James Joe Ward choked Maranda Shelly Peter three times on the night he killed her in the basement of his Riverdale house.
Crown attorney Judy Hartling opened her statement in the 18-year-old Ward’s sentencing hearing in territorial court today by saying he killed his girlfriend “by choking her to death ... she was 2 1/2 weeks shy of her 16th birthday.”
Ward plead guilty to manslaughter last week. He was charged with first-degree murder last year after the RCMP found Peter’s badly-decomposed body hidden beneath his water bed last May.
Peter had gone missing in March 1996. Between the time she went missing and her body was discovered, the RCMP and family members conducted a massive man-hunt that spanned the territory and beyond.
According to the Crown, on March 2, 1996, Peter and Ward left her mother’s house, saying they were off to the movies.
“That was the last time Jesse Peter saw her daughter alive,” said Hartling.
Instead, the pair met up with an older friend, who bought them off-sales liquor. The three ended up at the Pioneer Inn, where an aunt of Ward’s was staying.
There, the friends got drunk and smoked pot.
As the three got drunker and more stoned, an argument between Peter and Ward broke out over who had had more to drink. Between the fighting and the rowdiness, the three were finally kicked out of the hotel.
Upon leaving, they made their way back to Riverdale, said Hartling. In the seven months that Peter and Ward had dated, they had broken up many times, Hartling added.
On the night Peter was killed, said Hartling, she had told friends she wanted to finally end it because Ward was violent and oppressive.
There had been incidences when Ward was violent toward Peter, even strangling her, said the Crown.
A few months before she was killed, Ward’s father had to break up three fights between the couple in his home, eventually phoning police. The case never went to court because Peter and Ward’s father refused to testify, said prosecutors.
On the night Peter was killed, Hartling said the two fought often on the way back to Ward’s house. Once, on the bridge to Riverdale, Peter attempted to kill herself by jumping into the Yukon River. Ward pulled her back down.
Hartling said that during a psychological assessment at youth court services in Burnaby, B.C., Ward told doctors that while in his bedroom in the basement, Peter began bad-mouthing his family and calling his grandmother a “bitch and a whore”.
After about 20 minutes of abuse, Ward said he “flipped ... and grabbed Maranda Peter around the throat.”
Over the course of the evening, Ward said he “came to” and found himself on top of his unconscious girlfriend on his bed.
Twice more, he came to and found her making noise, so he mounted her body again and choked her until there was no life left.
The next morning, Ward said he woke up crying, had a cigarette, and tried to give Peter CPR. He said he kept thinking the whole thing was a bad dream, and didn’t believe he had actually killed her.
That morning, in an attempt to cover his tracks, Ward phone Peter’s mother and asked to speak to his girlfriend. When asked by police why he had called, he said he still thought he was having a bad dream.
After spending a few days on a bender in Whitehorse and a week in Teslin, Ward returned to his home and “wedged” Peter’s body under his waterbed.
Her body stayed there for over a year. Ward slept upstairs until his father told him to move back to the basement.
At times, Ward slept on a mattress he had put on the floor, but other times, he slept on his waterbed, said Hartling.
She also told of a time when Ward entertained friends and other girls in the basement.
There was talk of a smell coming from the teenager’s room, but it was explained by a mildew problem. Ward was also known to use air freshener and keep windows open even in the dead of winter.
He also began keeping his basement door locked at all times.
Crown counsel told Judge Heino Lilles that Ward was known for his violent behavior and alcohol abuse – all of which increased after Peter’s disappearance.
There were incidences where Ward choked other people when they asked about Peter’s whereabouts. Although police and Peter’s family were suspicious of the boy, there were no charges laid until after his father discovered Peter’s body over a year later.
The Ward family was moving, and his father wanted to help move the waterbed in the basement.
When he asked his son to go upstairs to get a key to his bedroom, Ward took off. His father entered the bedroom by opening the lock with a knife, and discovered the body as he tried to move the bed.
He immediately called police.
A search for Ward ensued, with his father pleading for his son’s return. Eventually, Ward was found in his grandmother’s house in Carcross. He was hiding in the basement.
In court today, the charges of second-degree murder and performing an indignity to a body were stayed.
The hearing continued this afternoon, where testimony from doctors was expected.
About a dozen people carrying signs protesting the downgrading of the murder charge to manslaughter walked back and forth in front of the Andrew Philipsen Law Centre this morning. They included friends of the Peter family; Shirley Adamson, chair of the Council of Yukon First Nations; and representatives of Kaushee’s Place, the Whitehorse transition home.
By Kathleen Goldhar