Court hears novel defence for man accused of murdering Alberta couple six years ago — they’re not really dead

EDMONTON — The Crown believes a crystal meth user who was hiding from police and desperate for money killed two seniors, but the suspect’s lawyer is questioning whether the couple is really dead.

The first-degree murder trial for , 44, began Tuesday with opening statements by lawyers.

HO / Canadian PressHO / Canadian PressLyle and are shown in an undated handout photo.

Crown prosecutor Jim Stewart told a judge that DNA ties Vader to Lyle and Marie McCann’s abandoned SUV. Stewart said a witness saw Vader driving the vehicle hours after the couple was last seen nearly six years ago.

Evidence will also show Vader called and sent text messages to a former girlfriend from the couple’s cellphone, said Stewart.

Vader’s lawyer, Brian Beresh, told the trial that there’s no proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the McCanns are dead because their bodies have never been found and to say what happened to them is “speculation.”

But if they were killed, he added, police were under pressure to solve the case and focused solely on his client instead of others.

“The names of those suspects will be revealed at this trial,” Beresh said. “Authorities picked the wrong villain.”

Greg SouthamGreg SouthamThis evidence photo from the Travis Vader trial shows a burning motor home belonging to Lyle and Marie McCann. Travis Vader is charged in the deaths of two Edmonton-area seniors who disappeared nearly six years ago.

Vader, once a well-off oilfield worker who was able to support a wife and nine children, had “squandered it all away” with his drug habit and was living in makeshift camps in the summer of 2010, said Stewart. He was also wanted on warrants and police were actively looking for him.

The McCanns, great-grandparents in their late 70s, were last seen fuelling up their motorhome and buying groceries at a Superstore in their hometown of St. Albert, a bedroom community north of Edmonton, on July 3 of that year. They were heading out to meet family in British Columbia.

Stewart said the seniors didn’t make it far and were murdered the day they left home.

Two days later, their motorhome was found burning in the bush west of Edmonton. The Hyundai Tucson they had been towing would later be found hidden in some trees on a nearby rural property.

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Stewart said a witness will testify that he saw Vader twice on July 3 in the hamlet of Peers. “On the first occasion, Vader was driving a stolen pickup truck and had no money. A few hours later, in the afternoon, Vader was driving a green Hyundai Tucson SUV and had money.”

The pickup was later found by RCMP. Someone had attempted to set it on fire and the keys to the couple’s SUV were found in the bed of the truck, said Stewart.

Inside the SUV, experts found Marie McCann’s blood on cans of beans left on the floor, court heard. ’s blood was also discovered on a cap he had been wearing.

Stewart said Vader’s DNA, blood and a fingerprint were found in several spots in the vehicle, including on a can of Boxer beer left in a cup holder.

Greg SouthamGreg SouthamThis evidence photo from the Travis Vader trial shows a vehicle belonging to Lyle and Marie McCann that was found in the woods after their disappearance.

Beresh said there are problems with the forensic evidence that leave doubt as to whether Vader’s DNA was actually anywhere in the SUV. He said other items in the vehicle, as well as cigarette butts found near the motorhome, cannot be matched to his client.

He said he hopes the trial will reveal “negligence and inept investigation” by RCMP.

Vader has filed malicious prosecution lawsuits against prosecutors and the Mounties. He was originally to go to trial in 2014. But the Crown stayed the murder charges just before it was to begin, announcing it had discovered officers didn’t disclose all evidence to lawyers. The charges were relaid nine months later.

Beresh said he plans to show during the trial that one of the first officers to arrive at the motorhome failed to secure valuable evidence and was eventually fired from the force.

About Chris Purdy, The Canadian Press