Whitehorse Daily Star

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Photo by Whitehorse Star

Murder victim Susan Klassen, seen here in 1993, was a storyteller well-known across the territory and internationally.

Susan Klassen was strangled

The results from a preliminary autopsy reveal that Susan Catherine Klassen died from strangulation, Whitehorse RCMP reported today.

By Whitehorse Star on November 1, 1995

The results from a preliminary autopsy reveal that Susan Catherine Klassen died from strangulation, Whitehorse RCMP reported today.

The 36-year-old Whitehorse woman was found dead in her Horse Creek Road home near Lake Laberge last Thursday.

Her husband, Ralph Jake Klassen, 44 has been charged with second-degree murder.

He remains in jail, and is scheduled to appear in court later this week to fix a date for a preliminary hearing.

He was involved in a near head-on collision between his pickup truck and a propane truck along the North Klondike Highway near Deep Creek shortly after Klassen is believed to have died. He was taken to Whitehorse General Hospital with minor injuries.

The autopsy on Susan's body was performed in Vancouver, and the results were made public this morning.

Jan. 9 1997

Court hears of woman's strangulation

A floral-print pillow case was used to strangle Susan Catherine Klassen , a Yukon Supreme Court jury heard Wednesday afternoon from an expert Crown witness.

The 36-year-old acclaimed storyteller was found dead in the bedroom of her Lake Laberge home. The alleged murder weapon was still wrapped around her neck and tied in one overhand, simple knot, the eight male and four female jurors also heard.

Now, the Crown prosecutors are trying to prove that, not only did her estranged husband kill her, but he intended to do so.

The Crown is also alleging that after Ralph Jake Klassen ended his wife's life during the early-morning hours of Nov. 2, 1995, the 45-year-old man tried taking his own.

Judy Hartling suggested to the jury during her opening statements Wednesday afternoon that the accused man drove his 1985 Toyota pickup truck into a moving ICG Propane truck along the North Klondike Highway at around 6:45 a.m. that Thursday.

He did this after killing his wife, covering her entire body with a duvet cover, then leaving the home, the Crown prosecutor is alleging.

The Klassens' childless marriage had been in trouble, Hartling said. They had agreed to a six-month trial separation in mid-October. That resulted in the husband heading to Alberta and wife remaining in the Yukon.

Susan Klassen was an organizer and participant with the Yukon International Storytelling Festival. She was employed as the coordinator of therapy service at the Thomson Centre.

After talking to his wife long-distance on the telephone, Ralph Klassen decided to return to the Yukon in early November, the Crown told the jurors.

The second-degree murder trial began yesterday afternoon with the testimony of a Vancouver forensic pathologist - the first Crown witness to take the stand.

Dr. Laurel Gray told the jurors all the physical signs pointed to "ligature strangulation" as the cause of Susan Klassen's death.

A pillow case had been tied extremely tightly around her neck, Gray said on the stand. The doctor said she could not find any indications of a physical struggle.

Hartling slipped a surgical glove onto one of her hands and removed the alleged murder weapon from the exhibit bag. She gave the evidence to the doctor and asked her to hold it up in the courtroom, illustrating to the jury how a regular pillow case can be turned into a deadly weapon.

The pathologist talked in descriptive detail at times about the cause of the victim's death. This triggered tears from the victim's family. At the same time, the accused could be seen wiping his eyes with a tissue.

Grey said that the strangulation - which had cut off the victim's air and blood passage - would have led to unconsciousness within 30 seconds. She estimated that death would have occured between 90 seconds to perhaps four minutes later.

Photographs taken of the deceased woman were shown to the jury.

The Crown expects to call 20 witnesses and show a video-taped statement provided by the accused before wrapping up its case.

Ralph Klassen returned to the Yukon shortly before the death, the jury has already heard. He had arrived at their empty house and found a written note from his wife explaining her whereabouts, said Hartling.

As well, there allegedly was a letter expressing some of her thoughts and concerns about their marriage and separation. The couple was married in 1981 and moved to the Yukon in 1991.

The Crown will try to prove that the Klassens went to sleep in the same bed after Susan returned home that night. At around 3 a.m., the husband left the home and went for a walk by himself, Hartling is alleging.

When he returned, the couple exchanged some words, and the alleged offence was committed, the Crown prosecutor added.

RCMP Const. Roger Lockwood also took the stand. He described the significance of his photographs taken Nov. 2 at the Deep Creek accident scene. There was extensive damage done to the passenger side of the five ton propane truck, which included the removal and rupture of the fuel tank, he said.

There was substantial damage to the front and to the driver's side of the pickup truck, he noted. Both vehicles ended up in the same ditch following the collision in the northbound lane, he said.

The constable told defence lawyer Ed Horembala during cross-examination that there were no marks on the road indicating either driver had attempted to avoid the collision.

Justice Ralph Hutchinson is presiding over the trial. He spent around 15 minutes yesterday instructing the jury on some of the legal principles.

He told the jurors to decide the case only on the evidence presented in the courtroom, and to not let any feelings of sympathy or anger affect their verdict.

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