EDMONTON—The son of an Alberta couple who disappeared while driving to a camping trip with family more than six years ago said Thursday that a murder verdict in their deaths is a huge relief to the family.
But while the agonizing wait for the judge’s decision is over, questions about how Lyle and Marie McCann died remain.
“We don’t know exactly what happened on that afternoon … and probably never will,” Bret McCann said outside court after Travis Vader was found guilty of second-degree murder.
“The convicted person will need to talk and we’re not optimistic that will happen.”
He recalled promising years ago that the family would never stop looking for the McCanns, but on Thursday he admitted the search was over.
“I have to stand down. I’m sorry, mum and dad, I can do no more. I hope that some day, somehow you will be found. I take joy in the legacy you have left behind.
“Our memory of you will last forever.”
Queen’s Bench Justice Denny Thomas said there was no reasonable doubt that Vader killed the McCanns during a robbery, but there was nothing to suggest he planned to do so.
Thomas said Vader was a desperate drug dealer who was addicted to meth and had no money or food when he crossed paths with the couple west of Edmonton on July 3, 2010.
“I cannot conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Vader killed the McCanns in a planned and deliberate manner,” Thomas said in a decision that was broadcast live from court.
“The killing of the McCanns was not a first-degree murder. It is therefore a second-degree murder.”
Vader, dressed in a suit and white shirt, clenched his hands together when the verdict was read and briefly glanced at his lawyer, Brian Beresh.
Members of the McCann family gasped. Bret McCann sat in the front row of the courtroom between his daughter, who put her arm around her dad, and his wife Mary-Ann, who had her head on his shoulder.
When the judge left the courtroom, McCann beamed a big smile as his family and friends hugged each other and cried.
Thomas also rejected a Crown scenario in which Vader killed one of the McCanns during the robbery and then killed the other to eliminate a witness. The justice said there were other possibilities as to how the couple died.
The conviction carries an automatic life sentence, but a sentencing hearing still needs to be held to determine Vader’s parole eligibility. Thomas said he would set a date for that hearing on Oct. 3.
The bodies of the McCanns, who were both in their late 70s, have never been found, but Vader’s DNA and a fingerprint were found in their SUV. The vehicle and the couple’s burned-out motor home were discovered days after the seniors vanished.
“The McCanns and their property were likely nothing more than a target of opportunity—an opportunity that Mr. Vader took,” Thomas said.
Beresh said his client will appeal the verdict. He said the judge appears to have constructed his own version of what happened based on circumstantial evidence.
“We want to review the decision,” Beresh said. “There will be an appeal based upon what we think are errors in the judgment.”
The Crown had argued that Vader, 44, was a crystal meth user living in a makeshift camp when he came across the McCanns and killed them.
The defence countered that, without evidence of human remains or a murder weapon, the Crown’s case was little more than a collection of theories and circumstantial evidence _ and that there was no proof the couple was even dead.
Thomas dismissed the idea the McCanns could still be alive.
“Violence occurred in the interaction between the McCanns and Mr. Vader. There was bloodshed. A gun was discharged,” he said.
“The McCanns were victims of violence. Mr. Vader inflicted that violence. The McCanns suffered bodily harm. The presence of their blood makes that obvious.”
The prosecution called forensic evidence suggesting Vader’s DNA and a fingerprint were found on several items key to the case, including a can of Boxer beer found in the SUV the McCanns had been towing. The defence argued that only proved Vader had “incidental contact” with the vehicle.
Beresh had allowed it might be possible Vader stole the vehicle, but that didn’t mean he killed anyone.
The trial was also told a ball cap with a bullet hole found in the SUV had both Vader’s DNA and Lyle McCann’s blood on it, while blood from Marie McCann was found on canned goods in the back.
Beresh countered that sneezing into a vehicle or onto items might be enough to transfer DNA.
The defence suggested a friend of Vader’s who died five years ago might have killed the McCanns.
Crown prosecutor Ashley Finlayson said he was pleased with the verdict in what he called a long and difficult case.
Finlayson said in the end Thomas accepted the Crown’s theories based on DNA and cellphone evidence and witness testimony.
“Because it was a circumstantial case, it was very important that those little bits of evidence be accepted … to complete the picture—it is almost like a jigsaw puzzle,” he said.
Bret McCann said his parents were kindred spirits, who were married in 1952, loved being together and had a happy life that ended too early.
“It is so, so sad that my parents didn’t live to fully enjoy their golden years, did not live to enjoy their great-grandchildren.
“They and us were robbed of this happiness.”