Calgary man Chris Lee – also known as Kevin Barton – has been found guilty of manslaughter following the death of his long-time gambling partner, Vida Smith.
However, Lee was found not guilty of second-degree murder charges.
Despite the acquittal, Lee will still serve jail time. The 63-year-old openly admitted to killing Smith. And he offered to plead guilty to manslaughter on the first day of the trial – a move rejected by the Crown.
Over the past two weeks, the courtroom heard how Lee fatally choked Smith to death in his car after a disagreement between the two escalated.
Smith’s body was then allegedly dumped near a roadside rest stop in the mountains – although it is still missing.
Despite decision, tragedy still an unspeakable loss
In the end, jurors – who had been deliberately for roughly a day and a half – deemed Lee did not meet the threshold of intent needed to charge someone with murder.
Cory Wilson, Lee’s defence lawyer, called it the “right decision” outside the courtroom on Oct. 28.
But, ultimately, he said there is no winner in such tragedies.
“While we are very happy with the outcome, this decision in no way diminishes the fact that this was a terrible tragedy and an unspeakable loss for the family of Vida Smith.”
Court rules killing manslaughter, not murder
One of the main distinctions between manslaughter and murder is intention. According to Canadian law, first and second-degree murder charges must establish intent. To that end, Lee’s defence lawyer called Smith’s death “a tragedy but not murder.”
As the story goes, Lee testified Smith was to sell her ex-husband’s passport to him for $10,000. Local Calgary casinos had banned the card counter from their establishments, so the documentation would come in handy.
But when Smith arrived, she presented a birth certificate.
Smith’s daughter testified that her mother – who had fallen on tough financial times – was planning to sell a birth certificate, not a passport, to Lee. From there, Lee alleged that Smith tried to flee his car with the money.
According to the accused, an altercation ensued. Lee grabbed Smith by the neck, and the mother went limp roughly 30 seconds later.
Complex relationship precedes Smith’s killing
Earlier in the trial, both parties illustrated a “complex relationship” between the pair. Initially, the duo hit it off great, travelling the world as card counters and winning big together.
However, eventually, the relationship soured and became tense.
Crown prosecutor William Tran described them as “frenemies” – sometimes friends, sometimes enemies.
Lee: “Split-second reaction” to grab Smith
In Canadian law, murder charges can often be reduced to manslaughter when the accused can establish a cause of provocation. To that end, Lee testified he made a “split-second decision” to prevent Smith from leaving with his money.
According to Wilson, this – and not a deliberate murderous plot or a previously tumultuous relationship – was Lee’s reason for killing Smith.
“It’s easy for any of us to sit back and play Monday morning quarterback. Put yourself in the shoes of Mr. Lee, or anybody else that’s a victim of theft.
“He tried to stop Ms. Smith from stealing $10,000 and in 30 seconds tragedy unfolded.”
Lee destroys evidence and evades police
However, following the death, Lee “panicked” – something that would fuel the prosecution’s case.
Consider the gambler moved Smith’s body to his white Cadillac Escalade. Days later, he alleged he took it to the mountains near Banff and Canmore and dumped it in a tarp near a roadside rest stop.
A week after Smith went missing, police were tailing Lee. That led them to Varsity, AB – a northwest community of Calgary – where he was visiting his girlfriend.
Although present in the household, Lee’s partner, Winnie Lo, lied to police when officers knocked at her door.
She told them she hadn’t seen Lee.
Lo would later say she was scared and was unaware of the situation, wanting to speak with her boyfriend beforehand.
Crown says Lee shot Smith, an act of second-degree murder
Come morning; Lee began destroying evidence.
Police spotted the accused cleaning the back of his Escalade, tossing Smith’s car keys out and – most important to the Crown’s case – discarding a homemade gun silencer.
Crown co-prosecutors Shane Parker and Tran suggested Lee took Smith elsewhere and shot her – a scenario, legally speaking, warranting second-degree murder charges.
Parker implied that could explain why police found handcuffs with Smith’s DNA in Lee’s car at the time of his arrest.
Destruction of Smith’s body conceals manner of her death
According to them, Lee’s vague description of where he dumped Smith’s body ensured the real cause of her death would never be known.
“Vida’s body, if it was available, would reveal how she died.
“Mr. Lee took extraordinary steps to conceal Ms. Smith’s body… The common-sense inference is that Mr. Lee destroyed the body in order to conceal the nature and extent of her injuries.”
At the time of his arrest, Lee’s car also contained the following:
- Five loaded handguns and rifles
- 1,000 rounds of ammunition
- $44,000 in cash
- Smith’s purse, cellphone, wallet
Sentencing begins this week
With the verdict now in, sentencing submissions are the next focus. Co-counsel Parker and Tran and defence lawyer Wilson will make their cases.
Court of King’s Bench Justice Rosemary Nation will be overseeing the submissions.
Lee remains on bail ahead of the hearing.