Decades-Long Card Counting Partnership Ends In Calgary Murder

Written By Jose Colorado on October 20, 2022
Calgary man charged in card counting murder. Image features close-up of blackjack hand isolated on black background centred text reads murder charge in white

An international blackjack card counting partnership that spanned decades has resulted in second-degree murder charges.

Details surrounding the mysterious disappearance and alleged murder of Vida Smith, 69, at the hands of long-time gambling partner and ‘frenemy’ Chris Lee, have emerged.

Prosecutors say that Lee, also known as Kevin Barton, is responsible for Smith’s murder after the pair’s partnership went awry. Reportedly, the card-playing hustlers amassed hundreds of thousands of dollars over decades on the gambling circuit.

Smith went missing in Calgary, Alberta, on July 21, 2020. Her body is still missing.

Meanwhile, Lee admitted Smith’s killing but stopped short of pleading guilty to a second-degree charge. Instead, he wants manslaughter.

The Crown, however, rejected that proposal on Oct.17 and is proceeding with the murder charge.

DNA, missing cell phone and wallet tell grim story

Crown co-prosecutors Shane Parker and William Tran said the 13-member jury should expect abundant evidence linking Lee to Smith’s murder over the coming days.

The case centres around Lee’s white Cadillac Escalade, where Smith’s blood, DNA (on a set of handcuffs), purse, cell phone and wallet were all retrieved.

Tran said a forensic entomologist would testify the SUV’s back storage area also contained cleaning product residue and maggots.

Police – who arrested Lee nine days after Smith went missing – also seized the following from the accused at the time of his arrest:

  • $44,000 in cash
  • Five loaded handguns and rifles
  • 1,000 rounds of ammunition
  • Knives
  • Masks
  • Cellphones

Victim’s daughter: pair won hundreds of thousands

Smith originally married Michael Alan Smith years ago. But when the pair split, Lee entered the picture.

The two sparked a relationship in the early 1990s with Lee teaching Smith how to play blackjack – and, most importantly – count cards.

Card counting is a blackjack strategy used to determine whether the player or dealer has the advantage on the next hand.

While not illegal in Canada, a landmark case in 1995 deemed casinos have legal autonomy to take counter-measures against card counters (e.g., banning or asking them to leave).

In either case, according to Smith’s daughter, Neda Power – the first to testify in the accused’s trial – her mother and Lee excelled at card counting.

According to one testimony, the pair even travelled the world — including India and Australia — winning hundreds of thousands.

Power said all seemed well during these times.

Distrust builds as payouts grow

However, according to prosecutor Tran, over the years, the relationship soured.

“Vida and Chris were once business associates who made money by gambling together at local casinos and even internationally. As time passed over the years, their relationship could best be described as frenemies.

Sometimes they were friends. Sometimes they were enemies.”

According to Power, one reason for that turn could be the increased pressure with more considerable payouts.

“When you’re dealing with that much money with each other, there may have been some disagreements. It was very up and down.”

Regardless, both Tran and Power argued the relationship devolved into a “love-hate” cycle.

Smith disappears after meeting Lee at Calgary Starbucks

COVID made matters worse.

With casinos closed and offerings limited, Smith began to feel the financial pinch in 2020.

Power believes those conditions forced her mother to go to great lengths to make ends meet, including working on a “cheating device” initiated by Lee.

Smith – who lived in Montreal at the time of her death after being banned from Albertan casinos for card counting – was in town. She was visiting her daughter in Chestermere, Alta.

According to the daughter, Smith also agreed to sell her ex-husband’s birth certificate to Lee for $10,000.

The pair met at a northeast Starbucks in Calgary on July 21, 2020, around 12:30 p.m. After roughly 30 minutes at the coffee shop, security cameras captured the two leaving together in Lee’s vehicle.

Smith has not been seen since.

Lee unknowingly leads police tail to silencer, cash and more

Power reported her mother missing the next day.

A week later, police were tailing Lee. That led them to Varsity – a northwest community of Calgary. Authorities observed the man enter the home of his alleged girlfriend, Winnie Lo.

At the time, Lee was living with Lo. During her testimony, Lo claimed she had never heard of Smith despite her relationship with Lee overlapping with Smith’s for nearly 20 years.

When officers knocked on Lo’s door, she told them she hadn’t seen Lee.

After the police left, they reported seeing Lee get into his white Cadillac Escalade. He spent the night in the vehicle.

Come morning, prosecutors say, Lee:

  • Drove to a car wash
  • Vacuumed the vehicle
  • Disposed of items (boxes of baking soda, homemade gun silencer, Smith’s car keys)

Police seized all items and arrested Lee shortly after.

Photo by Shutterstock
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Jose Colorado

Jose Colorado is a British Columbia-based writer. He lives in Burnaby and loves sports, anime, writing, business and the occasional walk on the beach.

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