“See this girl she was treated like a nobody noone came to help her fight in court,not one person came forward to say hey i seen him abuse her.where was everyone fat mouths when she needed help today.there was no fucken justice today not even a fair trial…56 months for taking a life so brutally.” — Relative of Natasha Moar
And in the end, When it came to investigating Natasha Linda Moar’s homicide, RCMP and the Crown were ultimately left with two stories: The one told by her living, breathing killer and his family, and another told by her lifeless, battered body.
What follows I’m presenting for two reasons. One, I believe there has to be some complete record of what was put on the record about this case. A 400 word newspaper story, while adequate for many reports, fails here. And the initial RCMP press release obviously is useless to come to any understanding.
(And that release could be considered forthcoming by today’s standard of police to-public disclosure of most criminal events).
Two: I completely understand the need for plea deals in the criminal justice system. I’m just not sure I fully comprehend the one that saw Leslie Grant McDonald, 27, receive an effective sentence of five years for manslaughter in connection with her death, with 56 months left to serve going forward.
It bears remembering at the outset: Moar was pronounced dead in hospital on July 12, 2009, nearly four years ago. The case came to a sudden conclusion Monday after McDonald elected to plead guilty on the day his trial was set to begin. His preliminary hearing concluded in May 2011, two years ago.
Here’s how things proceeded Monday in the Dauphin Court of Queen’s Bench, with senior Crown attorney Dale Harvey representing the state, and veteran defence lawyer Roberta Campbell acting for McDonald. Justice Robert Cummings is the presiding judge.
The case begins with McDonald freely and voluntarily pleading guilty to manslaughter for his former common-law’s death. The plea is accepted by Cummings, with the usual caution that the judge is not bound by any joint-recommendation presented to the court and can impose any sentence he feels is fit.
Harvey begins by explaining the matter was set for trial, and that no pre-sentencing or Gladue report examining McDonald’s background will be presented. Cummings is told McDonald has been in touch with an elder in his home community of Crane River — and it’s possible arrangements will be made for him to apply to go to a Correctional Service of Canada “healing lodge” after he gets to Stony Mountain.
Harvey explains the joint-recommendation which the court will hear about factors in the relevant Gladue factors which apply to McDonald’s case, and the sentence being sought [which isn’t revealed at the outset] has been adjusted “downward” from what the Crown would ordinarily seek in similar circumstances based on that consideration.
There are no victim impact statements filed. The Crown explains one of the sides of Moar’s family have what was termed an “acrimonious” relationship with justice officials due to their “lack of faith in the justice system to do its job properly.”
Harvey then begins relaying the facts of the case for Cummings.
The morning of July 12, 2009: McDonald’s mom’s common-law calls RCMP to say Moar was unconscious and not breathing “due to cardiac arrest.” “That’s how it was reported,” Harvey says. The caller relays that Moar was “cold and stiff” and CPR was not being initiated.
RCMP Const. St. Cyr of the Ste. Rose du Lac detachment — located 72 kilometres from Crane River, is dispatched to a suite at the Crane River “elderly person’s home.”
The community is some distance away from the detachment, about 70 k.m.
At 12:37 p.m., two rural paramedics went to the suite — getting there before St. Cyr — and radios that Moar “was breathing” and would be taken to the Ste. Rose hospital for treatment.
RCMP are told no police attendance is required.
“That’s still confusing from the Crown’s perspective,” Harvey says. “As it was clear that Ms. Moar had been dead for some time.”
Around 1:52 p.m. St. Cyr and his partner are then at the hospital on an unrelated matter when the partner is approached by the on-call ER doctor. Moar was pronounced dead, the cop is told, and the doctor believed the death “was suspicious” as she had a number of bruises on her face and legs.
The partner tells St. Cyr this and he takes off to Crane River. The partner then looks at Moar in the exam room and noted she has “obvious signs of trauma” and bruising on her face and body.
2:43 p.m. — St. Cyr arrives in Crane River, and finds the local band constable there securing the crime scene. The band constable says when he arrived there, there were people inside the suite attending to Moar. He took photos of the scene and spoke with a number of people. “Quite frankly, he did his best to keep people out of the actual crime scene in and of itself,” Harvey says.
The photos are given to the RCMP. The band cop “did a remarkable job in the circumstances,” with limited training, court is told. He “had enough common sense to try and preserve the scene as much as possible,” says Harvey.
St. Cyr then begins the interview process. He first speaks to the man who called the RCMP earlier and McDonald’s mother. They were sitting at a picnic table just outside the residence. St. Cyr noted it appeared there had been a party of sorts at the table the evening before.
At 2:47, the investigation takes a major turn when St. Cyr arrests Leslie McDonald for second-degree murder and assault causing bodily harm. Asked if he understood his rights, McDonald replied: “I had a fight with her last night — we were drinking.”
At 3 p.m. he’s again told the RCMP warning of his rights and police caution. McDonald says he understands. “Yeah, but can I make a statement?,” he asks.
At 3:14, McDonald and St. Cyr start talking. The cop only has his notebook and is recording the comments as best he can on the fly.
“About the murder, man, I don’t know. I agree that I assaulted her but after we were done fighting we blacked out. We came to later, we had sex. She wanted me out of the room. I went in the living room, watched TV, fell asleep. I got up, looked outside, it was daylight. I could hear her gurgling in the bedroom. At that time I didn’t think nothing of it. I fell asleep again. I got up around 10-10:30, went to the washroom. Then went to the bedroom to check up on her. She had brown puke coming out of her mouth, out of her nose. I started to shake her, to wake her up. I tried to get an answer from her. I put my hand on her stomach to see if she was breathing. I checked her pulse. She had no pulse. I know CPR. I started it, opened her mouth, removed the brown stuff. I tried to make her gag. I panicked, yelled at her. I tried calling my mom four or five times. I got in my car, went to my mum’s … told her what was going on. She came back with me to the house. My mom tried calling people as [her common-law] called the ambulance…”
“I just stayed back and waited outside with my mother,” St. Cyr recorded McDonald as saying.
At 3:23, another cop comes to relieve St. Cyr and he drives McDonald back to the Ste. Rose detachment.
At 5:00, McDonald spoke with a lawyer who calls back at 6:17. They talk till 6:40 p.m.
Meanwhile, an RCMP forensic specialist examines Moar at the hospital. He notes there’s some blood on her face and ear, bruising on face, a slap mark on her cheek, bruising on her right wrist and a discolouration below her knees.
That afternoon, McDonald’s mom’s common-law also gives a statement. Says he was at home that morning when Leslie “arrived screaming and yelling that Natasha was not breathing and he wanted his mom to help.” He went to the old folks home 25 minutes later after being called to the scene as well. He says he went in and found Moar on the bed, no pulse. He says he called the hospital and spoke to a clerk who told him to call for an ambulance. He tells police McDonald, Moar and two others — including McDonald’s dad — were drinking at the residence the night before. He says McDonald told him the two other men left there and McDonald said he went to bed around 3:30 a.m. He also said McDonald disclosed fighting with Moar but said they made up.
Leslie McDonald’s mom told police a similar story, saying her son came to her home yelling and screaming, that Moar wasn’t breathing and had a cold forehead.
The next day, an RCMP corporal with the Serious Crime Unit comes to interview McDonald on video. McDonald discloses he and Moar had been drinking beer and whiskey, smoking hash and doing some cocaine for most of July 11, the day before she died. An argument they had led to a fight, he says. “He admitted to slapping her many times” with “full force” as well as knocking her down at least three or four times. He denied using any weapons, a closed fist or kicking Moar. After their fight, she calmed down somewhat and asked him to get her something cold.”
He told RCMP he brought her two packs of frozen meat to put on her swollen face and “at that point realized he had gone too far.”
The meat was exchanged for a bag of frozen French fries. He says they had sex at 12 a.m. and afterwards he left the room to watch TV. He woke up around 3 a.m. and says he could hear her gurgling “like she was having trouble breathing but thought it was nothing out of the ordinary.” McDonald continued to watch TV until her fell asleep again. At 10 a.m he says he awoke and found her lying in bad with her hands up by her head — saw vomit, cleared it away and tried to induce more vomiting and CPR. “He knew then that she was gone,” Cummings was told of his statement.
McDonald admitted at one point in the fight, he had pushed Moar down and she fell onto a coffee mug which broke beneath her. She had also hit her head on a “fabric covered recliner” in the bedroom. “He was unsure if she has hit her head on anything else.”
McDonald then admitted to using a dish towel to snap at her in the face — a blow he knew had hurt her. He also says he noted blood by her head and her pillow. There was another blood pool of blood seen, but McDonald says it was his.
This same day, Dr. Charles Littman conducts the autopsy on Moar, with RCMP in attendance. More on this below.
July 14: RCMP execute two search warrants — two days after Moar’s death. One is for the crime scene and another for a vehicle outside the old folks home.
McDonald’s dad also gives a statement. It was his home where Moar died. He says he had been sitting outside with the couple and others as they drank rye and Labatt’s Lite beer. While McDonald and Moar were outside, they appeared to be fine, not fighting. He says Moar went inside first, followed by McDonald. “It was still daylight,” when they went in, he says.
Another man present at the table also says the couple “seemed to be fine.” He says he, a woman and another man left around 9 p.m. on July 11.
Harvey tells the court: As in so many violent cases, the description of the crime scene has varied widely. “It has been the source of several unfortunate rumours throughout the community as to people having cleaned up the scene. It’s obvious, I think, from the photographs taken by the community constable and the police that very little, if anything was done to clean up the scene and there’s significant evidence of a fight and trauma apparent from the photographs.”
He then tells court a database check shows McDonald had been charged with assault with a weapon in 2008 with respect to a suspected attack on Moar. “Ultimately that allegation went nowhere as she declined to testify. So no conviction arising from that.” The allegation was McDonald had hit Moar with a bottle in the head. At the time of her death, he was also wanted in Calgary where he was charged for mischief but skipped out on court. He has no convictions whatsoever, Harvey tells Cummings.
Harvey then moves on to the findings of Dr. Littman’s autopsy.
Littman found “multiple layers of trauma all over the entire body, primarily the head and face.”
- 27 areas of trauma to her head
- 18 to her torso
- 11 to her upper limbs
- 14 to her lower limbs
- 14 to her hands, with some described as “offensive” wounds from her fighting back.
The degree of force, Littman found, was at the “severe” end — missing the mark on the “extreme” end of the spectrum because her skull wasn’t fractured.
Her head injuries were consistent of being struck with fists or the open heels of hands. She also has “linear abrasions” on her body “suggestive of dragging of the body,” Harvey says. Her liver had a small laceration.
She had sustained a large “acute” subdural haemorrhage which was attributed as the cause of death. It’s possible a hit in the head with the heel of the hand caused it. The pathologist also found a prior subdural haemorrhage which had “resolved naturally.”
A toxicology report found significant levels of alcohol consumption and traces of cocaine and marijuana in Moar’s blood.
Having presented the autopsy findings, Harvey then moves to the point: “We know there has been previous incidents of violence,” he says, telling Cummings that several people RCMP spoke to in the investigation recalled seeing Moar in the community showing “signs of trauma” and sometimes seeking shelter “briefly.”
“All of which of course — the nature of the relationship begs the question as how someone could do this to someone they supposedly love is beyond comprehension to most people. In our society … and I’m sure the court would agree — this is unfortunately an all too common event that leads to tragic results.” Their dysfunctional relationship and substance abuse fuelled the tragedy, Harvey said.
He then moved on to talk about the Criminal Code sentencing objective as set out in 718 [e]:
“To provide reparations for harm done to victims or to the community.”
This was unlikely to happen here in this case, Harvey suggested.
“There is nothing that will happen here today that will make up for the sense of loss ….”
He then presented the aggravating factors of the case: Spousal abuse being the first and most concerning. He pointed to 718.2 [ii] as a statutory aggravating factor:
“(ii) evidence that the offender, in committing the offence, abused the offender’s spouse or common-law partner,”
He then pointed to factors in mitigation for McDonald, restating his lack of prior criminal record and the fact he pleaded guilty.
The Crown then went on to talk about the “extreme distrust” and “animosity” Moar’s family has of the system, noting how an altercation at the conclusion of the preliminary hearing required extra security to be brought in for the cancelled trial and sentencing.
They may not recognize the criminal justice system is a “place of last resort,” Hervey said.
“We deal with events after they have happened and that the criminal justice system cannot undo what has been done. And that the prevention of similar tragedies begins in the home as well as society generally. Where and when it works, there’s no need for the criminal justice system,” he said.
Still, he told Cummings, we must still try to do what’s possible within the law. He then relays the joint recommendation of five years, saying it’s within the range of sentences when Gladue factors are accounted for.
Lawyer Roberta Campbell noted McDonald had only elected to have a trial given the nature of the abusive relationship he and Moar shared.
It wasn’t just a “one-sided” volatility — “but in fact bent both ways,” she said. Campbell noted how McDonald had once had one of his tattoos bitten off by Moar in a fight and also had been attacked by her to the point he needed stitches on his head and legs.
“It was just an incredibly volatile, violent and unfortunately, (a) relationship based around substance abuse … it really is a tragedy, a really great tragedy.”
McDonald’s version of their final fight was again put forward: He says the fight began as verbal, he tried to leave and she held on to him and a fistfight broke out. “this was a fight, a brawl .. initially he was trying to extract himself from the situation and it deteriorated.”
After making up, they were getting along again. Campbell noted how he ran for help, didn’t run from and co-operated with police. “He didn’t run away. He was completely forthright about what happened,” she said. McDonald wanted to plead guilty “immediately” he felt so bad — but agreed not to on legal advice to wait until the medical reports were in and what the cause of death was.
“It was obviously one of the slaps (that killed her), it was hard,” she says.
Campbell reiterated how he was just 23 when it happened. McDonald, born and raised in Crane River, was granted bail and was released to the Teen Challenge program for 18 months. His troubles with alcohol led him back to the streets — where in Winnipeg he was stabbed in the face, and needed 40 stitches. McDonald also faced bail breach charges, which he was set to deal with after the manslaughter sentencing was over.
“When he does mess up, it’s always with alcohol,” Campbell said.
Offered a chance to speak, McDonald indicated he was at a loss for words. He said he was happy the matter was getting dealt with.
“I’ve waited a long time for this time to come,” he said.
We know what the court decided, so I won’t repeat it.
I want to be clear: None of this is meant as a criticism of the Crown, the court or the other players involved in resolving this case. It bears repeating Harvey’s comment from above, because I agree with him. I’m also not presenting it to play up the horrific violence Moar was subjected to.
“We deal with events after they have happened and that the criminal justice system cannot undo what has been done. And that the prevention of similar tragedies begins in the home as well as society generally. Where and when it works, there’s no need for the criminal justice system.”
But I’m honestly trying to consider the evidence as presented to determine how five years was arrived at. I don’t know what to think about it. It’s clear Moar’s family isn’t happy with the result, and others too are questioning what message the sentence sends.
But aside from that, there’s other important questions here too.
Such as: What intervention and resources were available to Moar given the remote and tiny — and clearly tight-knit — community in which she and McDonald lived? If others saw her bruised and battered time and again, was there something they should or could have done? This isn’t the first domestic homicide case in recent memory where a paucity of resources was a factor to consider.
As well, there’s obvious questions about the remoteness of RCMP from this community, which may have played a role in the evidence-gathering and investigative process. How is a band constable with limited training supposed to handle a homicide scene in a community where he’s likely to be slammed for playing the heavy, if he/she should do that?
Members of Moar’s family have an “acrimonious” view of the justice system and no faith it would fulfil its purpose Why is that? What can be done to fix it, if anything?
These are just a few of the questions which this case brings to mind for me.
Maybe they’re ones Manitoba’s Domestic Violence Death Review Committee might undertake to examine.