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Vader evidence on trial

Sgt. Grant Goulet, a member of the RCMP's Major Crimes Unit, knew on Aug. 13, 2010, that he was going to investigate a truck police believed was linked to Travis Vader and the investigation of the disappearance of St.
Ford F350 where the key fob was found.
Ford F350 where the key fob was found.

Sgt. Grant Goulet, a member of the RCMP's Major Crimes Unit, knew on Aug. 13, 2010, that he was going to investigate a truck police believed was linked to Travis Vader and the investigation of the disappearance of St. Albert couple Lyle and Marie McCann.

He told court Tuesday morning he did not realize until the afternoon of the investigation, Aug. 16, the significance of what he had found: a set of keys for a Hyundai.

After finding them tucked between the box and a fuel tank in the back of the F-350 at the evidence Bay in St. Albert, he said he took them to the K Division bay in Edmonton as he knew there was a Hyundai SUV there that belonged to the McCanns.

"My intent going there was to see if indeed, this key fit the car," Goulet said. "I distinctly remember my first action was hitting the key fob, and the lights flashed. My reaction to that was, 'Wow.'"

He said he then put the key in an evidence locker there, and didn't return to the truck in St. Albert until two days later, on Aug. 18. At that point, he watched as a mechanic from Ford spent about an hour doing a mechanical inspection of the truck.

Defence lawyer Brian Beresh did not appear to accept that the keys had been there all along, from the time the truck was found.

He noted the truck appeared to have spent 25 or more days at a tow yard, and subsequently at a salvage yard in Edmonton, after it was found July 17 on an oil lease west of Edmonton.

Crown prosecutor Jim Stuart said at the outset of the trial that on July 17 police recovered the pick-up truck that Vader was driving on July 3.

"He had tried to set it ablaze but the fire set failed to catch," he said. "The keys to the McCanns' SUV were found in the bed of that truck."

Beresh said on the day the truck was found the investigating officer's report makes no mention of the key, even though it does mention several items found right next to where the key was. Those items included a trailer hitch lodged between the tank and the box of the truck, a hose running from the tank into the truck cab and a wire running to the tank from the driver's side of the truck.

"A conscientious investigator would look around that area, right?" Beresh asked. "If the keys were there, they would have seen the keys, right?"

He also noted the circumstances under which the truck was found – on an oil lease site with a hose and wires running from the gas tank, with burn damage inside the cab – would be cause to investigate very thoroughly.

Beresh also asked Goulet to identify eight pieces of evidence from the motorhome burn site, which Goulet had handled as part of the search of the contents of the gravel truck that had been loaded with debris from the site.

He identified four Canadian Classic cigarette butts, along with three pieces of cloth and a piece of plastic that had been sent for DNA analysis.

Beresh also concentrated on the key fob itself, asking if Goulet had smelled or felt any diesel or oiliness from the truck box when he handled the key. Testimony on Monday by Const. Jason Young suggested the truck smelled heavily of diesel fuel.

"I don't recall any smell. I don't recall how it felt to the touch; I had gloves on," Goulet said.

Beresh also focused on the statement about the lights flashing with the key fob, noting that might not have occurred if the battery was dead.

On Monday afternoon, while Beresh was continuing his cross-examination of Young about his role in investigating the Ford F-350 and also the Hyundai Tucson SUV, he suggested Young had been looking for a key to the SUV on Aug. 30, 2011.

Young said he contacted investigators and was told no key was available.

"I was told I would have to get a key cut," he said.

He then contacted the Hyundai dealership in West Edmonton, and assumed someone there cut a key for him – he was presented with it later on.

When Young tried the key in the SUV's ignition, the battery was dead and the car had to be boosted, but the key worked.

Beresh noted all he had to do was call the dealership, get a key, and the key worked.

"It was as simple as that," he said.

Beresh also questioned Young about the motorhome itself, which he had examined while it was at the Superior Towing yard in Edson, specifically about whether the engine had moved.

Young said it did look like the engine had moved from its original placement. Crown prosecutor Jim Stuart clarified that Young was specifically talking about possible burn damage.

"It was not moved from where it was originally affixed to the chassis," he said, and Young confirmed.

Gil Bertrand, who owned the F-350, also testified about his knowledge of the truck. He said he was living at the Diamond Wood RV Park near Niton Junction in June and July 2010, and was working as a scaffolder in the area.

He said he always kept the truck well-maintained and sparkling, and that was especially the case the day it was stolen.

"I had just cleaned the truck that day, inside and out," he said. "It was sparkling."

Unfortunately, he had left a key in the console and the doors unlocked. When he went outside to take it to work, it was gone.

Stewart showed Bertrand several photos of the truck taken by police, and he confirmed it was his truck and was not in the condition in which he had left it, as there was no physical damage when he last saw the truck.

He also indicated while he had a large tool box screwed to the back of the box, the large fuel tank in the truck when police found it was not something he had put there.

Stuart also showed him photos of the SUV key Goulet said he found in the truck, and Bertrand confirmed he did not recognize it.

Beresh, in his cross-examination, established that Bertrand left the truck unattended for 10-hour stretches while he was at work, and that police never asked him to come examine the truck at the oil lease where it was found.

Tuesday afternoon's testimony is expected to include an RCMP officer who saw the truck July 17, and an ex-girlfriend of Vader's.

Crown prosecutor Ashley Finlayson told Justice Denny Thomas he had hoped to call Vader's sister, Bobbi Jo Vader, but she arrived late so he couldn't. Thomas instructed her to return April 1 at 9:30 a.m.

Tuesday's testimony continued Beresh's strategy of calling into question how evidence in the Vader investigation was handled.

Vader's friend testifies

A friend of Travis Vader who drove him around in the months before the McCanns disappeared in July 2010 testified Friday afternoon.

William Nikolyuk told court he has lived in the Wildwood area of Alberta his whole life, and while he didn't go to school with Vader because there was a few years' age difference, they knew each other from having both lived in the area.

In the spring months of 2010, Nikolyuk said he got to know Vader better some time in March because of his relationship with his friend Amber Williams. He eventually began driving for Vader, who did not have a licence at the time, and this went on for about a dozen times.

Nikolyuk said he would drive him to go shopping or visit friends in the areas in and around Mayerthorpe, McKay and Wildwood. They would also hang out together on occasion.

"We did just regular friend things. He might stop at my house for a drink or two once in a while. I asked him to help on the farm once or twice when I didn't have anyone else around," he said.

Nikolyuk said that at the time he was struggling with gambling and drug-addiction issues. He said that he was using between half a gram and one gram of crystal methamphetamine three or four times per week.

When asked where he would get it – or in which community – he was vague.

"It's all over. It's everywhere," he said. "Almost every town, from here to Jasper."

Nikolyuk said he would use meth either alone or with friends, and said he had used when hanging out with Vader, but said he never saw Vader using the drug.

"He was with the same friends, so I presume he did, but never used with him," he said. "But he dated a person that did."

Crown prosecutor Ashley Finlayson asked Nikolyuk about the time he spent in custody, from May 31, 2010 to July 17, 2010, and asked him about contact he had had with Vader between his release and Vader's July 20 arrest.

Nikolyuk said he spoke with Vader once or twice while he was in jail, and asked Vader to check in on his girlfriend Teri Johnson.

"If she needed money for food and that, I would phone to ask him to help her out," he said.

He said he spoke to Vader once, on the phone, after he was released July 17.

Finlayson asked Nikolyuk several times specifically about buying groceries for Vader, seeing Vader in an area of tall grass near a ball diamond next to his property, or having conversations with Vader face to face. Finlayson also asked if Nikolyuk had seen Vader in a white Ford F-150 pickup truck.

He answered no to all those questions, but said he had given groceries to another man the night he had been released from custody.

"That night, I gave Terry McColman (groceries), he pulled up in a white Ford," he said. "He pulled up on the ball diamond side and I was on the farm side of the fence."

Finlayson suggested it might assist his memory to look at transcripts of police interviews given in late July and early August 2010.

Nikolyuk said he had been undergoing IV treatment for blood poisoning at the time and had been mourning Johnson, who was killed in a collision Aug. 3, during the period when the RCMP interviewed him.

Finlayson applied to be able to cross-examine him about inconsistencies between his testimony and the interview transcripts, which is a several-step process.

Justice Denny Thomas reviewed the transcripts and agreed there were inconsistencies.

Beresh noted the next step would be to establish that the transcripts were accurate, and Finlayson said he would have to call the RCMP officer who gave the interviews to testify that they were.

That testimony, and further testimony from Nikolyuk, is expected Wednesday, March 23.