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Despite many delays, Vader trial has covered a lot of ground

Travis Vader's double murder trial has blown right past the original five-week mark and has now finished its sixth – with at least another three to go. Vader is accused of murdering St.
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Travis Vader's double murder trial has blown right past the original five-week mark and has now finished its sixth – with at least another three to go.

Vader is accused of murdering St. Albert couple Lyle and Marie McCann, who disappeared July 3, 2010, en route to B.C. in their motorhome with their SUV in tow. Their motorhome was found burning near Edson two days later, and their SUV was recovered about two weeks later.

They are presumed dead and their bodies have never been found. The presumed crime scene, the motorhome, was almost completely burned, and there is no known murder weapon to speak of. Yet Crown prosecutors are confident they can overcome these obstacles.

Initially the trial was scheduled to run from March 8 to April 8, but with several delays and some evidence taking much longer than expected, the trial could now go until May 6 or later.

Although some key pieces of evidence are yet to come from more police officers and civilian witnesses, court has heard a great deal of evidence so far.

Opening statements

At the outset of the trial on March 8, both Crown prosecutor Jim Stewart and defence lawyer Brian Beresh gave brief statements outlining what the court could expect over the coming weeks.

Stewart said the Crown would seek to prove the McCanns "both met with significant violence and are now dead," that Vader was in possession of the McCanns' phone and SUV shortly after they were last seen, and he then denied having anything to do with the property when interviewed by police.

"The only reasonable inference arising from the facts that we expect to prove is that Mr. Vader murdered Lyle and Marie McCann," he said.

Beresh likewise outlined his case, pointing to the many uncertainties arising from the evidence. He opened by noting the McCann' death isn't even provable beyond a reasonable doubt, much less the evidence connecting Vader to the alleged crime.

RCMP officers were under pressure to solve the case quickly, and as a result had "tunnel vision." They ignored other potential suspects in the case and put out public information with the sole purpose of generating evidence against Vader. Evidence in statements from Vader's associates are tainted by police intimidation, and physical evidence is tainted by police errors and scientific uncertainty.

"The prosecution is now left with a series of loose strings which even the most talented weaver could not weave together to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt," Beresh concluded.

Friends and family

In the first two weeks, court heard evidence from friends and family of Lyle and Marie McCann, including two of their children, Marie's sister and one of their neighbours.

Their evidence, combined, painted a picture of the kind of people Lyle and Marie McCann were and what their habits were while travelling.

Lyle was retired after career as a long-haul trucker. He was mechanically inclined and was meticulously clean with his vehicles. His son Brett testified his father would sometimes get home from driving on Friday, and they would go wash and work on the truck first thing on Saturday mornings.

On family trips camping trips, of which there were many, Lyle always wanted to make good time, so there were few stops – sometimes a point of contention among the family.

Marie was a homemaker for most of her life, dedicated to raising her family. Court heard she spent every Friday in the summer going to garage sales with her daughter-in-law, and that she had regular phone conversations with her daughter in Calgary.

"My mom was my best friend, so we just talked about everything. Whatever was going on," daughter Trudy Holder said.

Not all was perfect, though, as Beresh revealed in cross-examination. Holder said she thought her parents had been angry in the last few days she spoke with them, and both children testified there was sometimes friction in the family resulting from their brother's drinking, who they spoke to rarely aside from family gatherings.

The McCanns were reported missing July 10 when they didn't pick up Holder from the Abbotsford airport as scheduled. Several friends and family members testified they had not seen or heard from the McCanns since July 2010.

Motorhome fire

Court heard from several firefighters and fire investigators about the McCanns' motorhome, which was found burning near the Minnow Lake campground two days after the couple was last seen. A caretaker testified he had seen the motorhome early that morning in a nearby campsite.

By the time crews arrived from Edson, the motorhome was completely burned with little that was recoverable from inside it – although the McCanns' vehicle registration papers were recovered, partially burned, from the scene.

The frame was taken to a tow yard and stored for close to a month before police seized it, and a bin full of debris that had been loaded into a truck while cleaning up the fire scene was taken to the Edson dump where is was also left for close to a month.

Investigators testified the official cause of the fire is undetermined. There was evidence of liquid hydrocarbons in and around the motorhome wreckage and debris from it, but it couldn't be determined when or how that material got on the wreckage.

An anthropologist, who was qualified as an expert in identifying human remains, testified that he found no evidence of human remains in the debris from the motorhome fire.

Vehicles

Several vehicles have been referred to during the trial other than the motorhome itself.

The green SUV the McCanns were towing when they were last seen, which was recovered on a rural property July 15, contained several pieces of physical evidence the Crown says links Vader to the vehicle, including a beer can with his fingerprint and DNA on it, and a hat that has both Lyle McCann's and Vader's DNA on it.

The rural property at which it was recovered, just off Highway 16 near Edson, also had some other items recovered at it, including what's believed could be carpet and other material taken from inside the motorhome.

A light brown Ford F-350 stolen from a campground, which was distinct in that it had dual rear tires, a red fuel tank in the back and rear doors that opened backward ("suicide doors") was reported stolen in early July and was recovered July 17 on an oil lease near where the SUV was found.

It was found partially burned. Investigators testified a hose ran from the fuel tank to inside the cab, which had apparently been set afire, and a wire ran from the battery back to the tank.

While it was missed on the initial examination of the scene, police later found the key to the McCanns' SUV on the floor of the box in the small area between the fuel tank and the cab.

Vader's ex-girlfriend and sister have both testified they saw him driving a similar vehicle in early July.

Physical evidence

Several expert witnesses testified about physical evidence, including several police officers who gave lengthy testimony establishing the continuity of the physical evidence.

A fingerprint expert testified he found a dozen possible fingerprints on items seized from the SUV, but that only a fingerprint found on a beer can recovered from the SUV was clear enough to establish a match – and he matched it to Vader.

Dozens of items were suitable for DNA analysis, and several key matches were made. Vader's DNA was found on that beer can from the SUV, as well as on several clothing items recovered from a campsite where prosecutors say Vader stayed while he was fleeing police.

Marie McCann's blood was found on several canned goods recovered from the SUV, and Lyle McCann's blood was found on a hat he had been wearing the day he disappeared. That hat also had a sample of Vader's DNA, although that match was weaker because of the quality of the sample.

A firearms expert testified a hole in that hat was likely caused by a bullet, but he could not say what calibre or from what type of gun.

Vader's associates

Several of Vader's associates have testified at the trial, including several involved in the drug subculture around the Edson area.

While the testimony was sometimes inconsistent, several testified Vader had either used drugs with them or they believed he had been using drugs.

An ex-girlfriend testified she saw Vader driving the Ford F-350 in Edmonton, and said he looked like he had lost a lot of weight, which she attributed to meth use.

An associate testified he met Vader near a wooded area in Peers and gave him groceries because he was hungry and on the run, although that same witness also testified he didn't give groceries to Vader, but rather to another mutual friend.

Another testified he saw Vader driving the SUV at a mutual friend's house in Peers, and at the time he looked like he was "upset" and "maybe guilty of something." He testified he would often use meth with Vader.

Vader's sister testified she never saw him use meth, but suspected he might have been using drugs, and gave a statement to police saying she had seen him driving the F-350 and it had guns in the back of it.

Another ex-girlfriend testified she and Vader would use meth together "constantly," which played a role in their eventual breakup. She also testified texts sent to her July 3 from a number she did not recognize – but was in fact Lyle McCann's number – must have been from Vader because of references to their relationship.

Delays

While the evidence itself has taken a great deal of time, there have also been several unexpected delays that cropped up.

There have been several early adjournments and late starts to deal with various applications that arise. For example, when Crown prosecutors have applied to cross-examine their own witnesses – typically not allowed – the hearings on those matters have required adjournments.

A lot of time has also been eaten up with voir dire hearings – often referred to as trials within trials – to determine the admissability of various pieces of evidence. Other hearings to rule on whether an expert can be qualified to give opinions on various matters have also taken longer than might normally be expected.

Vader himself has been responsible for several delays, some as long as half a day, because he hasn't arrived at court on time. Twice he cited mechanical trouble with vehicles, once that he slept in and most recently that somebody had borrowed the vehicle he was using and not returned it.

Crown prosecutor Ashley Finlayson applied April 13 to revoke Vader's bail, and that hearing was scheduled to continue at 1 p.m. April 15.

Finlayson has said he expects the Crown's case to take possibly until April 22 or 29 to complete, and Beresh said he hopes to be able to present his own evidence in about one week.