DAUPHIN – A Manitoba killer who was caught in a "Mr. Big" RCMP sting has been sentenced for what a judge calls a "cowardly, despicable" act.
Christopher Shewchuk, 32, was handed a life sentence Thursday afternoon with no chance of parole for at least 13 years. Queen’s Bench Justice Chris Martin increased parole eligibility from the mandatory minimum of 10, but stopped short of the 15 years the Crown was seeking.
Parole eligibility is not a guarantee of release, just the opportunity to apply.
Martin praised the "dogged determination" of RCMP investigators who broke open the 2003 disappearance of 25-year-old Derek Kembel with their elaborate undercover project in 2011. And he spoke personally to the victim’s family members, who packed the courtroom during the two-day hearing and heard gruesome details about what occurred.
"I have heard your unimaginable pain and grief," said Martin.
Shewchuk pleaded guilty to second-degree murder just as his trial was set to begin earlier this month.
Court heard how he repeatedly boasted to undercover police officers about how he killed Kembel, then got away with it for years. He told a Mountie posing as a gang hit man how he "blasted’ Kembel twice with a shotgun as the man pleaded for his life, then drove his body for an hour to a family farm, repeatedly burned it and then disposed of the remains while keeping the deadly secret.
"While this may not have been the perfect crime, it was good enough to cover this up for eight years," Martin said Thursday.
Shewchuk told the secret agent he decided to kill Kembel, a complete stranger, after seeing the man flirting with his ex-girlfriend at a Dauphin bar earlier that night.
"It’s pulp fiction," defence lawyer Jeff Gindin told a Dauphin court Thursday morning. He argued that much of what Shewchuk said during the 2011 police sting can’t be taken seriously because of how investigators seduced his client with the promise of a high-profile lifestyle if he were to admit his past sins.
"No question the undercover operation was ingenious. But many of the things he talked about just don’t conform to the evidence," said Gindin.
Gindin said his client is a simple, unsophisticated man with a grade eight education who grew up in a small town and was dazzled by the potential lifestyle RCMP enticed him with during the four-month operation. An undercover officer playing the role of a gang member first approached Shewchuk in a Dauphin bar in late 2010, asking him to help track someone down who had wronged him. It was the start of a well-planned trap which included 58 different scenarios for Shewchuk.
"It was carefully orchestrated. Lots of promises were made. Lots of money was shown. It’s a brilliant creation for what it was intended to achieve," said Gindin.
Shewchuk was paid more than $20,000 for work he completed on behalf of the "gang" including bag drops and pick-ups. He was taken on trips to Vancouver and Montreal, treated to fancy dinners and was a frequent guest at strip clubs. Police even used tactics such as staged fights and seemingly "buying off" the police during a staged traffic stop to show Shewchuk how much power this "gang" had.
"Money was being flashed all over the place," said Gindin. "This was all new to him."
As a result, Shewchuk made himself out to be more dangerous and deadly than he really was, according to Gindin. He claims his client really only shot Kembel once, not twice as he told police. And burning the body was not part of some calculated plan.
"In a state of shock he panicked. An instinct kicked in," said Gindin. "It was a terrible loss of control. These were the actions of a (then) 21-year-old kid who was drunk. And who was jealous."
The Crown sees it differently, saying Shewchuk’s actions are closer to first-degree murder given how deliberate both the killing, and the cover-up, truly were. They say raising the minimum parole eligibility is necessary, especially since Kembel’s family were left wondering for years what happened to their loved one.
"For the family and friends of Derek Kembel, justice may have been delayed. But it will not be denied," Crown attorney Carla Dewar told court during her submission Wednesday. "What he put these people through is overwhelming in its maliciousness. They never gave up hope of finding out what happened. Fortunately, neither did the RCMP."
During the sting, police learned Shewchuk had broken up with his girlfriend, whom he saw flirting with Kembel hours before the murder as they socialized together at a bar. Kembel accepted the woman's invitation to go back to her apartment to continue drinking -- only to arrive to find Shewchuk was there.
Shewchuk was angry with Kembel, whom he didn't previously know. After the woman fell asleep, Shewchuk offered Kembel a ride home, drove him to a secluded area and killed him.
"I’m sorry for what I put the family through," Shewchuk said late Thursday morning when asked if he had anything to say. The judge questioned whether he realized the "enormity" of what he’d done and asked what he was thinking, both during the murder and in the years that followed.
"I’m embarrassed by my actions. I’m embarrassed by the whole situation. I feel remorse for the family," said Shewchuk, who had no criminal record prior to the murder.