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Vader trial concludes, decision expected Sept. 15

Travis Vader's 12-week trial for the murder of St. Albert couple Lyle and Marie McCann is over, with final arguments being heard in an Edmonton courtroom this week. Justice Denny Thomas reserved his decision until Sept.
Travis Vader at the court house during the first day of his three-month long murder trial which ended this week.
Travis Vader at the court house during the first day of his three-month long murder trial which ended this week.

Travis Vader's 12-week trial for the murder of St. Albert couple Lyle and Marie McCann is over, with final arguments being heard in an Edmonton courtroom this week.

Justice Denny Thomas reserved his decision until Sept.15, citing the lengthy proceedings, volumes of evidence, and the other assignments he's responsible for.

Brett McCann, the son of the alleged victims, told the Gazette the trial was a marathon, but the family believes the right person was on trial for these crimes.

“It was very important for our family to finally see and hear all the evidence presented by the Crown,” he said. “We're hopeful that justice will be served, and anxiously await the verdict in September.”

Defence lawyer Brian Beresh said his client is disappointed by the delay, but pleased Thomas will take time to make the right decision – which he expects should be acquittal now that all the evidence is before the court.

“When you come to look at all the evidence, it shows a much different picture than what was present before the trial started,” he said outside the courthouse Thursday afternoon.

There was standing room only for the two-day proceedings, in which the Crown argued there was only one rational conclusion to draw from the evidence, and Beresh countered that there is nowhere near enough evidence for a finding of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

At some points there were as many as 60 people packed into the public gallery of the courtroom. Justice Denny Thomas even invited the public to take the seats in the jury box, which sits empty for a judge-alone trial like this one.

The McCanns were last seen July 3, 2010, fuelling up their motorhome and SUV at the St. Albert Superstore before leaving on a planned trip to visit with family and camp on the West Coast.

Their motorhome was found burned near the Minnow Lake campground on the evening of July 5, and they were reported missing July 10 after failing to meet their daughter in Abbottsford, B.C.

Their bodies have never been found, but Vader was named as a suspect early on in the investigation.

Crown theory

In closing arguments Wednesday Prosecutor Ashley Finlayson said repeatedly that while on their own the individual pieces of circumstantial evidence may leave room for doubt, as a whole they present a compelling case.

“When you look at the totality of the evidence, that's the only rational inference that can be drawn,” he said.

According to the Crown's theory of events, Vader was broke and addicted to methamphetamines, and was desperately in need of money. Finlayson said that some time after the McCanns visited the St. Albert Superstore at 10 a.m., likely about two hours later; he met them on or near the side of Highway 16 near Peers, Alta., and robbed them. The confrontation turned violent, and he killed one of the two.

“After the first McCann was murdered, in order to eliminate the presence of a witness, Mr. Vader deliberately murdered the second McCann,” Finlayson said.

He then used their cellphone to try to contact his ex-girlfriend Amber Williams, calling her six times and sending two text messages.

Vader had been at his friend Dave Olson's house in Peers with a stolen Ford F-350 truck and no money prior to leaving around noon, meeting with the McCanns and killing them, and returning to Olson's several hours later with their SUV and money.

The next day he went into Edmonton, and stayed at Esther McKay's house – something of a rooming house where both his sister and ex-girlfriend were living, where he was physically ill and exhausted.

“He was a desperate individual, and certainly his physical appearance and condition on July 4 is confirmatory of that,” Finlayson said.

He left the SUV at an unused rural property near Highway 16, and the property owners reported it to police after finding it there July 16.

Laboratory testing showed Vader's DNA was found on various spots within the vehicle, including a beer can in the drink holder, the steering wheel, the armrest, the front passenger seat and a hat belonging to Lyle McCann that had his blood on it, as well.

“His DNA on various items in that SUV, that's evidence of him having control of that vehicle and not some random happenstance,” Finlayson said.

Vader left the keys to the vehicle in the box of the F-350, which was found partially burned at a nearby oil-lease site.

Police found those keys roughly one month later, after the vehicle had been towed to the St. Albert RCMP detachment.

“Mr. Vader alleges those keys were planted. It's the Crown's submission those keys were mistakenly left there by Mr. Vader,” Finlayson said.

Vader's conduct after the fact is further evidence of his guilt, the Crown argues. Examples include hiding the stolen SUV, telling police he was in Edmonton from July 4 to 9 when evidence indicates otherwise, asking his sister to “recant your statement,” speaking with a cell mate and “concocting” an alibi, and telling that same cell mate how he would burn trucks.

“The inescapable conclusion is that on the 3rd of July before 2 o'clock, Travis Vader murdered Lyle and Marie McCann,” Finlayson said.

Defence questions

Unsurprisingly, Beresh took issue with several of the pieces of evidence the Crown case relies on.

He attacked the Crown's evidence as being mostly circumstantial, and requiring conjecture to connect one dot to the other – the kind of conjecture that's specifically prohibited when considering circumstantial evidence, according to several case-law precedents he referred to.

He said there were nine specific questions for which no one could reasonably infer the answer based on the evidence: are the McCanns deceased? if so how did their deaths occur? did their deaths arise from natural causes? when did they die? where did they die? who caused the deaths? what were the circumstances? in absence of evidence about circumstances does the court even have jurisdiction to try Vader? and where are the bodies?

“There is a fundamental absence of fundamental evidence in this case upon which you, applying the rules we expect, could ever find Travis Vader guilty,” Beresh told Thomas.

He described the logic used by the Crown – that it “must have happened” in a certain way – as being similar to vigilante groups who take the law into their own hands and often end up getting the wrong person.

Furthermore, he rejected outright the Crown's repeated argument that the whole of the evidence tends to paint a picture of Vader's guilt despite specific gaps in that evidence.

“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” he said.

The evidence of Vader's drug use, for example, is conflicting depending on which witness is testifying, with only Amber Williams, Myles Ingersoll and Dave Olson testifying to Vader's use of methamphetamines.

As another example, Beresh suggested Ingersoll and Olson, both of whom testified to Vader having the McCanns' SUV on July 3, were in cahoots with a plan to pin the crime on Vader and collect a reward.

“If deceit and treachery were cousins, they would look a lot like Mr. Ingersoll and Mr. Olson,” he said. “This was a conspiracy.”

He also said the Crown did not present any evidence that would justify the lack of consideration of Terry McColman, a now-deceased associate of Vader's, as an alternate suspect.

A strong example of the “weak link” of evidence Beresh referred to is with respect to the DNA evidence. Dr. Randell Libby, the defence DNA expert, took issue not necessarily with the data RCMP experts collected, but with their interpretations of that data. Libby testified he believed in many cases, the data was not strong enough to conclude the DNA was, in fact, Vader's.

On the whole, Beresh said it would be improper to convict Vader without any solid evidence, and invited Thomas to dismiss all the charges.

“The defence submits that the prosecution has fallen woefully short of meeting its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt for any criminal offence,” he concluded in his written statements.