Political assistant's death leaves 'a big hole in our heart' says minister

Members of Quebec's political class are honouring the memory of a former riding office secretary killed on the weekend.

Neighbours say Nancy Michaud and her accused murderer grew up in same town

Members of Quebec's political class are honouring the memory of a former riding office secretary killed on the weekend.

Natural Resources Minister Claude Béchard was visibly emotional as he answered questions about his former assistant, Nancy Michaud, found murdered in an abandoned house in her hometown of Rivière-Ouelle, northeast of Quebec City.

Michaud, a 37-year old mother of two, was a well-liked resident who worked for Béchard, the legislative member representing Kamouraska.

Béchard said he lost a loyal employee and friend. "I think about someone who was very involved, who enjoyed life, and sincerely — she was a very dynamic person," he said Wednesday. "It [leaves] a big hole in our hearts, and in our organization. But first of all in our hearts."

Despite the disturbing circumstances of the case, Béchard said there is little that could have been done to protect Michaud.

Francis Proulx, the 29-year-old man arrested and charged with first-degree murder in connection to Michaud's death, is in police custody and will return to court Friday for his bail hearing.

Premier Jean Charest said Michaud's death has touched politicians of all stripes in Quebec City.

"[People] who work for us in riding offices are very much part of the family, and they're chosen because they are individuals who are gentle, patient, devoted and open. They generally meet people who have big problems, and they have to have that inclination," Charest said as he exited a Liberal caucus meeting Wednesday.

"That was very much the story of Nancy Michaud. And to lose her is like losing a member of the family, for all political parties.

"We hope the family will get through this. They're going to need a lot of courage to get through this, and I hope they find it," he said.

Charest said he spoke to Michaud's husband earlier this week to express his condolences.

In Quebec City, members of the provincial legislature observed a moment of silence in Michaud's honour on Wednesday.

Neighbours say Michaud and Proulx knew each other

The accused  Proulx spent most of his time tinkering with his pickup and playing on his computer, and he rarely rolled out of bed before noon, said his neighbour.

René Nadeau said he was stunned Sunday when provincial police arrested Proulx in connection to Michaud's death. The provincial cabinet minister's aide lived just around the corner from him.

Both Proulx and Michaud grew up in the community about 140 kilometres northeast of Quebec City.

"He was a very quiet guy," Nadeau said Tuesday in front of Rivière-Ouelle's old, whitewashed presbytery where he and Proulx each have small apartments. "There was not an ounce of … aggressivity in this guy."

Outstanding charges dog suspect

Proulx, a skinny, bespectacled man, nervously tapped his thumbs during a brief appearance in a Rivière-du-Loup courtroom Tuesday.

He will return to court Friday for a preliminary hearing into unrelated charges dating to last fall. He is alleged to have stolen $100,000 from an 87-year-old woman.

Court documents show Proulx was charged with theft and breaking and entering on Sept. 17 — some eight months before he was arrested and charged in Michaud's death.

"They are accusations of breaking and entering and theft of a pretty significant sum … from the house of one of his relatives," defence lawyer Jean Desjardins said outside the courtroom.

Proulx's court appearance later this week will also address whether or not he will get bail on the first-degree murder charge he faces in Michaud's death. Proulx has not entered a plea in the murder case.

The theft charges add another layer to the mystery surrounding Proulx, a village loner in Rivière-Ouelle.

Nadeau described Proulx as a reclusive man who usually woke up in the afternoon before heading to a garage beside his aunt's house, where he spent long hours working on his four-door pickup truck.

But Nadeau said he was surprised to see Proulx outside in front of the presbytery last weekend at about 7 a.m., hours after Michaud was abducted from her home.

The two men sat on the blue, wooden steps and watched police comb the muddy banks of Rivière-Ouelle, which snakes through town, and search the long grass of the graveyard behind their home, he recalled.

"He told me there were too many cops in the area," Nadeau said.

The men, who lived down the hall from each other since Proulx moved into apartment No. 8 last fall, headed to the neighbouring town of La Pocatière for a poutine lunch.

Nadeau said Proulx seemed quite nervous, but he didn't think anything of it.

"He's a guy who was usually in a good mood," he said. "Since Christmas, we had been talking to each other much more."

Psychiatric evaluation may be ordered

Police released video of a man using an automated teller to withdraw money from bank accounts belonging to Michaud's family around the time of her disappearance.

Investigators say the violent kidnapping took place in the middle of the night as her two young boys slept.

Her body was found in an abandoned house in Rivière-Ouelle on Sunday, hours before Proulx's arrest.

Police had said Proulx could face charges of kidnapping, confinement and robbery, but a Crown prosecutor said an autopsy on Michaud's body was not complete, and authorities will wait for investigators to finish their work. 

Proulx's lawyer said he hasn't decided if he will request a psychiatric evaluation of his client. "It's very hard for him, he's in jail for an accusation of murder," Desjardins said. "It's not easy, that's for sure."

Michaud's family released a statement Tuesday thanking police, firefighters and local residents for helping in the search for her.

With files from the Canadian Press