Woman tells murder trial she helped hide body in barrel because ‘I genuinely feared for my life’

By | May 17, 2019

WARNING: This story contains graphic details.

The woman who says she helped hide a body in a barrel filled with chemicals testified she worked and committed fraud to fund a household run by the man accused in Jennifer Barrett’s death.

Holley Sullivan, 30, said in a Winnipeg courtroom Friday she did all of that because Perez Cleveland had total control over her after years of abuse.

“He probably could have told me to try and catch the sun and I would have done it,” Sullivan told jurors at Cleveland’s first-degree murder trial.

Cleveland, 46, has pleaded not guilty in the death of Barrett, 42, whose body was found in a barrel behind their Winnipeg home in 2016.

Earlier this week, court heard that Cleveland shared the house with his adult daughter and five women who were described in court by one of them as “sister wives.”

Sullivan told court she started dating Cleveland after they met while working at a call centre in Toronto in 2010. She was 21 and he was 36.

Accused ‘was very charming’

At first, the relationship was like a honeymoon, Sullivan said, but then it turned abusive. When she moved in with Cleveland the following year, she learned that another woman he was in a relationship with also lived with him. Sullivan decided to stay.

“Perez was very charming,” she said.

Yet she described years of physical violence in the household. On one occasion, he threatened her with a meat cleaver while she was stripped naked and wrapped in duct tape.

Another time, he tied her to a bed and attempted to sexually assault her, Sullivan said. He also threatened to hurt her family if she ever tried to leave.

“I stayed because that’s where I thought my loyalty was to,” she testified. Sullivan took on the role of breadwinner in the household, working various jobs and carrying out debit-card fraud schemes to pay for rent, food and other expenses.  

Court heard that the unusual group — which Barrett joined in 2012 — had moved to Quebec and British Columbia before settling in Winnipeg in 2014. Soon after, Sullivan was jailed for a credit card scam that she said she carried out at Cleveland’s behest.

Following her release in 2016, “he basically told me he hated my guts and everything that was wrong with his life was my fault,” Sullivan testified. He blamed her for his financial problems, she said.

By the time of her release, two more women had joined the household, including Jessica Reid, 36, who testified Thursday about beatings in the home with hammers, golf clubs and extension cords.

Cleveland’s lawyer has argued that Reid was jealous of Barrett’s relationship with Cleveland and acted violently toward Barrett — a charge she denies. Reid is also charged with being an accessory after the fact, but her case has not yet gone to trial.

“Perez had an uncanny knack of making them think the abuse he inflicted on them was their fault,” Sullivan testified Friday.

She told court that in August 2016, Cleveland began to punish Barrett over several days in the basement of their house because he believed she was cheating on him.

‘Black and blue from head to toe’

There were bruises, welts and burn marks on Barrett’s body, said Sullivan, who added she helped the woman shower because she couldn’t lift her arms.

“She was literally black and blue from head to toe,” she said.

She said the beatings stopped until Cleveland got a phone call from someone who claimed Barrett had cheated on him.

“That’s when he started yelling and told me to leave the basement,” she said, adding she left the house with two other women. Jessica Reid stayed behind.

“I didn’t see Ms. Barrett again,” she told Crown attorney Chris Vanderhooft. “I never saw her alive again.”

Cleveland later told her Barrett had died and asked her and Reid to dispose of the body, Sullivan said. She researched liquid cremations online, a job Cleveland gave her because she had studied science in post-secondary school.

The two women placed Barrett’s body in a barrel with a mix of drain cleaner and water, Sullivan said. They heated up the barrel with a blowtorch to speed up decomposition.

When asked why she continued to live with Cleveland after Barrett’s death, Sullivan said she was under his complete control.

“I genuinely feared for my life and my family’s life,” she said. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”

‘If you cannot listen, then you must feel’

Sullivan said after Barrett’s death, she started using methamphetamine for the first time — and her addiction became another source of control for Cleveland.

After Reid filed domestic assault charges against him in September 2016, Cleveland grew increasingly paranoid, she said, accusing her of trying to “destroy him.”

For weeks, he hid from police by staying at various hotels across Winnipeg, Sullivan testified. She said Cleveland coerced her into sleeping with him — something she hadn’t done since her release from jail.

She was paying for his hotels but when her money ran out, he came to live at the Magnus Avenue house where she and two of the other women were staying. The violence continued there, she said.

“I was beaten and tortured and confined in the home,” said Sullivan. “He said that Jen was an accident but he was going to kill me intentionally and enjoy it.”

Sullivan testified that in November 2016, she grabbed a duffel bag she’d hidden under the house and fled to Willow House, a women’s shelter.

As her testimony on Friday ended, she recalled a phrase she said Cleveland often used in the household.

“If you cannot listen, then you must feel.”