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No remains in McCann RV, experts testify

A second witness has testified in Travis Vader's double first-degree murder trial that there were no human remains found in Lyle and Marie McCann's burned-out motorhome.
Travis Vader walks with his lawyer
Travis Vader walks with his lawyer

A second witness has testified in Travis Vader's double first-degree murder trial that there were no human remains found in Lyle and Marie McCann's burned-out motorhome.

The testimony came Friday in the third day of the trial where Vader is accused of killing Lyle and Marie McCann, a couple in their late 70s who went missing in July of 2010. The bodies of the retired St. Albert couple have never been found, but their burned out motorhome and SUV were discovered later that summer.

On Friday Lee'Roy Lonsberry, who was a captain with the Edson Fire Department on July 5, 2010, said based on his more than 25 years experience he was certain there were no bodies on that scene.

“If there had been somebody in that vehicle, and that person was burned, you would definitely have smelled that burning body,” he said.

“Once you've smelled a burning body, you never forget that smell,” said Lonsberry who has been at 20 fire scenes involving fatalities.

Earlier in the trial, Dr. Owen Beattie, professor emeritus of anthropology from the University of Alberta, testified that he and two graduate students found no human remains when they inspected a “dumpster” full of material collected from the burned-out motorhome found at the Minnow Lake campground.

On Friday court heard the 911 call about the motorhome fire came in around 7 p.m. on July 5.

Chris Popielarz testified he was driving north on Wolf Lake Road toward Minnow Lake when he saw thick black smoke, different from the smoke often coming from gas flares in that area.

When he came to the scene several hundred feet into a forestry cutline off Wolf Lake Road, he said he saw what he thought was a motorhome that was “fully involved” with flames.

“(The flames) were at least twice as high as the structure itself; almost as high as the tree tops,” Popielarz said.

He phoned 911 and went to the nearby campground, where he couldn't see the fire but could see the smoke, and said he heard “four or five” explosions.

He noted he had seen two vehicles that seemed out of place heading south on the gravel forestry road he was on – a minivan and a smaller vehicle that could have been an SUV.

Popielarz said he also noticed tracks on the shoulder of Wolf Lake Road that could have been from an SUV – they were thinner than he would expect from the pickup trucks and even bigger units that typically used the road.

He got out briefly, then got back in his truck and went to the campground. He met a man there, the two of them drove in his truck back to the scene briefly, then returned to the campground.

Popielarz left after about 45 minutes then gave a statement to police on July 10.

Lonsberry said his department was dispatched at 7:17 p.m., arrived on scene at 7:57, left the scene at 9:21 and put the trucks back in service at 11:19.

When they arrived the motorhome was already mostly burned, but they put out the fire, conducted a search of the area for bystanders or anyone involved in the incident. They found none, and when they left, they turned the scene over to the RCMP.

He said at a later date, which he could not recall, a police officer from Grande Prairie came into his business to ask one specific question.

“All the policeman was investigating was do you smoke, does anyone on the fire department smoke this particular brand of cigarettes,” Lonsberry said, adding the answer was no.

Second expert

Oed Gundersen, a fire investigator, gave expert testimony about the possible presence of ignitable liquids at the scene of the burn, at the Edson dump where burned material is taken, and at the towing yard where the frame of the motorhome was taken.

He and his trained dog Jodi examined all three scenes July 12, and found evidence of ignitable liquids at all three scenes.

Under defence lawyer Brian Beresh's cross-examination he said there was no way of knowing when those liquids got on any of the three scenes.

On Friday afternoon, the Edson Fire Department's Lieutenant was scheduled to testify via video-conference, followed by RCMP forensic investigator Sgt. Michael Donnelly continuing his testimony to establish continuity of the evidence collected.

Justice Denny Thomas has made a judge's order to make Amber Williams, Vader's ex-girlfriend brought in person Monday at 9:30 a.m. It is not clear if she will testify.

The trial will resume Monday in Court of Queen's Bench.

More Thursday testimony

A day earlier, during Thursday testimony, there was no love lost between the McCann's daughter Trudy Holder and Beresh during cross-examination.

The lawyer defending the man accused of murdering Holder's parents, questioned her about family dynamics, her father's habits out on the road and whether the couple may have brought guns with them on their planned trip to southwestern B.C.

Beresh began by questioning statements Holder had made to police about the fact her parents had seemed upset in phone conversations during the weeks before their disappearance, and in particular about their relationship with their second son Lance, who worked as a long-haul trucker after learning the trade from his father and buying his truck.

Holder said there was no major family issue, but her father had been really “really weird and rude” when she talked to him on the phone July 3, 2010. She said she intended to ask him about it when she met up with her parents for a scheduled meeting in Abbotsford a week later, but her parents never showed up at the designated meeting spot.

She testified it was out of character for her father, who was meticulous about his motorhome and car, to drive over rough gravel roads where the vehicles were later discovered.

Beresh suggested the weirdness might be related to friction between her parents and Lance, who Holder has said she spoke to very rarely over the past decade and has never visited his homes in Edson or Hinton.

Holder said her parents and brother would often discuss how he could better get along with other truck drivers, and Beresh continued to press about the nature of their relationship.

When pressed and asked directly, Holder conceded alcohol use was also a factor in her parents' relationship with her brother.

“I didn't want to bring this up this afternoon,” Beresh said. “He's a serious addict and has been for years, and that was a serious problem between him and your parents.”

Beresh also suggested Holder's mother was suffering the early stages of dementia or Alzheimer's, which Holder flatly disagreed with.

Beresh also questioned Holder about how often her father might stop during a road trip, suggesting on a leisurely seven-day drive to the coast her parents might decide to stop anywhere. He also suggested Lyle was the kind of guy who was both mechanically minded and a "Good Samaritan" who would readily stop to offer assistance to fellow motorists who needed it.

“Not at their age. When he was younger he would,” Holder said. “He decided not to take that kind of risk any more. In general they stopped doing that.”

She conceded she had not had a specific conversation with her parents about that.

With respect to the cellphone that Vader is alleged to have used July 3, Beresh suggested it could easily have been left in a restaurant or restroom accidentally, and picked up there.

Beresh also suggested as avid fishers, the McCanns may have decided to take a detour and drove their motorhome 20 km south from Highway 16 to Minnow Lake.

Holder said her father was so fastidious about his vehicles he wouldn't have risked damage to his vehicles by taking the motor home with SUV in tow down a road covered in large gravel.

Finally, Beresh focused on the firearms the McCanns kept in the home, including a loaded Derringer pistol that had been kept in a drawer in their house.

Holder said it would have been possible to store guns in the motorhome, but said she had no personal knowledge if they did.

Earlier Thursday, Holder told court about the close relationship she had with her mother.

“My mom was my best friend, so we just talked about everything. Whatever was going on,” she said.


Holder presented a detailed account of a stable family that enjoyed its time together.

Answering questions by Crown prosecutor Ashley Finlayson, she spoke of her two older brothers, Bret and Lance, and the home in St. Albert where the family had lived since she was five years old.

Holder described her father as a former long-haul trucker. He retired at age 75, just a few years before the couple disappeared. Her mother, Marie, sometimes worked outside the house, but Holder said mostly she worked as a homemaker.

The family went on camping vacations every summer, with a trailer hauled behind the family car. This continued into her adult life, although when she was in her 20s when her parents swapped the car and trailer for an RV towing a car, and Holder would typically fly to meet them rather than joining them for the long drives.

Holder described her father, who did almost all the driving, as being a cautious and attentive driver who was meticulous in keeping his vehicles cleaned and maintained.

“Even with his truck, after he got off the road he would clean it right away or the very next morning,” she said.

The last time Holder saw her parents was on Mother's Day 2010 in Red Deer, and she said they seemed to be in good health.

She said they had made plans to meet July 10 at the Abbotsford airport to go on a two-week camping trip with Holder and her daughter, and when they failed to show up she knew something was wrong.

“If they said they were going to be somewhere, they were there,” she said.

Holder described several phone conversations with her mother and father prior to their trip, and described her father's tone as “curt,” and not being himself.

One phone call shortly after Father's Day had to do with a gift she had sent him, a seat for a fishing boat. She had mistakenly ordered and sent only the frame and not the seat itself.

“It was different than any phone call I had ever had,” she said. “I concluded they were upset with me and we needed to discuss something.”

Holder said a phone call she had with her father on the morning of July 3 had a similar tone, and confirmed that was the last time she ever spoke to him.

Police evidence presented earlier in the week established a continuity of evidence that included a binder of 300 photos.

These photos include surveillance footage of the McCanns, photos of the McCanns' burned-out RV and the campground where it was found, their Hyundai Tucson SUV and the scene where it was found, items found in the SUV, a private property where material from the SUV was found, and a private residence police searched following Vader's arrest.

The items depicted include the beer can the Crown says had Vader's DNA on it, the can of food that had Marie McCann's blood spatters, and Lyle McCann's hats.

A team of forensic investigators visited the Superior Towing yard to see the burned motorhome frame on July 12, and then went to the Edson dump to see debris from the motorhome, and to the Minnow Lake campground where the motorhome had been found.

The McCann's SUV, which was described as very dirty and driven hard into the trees, was discovered July 16. It appeared to have been there for a few days.

“If there were human remains in that environment, I would expect there would be something in that environment that would be identifiable,” Beattie said.

That point was reinforced when Stewart asked Beattie about a project he's currently working on for the Cypriot government, which involves excavating and identifying remains of Greek commandos from an airplane shot down in 1974. Those remains were buried for more than a decade, yet some remains have been found and identified.

In his cross-examination, Beresh said he appreciated Beattie's testimony.

“Your evidence is very important to the defence,” he said.

He confirmed with Beattie that following a fire, evidence of bodily fluids would not likely be present.

Beresh also asked if it would be impossible for remains to turn to dust in a fire.

“Nothing is impossible,” Beattie replied.

Finally, Beresh asked Beattie if he knew that the debris from the motorhome had sat uncovered in a landfill before being examined. Beattie said he was “not fully” aware until he came to court.

Beresh also asked whether Beattie's advice or expectation would be that any such material would be promptly covered and secured.

“That would be my expectation,” Beattie said.

“Mine too,” Beresh replied. “No further questions.”