'Hopefully they're together:' Senior with dementia accused in wife's death dies

CALGARY — A senior with dementia who was found unfit to stand trial for killing his wife has died with a murder charge still attached to his name, but loved ones say they hope that won't be what he's remembered for.

Close friends say Fred van Zuiden, 88, died Sunday at a care home in Camrose, Alta., about a three-hour drive from Calgary, the city he called home for decades.

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Police charged van Zuiden with second-degree murder in October 2016 after they found his 80-year-old wife Audrey dead in their home. Friends said the two, who were married for almost 60 years, were soulmates and van Zuiden would never have intentionally hurt his spouse.

Valerie Walker, who became friends with Audrey van Zuiden when they were children in the United Kingdom, said the grief was just beginning to fully hit.

"Somehow with Fred alive, Audrey was still alive," Walker said in an interview. "But now I know she has gone and he has gone. Hopefully they're together."

A Jewish funeral was to be held Wednesday.

Vince Walker, Valerie's son and van Zuiden's godson, said friends had hoped to have the murder charge withdrawn, but a determination would have been needed that van Zuiden posed no risk to society.

"We just never got to that step," he said.

"It was a personal struggle for me. I really wanted to make sure that he passed with a clear name."

In his best-selling memoir "Call Me Mom: A Dutch Boy's WWII Survival Story," van Zuiden described being shuttled between dozens of hiding places in Nazi-occupied Holland. Sometimes that meant going hungry, living in a chicken coop or sleeping in a hole in the ground.

He emigrated to Canada in 1952 and met and married his wife in Calgary six years later, Walker said. They ran a successful sailboat business and had no children.

"They were joined at the hip really," said Valerie Walker. "They were almost one."

She remembers her friend saying at her husband's 70th birthday that he was the love of her life and "that the love just grew the more they were together."

Those close to the couple said van Zuiden had long been suffering from dementia when his wife died and that she had been caring for him by herself in their home.

A judge found him unfit to stand trial in early 2017 as he did not understand the charge against him, could not recognize his lawyer and believed he was in court over a skiing accident. There was no hope he'd ever be well enough to face trial.

Van Zuiden never showed any recollection of what happened to his wife or that he had even been married, loved ones said.

Until last August, he stayed at the Southern Alberta Forensic Psychiatry Centre — meant for short-term court-ordered psychiatric assessments or for people found not criminally responsible of a crime. He was transferred to the Camrose facility and a care home in Calgary said it was willing to take him once it could be assured he would not be violent.

Vince Walker said he hopes the case fosters a better understanding of dementia and stressed that a diagnosis does not automatically mean violence. He said it's possible something startled van Zuiden the night of his wife's death and he thought he was protecting her.

He said he hopes the murder charge is not his godfather's legacy.

"He was kind and he was the poster child of a gentleman," he said.

"I'd just like people to remember him as that."

© Copyright Estevan Mercury

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