Travis Vader was found guilty on two counts of second-degree murder Thursday in the deaths of Lyle and Marie McCann six years ago. Even though the couple’s bodies have never been found, Justice Denny Thomas concluded beyond a reasonable doubt that Vader killed the seniors during a robbery.
The McCanns, who were both 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.
A forensic anthropologist testified that he found no human remains in the burned debris from the motorhome. But, Vaders DNA and a fingerprint were found inside the vehicle. He was also in possession of some of the McCann’s belongings.
Vader’s own defence lawyer, Brian Beresh, told the court the Crown’s case lacked “fundamental evidence” to prove the McCanns are dead. “Where are the bodies,” he asked the court in June.
Beresh has signaled the conviction would be appealed.
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.
Here’s a look at other Canadian murder cases where no body was recovered.
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 told The Canadian Press in March.
A jury acquitted Jacob Wanner.
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 said 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 told The Canadian Press 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 said.
“You take small, incremental, plausible, logical steps … It’s a way of coming to see what you cannot see with your own eyes.”
Then there is the case of Robert Baltovitch, a man who was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of murder in a case without a body, only to be released nine years later and then acquitted in a new trial
Baltovitch was found guilty of second-degree murder in 1992 in the killing his 22-year-old girlfriend, Elizabeth Bain, two years earlier. Police claimed he used her car to dump her body, three days after she went missing on June 19, 1990.
He was released in 2004, when the Ontario Court of Appeal set aside his conviction and a new trial was ordered. Four years later, he was found not guilty of second-degree murder.
In 2014, after Baltovich filed a $13-million wrongful conviction lawsuit against Toronto police, Crown attorneys and two of his original defence lawyers, a document was uncovered that reportedly alleged a cover-up.
Although a significant amount of blood was found in her car, when police located it near Lake Scugog, a forensic experts reportedly told Det.-Sgt. Brian Raybould the amount of blood was too much to have come from a body that had been dead for days.
“Defence lawyers weren’t given access to the document and the Crown continued to deny its existence, even after repeated requests, the claim states,” the Toronto Star reported.
His lawsuit is ongoing.
With reporting from The Canadian Press