The caretaker of the Minnow Lake Campground testified he saw Lyle and Marie McCann’s motorhome the day it was found burned a kilometre away.
Rolf Wenaas testified Wednesday afternoon in the murder trial of Travis Vader, who is accused of murdering St. Albert couple Lyle and Marie McCann on July 3, 2010. Their motorhome was found burned in a forest cutline area on July 5.
Wenaas said he was a caretaker for the Minnow Lake and Wolf Lake campgrounds near Peers, Alta., in July 2010, and on July 5 everything was fairly quiet after the Canada Day long weekend. He arrived at 6:30 a.m. to check the self-registration box and clear away the garbage.
In Site 8 of the nine-site, horseshoe-shaped campground, he saw a motorhome and a green SUV he would later identify as belonging to the McCanns based on media reports.
The motorhome was backed into the site, he said, and the SUV pulled in forward alongside it.
Wenaas checked if it was registered, and discovering it wasn’t, knocked on the door.
“I waited about 15 minutes, but there was nobody around so I left,” he said.
He observed that all the curtains were drawn, and the motorhome hadn’t been jacked up to level it as would be common practice when setting up camp.
Wenaas returned around 12:30 p.m. that day, and observed there was no change with either the motorhome or SUV. He knocked again, waited 15 to 20 minutes, and left.
He returned a third time that day at 9:30 p.m. to once again check the self-registration box for registration money. He said he spoke to a park ranger and a tow-truck driver.
“That’s when I found out the motorhome had burnt,” he said.
Wenaas walked down to where the fire had been, about one kilometre from the campground, but could not say for sure if it had been the same motorhome.
“It was hard to tell because it was burned up so badly,” he said.
Wenaas testified a man who was working in the area and his wife occupied one of the other sites.
He said police first interviewed him on July 14, 2010.
In his cross-examination, defence lawyer Brian Beresh established both Minnow and Wolf lakes were popular destinations for fishing, and that it would be easy for an expert driver to back the motorhome into the site.
He specifically emphasized that had somebody wanted to back the motorhome further into the site so as to obscure it from view it would have been possible, but that wasn’t where Wenaas had seen it.
Marie McCann’s sister Alice Chalmers also testified Wednesday afternoon, describing her relationship with the McCanns and her understanding of their plans.
A woman with a bright manner and quick wit, who drew more than one audible laugh from the courtroom during her testimony, she described the McCanns’ travelling and camping habits based on her experience vacationing with them.
She described Lyle as a careful driver who would never exceed the speed limit – out of concern for both safety and fuel economy – and said their vehicles were always kept pristine.
“The motorhome was always spotless, as was the car, inside and out,” she said.
Chalmers said the McCanns also kept a cellphone with them for emergencies, and it was kept on the front dashboard on the passenger side.
She said she understood, based on one of her near-daily conversations with Marie, that the McCanns would be leaving July 3 and planned to get as far as Blue River, near Valemount, B.C., on their first day.
In his cross-examination, Beresh suggested Marie might have been getting forgetful, as police could find no campground reservations for the McCanns near Blue River for that evening.
He also suggested that during Chalmers’ many visits to the McCanns’ St. Albert home, she would have been comfortable using the washroom there, perhaps to “fix yourself up.”
“I would think I was already fixed up when I got there,” she replied, eliciting a chuckle from Justice Denny Thomas.
Beresh pressed on, suggesting she may have used Marie’s hairbrush at some point, and she conceded it was possible.
He also suggested Lyle was on a diuretic, which may have influenced how often he stopped.
“A diuretic makes you go to the bathroom a lot,” she replied.
Finally Beresh suggested any statements she made to police nearer to the time of the McCanns’ disappearance may be better than her memory today, noting he himself was noticing his memory was not as good as it used to be as he ages.
“Me neither, I’m pretty old too,” Chalmers said, eliciting more titters from the courtroom.
“Well, you don’t look it,” Beresh replied.
By all accounts the McCanns were well-liked and respected within their family, and it seems that feeling was no different among their neighbours.
Margaret Ann Muffitt testified Thursday morning that she and her husband Norman had lived across the street from the McCanns for 38 years, as of July 2010.
“We were good friends,” she said. “We never went into things in detail but we knew each other very well.”
She described Marie as “a dear person, a dear soul,” and Lyle as “a gentleman,” “kind” and a man who “always did what he said he was going to do.”
The two families had a reciprocal relationship when it came to keeping an eye on each other’s homes when one or the other was going to be away.
She also noted the McCanns kept all their property – vehicles, yard, house and even their clothes – “immaculate” and clean.
“They were very neat people. They put me to shame at times,” she said.
Muffitt said on July 2, she got a call from Marie asking her to take in the mail until they returned July 28.
She said she saw the motorhome and SUV in the McCanns’ driveway around 6:30 a.m., but by the time she looked again around 10 a.m. it had gone.
She said on July 2, during their conversation, she had asked Marie for a few details about their trip: for example, the licence plate number of the motorhome, their cell phone number and contact information for their son Bret, who lived nearby.
Muffitt said her husband, who has since passed away, got a phone call from RCMP on July 10, 2010. The admissibility of evidence from this phone conversation was discussed in a voir dire hearing, which Justice Denny Thomas is expected to rule on later in the trial.
Muffitt said she had taken notes of her conversation with Marie, including the numbers she got, and had continued to use that sheet for taking notes in the coming weeks.
Beresh, in his cross-examination, suggested Muffitt may have been confused about when she had made specific notes on that sheet of paper, and that perhaps the licence plate number for the motorhome she had written down had come from police, and not Marie.
Muffitt said she was not completely sure.
Outside the context of the voir dire, Beresh asked her about conversations her husband may have had with Lyle about a .25-calibre handgun he may have taken on their long trips. While RCMP interview transcripts do record those conversations, Muffitt said she had no personal knowledge of them but had no reason to doubt they had taken place.
Finally on Thursday morning, fire inspector Jeremy Wagner testified about his investigation of the motorhome fire.
His curriculum vitae was entered as Exhibit 11, and Thomas ruled he could give expert opinion on the possible cause of the fire.
Wagner said on July 14, 2010, he investigated the fire site, the motorhome frame at the towing yard, and the burned material that had been deposited at the Edson dump. He conducted the investigation in conjunction with Oed Gunderson, who has previously testified about his investigation with his liquid-hydrocarbon-detecting dog and his findings.
Wagner noted the sites had been rained on fairly heavily, and said ultimately, he concluded the cause of the fire was undetermined.
“Unfortunately we could not form a determination of the source of the fire because there were a number of hypotheses we couldn’t rule out,” he said. “When that happens, we have to call it undetermined.”
Specifically, he said he could not rule out that gas from the engine was the cause of the fire, or that the fire could have been set in the interior of the motorhome using, for example, a pile of paper on a couch.
Finally, Wagner said the rain and the fact everything had been moved made the investigation significantly harder.
“It would have been an easier investigation if everything had been left on the site where it happened, and undisturbed.”