Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Child's killer pleads guilty

Victim's family applauds in court

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THE family of James Isaac erupted in applause yesterday as Queen's Bench Chief Justice Marc Monnin endorsed the nearly unprecedented legal move that saw killer Tomas McEvoy waive his right to a trial and take responsibility for first-degree murder.

McEvoy, 26, went against his lawyer's advice by pleading guilty to the most serious charge in the Criminal Code for the August 2002 strangling death of 11-year-old James at Winnipeg's Aboriginal Centre.

He was automatically sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years in a case the Crown called "nothing short of depressing and enraging."

"He's getting what he deserves. Now my son can rest in peace," a tearful Cynthia Laquette said outside court while embracing her younger son, Jesse, and saying "it's over."

The scene was just as dramatic inside the packed courtroom, where angry relatives shouted insults, vulgarities and threats at McEvoy immediately after the passing of sentence.

Family members were irate when McEvoy was given the opportunity to speak moments earlier and claimed he killed James after the little boy made a derogatory homophobic remark at him in the basement of the Higgins Avenue centre.

The family denies James -- described by prosecutor Rick Saull as "a candle who could light up a room" -- would have said anything of the sort. In fact, Crown and defence lawyers agreed yesterday McEvoy and his victim had never met before and had no prior history.

In a calm, reasoned voice, McEvoy read from a prepared statement and told court he was gang-raped by four men while nearly a dozen others cheered during a house party just weeks before the murder.

McEvoy -- wearing a blue short-sleeved dress shirt, tan cargo pants and black-rimmed glasses -- claimed some of the spectators were classmates of his in a power engineering course he was taking at the Aboriginal Centre and began telling people in the facility about what happened.

McEvoy was also working in the centre in the boiler room and said classmates and other employees began taunting and ridiculing him about being sexually abused.

"All of this was very overwhelming to me at the time," McEvoy told court yesterday. He claims he planned to go to police with a rape complaint, but turned to drugs and alcohol to mask his pain. McEvoy said he was very intoxicated when he went to work the day of the murder.

McEvoy said he walked into a basement storage room and saw a young boy he didn't know rummaging through some boxes.

James -- standing 4-foot-8 and weighing 86 pounds -- had gone to the centre that day with an older cousin to play computer games, but got bored and wandered off while his relative registered for a course, court was told.

McEvoy claims he asked James what he was doing, and claims the boy responded by saying, "Hey, aren't you the guy that (was raped)."

"He kind of smiled and smirked, and I felt enraged by what he said," McEvoy said yesterday.

McEvoy pulled down James' pants and underwear, then used the boy's T-shirt to begin strangling him.

He later told police he was trying to humiliate James and asked him "you think that's funny... how do you like this?" McEvoy denied attempting to rape the boy and said, "I didn't mean to hurt him that bad."

"I remember feeling intense feelings of rage and disbelief. I grabbed him and pulled down his pants so he wouldn't leave... I remember feeling mad. I snapped," McEvoy said yesterday.

Although some semen was found on James's pants, it was believed to be dated and couldn't be linked to McEvoy through DNA testing. There was also no other evidence of an attempted sexual assault, but police and James's family say they believe that was McEvoy's intent.

A security guard walked into the room around 3:30 p.m. and saw McEvoy standing near some boxes. The guard recognized him from the building.

"He claimed he was hiding from a supervisor to avoid work assignments, which the guard found unusual because he knew McEvoy often lobbied for work, given that there wasn't much to do in the boiler room," Saull told court.

"The guard noted that McEvoy was breathing heavily, sweating profusely and had blood on his hands."

McEvoy claimed the blood came from a cut on his hands, then pulled off his blood-stained overalls and ran out of the facility.

The guard followed a short distance, then returned to the storage room for a further look.

He found the little boy's body just behind the boxes where McEvoy had been standing. James was covered in blood, the shirt still wrapped tightly around his neck.

The guard desperately tried to revive James while waiting for medical personnel to arrive, but it was too late. James was pronounced dead in hospital.

The attack sent shock waves through the city and left veteran police officers shaken.

A manhunt began for McEvoy, who was quickly identified by the guard. His picture was broadcast and published by the media, and an employee at the downtown Winnipeg bus terminal recognized him in the newspaper the following day.

The bus employee told police he'd sold a one-way ticket to McEvoy for a bus headed for Toronto. McEvoy claimed his name was "Don Smith" and paid cash.

Police intercepted the bus the following day in Sault Ste. Marie and arrested McEvoy without incident. He immediately confessed to the killing and said he was likely going to commit suicide once he reached Toronto.

The first-degree murder charge is based on the fact the killing was committed in the course of a forcible confinement. The Crown also wanted the judge to rule yesterday it also included a sexual assault, believing the pulling down of James's pants and underwear was sufficient evidence.

Monnin said he wasn't satisfied it was a sexual assault, which Brodsky said outside court is an important ruling because it means McEvoy won't be treated as a dangerous sexual offender who must be segregated while in prison.

At the time of the murder, McEvoy was on bail for an incident weeks earlier where he threatened to blow up a downtown Winnipeg gay bar. That charge is still pending before the courts.

McEvoy has a prior criminal record, including convictions for assault.

He was ordered to stand trial after the completion of his preliminary hearing earlier this summer. The trial wasn't expected until next spring.

Guilty pleas to first-degree murder are extremely rare because there is no incentive to admit to the crime, which carries a mandatory minimum penalty and doesn't allow for any plea bargain to be made.

"This is not my suggested plea. But this is his plea. He doesn't care that there may be a case to fight," Brodsky said, adding he has tried to talk McEvoy out of the move to no avail.

McEvoy told court pleading guilty is the only way to truly demonstrate his remorse.

"Words can't express how sorry I am. I hope your hurt, pain, anger, grief and hatred will ease over time," he said to his victim's family.

McEvoy's arrest was the second major blow for the McEvoy family, which lost daughter Erica, 21, to a speeding motorist in 1998. After her killer escaped a jail sentence, the family -- including Tomas McEvoy -- lashed out at the justice system.

His parents sat quietly in court yesterday as Brodsky read their statements out loud. Both described him to the court as a loving son and good person who made a tragic mistake.

"Tommy is my son. I want people to know he's not a bad person," wrote his father.

"I am filled with deep sadness for what he has done to our family, the victim's family and the community," his mother wrote.

But the Crown said yesterday the focus should be on little James, whose bright future and dreams of being a professional skateboarder were wiped out in a heartbeat.

With his voice cracking with emotion, Saull read the heartbreaking victim impact statements from several of the boy's relatives.

"Sometimes I think this is all a bad dream, that I will go home and James will be there," his mother wrote.

"This is eating me up, and I wait until the time until we can meet again."

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 25, 2004 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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