The man accused of murdering a St. Albert couple six years ago faced a court room on the charges for the first time on Tuesday.
Travis Vader’s murder trial by judge alone began in Edmonton to a full house with family members of Lyle and Marie McCann packing the first row of the sixth-floor courtroom. The McCanns went missing July 3 and though their bodies have never been found are presumed murdered.
In response to the charges that Vader had murdered the two at or near Peers, Alta., he was emphatic.
“I am not guilty of that charge,” he said.
Following a brief voir dire hearing to address outstanding issues of evidence and disclosure, Crown prosecutor Jim Stewart, one of the three lawyers prosecuting the case, outlined the case against Vader in an opening statement to Court of Queens Bench Justice Denny Thomas.
He began by describing the McCanns’ family, including three children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, and detailing the couple’s planned road trip in their motorhome – with their green SUV in tow – from July 3 to 10 ending in Abbotsford, B.C.
"They were never heard from again," he said.
Stewart said the Crown will introduce evidence to establish that on July 3, the McCanns were last seen in security footage from the St. Albert Superstore. On July 5 their motorhome was found burned at the Minnow Lake campground, and on July 10 they did not pick up their daughter as planned; a missing person report was then filed.
“This was definitely out of character for them,” he said.
Stewart then described Travis Vader as a successful oilfield worker with a wife and children, until he got involved with drugs and lost it all by July 2010.
“He was heavily involved in the crystal meth subculture,” he said. “He was living in makeshift camps in and around the McKay area and was being hunted by Alberta Sherriff’s’ Fugitive Apprehension Support Team.”
According to the evidence submitted, when the McCanns’ SUV was recovered, forensic analysis showed blood spatters on cans of food the couple had bought, blood spatters on Lyle’s hat, Vader’s DNA on Lyle’s hat and on another hat in the vehicle, Vader’s DNA and a fingerprint found on a Boxer beer can in the cupholder, Vader’s DNA on the steering wheel, his blood on the front passenger seat, and his blood on a Kleenex tissue on the floor. Stewart said the evidence links Vader to the murders.
He also said Vader had broken up with his girlfriend, a fellow meth user, in June. The Crown said Vader made repeated attempts to get her back via phone, text and Facebook. Four hours after the McCanns left Superstore, their phone was used to make seven calls within five minutes to Vader’s ex-girlfriend, followed by two text messages sent 10 minutes later.
“(She) will say that, given the nature of what is written in the texts, Travis Vader is the author,” he said.
Stewart also said a witness would testify he saw Vader in Peers, Alta., on the morning of July 3 in a stolen truck with no money. That afternoon, he saw Vader in a green Hyundai Tucson with money.
That truck was later found partially burned, with keys to the McCanns’ Tucson in the truck bed.
Finally, Stewart said Vader repeatedly denied any knowledge of the McCanns in three separate RCMP interviews, even when offered plausible innocent explanations for his possession of the McCanns’ property.
“These provable lies are post-offence conduct indicative of Vader’s guilt,” he said.
Defence lawyer Brian Beresh also provided an opening statement, saying Vader has waited years to prove his innocence and “lift the cloak of suspicion cast upon him prematurely.”
He explained he would seek to establish the RCMP investigation was inept and negligent, and overlooked evidence that implicates others and exculpates Vader.
He said RCMP mishandled the investigation of the motorhome and as a result valuable evidence was lost. He added the RCMP eventually fired the officer responsible.
Beresh also said it’s impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the McCanns are, in fact, deceased.
“The best that can be said is that they disappeared, nothing more,” he said.
Furthermore, he argued some of the civilian witnesses the Crown is relying on are unreliable, with lengthy criminal records.
Beresh said the police, who had “tunnel vision” during the investigation and provided self-serving and fabricated evidence, pressured these individuals.
He also said the defence would call experts witnesses to refute the blood spatter evidence, DNA evidence, and fingerprint evidence.
“The position of the defence at this trial is that, unfortunately, the authorities picked the wrong villain,” he said.
Visit the Gazette website for daily updates on the trial.