After torturing and slaying five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair, her killers' lives spiralled downward until they were caught in a web of their own lies, say witnesses close to them.
After burying her remains at the Fisher River First Nation dump in the summer of 2005, Karl Wesley McKay was sick and in so much pain that fall he cried in the night, his grown daughter told the inquiry into Phoenix's death. Samantha Kematch, his partner, was pregnant again and smoking crack behind his back, said the 26-year-old mother of four, whose identity is protected by a publication ban.
"She told me not to tell my dad," recalled the woman, who was helping Kematch pack up their Fisher River home and move back to Winnipeg. McKay was too sick to help, she said. Back in the city, he and Kematch stayed with her for a couple of weeks.
"He used to cry at night and say he was in pain," she told the inquiry into how Phoenix slipped through Manitoba's child-welfare safety net and why her 2005 death wasn't discovered until 2006. The first phase of the probe ended Tuesday after hearing 81 witnesses over 54 days since it began Sept. 5.
Whenever family or friends asked for Phoenix's whereabouts, Kematch and McKay lied, saying she was with her dad, with her aunt or had been apprehended by Child and Family Services. Until they got caught.
McKay's daughter said she was sleeping at their apartment when welfare investigators woke her up in March 2006 asking where Phoenix was.
"I got up and told them I didn't know." She left assuming her dad and Kematch were collecting assistance for Phoenix and had committed welfare fraud, not murder. Kematch called her later in the day asking if she knew anyone with a five-year-old kid who could pose as Phoenix for the investigators.
She didn't, and was stunned to learn later her father and Kematch were charged with Phoenix's murder. She was raised by her grandparents, who didn't want her to have anything to do with McKay, who had a reputation for violence. She got to know him in her teens. He doted on the baby she had at age 16 -- his first grandson. She babysat Phoenix, who played with her son.
After McKay and Kematch had a baby together, things changed for Phoenix.
"I saw some bruises and she seemed thinner. She wasn't playing a lot. She was quiet." McKay and Kematch said they often kept Phoenix in the bedroom for "time outs," she said. The bruises, they said, were accidental and their explanations seemed "legitimate."
She said McKay treated his grandson well, and she couldn't imagine him killing a child. Her children don't know about their grandfather, she said.
"My children think their grandfather has passed away."
A close friend who knew Kematch before she and Steve Sinclair had Phoenix on April 23, 2000 said she lacked patience for mothering from the start. The 29-year-old woman, identified only as Source of Referral No. 9, said Kematch hid her pregnancy.
She didn't find out the couple she'd once lived with had a baby until she saw them at the hospital with a newborn.
"They said they weren't taking her home because they weren't prepared."
After they got Phoenix back from Winnipeg Child and Family Services, Kematch was impatient and Sinclair did most of the caregiving, she said.
When Phoenix was a little over a year old, Kematch moved out and left her and newborn Echo with their dad, Sinclair. The infant died of a respiratory infection. Sinclair drank. Phoenix was in and out of CFS care. Kematch didn't go back for Phoenix until she was nearly four and with McKay.