Travis Vader has been found guilty of second-degree murder for the July 2010 deaths of elderly St. Albert couple Lyle and Marie McCann.
The guilty verdict at the end of a three-month trial came as a “huge relief” for the family of the victims, their son Bret McCann told reporters outside the courthouse.
“We are thrilled that justice has been served,” he said.
Justice Denny Thomas delivered a 45-minute summary of his 131-page decision in front of a packed courtroom Thursday morning and, for the first time in Alberta’s criminal courts, a video camera broadcast his decision live.
Vader was tried for first-degree murder, but Thomas said he could not find beyond a reasonable doubt the murders were deliberate and premeditated. He did find that Vader intended to cause harm to the McCanns in the course of robbing them, justifying the conviction.
Within hours of the verdict, however, that justification was called into question. A report from the Canadian Press cites University of Alberta law professor Peter Sankoff noting that Thomas refers specifically to Section 230 of the Criminal Code of Canada in his reason for finding Vader guilty of second-degree murder, but the Supreme Court of Canada struck down that section of the code in 1990.
“I’m pretty confident that the ruling can’t stand,” he’s quoted as saying.
Defence lawyer Brian Beresh said Thursday he intends to appeal the ruling. Media reports indicate he filed an appeal Friday morning specifically referring to the issue with Section 230.
Meanwhile a hearing has been set for Oct. 3 to determine if a pre-sentence report and psychological assessment are required, and to schedule a sentencing date, which Crown prosecutor Jim Stewart said is likely to come by the end of 2016.
Second-degree murder carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison, but the court can determine a period of parole ineligibility. The law allows for parole to be granted no sooner than 10 years and no later than 25 years.
The McCanns were last seen July 3, 2010, filling up their motorhome and SUV with gas before leaving on a road trip to British Columbia. That motorhome was found burning two days later near the Minnow Lake campground southeast of Edson, and the couple was reported missing when they didn’t arrive in Abbotsford, B.C., on July 10.
Thomas said much of his decision was based on which experts and witnesses he found to be reliable – in total 89 witnesses gave evidence in reference to 202 exhibits.
‘Sometimes witnesses do not tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, as they swear or affirm to do,” he said.
He outlined the following version of events he found to be factual in his decision.
On July 2, Vader went to see a friend in Edmonton. He left before dawn on July 3 driving a Ford F-350 truck.
Later that morning the McCanns left St. Albert westbound on Highway 16.
Around noon Vader arrived at his friend “Bandana” Dave Olson’s house in Peers, Alta., with no money and needing oil for his truck. He then used Olson’s phone to call his ex-girlfriend Amber Williams three times.
Vader left Olson’s at 12:15 p.m. and some time before 2:14, “Mr. Vader and the McCanns’ paths intersect,” Thomas said, at which time Vader took possession of the couple’s cell phone, vehicles, and some cans of food.
Vader sent two text messages from the McCanns’ phone to Williams around 2:30, then phoned her at 3:55 from McKay, Alta., near his friend Don Bulmer’s house.
At 5:15 p.m., he returned to Olson’s house, this time driving the McCanns’ SUV, with money to ask Olson to buy a phone card and some beer, which he purchased around 5:30 p.m.
The two drank beer together until around 7 p.m. when Myles Ingersoll arrived, and Vader left shortly thereafter.
Using his own phone, Vader exchanged several text messages with Williams from 6:37 p.m. until around 11.
Thomas said on July 4 around 4 p.m., Vader pulled the McCanns’ motor home with the SUV reattached into the Minnow Lake campground, detached the SUV, and drove away.
Late that evening Vader phoned Esther McKay’s house, where his sister Bobbi Jo Vader and another ex-girlfriend Andrea Saddleback-Sexsmith were staying. He arrived around 2 a.m. July 5 driving the F-350.
He had a confrontation with his ex-girlfriend, who punched his truck before he drove away.
Meanwhile the motor home and SUV were at the Minnow Lake campground. Some time after 1 p.m., Vader drove the motor home to a nearby closed road, and set it on fire.
On July 6 Vader briefly visited Bulmer, then stashed the SUV at an abandoned farm site near Highway 16, before returning to McKay’s where he stayed until July 9.
Thomas said he left around noon, drove the F-350 to an oil lease site and attempted to set it on fire before stealing another truck nearby.
On July 10 around 2 p.m., Vader flagged down a passing vehicle on a remote road near Lodgepole, Alta., and later phoned Saddleback-Sexsmith at McKay’s house saying he was stranded.
Bulmer picked him up later than evening, and saw him standing next to a burning truck in a remote location near Lodgepole.
“Mr. Vader set that fire,” Thomas said.
On July 19, police arrested Vader at Bulmer’s house on unrelated charges.
Thomas said although he cannot definitively say what happened to the McCanns on July 3, he can conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Vader killed them in the course of robbing them and stealing their property.
Defence lawyer Brian Beresh said he was disappointed with the verdict. He said Thursday he would be launching an appeal.
Beresh said a key element of that appeal would be the fact Thomas was not able to say what, exactly, happened to the McCanns.
“We think it’s an error that in this case the court didn’t reconstruct,” he said.
Beresh said while Vader is also disappointed with the result, he believes an appeal will be successful.
“He has faith in the system,” he said.
Crown prosecutor Ashley Finlayson said he and his colleagues are “pleased” with the decision, but said it comes as no surprises Beresh will appeal, since that’s almost expected with a murder conviction.
He said he was happy Thomas was able to find many of the small pieces of circumstantial evidence to be factual, likening them to pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, along with all the testimony from witnesses.
“It was their evidence, combined with all the other evidence, that resulted in the verdict,” he said.
Finlayson added he’s not at all disappointed Thomas ruled the homicide second-degree murder instead of first.
“At the end of the day we’re very, very happy that the family got some closure to the matter,” he said. “They received a decision they’re very pleased with.”
While the conviction came as satisfying closure for McCann, he said he has all but given up hope of ever recovering his parents’ bodies.
“The convicted person would need to talk, and we’re not optimistic that would happen,” he said.
He said he was thankful for the support he received from the people of St. Albert and all across the country.
McCann recalled a July 2010 candlelight vigil in the plaza in front of St. Albert Place on St. Anne Street, when he still believed his parents were just lost, hurt or kidnapped.
“I remember saying something like, “‘Mom and Dad, hopefully you can hear me. Know that we will never give up searching for you.’” Six years later I have to stand down. I’m sorry Mom and Dad, I can do no more. I hope that someday, somehow, you will be found.”