When ‘death isn’t staring you in the face:’ Murder cases in court without bodies

Legal experts say murder cases without bodies are unusual and it's even more rare for them to go to trial where prosecutors have an uphill task of proving missing people are really dead.

EDMONTON — Legal experts say murder cases without bodies are unusual and it’s even more rare for them to go to trial where prosecutors have an uphill task of proving missing people are really dead.

A trial in Edmonton started this week for Travis Vader, who is charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of two seniors who vanished almost six years ago.

Lyle and Marie McCann, in their late 70s, were last seen fuelling up their motorhome in their hometown of St. Albert, just north of Edmonton, on July 3, 2010. They were setting out for a holiday with family in British Columbia.

They never made it. Their burned-out RV and an SUV they had been towing were discovered in the bush west of the city in the days that followed.

Vader’s defence lawyer has told court there’s not enough evidence to prove the McCanns are dead. A forensic anthropologist testified that he found no human remains in the burned debris from the motorhome.

“It literally has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that there has been a death,” says a Calgary defence lawyer.

In 1991, Noel O’Brien defended a man charged with murdering his estranged wife. Wilhelmina Wanner was last seen alive in 1989, when blood and hair were found in her bathroom, along with a kitchen knife.

O’Brien says he pointed out alternative explanations to the jury, including that the woman ran off. He didn’t have to prove that she did.

“The Crown didn’t prove she didn’t,” he says.

A jury acquitted Jacob Wanner.

O’Brien says there have been convictions in cases with no bodies, but there have been strong motives and circumstantial evidence.

He expects the Crown in the Vader case will call evidence about whether the missing couple used their bank accounts and credit cards after they disappeared and whether the McCanns contacted friends and family.

“How likely is it they wouldn’t have had contact with their children or grandchildren?”

Steven Penney, a law professor at the University of Alberta, says evidence in each case dictates how big of a hurdle it is to prove death. And it would be surprising if Vader’s defence lawyer didn’t raise it as an issue to create some doubt.

Toronto lawyer David Butt was a Crown prosecutor in a no-body case in 2001. Hugh Sinclair, a 72-year-old antique collector, had vanished two years earlier.

Butt says he called dozens of witnesses to testify to show Sinclair didn’t disappear on his own. The man didn’t like to travel or even drive. He kept a regular routine. He had never talked about moving.

Butt says he also had to eliminate the possibilities of accidental death, natural death and suicide.

Court heard Sinclair’s blood was found in his apartment and his DNA was discovered in the trunk of a car rented by a friend, Timothy Culham.

In the end, Butt proved Culham killed the senior to steal his antiques and he was convicted of first-degree murder.

“You have to eliminate all other options … since death isn’t staring you in the face,” Butt says.

“You take small, incremental, plausible, logical steps … It’s a way of coming to see what you cannot see with your own eyes.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks during a news conference in Edmonton on Feb. 24, 2020. It’s budget day in the province, and Kenney’s United Conservative government is promising more help in the fight against COVID, but more red ink on the bottom line. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta’s budget promises more help for COVID-19 with a hard deficit

EDMONTON — Alberta’s COVID-19-era budget made a hard landing Thursday with an… Continue reading

The expansion of the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre has been discussed for over a decade. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Red Deer hospital expansion gets about $6 million in 2021 provincial budget

According to the government’s three-year plan, the project will get $59 million by 2024.

The Town of Sylvan Lake has launched a new contest to attract a new business. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Sylvan Lake offering rent-free storefront space to lure new businesses

Winning business proposal will get a storefront space rent-free for a year

Red Deer Rebels forward Josh Tarzwell is hoping to pick up where he left off last season as the 2020-21 WHL season kicks off Friday in Red Deer against the Medicine Hat Tigers. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Rebels set to host Tigers in WHL season opener

24-game WHL Alberta only season kicks off night Friday at the Centrium

Alberta reported an additional 399 cases of COVID-19 Thursday, on 9,217 tests, for a test positivity rate of 4.3 per cent. (Image courtesy CDC)
Red Deer down to 562 active COVID-19 cases

8 new COVID-19 deaths, 399 additional COVID-19 cases

An arrest by Red Deer RCMP is facing online scrutiny. No charges have been laid and the incident is still under investigation. (Screenshot of YouTube video)
Red Deer RCMP investigating violent arrest caught on video

Police say officer ‘acted within the scope of his duties’

‘Black box’ in Woods SUV could yield clues to cause of wreck

‘Black box’ in Woods SUV could yield clues to cause of wreck

Team Saskatchewan skip Sherry Anderson reacts to her shot against Team Quebec at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Peterson’s wild-card team edges N.W.T. skip Galusha to qualify for championship pool

Peterson’s wild-card team edges N.W.T. skip Galusha to qualify for championship pool

No-size-fits-all residence approach a reality for Canadian Hockey League teams

No-size-fits-all residence approach a reality for Canadian Hockey League teams

FILE - New York Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist reacts after a save during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers in New York, in this Sunday, March 1, 2020, file photo. The Flyers defeated the Rangers 5-3. Star goalie Henrik Lundqvist will sit out the upcoming NHL season because of a heart condition, announcing the news a little more than two months after joining the Washington Capitals. Lundqvist posted a written statement and a videotaped one on social media Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020, saying it was a "pretty tough and emotional day." The 38-year-old from Sweden was bought out by the New York Rangers after 15 seasons and signed a $1.5 million, one-year deal with Washington in October. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
Lundqvist back on ice, ‘months’ away from deciding future

Lundqvist back on ice, ‘months’ away from deciding future

Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa holds up water collected from Neskantaga First Nation, where residents were evacuated over tainted water in October, during a rally at Queen's Park in Toronto on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio
Feds didn’t supply enough resources to end water advisories on First Nations: auditor

Feds didn’t supply enough resources to end water advisories on First Nations: auditor

A dose of COVID-19 vaccine is prepared at a vaccination clinic in Montreal's Olympic Stadium on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Quebec starts COVID-19 vaccination bookings for seniors; those in Ontario must wait

Quebec starts COVID-19 vaccination bookings for seniors; those in Ontario must wait

The corporate logo of Pembina Pipeline Corp. (TSX:PPL) is shown. Calgary-based Pembina Pipeline Corp. says it is "doing what is right for the country and fellow Canadians" by shipping unit trains full to propane to Quebec. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO
Pembina Pipeline posts $1.2 billion loss on petrochemical, LNG project impairments

CALGARY — Pembina Pipeline Corp. is reporting a $1.2 billion net fourth-quarter… Continue reading

Rode
Red Deer College esports league off to a good start

Red Deer College Kings hockey veteran Jacob Wozney has been involved in… Continue reading

Most Read