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13 years later, slaying of Mountie, teacher troubles Pincher Creek

Of all the milestones shared by Pincher Creek’s high school Class of 2010, the unsolved double murder of their kindergarten teacher and her Mountie boyfriend is one they’d rather forget.

They were five-year-olds at Canyon Elementary School in the winter of 1997 when classes were abruptly cancelled for the rest of the year.

Now, after graduating from Grade 12 earlier this year, the former pupils of slain teacher Lorraine McNab say their heartbreak has never healed.

"I know she would have loved to watch us grow up into the adults we have become, because she is the one who began to shape our futures first," said Cassidy Zeller, who turns 19 today, sharing her birthday with the grim anniversary of the unsolved double shooting.

"When I drive past her place, yeah, it’s a hard sight to see. But what hits the hardest now that I’m older is that it’s unsolved. It’s upsetting. It feels unfair," said Zeller. "No one knows who took her from us."

The bodies of McNab, 47, and RCMP Sgt. Peter Sopow, 52, were found in a locked horse trailer at McNab’s acreage on Dec. 15, 1997.

The couple had been shot to death and dragged inside the trailer two days earlier.

Their killer has not been found.

The couple of six months, who were both divorced with two children each, was last seen alive returning to McNab’s acreage after dinner with relatives in nearby Twin Butte around 10:30 p.m. on Dec. 13.

But they made it only as far as the driveway of McNab’s small mobile home when someone with a .22-calibre gun shot them. The murder weapon has never been found.

Police said there was no break-in, no thefts from Sopow’s wallet, no sexual assault. Sopow’s red 1993 Ford pickup remained parked outside McNab’s trailer.

"The most frustrating thing to figure out is the killer’s motivation," said former student Shaun Barbero, 18.

"From watching all of those shows like CSI and Law and Order, they always solve it. Now I realize that there’s a good chance that it may never get solved."

This year, the RCMP has launched a renewed investigation into the double homicide.

RCMP Sgt. Steve Black of Calgary’s major crimes has the task of reviewing 15 banker boxes packed with evidence, statements, and 1,000 public tips — all of which he’s tasked with reviewing.

"It’s very hard for people to keep secrets the longer time goes on," said Black. "We’re looking at all areas. Hopefully somebody will fill in the pieces."

Black was a young Mountie stationed in a British Columbia detachment when news of the killings and massive dragnet made headlines across the country.

He says he wondered then what it would be like to lead such a high-profile investigation.

"These were pillars of the community. Their families deserve to know who took their lives," said Black.

News of his sister’s murder case being handed off to another Mountie in charge of dusting off the cold case file makes Grant McNab weary.

"It’s a good sign, but we’ve heard that song before. We’ve gone through an awful lot of them in 13 years. Still, it’s good to have fresh eyes and thinking," said McNab from his Pincher Creek ranch, about 200 kilometres southwest of Calgary.

"We’re country people. We’ve got big shoulders. We can take it."

While the family welcomes a renewed effort to catch a killer, they wonder if mistakes were made early on in the investigation.

"It’s easy to second guess and question if they made mistakes. There were so many people running around on that scene," he said.

"I think two people had to be involved. Your mind goes wild."

McNab would be a grandmother of three. Her daughter’s two girls are both named in her honour.

"The kids are doing well, they’re starting their own families," he said.

Each year, the family marks Mc-Nab’s passing by lighting candles at 6 p.m. mountain time.

"We all get to be with Lorraine for a few minutes. She’s still alive in our hearts. We just carry on. We’ve still got a small hope that something will happen."

One of the strangest twists in the case came two days after the murders were discovered. On Dec. 17, RCMP arrested and questioned Wally Sparks, a local elementary schoolteacher who, according to his neighbours in Cowley, knew McNab when they taught at the same school.

The next day, Sparks was detained under the Alberta Mental Health Act and transferred to the psychiatric unit at Lethbridge Regional Hospital for assessment. He was released in February and lives in Cowley.

A .22-calibre rifle went missing from Cowley. Mounties will not confirm if the rifle and car belong to the same person, but the gun’s owner was questioned on how the gun vanished.

The mystery is at times too much to bear, McNab’s students say.

"It’s kind of hard, you wonder about it, it’s one of those things you click back to. You can’t let it haunt you," said Jacey French, 18. "I think she’d be proud of us. We’re the biggest graduating class with over 60 of us."

The sadness of the double murder is something the classmates will always carry with them.

"I’ve never forgotten, nor do I believe I’ll ever forget," said Sean Oliver. "Ms. McNab was a wonderful lady and I’m glad she taught us, even if it was cut short."

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