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Court Hears How Canadian Broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, a 'Perfect Gentleman,' Beat Women

The first witness in the high-profile case alleges Ghomeshi pulled her hair, punched her, then "threw me out like trash."
February 1, 2016, 11:45pm
The Canadian Press/Frank Gunn

She tenses up under cross-examination, asked to recall details from more than a decade ago. Jian Ghomeshi, the famed Canadian media personality, grabbed her hair without warning, she testified, and on another occasion he hit her head until her ears rang and she thought she would faint. He would go from being a "perfect gentleman" to something much more violent, aggressive, and "dark," she told the courtroom.

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"I was dizzy, disoriented," she told the court of the time he allegedly punched her in the head without warning. "I felt like I had walked into a pole or hit my head on the pavement. It was that strong."

The case, a media spectacle across Canada, could see Ghomeshi serve a minimum of 10 years in prison if he's convicted on a single sexual assault charge — he faces four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance to sexual assault by choking.

Ghomeshi has publicly admitted he engaged in rough sex, but maintains it was always consensual and enjoyable to both partners. The woman who took the stand on Monday, however, says she didn't consent to him pulling her hair or punching her.

"He's a perfect gentleman. What a nice guy."

But as she was cross-examined, Ghomeshi's attorney exposed discrepancies in her story.

Again and again, at a fast clip, defense attorney Marie Henein questioned the truth of her story.

"You were warned by police about fabricating evidence?" she asked. "Yes," the witness replied. Her name, like one other woman who will take the stand in the trial, is protected by a publication ban.

"You swore to tell the truth?" the attorney continued. "Yes," the witness replied, keeping her tone even.

That tense back-and-forth was only the beginning of a cross-examination that lasted hours, and saw Ghomeshi's lawyer suggest over and over that the witness — one of three women to bring sexual assault allegations against the former radio host — was lying. Henein's fierce style of questioning set the tone for a trial that will last three weeks, and will likely see two more women quizzed on the stand.

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Ghomeshi, now 48, is the former host of Q, the flagship show of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), both on radio and TV. Ghomeshi carved out a niche for himself as an ambitious man who — unlike other Canadian cultural hosts, especially those on the CBC — was able to snag internationally-recognized guests, and gained a substantial following in the United States. Ghomeshi was also the lead singer of satirical folk-pop band Moxy Früvous, which had a handful of modest successes. The allegations against him shook the tight-knit Canadian entertainment industry.

Three women made it to court, but dozens have brought their stories to the media. Their stories spilled into the media after years of whispering that the radio host's behaviour towards women was creepy.

On Monday, a courthouse in downtown Toronto transformed as media descended upon it. As a sea of cameras stood waiting outside, more than 50 reporters and members of the public waited in line outside the courtroom hoping for seats while another 50 piled into an overflow room downstairs. It was a scene so unprecedented that the judge began by thanking courthouse staff for wrangling the press.

Ghomeshi's name trended on social media throughout the day across Canada as the long-awaited sexual assault trial began. The accused sat beside his lawyer, wearing a sharp, dark suit. At times he fiddled with his pen.

On the stand, the first witness told a harrowing story.

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The woman who took the stand Monday said she first met Ghomeshi in December 2002, while working in the arts community. She went to meet the radio host at a recording for Play, his previous CBC Radio show, at the broadcaster's headquarters in Toronto. As soon as he saw her, his eyes lit up. "You came!" she remembered him saying.

"He went from being really nice to this rage."

She recalls they chatted during breaks and had a good vibe between them. After the show, she said Ghomeshi asked her to grab a drink at the pub across the street — a detail Ghomeshi's lawyer would later grill the witness on.

He opened the door for her. "He's being sweet, humble, charming," she said. "He's a perfect gentleman. What a nice guy."

When they got up to leave, around 11:30 p.m., he grabbed the bill. He asked where she was parked, and offered to drive her to her car, parked in the CBC lot a couple hundred metres away.

They walked to his car, which she noticed was a yellow Volkswagen beetle. "He drives a Disney car," she said. "I'm feeling very safe now."

They drove in the yellow beetle to her car and stopped. They were talking, facing each other. "He's getting playful, flirtatious," she remembered.

He asked her to undo the buttons on her blouse, but she said no.

They began kissing — another detail Ghomeshi's lawyer would raise doubt about. That's when she said he reached around the back of her head and grabbed her hair "really, really hard." It was "painful," and a "sudden change in dynamics."

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He said something like, "Do you like it like that?" she recalled.

"I don't like it like that," she told the court. She told the court hair-pulling wasn't her style.

After he pulled her hair, she said he went right back to being a sweet, charming guy. "He was very nice. It was very confusing."

She thought he didn't know his own strength, she testified. In the future, she thought, she would need to tell him she couldn't handle that.

She went out with him again. This time she brought a friend to see Ghomeshi record another episode of Play. He came across as a happy, nice guy, she said.

"I didn't make up the stigma over sexual assault."

After the show, he asked both of them to come back to his place. Her friend had to go home to care for her small children, so she went to Ghomeshi's house by herself.

At his house, he put music on and offered her a drink. They sat on the couch, talking and flirting. They began kissing, sitting down, and continued kissing, standing up.

He somehow ended up behind her, she testified, and suddenly grabbed her hair "harder than the last time." As she told her story, her voice shook.

He began to punch her in the head, she testified. "My ears were ringing and I felt like I was going to faint." As he hit her, she began to cry. She estimated he hit her three times, and said it felt like a closed fist.

He pulled her to her knees by her hair, she said. "I was dizzy, disoriented. I felt like I had walked into a pole or hit my head on the pavement. It was that strong."

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After she started crying, she remembers him telling her, "you should go now."

"He didn't say, 'Are you OK, what's wrong," she remembered. "He threw me out like trash.

"He went from being really nice to this rage," she said. "Dark."

After the alleged sexual assault, she said he called her a cab to her friend's house. She remembered "sobbing all the way there."

She said there was no prior discussion about hitting or violence before he punched her in the head, and they didn't discuss the hair pulling on the first occasion either.

She brought her story to police and the Toronto Star in 2014. She didn't raise the allegations earlier because she "thought no one would listen.

"I didn't make up the stigma over sexual assault," she said.

"I'm going to do things wrong, I can't say I can profess to be perfect on something like this. This is very, very difficult."

When Heinen's turn came to question the witness, she used the woman's police interview, her emails to the detective, her comments to the media, and her testimony earlier in the day to poke holes in her story.

In the woman's earlier recounting, Henein pointed out, she left out that they went to a pub after the Play recording.

She also raised the issue of whether the woman was wearing hair extensions when Ghomeshi allegedly grabbed her hair in the car — a detail she told police, but recanted on the stand.

Henein pointed out that in the story she told the Toronto Star, the hair pulling happened immediately, not after they were kissing. Star investigative reporter Kevin Donovan "changed my story," the woman on the stand said.

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Henein then quoted an interview she gave to CBC's The National, in which she said the hair pulling happened when they were being intimate.

"I'm just going to tell the truth as I know it now," she said on the stand. "I'm going to do things wrong, I can't say I can profess to be perfect on something like this. This is very, very difficult."

Yet she was able to provide details including which blouse she was wearing, Henein challenged her.

In a public Facebook post when the allegations first emerged in 2014, Ghomeshi told his fans he engaged in "rough sex" but that it was consensual and enjoyable for all parties.

"I have always been interested in a variety of activities in the bedroom but I only participate in sexual practices that are mutually agreed upon, consensual, and exciting for both partners," he wrote, after hiring a crisis communications firm the weekend the CBC fired him.

The trial continues Tuesday at 10 a.m. Henein intends to show a video and will continue her cross-examination of the first witness.

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @HilaryBeaumont