Vader's ex-girlfriend takes the stand
Wednesday, Mar 23, 2016 02:00 pm
Late one night in July 2010, one of Travis Vader's ex-girlfriends got an unexpected visit from him.
Vader is accused of murdering St. Albert couple Lyle and Marie McCann.
Andrea Saddleback-Sexsmith, an Edmonton student, testified at Vader's murder trial that she had closed the bar where she was working, and got a call from her friend Bobbi Jo Vader letting her know Travis planned to visit her at her house – a shared accommodation with many roommates – the night of July 4 or the early morning hours of July 5.
She said she got home from work and stayed in the yard drinking beer with her new boyfriend, and Travis eventually came out and spoke to her. She described him as being angry because he was excited and swearing a lot.
"He wasn't happy," she said. "He went storming off to the truck."
Saddleback-Sexsmith followed him out to the truck, and discussed the fact Vader was wanted, had been "on the run for four days," and hadn't eaten.
She described the truck as a Ford F-350 extended cab truck with a "tidy tank" in the box and rear doors that open backwards.
"I punched the door that opens backward," she said.
Saddleback-Sexsmith also said when she saw him in July, there was a marked difference in his appearance and demanour from when she first started dating him in January 2010.
"When I first started dating him, he was in good shape," she said. "He wasn't gaunt or pale. He was healthy looking."
In July when she saw him, she said she gave him a hug and "it was like hugging a bean pole. Like, squishy."
Saddleback-Sexsmith, when Crown prosecutor Jim Stewart pressed her, said she attributed that change to drug use, specifically "meth."
While she said she never saw him use drugs and never saw him under the influence of drugs, she was confident that what she observed – the agitated behaviour and unkempt appearance – was because of drug use.
"I've worked in the bar scene for years," she said. "I know what people who use drugs look like."
Crown prosecutor Jim Stewart has suggested meth use accounts for part of the motive in the McCann’s presumed murder.
Saddleback-Sexsmith also told court that in March 2010, Vader had bought a cheap flip-phone, and she had signed up for a pay-as-you-go plan for him. She said she had a friend cancel that plan in July after she learned Vader was wanted in connection with the McCann disappearance.
She also reported he had phoned her on July 10, saying he was stranded near a gas plant near Edson, and that he asked her to contact two other people on his behalf to come get him. He also asked her to put some minutes on his phone.
She said she received that call either at the house she was staying at, or on Bobbi Jo's phone.
Saddleback-Sexsmith said she grew up near Niton Junction, and knew the Vader family because her older brother was in the same class as Vader.
She lost touch with the family when she was in Grade 6, did home schooling and distance learning, and her family avoided many people living in the area.
"We kind of stayed away from the Niton people, me and our whole entire family," she said. "I didn't really talk to him again until January 2010."
Saddleback-Sexsmith said she had met with Bobbi Jo at the bar one night, and the two became good friends. She began dating Travis, and the relationship lasted from January 2010 until that April when she ended it.
"I believe he was seeing other women," she said. "He came to the house with another person – a woman named Amber Williams, and another person."
She told court she knew Williams to be his ex-girlfriend, and knew the two were co-accused in a criminal matter.
Stuart's questioning lasted most of Tuesday afternoon and continued Wednesday morning.
Defence lawyer Brian Beresh raised the issue of Sexsmith-Saddleback's credibility as a witness in an often-heated exchange, suggesting she had a serious problem with alcohol.
"I was a bartender," she replied. "Of course I did."
He began to describe several incidents in which she was apparently "out of control," "falling down drunk," had police called on her, and spent nights in the "drunk tank," and suggested her testimony might not be reliable because of her actions.
"I cannot attest to these actions, and for you to berate me on them..." Saddleback-Sexsmith said angrily.
"You are not on trial, but you credibility is," Beresh replied, before pressing on about a fight between her, Bobbi Jo, and the woman they were renting rooms from.
"There's no need for you to say the testimony I gave is untrue or should be deemed unreliable," she said through tears.
Beresh insisted Saddleback-Sexsmith was so drunk she did not correctly remember details of her meeting with Travis on July 4. She angrily denied that.
"I know for a fact I was not drunk when he came over," she said.
He referred to several recorded statements she gave: two to police in July and August 2010, and a more recent one given to a private investigator hired by the defence, in a St. Albert home in 2014.
Beresh raised the issue of Saddleback-Sexsmith's cocaine use, which she said had cost her a job. She denied that.
He also raised her criminal record, which includes a conviction for a drunk-driving offence.
He suggested she had been evicted from her residence because of her drinking and related behaviour, including stealing from her landlord. She said it was not true, and that she had left because she found her own place, but conceded she had not paid rent in several months.
Beresh accused Saddleback-Sexsmith actually went upstairs and confronted Travis on the night if July 4/5 about his relationship with Williams, but she said that's not how she remembers it.
He also said her description of Vader's physical health was at odds with the description of a police officer who spent six hours in a cell with Vader on July 20 following his arrest. That officer described him as being in good shape and muscular.
"My suggestion is you're trying to help someone in this case," he said. "Not Mr. Vader."
"What I want is for this nightmare to be over for everyone involved!" she yelled back.
Beresh emphasized his suggestion by pointing to the transcript of the Aug. 6 interview, in which she called Travis "a f---ing idiot" and said she was cutting all ties with him.
Stuart is expecting to continue questioning Saddleback-Sexsmith on matters arising from Beresh's cross-examination on Wednesday afternoon. An associate of Vader's, William Nikolyuk, is also expected to continue his testimony.
On Tuesday afternoon, court also heard from Edson RCMP Const. John Eggenberger, who had been the officer in charge of the investigation of the abandoned-vehicle complaint on July 17 – the Ford F-350 on an oil lease adjacent to Highway 16 near Range Road 140. The McCann’s SUV was found near the same location.
The complainant had described the hose and wires from the fuel tank on the back of the truck and the scorch marks in the cab, and Eggenberger said he called both the Major Crimes Unit and the Emergency Response team tactical unit because of the similarities to the McCanns' burned motorhome.
Two ERT members examined the scene, as did a forensic investigator. Eggenberger said he did not touch the vehicle, and neither did his commanding officer, who was briefly on scene with him.
Once the forensic investigator had examined the vehicle, and taken several photographs of the scene, Eggenberger said he arranged to have the truck towed to the Aspen tow yard in Edson until he could determine if the Major Crimes Unit needed it further for their investigation, or if he would need it further for his abandoned vehicle investigation.
In cross-examination, Beresh asked how evidence was stored and handled in Edson, specifically when the officer in charge was transferred and passed the evidence-handling duties in the McCann investigation to Eggenberger, who said he kept the evidence locker keys on his key ring.
"So anybody who would have had access to that, would have had access to those lockers," he said.
Beresh also questioned how the truck was handled on the scene where it was found, when being prepared for towing, and when it was left in the Aspen towing yard.
Eggenberger replied "I don't recall" to dozens of questions about what he did on scene – including whether anyone moved the hose or wire from the fuel tank or cab, whether he examined the box of the truck, whether he even thought to examine the box of the truck or the tank itself, and what steps were taken to prepare the truck to be towed.
Beresh concluded that Eggenberger must have looked in the box during the course of the investigation, including the area where police later found the keys to the McCanns' SUV, and not noticed anything of significance.