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Vader trial witness recants prior testimony

A witness who had previously denied buying groceries for Travis Vader, knowing he was on the run, changed his story Thursday morning during Vader's trial for the murders of St. Albert couple Lyle and Marie McCann.
The jury box in Courtroom 611
The jury box in Courtroom 611

A witness who had previously denied buying groceries for Travis Vader, knowing he was on the run, changed his story Thursday morning during Vader's trial for the murders of St. Albert couple Lyle and Marie McCann.

William Nikolyuk, an associate of Vader's, testified March 18 that he had met with mutual friend Terry McColman near his farm property to give him groceries, but at no point saw or spoke with Vader that night.

Crown prosecutor Ashley Finlayson noted that the March 18 testimony contradicted statements he had made to police Aug. 9, 2010, and applied under the Canada Evidence Act to cross-examine his witness. Typically, the lawyer who calls a witness is unable to ask leading questions or make suggestions.

Nikolyuk's testimony was adjourned that day until the application could be heard and Justice Denny Thomas could make a decision. He ruled Wednesday afternoon that a cross-examination was permissible.

During the cross examination he maintained he had not seen nor spoken with Vader, and had lied to police because he was afraid he would be arrested and miss his girlfriend's funeral.

At the very end of giving his testimony March 24, Nikolyuk said he told police on Aug. 9 he had seen Vader, contrary to what he had previously testified. He said he lied to police about seeing Vader because he was scared when they mentioned Dennis Cheeseman and Shawn Hennessey, the men convicted of helping James Roszko after he murdered four Mounties in Mayerthorpe, and the lengthy sentences both received for helping him.

In his previous testimony, Nikolyuk maintained he only told police he met with Vader because he thought that was what they wanted to hear, and he was afraid they would arrest him and not let him attend his girlfriend's funeral Aug. 11 if he didn't tell them.

"Because I got food for Travis, and that's assisting," he told Finlayson. "They mentioned how long he went to jail for. It was pretty serious."

Under Finlayson's questioning Nikolyuk confirmed that he had met Vader that night and given him groceries directly.

In the Aug. 9 interview – Finlayson read significant portions of the transcript in court during his cross-examination – Nikolyuk said Vader told him, "That's a lesson. Don't steal vehicles or you get in this kind of trouble," and "I didn't do nothing to those people, I just stole the wrong vehicle at the wrong time."

When pressed repeatedly about why he had lied to police about who made those statements, Nikolyuk said it was because he was scared and selfish.

"(I lied) to get them off my back so I could go to the funeral," he said. "As an addict you're selfish and just want things for yourself."

Finlayson also pointed out that in the statement, Nikolyuk told police Vader had told him he had broken down near a rest stop, found the McCanns' SUV, and drove it around for a few days.

He maintained much of what he told police Vader told him had actually been told to him by a mutual friend, Terry McColman.

Beresh cross-examination

Defence lawyer Brian Beresh also cross-examined Nikolyuk, speaking with him for close to one hour.

Part of the cross-examination confirmed that the information Nikolyuk told police on July 26 and Aug. 9 had come from McColman and not from Vader himself.

He also read lengthy excerpts from the Aug. 9 transcript, in which two officers raised the spectre of Nikolyuk facing the same kind of fate for helping Vader that Cheeseman and Hennessey had had for helping Roszko.

"We want to make sure you're on the right side of the fence," Beresh quoted police as saying. "We don't want you to be in the same boat as them."

"Now they're in jail for the next eight years of their life. Are you sure you're telling us everything?"

Nikolyuk confirmed that conversation scared him, and that's why he transferred what McColman had told him to what Vader had told him, so he could go to the funeral.

Beresh also questioned Nikolyuk at length about his relationship with Vader's ex-girlfriend Amber Williams, McColman and Dave Olson.

Nikolyuk said he had known Williams since 2008, and had bought meth from her upwards of 100 times. He said she worked alone, selling from her house or sometimes meeting him elsewhere, like outside the Mayerthorpe bar.

He understood she supported herself by selling drugs, and he said she would use with him nearly every time he bought from her.

Nikolyuk said he got to know Olson in 2008 as well, and had used meth with him on many occasions, understood him to be an addict, and said he had trouble with his memory and attention span.

"He wasn't all there," he said.

Beresh questioned him at length on McColman, who has since died but was regularly involved in drug-use, vehicle thefts and home break-ins around 2010.

Nikolyuk said he had gone to a remote location with him once he learned Vader was wanted in connection with the McCanns' disappearance, about a five- to 10-minute drive north of McKay.

He said he saw a tent full of clothes and water, and it appeared no one was living there, and said McColman stopped to pick up two bundles of black wire.

Beresh confirmed Nikolyuk had driven "all over" the area with McColman, including Edson, Peers, Nojack, McKay and Wildwood, and that he knew the area very well.

Nikolyuk said he knew McColman supported himself by stealing, and would often stash stolen items around the area – including at seemingly abandoned farm sites.

Beresh showed him pictures of the Samson-Roder property, where the McCanns' SUV was found, and he said he did not specifically remember that property but said the damage caused to the "ransacked" buildings was typical of what McColman might do.

"He would tear everything apart," he said. "He had a thing for small toys, tractors and that, and that's why he would (do it)," Nikolyuk said.

He also said McColman was a "professional" at breaking ignitions to start vehicles without keys, and had seen him do it in less than a minute on a few occasions. Nikolyuk said he sometimes would drive McColman's vehicle after he stole another.

He also said he had seen McColman burn stolen vehicles on one occasion, and knew him to have done it to others as well. He said his method was to douse the floor and seats with diesel fuel, throw a burning paper towel into the cab, and run away.

"He said always leave the window open a crack so the air could get in," he said.

Beresh showed Nikolyuk the photos of the Ford F-350 where the McCanns' keys were found – which had been partially burned, and had a hose running from a fuel tank into the cab – could have been McColman's work.

"I never seen him do it that way, but he probably would if he had the resources to do it," he said. "He wouldn't bat an eye."

Immediately following Beresh's cross-examination, and right before the lunch break, Nikolyuk made his admission to Finlayson that he had, in fact, met with Travis Vader and given him groceries while he was on the run.