EDMONTON — Charges have been stayed against a man accused in the deaths of an Alberta couple who disappeared almost four years ago.
The Crown abruptly stayed two counts of first-degree murder against Travis Vader during a pre-trial hearing Wednesday.
RCMP declared Vader a person of interest in the case shortly after Lyle and Marie McCann were reported missing in July 2010. The couple, who were in their 70s, lived in St. Albert, a bedroom community north of Edmonton.
They were last seen alive fuelling up their motorhome for a trip to British Columbia to vacation with their family. The burned-out vehicle was found west of Edmonton two days later. A week later, the SUV they’d been towing was also discovered.
The couple’s bodies have never been found.
Vader’s defence lawyer, Brian Beresh, said his client was “shocked and elated” by the surprise stay.
Vader was scheduled to go to trial on the murder charges next month, but Beresh said he was still fighting for disclosure of evidence from the Crown. He said the evidence he did see on the case was “shoddily gathered … a bunch of strings that was never tied together.”
A stay means the Crown has the option of reactivating the charges in the next year if new evidence comes up. Beresh said if that happens, it would be an abuse of process.
Beresh was critical of the RCMP and justice officials for mishandling the case and said the McCann family deserves better.
“Those who are looking for answers should expect, in my view, a better investigation, more clear information and not to be led to a wrong belief.
“The problem is if a citizen is indicted by police publicly, that can never be removed. And it leads to people, such as the relatives, to a belief that the police have solved this when, in my view, that did not happen.”
Crown prosecutor Michelle Doyle did not explain the stays in court. Justice spokeswoman Michelle Davio later said in a statement that the Crown has a duty to constantly review a case and ensure there is a reasonable likelihood of conviction.
“The Crown may not continue a prosecution unless it has had the opportunity to conduct this review, particularly if additional information is provided to it by the police investigators,” Davio said.
Vader still faces other charges unrelated to the McCann case and remains in custody.
The mystery surrounding the disappearance of the McCanns gripped Alberta and the rest of Canada for much of the summer of 2010.
After the burned-out motorhome was found and documents inside linked it to the McCanns, Mounties phoned the couple and knocked on the door of their house.
But police didn’t begin searching for them until five days later after their daughter reported her parents hadn’t shown up in Abbotsford, B.C., for a camping trip.
RCMP explained at the time that the case didn’t set off alarm bells immediately because vehicles are often found burning in the bush and it’s not unusual for people to be away from home during the summer.
Police also faced embarrassment when they revealed tipsters had come into an RCMP detachment in Prince George, B.C., saying that they had spotted the SUV the couple had been towing behind their motorhome. Mounties admitted that they hadn’t taken down the tipsters’ contact information.
Police spent several days searching the area around the burned-out motorhome. They combed 260 square kilometres on the ground and by air with no success.
The family publicly urged tipsters to come forward with any information. Son Bret McCann started a Facebook group dedicated to finding his missing parents. It quickly logged hundreds of members.
Vader was named as a person of interest in the case in the weeks following the couple’s disappearance.
He wasn’t immediately charged with murder, but he was already wanted on a long list of outstanding warrants and he was arrested at a rural home in the same area where the vehicles were found.
Over the weeks and months, the search for the McCanns went cold.
Volunteers explored more areas of northern bush. A reward was announced for anyone providing information leading investigators to the bodies. A large billboard with a picture of the couple was erected along a busy highway.
Still, nothing has been found.
A year later, an Edmonton court granted an order that declared the McCanns dead so their family could start processing their wills.