Offender guilty of another round of charges
Christopher Cornell, convicted last year of attempting to murder two peace officers, was found guilty late this morning
Christopher Cornell, convicted last year of attempting to murder two peace officers, was found guilty late this morning of possessing two stolen vehicles, damaging them and evading police in an incident that occurred two weeks before the notorious shooting.
“Mr. Cornell, if you could please stand, I find you guilty of those four charges,” Justice Sheila Martin told him this morning in Yukon Supreme Court.
The 32-year-old man — currently serving time at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre pending his sentencing for the shooting — was seen driving a stolen truck attached to a boat and trailer in September 2011.
At one point, he reached speeds up to 160 km/h on the Alaska Highway to evade pursuers.
“Not only was he driving at an excessive rate of speed, the truck was making passing motions that could have endangered the public,” Martin told the court today.
The incident foreshadowed events two weeks later that would see him fire a high-powered rifle from a speeding truck on the same road, leading to his arrest.
The judge said the Crown had established beyond a reasonable doubt that the driver of the vehicle committed the offences Cornell was charged with.
“The key issue is whether Mr. Cornell was in fact the driver of that truck-trailer-boat combination.”
Crown witnesses took the stand Thursday.
Whitehorse resident Allan Porter, 40, recounted how he was meeting a co-worker at Goody’s Gas Bar in Porter Creek before work on Monday, Sept. 12, 2011. Sitting by the gas pumps, to his surprise, were his friend’s boat and its trailer — reported stolen earlier that day.
The boat-trailer combination, which belonged to Porter Creek resident Albert Schwartz, were attached to a Dodge Ram 2500 SLT pickup truck— also recently reported stolen.
“I saw a female between the truck and the boat,” Porter told the court. “I asked her what she was doing in possession of stolen property.
“She jumped in the car and locked herself in. And pretty soon the person who was in the store came out of Goody’s and hopped into the truck too.”
“You interacted with her for two minutes?” asked defence lawyer David Tarnow.
“It was more of a screaming match than an interaction,” Porter said.
Porter, who was already in a vehicle, pulled in front of the truck to block the pair’s escape.
“And he started screaming at me to get out of the way.”
The man, whom the judge determined to be Cornell through witness testimony and security footage — swerved around Porter’s truck, swiping its front end with the boat as he passed.
The driver took off down several side roads before turning north onto the Alaska Highway.
Porter gave chase.
“It looked like some pretty fast, erratic driving to me,” he testified.
His co-worker from Yukon Energy — the two were planning on heading to a shift at the Aishihik power plant — was slightly ahead of him on the road.
They both hit 90 km/h in their pursuit, communicating with each other by radio as Porter called the police.
He saw sparks and a dust cloud kicked up by the stolen truck, which veered around two or three recreational vehicles before disappearing from Porter’s view.
“It was maybe three, about five kilometres before I lost sight,” he said.
Porter pulled over at the North Klondike Highway, not wanting to lose cell service as he spoke with the RCMP.
He spotted his friend’s boat and trailer along the Alaska Highway a little later that day on his drive to Aishihik.
“It was in the ditch ... and bent up a bit,” with more than $4,000 in damage.
The court heard the stolen truck was found Sept. 14 abandoned near the fire hall just past the Carcross Cutoff.
A Crown lawyer asked Porter if he saw in the court the man he pursued that day 28 months ago.
“I do,” he said, pointing at Cornell. “He’s in the reds” — referring to the accused’s prison garb.
Cornell was scheduled for sentencing this afternoon.
The defence questioned how certain Porter was that the man he identified in the photo lineup — Cornell — shown to him by police matched his memory of the person he chased.
“This person is either the person I saw or a very close look-alike,” Porter said.
He also demonstrated his familiarity with jet boats, identifying multiple features that the one stolen shared with his friend Shwartz’s, which he had worked on personally.
“It was a 17-foot-long boat with a jet motor on the back and .... it had the three-inch vent breather with anti-ski strips across the top of the tank ... and the PBC cap.”
Porter also recognized the crab trap holder he himself had installed.
“I know that was Albert’s boat, not a question of a doubt.”
The judge was impressed by Porter’s “exceptional recall” of the vehicles, “suggesting that his powers of observation are keen and his memory accurate.”
The defence questioned the fairness of the photo package put together by Const. Ty Daniels after the incident.
Tarnow said Cornell was 20 kilos lighter than the nine other individuals pictured in the lineup, making him the obvious choice by default.
“Do you really think that’s fair?” he asked Daniels.
The judge said “the headshots ... focus on facial features,” rendering body weight relatively unimportant.
Martin also found Porter’s “80-per-cent-certain” identification of Cornell as the perpetrator “sufficient,” and that “his recognition of facial features was very reliable.”
Last year, the court found Cornell and then-girlfriend Jessica Johnson, 23, both had a role in a Haines Junction robbery and high-speed chase, also in September 2011. It climaxed in the shooting of an RCMP officer along the Alaska Highway two weeks after Porter’s initial pursuit.
Cornell was found guilty last October on all charges, including two counts of attempted murder arising from a rifle shot fired from a speeding SUV at a police officer and conservation officer.
Early on Sept. 26, 2011, he and Johnson broke into Madley’s General Store.
Store custodian Frank Parent tried to restrain them and was punched in the face, breaking his nose and knocking him to the floor. He was then doused in bear spray.
The duo removed the store’s safe with a pallet jack and tried to load it into another stolen vehicle.
They abandoned the effort when RCMP Cpl. Kim MacKellar and conservation officer Shane Oakley arrived on-scene in a fully marked police truck.
A chase ensued, with the SUV speeding north along the Alaska Highway toward Destruction Bay, both vehicles hitting 130 km/h at one point.
The pursuit ended 32 kilometres later when a bullet fired from a stolen .375 H&H rifle smashed through MacKellar’s windshield.
The bullet blew through the radar unit mounted on the dash, unleashing metal and plastic shrapnel into the cab.
MacKellar was hit in the eyes and chest with bullet fragments, which ripped through his police uniform and pounded his bullet-proof vest.
He required several eye surgeries, and there are still fragments in his left eye.
Cornell and Johnson hitched a ride back to the Pine Lake Campground after the Chevy went into the ditch 12 kilometres beyond where the shooting occurred.
With a full-on emergency police response underway, the couple was seen near the campground and subsequently arrested at gunpoint by an officer on his way to Haines Junction.
In addition to being found guilty of attempted murder and using violence and bear spray to rob the store, Cornell was convicted of shooting at MacKellar and Oakley, among other offences.
The date for Cornell’s sentencing on those charges remains up in the air.
The Yukon Supreme Court sentenced Johnson last month to more than three years in a federal penitentiary for her role in the incident.
Johnson received 39 1/2 months on three counts — to which she had pleaded guilty — including robbery, wounding a police officer and firing a rifle at peace officers while fleeing arrest.
She will become eligible for parole about 13 months from her sentencing date, Dec. 12, 2013.
By CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS