occurred in early 2009. Houston found herself falling in love.

"It seemed we had a lot in common. We'd talk about things we wanted to do. He wanted to skydive, so did I. Sort of life's bucket-list things," Houston recalled. Talk eventually turned to marriage. Henry's only serious relationship had been with the woman he was in prison for killing. Houston's 13-year marriage had ended in divorce in 1986.

"I told him if I ever got married again, it would have to be to someone really special," said Houston.

The question was popped. Houston said yes. At the time she was 60, Henry 39.

Federal correctional officials gave the wedding their blessing on one condition: Henry had to fill out a "confessional" of sorts in which he explained his crime to Houston in writing. He repeated the same story he had always told: A mutually dysfunctional relationship ended when he killed his partner in self-defence.

"It sounded like the two of them went at it on drugs," Houston said of the explanation she was given. "He said she came at him with a knife, saying 'If I can't have you nobody can.' "

Henry described an ugly domestic relationship, saying his partner was also addicted to cocaine and would often attack and threaten him. He admitted to stabbing her, but claimed it happened after she previously shot him.

Henry -- who was inching closer to the date he could apply for early parole -- had been moved to the Crane River healing lodge by that time. And on a picturesque day in August 2009 -- with a fellow inmate as his best man, a correctional officer as Houston's maid of honour and nearly two dozen other inmates and elders looking on -- the couple was married.

-- -- --

Henry jumped at his first chance to taste freedom. On February 17, 2011, the National Parole Board gave its blessing for him to begin day parole.

Henry would spend his days hanging out with his wife, then return to a community-based halfway house to sleep each night. Federal officials applauded Henry for the progress he'd made, which included participation in several programs and finding construction and lawn-care work in the community. The officials were especially happy with his marriage to Houston and the stability she brought to his life.

"She plays an integral role in keeping you honest and the lines of communication open. Her comments suggest she will not cover indiscretions for you and will hold you accountable," the parole board wrote in a February 2012 decision to grant Henry full parole after serving two-thirds of his sentence. "You are established in a positive relationship which appears to be open and honest."

The parole board did express concerns about Henry possibly being "manipulative" in some aspects of his rehabilitation but said they were confident Houston would keep him on the straight and narrow.

-- -- --

Houston had learned to tune out the whispers. She knew many scoffed at the fact she'd married a convicted killer. But she could always justify the decision in her own mind, believing there were extenuating circumstances to the crime. But many people -- including her daughter -- were convinced Henry had used her.

"She would always say 'Mom, he tricked you, he's a liar, he's a con artist,' " said Houston. Henry was no help, refusing to discuss the case any further upon being released from prison. She could feel her marriage slipping away. It just wasn't the same since he had come home. So Houston did what she now admits she should have done prior to taking the plunge: She launched her own investigation.

Houston got a court transcript of the proceedings, dug out old Free Press newspaper articles, visited the crime scene and found a cocaine addict she could ask about Henry's claim that he was so high that night, he "blacked out." The drug user scoffed, saying Henry likely would have been hyper alert from cocaine.

Houston quickly realized her husband's claims were far from truthful. There was no self-defence. No shooting. No two-way abuse. No drug use from the victim. Jennifer Creighton, just as Justice Oliphant had said in court so many years earlier, was an innocent victim of a brutal crime.

"My heart just went out to Jennifer," she said. Last December, Houston called for a meeting with her husband, his parole supervisor and a psychologist.

"I wanted some answers. I wanted to know why he lied to me," she said.

The meeting ended quickly when Henry refused to discuss the matter. Houston announced she was filing for divorce.

-- -- --

It has been nearly three months since Houston last saw her husband, who remains free on parole. She is trying to repair her health and her broken relationship with her daughter, who never supported the marriage.

"She said 'What's the matter? You were such a smart, strong woman,' " said Houston. She struggles to explain her decision, but wants her experience to be a warning to others who may find themselves in similar situations and choose to be "wilfully blind" about what they are potentially getting into.

"Had he told me the truth, I never would have married him. Never," said Houston.

The Correctional Service of Canada does not track the number of weddings performed in federal institutions but says it doesn't stand in the way provided marriage licences are obtained and there are no safety or security risks posed by hosting the ceremony.

Houston said police and justice officials have told her she was the perfect "dupe," given her background and the positive way a convicted killer such as Henry would be able to use it through a marriage.

"I guess it looked good on paper," said Houston.

"Looking at photos, I remember how I felt that day. I thought everything was perfect. The day was beautiful, everyone was so happy. I just wished that was the way it truly was -- but it wasn't."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2013 A6

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