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Mountie disciplined for mishandling McCann motorhome scene

Const. Liam MacNeil had been a member of the RCMP for just one year when he got a call that would ultimately result in disciplinary action being taken against him.
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Const. Liam MacNeil had been a member of the RCMP for just one year when he got a call that would ultimately result in disciplinary action being taken against him.

On July 5, 2010, the novice Mountie was working in the Edson detachment, and undoubtedly didn't realize the significance of the burning motorhome scene to which he responded.

He gave evidence Thursday afternoon at Travis Vader's ongoing trial for the murder of St. Albert couple Lyle and Marie McCann, who were last seen filling their motorhome with fuel at a St. Albert gas bar on the morning of July 3.

"In hindsight, it should have been handled differently," MacNeil said of his role in investigating and securing – or failing to secure – that scene before the motorhome was eventually towed.

He told court that when he arrived on scene at the Minnow Lake campground around 8 p.m., fire crews were already working, and told him to stay back until it was safe. The motorhome was burning in a "thicket," away from the main camping area.

After about a half hour he was allowed to approach the motorhome and begin to investigate, and one of the first things he noticed was that the motorhome appeared to have been "shoved up" onto a dirt berm in the middle of the path.

MacNeil asked the fire crews about the possibility of injuries or human remains in the motorhome, and was told there was nothing to find.

One of the first pieces of evidence he found was an Alberta licence plate, which he discovered was for a Ford vehicle registered to Lyle McCann after running a search on his computer. Firefighters also passed him a clear bag full of vehicle documents, which had more references to McCann.

He said he phoned the number associated with the licence plate, but it just rang and didn't go to voice mail so he wasn't sure if it was even still active. He said he phoned the St. Albert RCMP detachment and left a message indicating someone should follow up on this, but no one did. It wasn't until the McCanns' daughter Trudy Holder reported them missing July 10 that police began to look for them in earnest.

MacNeil also testified that by the driver's door he observed "freshly beaten down greenery," and he followed the path back out to Minnow Lake road and saw nothing but more trampled greenery.

A search for fire-related clues – things like gas cans, matches or evidence of accelerants – turned up nothing.

After investigating for about an hour, MacNeil said he contacted a towing company to remove the motorhome and left the scene. He told court he could not recall if he had spoken to the tow-truck operator face to face or not, but said he had left no specific instructions with respect to how the motorhome should be towed or how the scene should be handled.

"They came to the scene and from what I recall they didn't have the means to tow it at the time and would subcontract it to someone who had the equipment," he said.

MacNeil was not present when the vehicle was towed to the Superior Towing compound in Edson. Court has previously heard the tow-truck operator who cleaned up the scene used a bobcat to clear up all the debris around the motorhome, and bent many of the structural beams on the motorhome in order to tow it safely.

He said he could not recall who was at the scene when he left, and said he did not inventory any of the items found at the scene.

MacNeil said he was subject to disciplinary action as a result of mishandling the scene and failing to follow up with contacting the McCanns.

"I was issued what's known as a code of conduct," he said. "The RCMP felt I didn't give sufficient attention to the file at the time."

This resulted in a "stern reprimand," a week with no pay, and a period of desk duty where he was closely supervised.

He was given further disciplinary action almost immediately after returning to duty for another incident, and currently has pending disciplinary action in relation to an alleged privacy breach.

Second burnt F-350

Court also heard from a former RCMP officer who attended the scene of a burned out truck near Lodgepole, Alta. – the same location where Vader's associate Don Bulmer testified earlier this week he had seen Vader remove electronics from a truck before torching it.

Stephen Hudson testified he had been working out the Drayton Valley detachment that day when the call came in on July 12, 2010, of an abandoned vehicle.

He attended the scene near a gas-compression plant by Lodgepole, and found the vehicle "sort of stuck in some trees."

The vehicle had been almost completely destroyed, with barely anything recognizable, and pools of aluminum formed under the truck from melting parts.

"The only thing left was the springs in the seats," inside the truck, Hudson said.

He found nothing of note around the scene, and although the vehicle was badly damaged he was ultimately able to get half of the licence plate number, and found a Ford F-350 had been reported stolen out of Carrot Creek, Alta.

Defence lawyer Brian Beresh asked specifically about cell phone coverage and which towers or repeaters may have been used in that area, but Hudson testified he didn't know anything about how the phones operated. He did say that there was one tower in the area that also had an RCMP repeater on it.

Evidence handling questioned

On Thursday morning, Crown prosecutors finished calling evidence from Cpl. Chad Benko, who had been involved in evidence collection relating to the investigation and in particular, the Ford F-350 found partially burned near where the McCanns' SUV was found east of Edson.

Beresh focused on the SUV key Benko said he found in the back of the F-350, which was later discovered to be for the McCanns' SUV, again suggesting someone had placed it there after the truck had been seized by RCMP.

Benko maintained he had not seen the key at the original scene July 17, which he had also attended, but had seen it when examining the truck in the vehicle bay at the St. Albert RCMP detachment a month later on Aug. 16.

"Who put the key there?" Beresh asked him.

"It was there when I found it," he said.

"I know, but who put the key there?" Beresh pressed on. "Did you see someone put the key there? Did someone tell you they put the key there?"

Beresh also asked him about whether the key smelled like diesel when he examined it.

"I don't smell any exhibits," Benko replied, explaining that without knowing what chemicals might be on an exhibit, smelling it would be dangerous.

Beresh has previously suggested there's no way officers could have missed the key upon initial inspection, and raised questions about how the key was found a month later while the vehicle was in RCMP custody.

Court has also previously heard that when the truck was being transported, on the back of a flat-deck tow truck, it may have been jostled as a result of loading or braking hard during transport.

Court also heard Thursday morning from the last of the DNA-evidence witnesses, Shauna Collins, who testified in similar fashion as her colleagues about how exhibits were handled in the laboratory to ensure there was no cross-contamination.

Crown prosecutors are nearly finished calling evidence in their case, and expect to finish early next week.