After those who knew and loved Garland Curtis shared their feelings of loss, sorrow and anger, a judge gave the man who ended Curtis' life a year ago a life sentence with no chance of parole for 10 years.
Dustin Piper, 24, who was living and working in Olds at the time of his arrest on March 16 for Curtis' killing, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder on Jan. 8 in a Calgary courtroom filled with Curtis' friends and family, many of whom had travelled from New Brunswick and northern Alberta for the sentencing hearing.
Piper's adoptive parents and brother, as well as RCMP members who had investigated the murder, were also present in the courtroom.
Piper had originally been charged with first-degree murder in the killing of Curtis, 40, whose body was found in his Airdrie home on Jan. 12, 2013. At the beginning of the hearing on Jan. 8, however, Crown lawyer Britta Kristensen asked for the first-degree murder indictment to be withdrawn and Piper, who appeared in court clean-shaven and wearing blue jeans and a grey T-shirt, was then arraigned for second-degree murder, to which he pleaded guilty.
Last summer, he pleaded not guilty to the first-degree murder charge.
ANATOMY OF A MURDER
Following Piper's plea, Kristensen read a statement of facts about the murder to the court for the first time since Piper's arrest, beginning with how a friend who worked with Curtis in Fort McMurray contacted police in Airdrie to check on Curtis' well-being on Jan. 12 after he had not been heard from for several days.
Police entered Curtis' home through an unlocked backdoor and immediately detected a foul smell coming from the basement. Kristensen said police found Curtis in a bloodied basement closet with a plastic bag over his head and his body wrapped in a blanket.
She said Piper and Curtis had known each other for two years prior to the murder and were involved in a "sexual relationship." On the morning of Jan. 9, 2013, they were text messaging each other about getting together that evening and Curtis sent several texts stating he planned to have sex with Piper that night. "I'm doing you as soon as we get home,'" Kristensen quoted Curtis as stating in a text.
Curtis picked Piper up at his home in Olds and brought him to Airdrie, she said, where they watched a movie together. During the movie, Curtis attempted to have sex with Piper, but Piper refused and went to take a shower. When he returned, Curtis was sleeping.
Piper took an awl— a pointed tool used for making holes in materials such as leather— from a toolbox and, after putting his knee on Curtis' neck, struck the sleeping man in the head three times with the awl. He then dragged Curtis' body to the basement of the home.
Kristensen said an autopsy conducted on Curtis on Jan. 15 revealed he had died from head and neck injuries included two penetrating injuries to his head and bruising to his neck.
Piper, she continued, took the sheets from Curtis' bed after the killing and wiped down any surface in the house he thought he had touched and then removed items from the home he thought he had touched and loaded them in Curtis' 1994 Saturn sedan. That car was found outside the Olds Auction Mart on Jan. 21. He then drove home to Olds, creating a text message conversation between himself and Curtis using Curtis' phone after 3 a.m. where he, posing as Curtis, sent a text thanking himself for the evening to his own phone and then responded that he had made it home safely.
Kristensen said Piper then tossed Curtis' phone out of the window of the car. Piper continued, however, to send texts to Curtis' cellphone number on Jan. 10 and 11. "Hey buddy, where are you?" one of the messages read, Kristensen said.
He also bragged to his friends in the days following the murder through text messages and social media that he now had a Volcano vaporizer, one of the items he had taken from Curtis' home that was being used for the consumption of marijuana.
Police observed Piper sometime after the murder chasing after a garbage truck in an alley behind his home in Olds carrying a garbage bag. Inside the bag, they found Curtis' laptop that Piper had taken the night of the murder and later they discovered Curtis' iPad tablet between Piper's mattresses.
On Jan. 30, Kristensen said, Piper told investigators he had not seen Curtis but prior to his March 16 arrest at a friend's home in Didsbury, he had told friends he had killed Curtis, although he had said he didn't remember details of the killing. One friend said Piper had described himself as a "schizophrenic" when referring to his state of mind at the time of the murder.
When he was arrested, Piper falsely told police Curtis had raped him and he had killed him during a struggle. He later told police the reason he killed Curtis was because he had "snapped."
After Kristensen finished reading the facts of the case, Justice C.S. Anderson said she found Piper guilty of second-degree murder and Kristensen recommended a life sentence with no chance of parole for 10 years. She said this was the minimum parole eligibility for second-degree murder and her recommendation was based on mitigating circumstances such as Piper voluntarily pleading guilty, sparing Curtis' family and friends from a trial, as well as his youth, eventual cooperation with police and lack of a criminal record.
She also said Piper was in foster care in Ontario from the ages of one to four before he was adopted by his grandparents, who he now calls his parents, and had acted as a "positive member of society" while serving as an Air Cadet in his teens and early 20s. At age 17, he received the silver Duke of Edinburgh award, which recognizes young people who develop a sense of responsibility to themselves and to their communities. The aggravating factors in Piper's case, Kristensen added, were that he had committed a "senseless and brutal attack" on Curtis when he was the "most vulnerable" and had gone to great lengths to cover his tracks. He had also profited from the murder, she said, referring to the vaporizer, and had bragged about this to friends.
Lawyer Krysia Przepiorka, who represented Piper at the hearing, agreed with Kristensen's recommendation and Anderson, who called Curtis' death a "tragedy," delivered the sentence, giving additional orders that Piper provide a DNA sample and that he be prohibited from owning weapons for the rest of his life.
VICTIM IMPACT STATEMENTS
Before the sentencing, victim impact statements from members of Curtis' family as well as several of his friends and co-workers were shared with the court. His mother, May, who had travelled from New Brunswick for the hearing, had her statement read by Kristensen.
"He was special, always loving and kind," she said in her statement. "A son holds his mother's hand for a little while, her heart forever."
May added she now feels an "emptiness" inside due to her son's death. Curtis' sister, Stacia Keenan, read aloud statements her sons Owen and Aidan had written for their uncle.
"I do not understand why anyone would have wanted to hurt my uncle," Owen had written. Aidan wrote that he can no longer use the word "uncles." "Because I only have one now."
Stacia then told the court her world had been "shattered" on Jan. 12, 2013, because of the murder. She said the circumstances of her brother's death and the ensuing judicial process had left her "frustrated" and "anxious" and added she would only feel a second of satisfaction at hearing Piper's sentence before remembering the loss of her "little brother."
"There has not been a day where I have not shed a tear or felt overwhelming sadness," she said through tears. "We hold our children tight and miss Garland's presence terribly."
Stacia also said Piper's hiding of Curtis' body was an "indignity and disrespectful to our family."
"That will be forever part of my world," she said.
While she thanked police and legal officials who had helped her family in the last year, she said he felt no "sense of closure," since she was never allowed to see Curtis' remains.
Cindy McGuire, who worked with Curtis in Fort McMurray and had alerted police to carry out a welfare check after Curtis didn't respond to her text messages, called Curtis her "right arm" in a statement that Kristensen read. She also said his co-workers were gathering in Fort McMurray on Jan. 8 to honour Curtis.
Throughout the hearing, Piper kept his head down in the prisoner's box and showed no emotion. When he was given a chance to speak, he faced the Curtis family for the first time and said he realized no words would make up for what he had done to Curtis.
"I know that nothing that I can say can mend the pain and loss you've all felt this past year and for the future to come," he said. "I accept the responsibility and consequences of my actions."
"I will take the time that I'm given today to make myself a productive member of society."
Anderson then allowed Piper to hug the three members of his family present in the courtroom before a sheriff led him out of the room. Piper's family declined a request for comment outside the courtroom and Curtis' family said they were not prepared to speak with media.