This man went to jail rather than pay his ex-wife $10 million in epic divorce battle

The jailbird Halloween costume Brian Blatherwick mass produces has a comic touch with black and white stripes and inmate number, fake ball and chain sold separately. He built a global, multimillion dollar empire on such getups, but his current take on incarceration has darkened since finding himself in a real life chain gang.

Outside the courthouse in Brampton, Ont. recently, he visibly shudders as the same prison transport that took him to jail passes us by. “It’s a really interesting ride, chained to nine other guys and sitting on corrugated steel.” Asked what jail was like, the 66-year-old Ontario businessman jerked his body to make eye contact over his glasses. “F–king terrible.” He shook his head. He doesn’t want to talk but can’t help himself.

“There’s no way that in a divorce case I should end up in jail.”

Blatherwick v. Blatherwick is not an ordinary divorce case.

Ordered to pay $10 million to his wife of 40 years, the businessman disputed, ignored, chiseled and whittled virtually every court order and spousal payment over six years of his epic divorce battle. He just isn’t paying.

Brian Blatherwick leaves the Ontario Court of Justice in Brampton, Ont., on May 29, 2017. He served a six-month jail term after stiffing his wife. Peter J. Thompson/National Post

Last July, Justice Leonard Ricchetti sat in silence in his Brampton courtroom for a moment before sentencing Brian to six months in jail for ignoring his orders. “This is the only remedy that’s left,” Ricchetti finally said, sounding as dismayed as anyone by what was happening. As officers stepped in to arrest Brian, everyone waited for a last-second resolution.

“Everybody said this is just the way businessmen do business,” his former wife, Barbara Blatherwick, 64, recalled recently. “He’s going to wait until the last minute, he’s going to stand, he’s going to hear the jingling of the handcuffs and he’s going to pull a cheque out of his pocket. Nobody saw Brian going to jail. I was absolutely floored.”

A six-month jail term after stiffing his wife is only one remarkable part of Blatherwick v. Blatherwick.

Their high-stakes divorce has the salacious — a string of young girlfriends, duplicitous private eyes, a secret second family, staggering legal fees and offshore bank accounts. More striking still is the fraternity of enablers — a coterie of business partners — that banded together to shield a rich businessman’s money from his wife.

Brian even has a name for this subterfuge: The brotherhood of trust.

There is no way that in a divorce case I should end up in jail

At a presentation in New York in 2012, Brian flipped through 137 PowerPoint slides showing off his Halloween company. The trick-or-treat titan had an audience of only one, but an important one: Charles Ritter, vice president of seasonal and celebrations at Walmart.

Brian’s presentation showed his warehouse outside Toronto, showroom in New York, offices in Hong Kong and a factory in China. He flashed slide after slide of the costumes his company was built on — Roundup Cowgirl, Kid Prisoner, Gothic Cheerleader and dozens and dozens of horror show getups. He showed his adult line, including the Flirty Maid and Sock Hop Sweetie, followed by masks, decorations, wigs and more. He’s even had licensing rights to make Warner Bros., DC Comics and Nickelodeon character costumes.

Seasons, Brian boasted, was a US$50 million global company employing more than 4,000 people, and it was getting a decent chunk of the US$5.8 billion Halloween market.

In building Seasons, Brian surrounded himself with partners who were friends as well as associates: three Americans and two Chinese. “I brought these guys together because they were good at specific things. They needed somebody who was strong enough to keep them together,” Brian said.

His companies were established in layers with shares and profits divided and subdivided. The businesses were veiled by registration in foreign jurisdictions and offshore banking. It allowed Brian to dodge taxes, hide money, keep secrets. Even from his wife.

Brian Blatherwick modelling Halloween costumes for his company Seasons. Court exhibit
Being one of the world’s largest Halloween suppliers gave the Blatherwicks a superb life; Barbara certainly knew that. They had a beautiful house, lovely cottage, fancy cars, expensive hobbies, world travel. Brian once mailed Barbara one of his decorator pumpkins stuffed with $25,000 in cash.

“Everything was roses,” Barbara said. “It was going good,” Brian agreed, in a separate interview.

The Blatherwick fortune came the hard way, launching the business together from their living room. Brian and Barbara both came from large families and were raised on military bases in Edmonton. Brian was born the day after Halloween in 1950, Barbara two years later. They met at Edmonton’s Queen Elizabeth High School, where Brian was a 16-year-old football quarterback and Barbara a 14-year-old cheerleader.

“A good friend of mine who was the quarterback of the junior team told her the senior quarterback needs a date for tonight, how would you like to go with him?” Brian said, grinning even now. Barbara needed her mom’s permission to attend the after-game party. “I actually had to borrow the dime from Brian to make the phone call,” she said. “He opened car doors, he was just a real gentleman. And I was totally in awe because I had gone out with the high school quarterback.”

On Halloween night in 1970, Brian sprang an engagement ring. They were married July 3, 1971, just a few weeks after Barbara graduated high school. Both wanted children, but none came after five years, so they adopted their first two children, a boy and a girl. Then they conceived a child, also a girl, giving them the three children they wanted. Barbara was working in retail, but stayed home once the kids came while Brian focused on his career.

Brian and Barbara Blatherwick visiting Vancouver in 1972. Supplied
Brian started as a stock boy at Woodward’s department store and was soon promoted to salesman, then buyer of sporting goods, toys, cameras and luggage. Funrise, a U.S. toy company with a Canadian office in Mississauga, Ont., recruited him to expand its Halloween line in 1990, so the Blatherwick family moved to nearby Oakville.

“I was good at it,” said Brian. “It was just when the Orient was opening up.” Brian expected to be made a partner at Funrise, but that didn’t happen, so around 1997, Brian and Barbara plotted Seasons.

“I would make the hand samples for the costumes and Brian would take these hand samples when he was meeting with clients,” Barbara said. Brian and Barbara and the three kids modelled the costumes for their early catalogues. “We had no money to afford professional models. Brian did the photography and I did the makeup on the kiddies and got them dressed.”

The early years were tough, especially when Funrise sued for starting a rival firm. The Blatherwicks stood their ground. Barbara took a job to help pay the bills until the suit was dismissed. It was the couple’s first taste of a legal battle and the experience marked them, showing the value of entrenchment.

With the lawsuit behind them, Seasons took off. Brian’s business partner in Hong Kong arranged for production in China. That reduced costs but meant Brian was spending half the year away from home.

I tried everything in my power to make my marriage work

In 2004, after driving Brian to Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, Barbara kissed him goodbye. As he left, Brian warned he was going to mainland China and wouldn’t be able to phone her for several days. Driving home, his comment stuck with her. Something didn’t seem right.

On her way to the house she collected their mail, opened the phone bill and laid it on the counter to be paid, as she usually did. Her eye was drawn to the long list of overseas phone calls. “I noticed there were phone numbers on there all from the Philippines, and that didn’t make sense to me because I knew Brian didn’t do any business in the Philippines.” Barbara took a yellow marker and highlighted every time the same phone number in the Philippines appeared. “Then I started to worry.” She decided to wait until midnight, when it would be noon in the Philippines, and call the number.

“I was praying to God it was going to be a factory or a business office. In my most professional business voice I asked to speak to Mr. Brian Blatherwick, and a much younger lady on the other end said, ‘Oh yeah, Brian’s here’ and handed him the phone.

Barbara Blatherwick in an interview with the National Post at her lawyer’s office in Oakville, Ont., on May 18, 2017.Peter J. Thompson/National Post

“That’s how I found out. He had been caught.”

That night, Barbara, in a mania, went through the house looking for answers, shuffling through closets and drawers. In the basement, among Brian’s things, she lifted the lid on a box filled with mementos of her husband’s second family. She flipped through photos of a young Asian woman and family portrait-style pictures of Brian surrounded by the woman and her three young kids; she read love letters, and birthday cards to Brian from the woman’s mother.

“I almost passed out on the floor.”

Brian did some investigating of his own. He sought legal advice about divorcing Barbara. He realized he would have to share half his assets and income with her and decided to remain married. He sent emails and letters to Barbara seeking forgiveness. He said he regretted the affair, dismissing it as a misguided fling.

Barbara had no idea of the depth of that lie. She didn’t yet know the fling was actually an engagement. It was, in fact, the first of three engagements to women in the Philippines while Brian was still married to her. Before those shocks came out, Brian and Barbara tried to reconcile.

“For six years before I actually filed for the divorce, I tried everything in my power to make my marriage work,” Barbara said. “We went to counselling together, we went on holidays together, we just tried to get away to reconnect. I tried everything.”

Brian and Barbara Blatherwick in Egypt in 2008.Court exhibit

Her efforts were doomed. “I know what happened: Menopause,” Brian said of his crumbling marriage. “Menopause. I couldn’t put up with it. I never knew what I was coming home to at night. Was I coming home to the girl I married or was I coming home to a bitch? I know that’s a terrible thing to say, everyone goes through menopause. Unfortunately, I couldn’t handle it.”

In one reconciliation attempt in the summer of 2010 they travelled to Vancouver. It was a disaster. During a heated discussion in a Tim Hortons, Brian made a promise. He said she’d get nothing from his business and he’d declare bankruptcy in Canada rather than give her the share she was entitled to.

His money, he said, was protected by a “brotherhood of trust.”

“My heart was broken. I couldn’t believe it,” Barbara said. Brian doesn’t deny the threat: “You say things in anger sometimes.” Spoken in anger or not, it was a promise he has kept.

Barbara realized then a divorce was inevitable. One lawyer she approached sized up her situation and said she needed someone who knew overseas banking. He told her to call John Cox.

Cox, 62, is a former ski instructor and Oakville lawyer known for handling complicated divorces involving high finance. After hearing of Brian’s threat that his money was beyond reach, Cox knew he had to act quickly. Having worked cases before the Supreme Court of Bahamas, he knew how fast money could disappear.

Brian Blatherwick with one of his fiances in 2004. Court exhibit

On Nov. 18, 2010, Cox put Barbara in front of a judge in Guelph, Ont., seeking a Mareva injunction — a court order freezing Brian’s assets so he couldn’t move or dispose of his millions before it was determined who got what in the divorce. Also, based on Barbara’s evidence that Brian had a laptop he carried everywhere, Cox argued he needed to see what was on that computer to learn the extent of Brian’s assets. It was argued “ex parte,” meaning Brian had no hint of the request until a sheriff and private investigator hired by Cox showed up at his office that same day and took his laptop.

It was like finding the Rosetta Stone. Cox and his associates, Natalie Bazar and Alex Ward, scoured Brian’s hard drive. Notes for a presentation at a 2010 Seasons partnership meeting in Las Vegas, for instance, revealed Seasons complicated ownership structure. Cox and Bazar pieced together records of nine corporations registered in five countries. “It was like putting together a puzzle,” Cox said. The laptop also revealed transactions from a company Barbara had never heard of: Discovery Bay was registered in British Virgin Islands and moved its money through a bank in Singapore.

“We could trace some of the money, we could see the payments go out,” said Cox. “In the space of five years he moved $8.9 million through Discovery Bay. And that was just the one account of Discovery Bay — we weren’t able to get the records for Seasons Hong Kong, Seasons Capital, Seasons Macao,” he said, listing some of Brian’s other corporate interests.

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