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Man. couple found guilty of first-degree murder in death of five-year-old daughter

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WINNIPEG - Three years after being shot with a pellet gun "just for the hell of it," beaten repeatedly with a metal rod and left to die naked on a cold basement floor by her mother and stepfather, little Phoenix Sinclair can finally be laid to rest by those who loved her.

Samantha Kematch and Karl McKay were found guilty of first-degree murder Friday, bringing one chapter of Phoenix's short and brutal life to a close.

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While Phoenix's caregivers have been sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years, the broader soul-searching has just begun into how a provincial system could have let her down.

Her death at the hands of those who were supposed to protect her from harm will eventually be the subject of a public inquiry that will delve into Manitoba's child welfare system. Phoenix was in foster care and returned to Kematch in 2004. She was dead for nine months before anyone noticed her missing.

The abuse she suffered in her five years was so horrific, many say justice can never be done for Phoenix.

Steve Sinclair, Phoenix's biological father, said his daughter "never knew what pain was" when she was with him. Knowing "the complete opposite was done to her" while in the care of her mother tears him up inside, he said in a victim statement read in court.

"My family will never let go of this," he wrote. "Everyone that met Phoenix loved her. She loved life and the people she met. We have not been able to lay her to rest peacefully.

"They say time heals all things. I hope to believe that some day."

By all accounts, little Phoenix was a happy child before the torment began - a chubby girl with a full head of jet black hair and eyes so deep "you could not see to her soul."

"She was a gift sent to me from the heavens," Kim Edwards, Phoenix's foster mother, told court. "She had a smile that lit up the room and such infectious laughter."

The suffering began shortly after she was returned to the custody of Kematch and McKay in Winnipeg, court heard. She was locked in her bedroom for long periods of time.

The abuse got worse when the family moved about 150 kilometres north to the Fisher River reserve. The chubby, smiley child became gaunt from starvation. Her head was shaved. Bruises and cuts appeared on her legs, head and face.

Court heard how she was never taken to the doctor or even hugged.

Phoenix's stepbrothers testified the girl was punched, kicked and shot with a pellet gun while her guardians laughed. At times, she was forced to eat her own vomit.

She often went days without clothes, was choked until she lost consciousness in a game called "chicken" and was confined to a makeshift pen in the basement.

The little compassion shown to Phoenix came from her stepbrothers, who often heard her weeping in the basement through the vents. They tried to turn up the heat in the cold basement where she spent many nights and quietly tried to sneak her food because they never saw her eat.

After a final assault in June 2005, the little girl died naked on the basement floor. Kematch and McKay wrapped her body in garbage bags and buried her in a shallow grave just past a garbage dump.

"We were scared," McKay told an RCMP officer in March 2006. "I didn't know what the hell to do."

An anthropologist testified Phoenix had broken bones from her pelvis to her skull, injuries consistent with a car accident.

Hilda McKay, Karl's sister, said justice is not possible.

"I'm happy and I'm also kind of just sad - sad for Phoenix but happy that they're getting what they are deserving," she said outside court. "Justice is never going to be done for this little girl. Too much happened to her.

"It shouldn't have happened to her. Everybody knows that. It shouldn't happen to any little child."

Defence lawyers never denied the abuse. They admitted that Kematch and McKay were "horrific and cruel" parents, but argued there was only enough evidence to convict them of manslaughter. The separate defence teams also blamed each other's client for the final blow that is believed to have killed Phoenix.

Lawyers for both wouldn't say yet whether they are considering an appeal.

The public inquiry is slated to begin after any appeals are dealt with.

In early 2005, a child welfare worker went to check on the family at a Winnipeg apartment. The worker never saw Phoenix, but noticed another of Kematch's children outside the building and decided everything was OK.

Three months later, Phoenix was dead.

Kematch and McKay continued to list Phoenix as a dependant when they applied for welfare payments. Her death eventually came to light when welfare workers insisted on a meeting and Kematch tried to pass off a much younger child as Phoenix.

"If it takes a village to raise a child, what the heck happened to this village called Manitoba, where a child could go missing ... for nine months without anyone knowing?" Family Services Minister Gord Mackintosh asked Friday.

Kematch was defiant until the end, telling the court she loved the little girl no matter what others think.

"I loved Phoenix. Everyone can say what they want to say, call me whatever they want," Kematch said just before her sentence was handed down. "I never did this and I know that Phoenix knows that. I can say sorry to everybody but I know that won't change anything."

McKay, who along with Kematch had shown no emotion when the verdict was read, was too overcome to read his statement. His lawyer Mike Cook did so for him.

"I'm truly sorry from my heart," McKay wrote. "I know this should not have happened. That young girl was full of life . . . I let everybody down. Phoenix, I know you can hear me. I'm so very sorry. Please forgive me."

With the trial over, the remains of Phoenix, who would now be in Grade 2 today, will be released. Edwards said the little girl's loved ones are looking forward to finally laying her to rest.

"Once we get Phoenix back and her remains are given a proper burial, this part will be over for us and we've seen justice."

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