Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Small-town murder mystery comes to an end

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It was a real-life murder mystery that stunned a quiet western Manitoba community -- and stumped a police force.

Now the RCMP believe they've caught the man responsible for a January attack in Ethelbert that left an elderly woman and her nephew dead.

Payton Saari, 20, has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder, police announced Thursday. The charges indicate justice officials believe the slayings were a planned, premeditated act and carry a mandatory penalty of life in prison with no chance of parole for at least 25 years if convicted.

Saari is being held in custody without bail. RCMP said he is a resident of Ethelbert, the same town the two victims called home for the past two decades.

Elsie Steppa, 81, was found inside her home, while Clarence Thornton, 50, was found on the property. Thornton was known to those in the community as "Harry Jones."

RCMP said Thursday both victims died from blunt-force trauma. They described Saari as an "acquaintance" of the victims and say the killings happened as a result of an "altercation."

No other details were provided, including a potential motive.

"I can't get into the specifics of what was involved in the laying of the charges," said RCMP Cpl. Miles Hiebert. "There's nothing to indicate this was a random homicide."

Hiebert said the investigation initially posed a real challenge to officers but quickly evolved thanks to good police work and forensic analysis. Saari was identified as a person of interest early on but wasn't arrested until Tuesday, he said.

"We went from a complete whodunit to an arrest," said Hiebert. "We're very proud of the work investigators did. And we had great co-operation from the community."

The double killing rocked residents in the Polish-Ukrainian town of 312 people, located 60 kilometres north of Dauphin.

Saari has no prior police involvement, according to court records. An online search shows he is a member of something called the "Intention Experiment Community," a website that boasts of being a place where "people may express their views about the New Age, science and quantum physics, spirituality, religion, healing and philosophy."

Both victims were well-known in Ethelbert, although not always in a popular way: Steppa as an eccentric who was nicknamed the "Cat Woman" by villagers for all the stray cats she harboured; Thornton, a.k.a. Jones, for his belief he was Jesus.

Steppa was found dead in her home on Jan. 19 and Thornton was initially considered missing. That led residents to believe he might be responsible. When his body was found two days later near the property, the popular theory was that it was a murder-suicide.

But when RCMP confirmed a double-homicide, residents told the Free Press they were living in fear, locking their doors and wondering who could be responsible.

Although Steppa was known as the Cat Woman, keeping more than 10 cats at a time, she had gotten rid of them in recent years when her nephew brought home two medium-size dogs that people described as "very aggressive." The dogs were never tied up and would bolt out of the yard to confront passersby.

Steppa and Thornton lived in Toronto prior to moving to Manitoba in 1992. Residents told the Free Press Steppa kept to herself while Thornton left a history of unusual behaviour in his 20 years in Ethelbert.

"He ranted and chanted about Jesus and God talking to him," one woman said.

Thornton would get into churches in the area and spend days and nights there until he had to be kicked out. He attended the Ukrainian Catholic church in Ethelbert, but was eventually barred because people were afraid of him.

Thornton was often argumentative with people and was previously accused of uttering death threats against some residents. He also raised eyebrows when he put a notice on the bulletin board outside a community store claiming another resident who concocts homeopathic medicines was "murdering" a person in town with his medicines.

Saari will make his first court appearance in Dauphin on Monday.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2013 A5

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