Warning: The following story contains graphic details.
Henrietta Viski had been trying to escape.
That’s what 17-year-old Zoe Budai emphasizes when she talks about her mom, and about what happened in the years leading up to the day earlier this month when she came back to her Scarborough home from the grocery store to see her outside with burns all over her body and a red gas can lying on its side nearby.
Viski, 37, died in hospital the next day — June 18. Her estranged partner and Zoe’s father, Norbert Budai, was also seriously injured and taken to hospital. As heard in a Toronto court on Friday, Budai is set to be charged with murder when and if he comes out of an induced coma.
Zoe was not surprised.
“He was always physically abusive,” she says.
A series of court records and Zoe’s account of her mom’s efforts to escape her father detail a long string of violent incidents, threats and arrests in the months leading up to Viski’s horrific death by fire.
It’s a chain of events that is emblematic of how Canada’s criminal system fails women trying to break out of abusive and life-threatening relationships, said Pamela Cross, legal director at Luke’s Place, a Durham-based organization that provides family law support for abused women.
The history revealed in the court records obtained by the Star shows Budai was a “time bomb,” Cross said.
“The criminal system is letting women down every step of the way,” she said. “And women are left having to try to keep themselves safe in any way that they possibly can.”
According to Zoe, the Budai family had come to Canada from Hungary three years ago in search of a better life. Viski was a stay-at-home mom who took contracts with cleaning companies every now and then, she said.
According to the court records, Budai was first arrested on May 17, 2021, when he threatened to kill her if she did not return to her native Hungary and she asked a neighbour to call the police.
“If you don’t leave, I will kill you, break your neck and get a knife and cut your throat while the children watch you die,” she told prosecutors he said to her. (In court, Budai later denied saying some, but not all, of this.)
After his arrest, Budai was charged with two counts of assault — including for allegedly choking Viski in a previous incident — and two counts of uttering death threats.
He was released the next day on $1,000 bail and an order not to communicate with or contact Viski, in person or by any means.
On Oct. 4, he was arrested and charged with violating that no-contact order, then released without new conditions.
On Oct. 30, he was arrested and charged with assaulting another woman. According to a summary of allegations read in court, a woman living in the same rooming house as him had gone to his door to make a noise complaint. Budai allegedly got angry, grabbed her and attempted to pull her into the room. She fled, locked herself in the bathroom and then went into another resident’s room and locked herself in there.
According to court records, Budai allegedly started banging on the door, then slipped a $100 bill, saying: “How much?”
He was again released.
On Nov. 22, Budai went to Viski’s apartment and started yelling at her and the children. According to court records, he called her three times that day.
The next day, he returned to Viski’s apartment, again shouting. He called her phone five times that day. On one of the calls, Viski picked up and, during a brief conversation, Budai allegedly said: “I’m going to kill you.” (In court, Budai denied saying this, claiming he had said, “I’m going to kill myself.”)
He was arrested on Nov. 25. This time, he was held in jail.
Nineteen days later on Dec. 8, 2021, Budai pleaded guilty to three counts of uttering death threats, as well as two counts of failing to comply with a condition not to go near Viski. The charge for allegedly assaulting the woman in the rooming house was dropped at the request of the Crown.
He was sentenced to 30 days in jail and given 18 months probation, with an agreement to seek counselling, attend a Partner Assault Response Program, and not communicate directly or indirectly with Viski.
After credit for time served in custody, Budai was released the next day.
The Viski case has many of the common red flags present in other cases of domestic violence; a history of repeated breaches of court orders is a key topic at the ongoing inquest into the triple-murder of three Eastern Ontario women in 2015.
“The abuser makes a threat to kill a woman and then doesn’t kill her. He makes the threat a second time and maybe a third time. And every time he makes a threat and doesn’t kill her it seems that is interpreted by the criminal system — whether we are talking about police, judges, justices of the peace at a bail hearing, probation officers — as proof that he’s not really going to do it,” Cross said.
The criminal system has to take “what women tell them seriously” and hold men accountable for breaching court orders, she said.
In a short statement in court at his December guilty plea, Budai spoke about his desire to reunite with Viski and their three children. “I would like to get my family back,” he said.
“I think it’s going to take a little bit of time,” Ontario court Judge Antonio Di Zio responded. “I think you’re going to have to get some counselling and get some help in resolving your issues with your wife.”
On Friday, an officer from the Toronto East Detention Centre told court that Budai is still unable to appear on his pending charges because he is in a medically induced coma at Sunnybrook Hospital.
“He is about 80 per cent burnt,” the officer said.
For Zoe Budai, the days since her mother’s death have been “really hard and really complicated.”
She and her 14-year-old brother — he was at home when their mother was killed — are living with her best friend for the time being, while her eldest sister is staying with her boyfriend.
“I’m just trying to keep everything together for my younger brother,” Zoe said.
She remembers her mom as “a happy person.”
“She had a young soul. She loved to do things that teenagers did, she loved makeup and birthday parties,” Zoe said. “She got along with people from all ages, young and old.”
Her favourite memories of her mother are when she would ask Zoe to take pictures of her around the house.
“She loved getting her picture taken. She’d get dressed and put on makeup. Then she tried to look serious but she couldn’t stop smiling so she’d make a funny face,” she said.
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