Calgary triple murder case makes legal history

Douglas GarlandA Calgary murder case has established a significant Canadian precedent. For the first time, a multiple murderer has been sentenced to 75 years in prison without parole eligibility in a case in which the bodies of the victims were not found. A judge imposed the crushing penitentiary term – three consecutive life sentences – on Douglas Garland (inset) in February 2017, after he was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of five-year-old Nathan O’Brien and his grandparents, Alvin Liknes, 66, and Kathy Liknes, 53. Only a handful of Canadian killers have been sentenced to prison terms longer than 25 years, under changes to criminal law that came into force in 2011.

The victims, (from left) Alvin Liknes, Kathryn Liknes, Nathan O’Brien

The victims vanished in 2014 and, although their bodies were not found, jurors at Garland’s trial were told that investigators believe he kidnapped them on June 29, 2014 and took them to his family’s farm north of the city, in Airdrie. The victims may have been tortured and murdered before their bodies were burned. Jurors were shown aerial photographs that prosecutors contend show the bodies of the victims prone in the grass at the Garland property. The photos were taken by an aerial surveying firm. The bodies were not located when Garland was arrested two weeks after the victims disappeared, although forensic investigators found the DNA of the trio at the Airdrie farm – including on a meathook and a saw. Small pieces of human remains, including what were believed to be teeth, also were found.

A murder prosecution is not unheard of in Canada in the absence of the body of the victim, but cases with multiple victims are rare.

In 1987, Al Dolejs, a Calgary man, was convicted of murdering his 12-year-old son Paul and his 10-year-old daughter Gabi. Their bodies were not found until after Dolejs was convicted, when he led police to the remains. 

In January 2017, Travis Vader was convicted of two counts of manslaughter in the deaths of Lyle and Marie McCann, Edmonton-area seniors who disappeared in 2010. Their burned out motorhome and SUV were found but a forensic anthropologist could not find any human remains in the charred debris. Vader is appealing.

In the past decades, there have been successful murder prosecutions in the absence of a single body.

In 2001, Timothy Culham was convicted of murdering 72-year-old Toronto antique collector Hugh Sinclair. Sinclair’s body was recovered after the conviction. Culham lost an appeal against his conviction for first-degree murder.

Peter Stark was convicted in 1994 of first-degree murder in the death of Julie Stanton, a 14-year-old girl who had been his neighbour in Pickering, Ontario. She disappeared in 1990. Her body was found two years after Stark had been convicted and sent to prison. In Stark’s appeal, the Court of Appeal for Ontario noted that at trial “there was no crime scene evidence placed before the jury, nor any other forensic evidence establishing a connection between [Stark] and Julie Stanton.” The appeal was dismissed. Stark died behind bars in 2016 at age 71.

While the Garland prosecution was largely circumstantial, prosecutors had evidence that tied him directly to the victims, including the forensic findings at the farm and surveillance footage from the Calgary neighbourhood where the Likneses lived that captured a truck matching the description of Garland’s. The truck was seen in the area on the day the victims vanished. 

Although it’s not yet clear if Garland will appeal, appeals are commonplace in cases where accused are convicted of first-degree murder. 

Robert Baltovich was convicted of second-degree murder in 1992, although police had not found the body of his purported victim, his girlfriend Elizabeth Bain. The 22-year-old Toronto woman disappeared in 1990. Baltovich spent eight years in prison. He appealed and his conviction was overturned, primarily because the appeal court found that his trial was unfair. “The charge to the jury was unfair and unbalanced,” Ontario’s top court ruled. “It also contained significant errors of law that were prejudicial to the appellant.” The court ordered a new trial but at the second trial, the prosecution called no evidence and Baltovich was acquitted.

In the Garland case, prosecutors also had compelling evidence from the Liknes home. There were bloodstains and bloody handprints that indicated a violent struggle had taken place, evidence suggesting that the three family members had been assaulted, perhaps incapacitated by violent blows, and abducted.  Forensic examiners did not find Garland’s DNA in the blood-stained Liknes home.

In a first-degree murder case the prosecution must establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, four essential elements: that the accused person committed an unlawful act, that the unlawful act caused the death of the victim, that the accused person had the intent required for murder and, the murder was both planned and deliberate. Although motive is not an essential element that must be proved in a murder case, prosecutors established that Garland long harbored a grudge against Alvin Liknes over past business dealings between the men. Garland nursed his bitterness for years until it became a murderous obsession. He acted on it when he learned that the Likneses were moving away from Calgary.

Jurors heard that forensic investigators found a concealed computer hard drive at the Garland farm. The drive contained documents and photos about torture, murder and dismemberment. Documents found included a book on how to kill without joy, how to become an assassin, an autopsy manual and a file on DNA removal. There were 87 photos of dead or dismembered people and there was information about adult diapering. Investigators also found photos of adult women in diapers who were bound with handcuffs and other restraints. Investigators also found a trove of weapons on the farm, including knives, striking instruments, and handcuffs.

Justin Bourque was the first person in Canada sentenced to 75 years in prison, after the law was changed in 2011. In 2016, John Ostamas was sentenced to 75 years after he was convicted of murdering three homeless men in Winnipeg.

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