Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION
Failing Phoenix - Face To Face With Her Killers
Phoenix Sinclair was clearly failed on many levels. A public inquiry which began this week in Winnipeg is now tasked with finding out exactly where things went wrong - and what can be done to prevent future tragedies.
But look beyond several levels of bureacuracy and you'll find where the ultimate responsibility lies - with the two parents who were supposed to love and care for her.
Instead, Samantha Kematch and Karl McKay treated the little girl in the most cruel and despicable way imaginable.
Both have refused to participate in the public inquiry as they serve life sentences with no chance of parole for at least 25 years.
But the pair had plenty to say when I sat down seperately with them, behind bars, shortly after their first-degree murder convictions in December 2008.
Their words still ring as hollow today as they did back then.
I failed her," Samantha Kematch says, her eyes cast downward and showing a hint of tears.
"She never deserved any of this to happen to her. She deserved better."
It is the first public show of remorse from Kematch, who displayed no tangible emotion during her month-long trial, and made no apologies in her brief and bitter final remarks before being sentenced on Friday.
Kematch wants the public to know she's not some heartless automaton.
"You guys can sit there and say I have no feelings. Well, everyone shows their emotions in different ways. Not everyone cries. I'm one to hold their tears," Kematch says.
"I'm not the type to freak out. I control my crying. But I hurt inside."
Saying sorry isn't the only reason Kematch is speaking out. She wants to explain her courtroom comments, in which she told the judge that people will likely "never know the truth" and accused her former lover, McKay, of wrongly taking her down with him.
"I didn't kill my daughter, I didn't do these things to her like everyone says I did," Kematch says.
"What did I do to her? I loved her."
Jurors were told during the trial they could find McKay and Kematch guilty of murder based on acts of commission or omission, which likely applied more to Kematch's role in the tragedy.
Admitting she's "not the best parent in the world or anything," Kematch insists she was powerless to stop an abusive McKay from slowly taking Phoenix's life. And she paints herself as a victim as well, claiming McKay would often take out his anger on her.
"I tried to stop it. That's where I failed. I failed her, I failed myself. But I tried to stop (McKay) from doing things to her. I would even take a beating so she wouldn't take it," she says.
In a videotaped interview with police, McKay said Kematch treated Phoenix "like an animal."
"She really disliked the girl from since I met her," he said in the police videotape.
McKay admitted that he would administer "a licking" to Phoenix's bottom occasionally, but denied wrongdoing, saying it was Kematch who abused her the most, refusing to give her food, constantly yelling at her and insisting she remain in the basement.
McKay told police that once they realized Phoenix was dead, they took her body back to the basement. He said that Kematch instructed him to wrap Phoenix's body in a sheet of polyvinyl, taped it tightly and then wrapped an old yellow raincoat around her before driving to the reserve dump and burying Phoenix in a shallow grave.
McKay said that when they returned home, Kematch was obsessed with removing any trace that the child had been there. He said she initially wanted to return to the dump site to chop off the child's head in the belief that would eliminate DNA evidence.
He said Kematch later told him to scrub the basement floor with bleach to remove blood and other stains, and he later painted the entire floor.
On Sunday, Kematch had this to say: "I get so frustrated. He's only trying to make himself look good. I loved Phoenix and I cared for Phoenix. He's just sitting there, denying that he did anything."
She admits to having thoughts about attacking McKay in the witness box they shared during the trial. Those thoughts intensified after Friday's verdict and led to a sheriff's officer having to sit between them.
"I was really angry, I was shaking," she says.
Under questioning Sunday, Kematch admitted she passed up many opportunities when she was alone with Phoenix and could have fled the home, call police, contact a friend or family member or take the injured girl to a hospital.
"If I could go back and change all of this from happening, I'd do it in a second. A lot of people don't understand how these kinds of relationships work. The relationship was abuse, controlling, possessive. When you're in an abusive relationship it's not like you can just get up and leave. It's not easy to walk away," she says.
Jurors heard about McKay's violent past, which includes convictions for beating the mother of his two teenage sons, who went to police in 2006 to report what they'd witnessed happening to Phoenix inside the Fisher River home.
The boys were key witnesses for the Crown and described McKay and Kematch as equal partners in abusing Phoenix, which included frequent beatings, making her sleep naked in the cold basement, confining her to a makeshift pen, shooting her with a pellet gun, refusing to let her use the bathroom and making her eat her own vomit.
On Sunday, Kematch admitted she was strict with Phoenix at times, but claimed McKay did all the physical damage.
One of the most damning pieces of evidence against Kematch was the fact she tried to hide Phoenix's death by pretending another little girl was her daughter during a meeting with child welfare officials.
"I didn't want to go and pass off someone else's kid to hide the fact she was gone. It was (McKay's) idea to start doing s--t like that," Kematch says.
"I wanted to tell them about this but he said no."
She says McKay was also behind her registering for child benefits in Phoenix's name, even after the girl had been killed.
Kematch says Phoenix would still be alive today if McKay, a longtime friend of her mother, hadn't entered their lives. He began asking her out after they met in December 2003.
"I didn't really want to go out with him. I was single and I wanted to enjoy it for a while. Plus he was so much older than me (20 years)," Kematch says.
She eventually agreed, and the pair went on to have two children together prior to their arrest in March 2006.
"(Before McKay), Phoenix and I were good. We laughed, had fun, we'd play. We'd say we loved each other, hug each other. That was life for me and Phoenix before he came into the picture," she says.
Being convicted of her daughter's killing is just the latest in a long line of tragedies for Kematch.
When she was a child, her alcoholic father died after falling down a flight of stairs. Her oldest brother committed suicide in Swan River when she was 12. She and her two other brothers bounced around in foster care because their mother was unfit to care for them. She only finished her Grade 9 and has a spotty employment history. She admits she had problems with drugs and alcohol in the past.
Kematch says the reality of her conviction hasn't hit her yet. Barring a successful appeal, she isn't eligible for parole until 2031, when she will be 50 years old.
"I don't really feel like it's happened yet. I guess I'm feeling mixed emotions about it. I feel better in a way that this case is done so that (Phoenix) can rest," Kematch says.
"But of course I'm going to appeal. This isn't right."
Karl McKay knows his words will likely ring hollow -- but that isn't stopping the convicted killer from speaking out about his role in the death of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair.
"I know I'm the most hated person in this province and probably the whole country," McKay told the Free Press Thursday in an exclusive print interview at the Winnipeg Remand Centre.
"(Phoenix) didn't deserve this. It was a tragedy. I'm so very sorry. I can't turn back the clock. I just wish it never happened."
McKay said he wanted to set the record straight about his feelings toward Phoenix and allegations made against him by his former lover and co-accused, Samantha Kematch.
Jurors found McKay and Kematch guilty as charged last week, handing them automatic life sentences with no chance of parole for at least 25 years. The pair had been seeking convictions on the reduced charge of manslaughter. They are both expected to file appeals.
It was revealed during the month-long trial how Phoenix was repeatedly abused and neglected for several months, ending with her death in June 2005 inside a home on the Fisher River First Nation. McKay and Kematch then buried her body near the local garbage dump and hid the death months before McKay's two teenage sons went to police in March 2006. Police were eventually led to the burial site by McKay.Phoenix's remains were found there once the ground thawed.
Kematch spoke out first earlier this week, telling the Free Press she loved Phoenix but was powerless to save her from the controlling, abusive McKay. She denied abusing Phoenix and claimed McKay was the real culprit.
"That's BS," said McKay.
"Samantha hated Phoenix. I know this because I was around. She's just trying to clear her name."
McKay, a long-distance trucker by trade, claims Phoenix was always terrified when he'd hit the road and leave her alone with Kematch. McKay said his biggest mistake was staying in a relationship with Kematch, who he claims was responsible for Phoenix's death.
"I should have listened to my heart and not her," he said. "I can't imagine a mother would be that evil."
McKay denied Kematch's claims that he was physically abusive towards her, noting there are no records of police reports. McKay admits he has abused other women in previous relationships but said he was a different person back then, largely because of excessive alcohol use.
"People change, people can change overnight. I was a drinker back then, I had many binge blackouts. But that was then, this is now," he said.
McKay admits his own two teenage sons provided key evidence at trial against him, including claims that he would frequently hit Phoenix with his fists and other objects, force her to sleep naked on a cold basement floor, shoot her with a pellet gun for fun and confine her to a makeshift pen he built. Under his lawyer's advice, McKay declined to talk about the testimony of his sons or why they'd say things he claims are untrue because of the likelihood of an appeal.
He said it was also Kematch's idea to pass off a young relative as Phoenix once child-welfare officials began investigating the case. He said Kematch was "white as a ghost" when she realized the truth was about to emerge and was desperate not to have her other two children by McKay taken from her.
McKay said he is happy a provincial inquest will be held into Phoenix's case.
"People, in general, should love their children. This is a wake-up call to love your child," said McKay."I just don't want this to happen to another child. It's just not right."
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About Mike McIntyre
Journalist, national radio show host, author, pundit and cruise director ... Mike McIntyre loves to keep busy.
Mike is the justice reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press, where he has worked since 1997. He produces and hosts the weekly talk radio show Crime and Punishment, which runs on the Corus Radio Network in several Canadian cities.
Born and bred in Winnipeg, Mike graduated from River East Collegiate and completed his journalism studies in the Creative Communications program at Red River College.
He and his wife, Chassity, have two children.
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