Mathew Penney's girlfriend says accused 'were our family'

The girlfriend of a Nova Scotia man who was found dead in a provincial park on New Year's Day says close friends charged in his killing diverted suspicions at her.

Four charged after Penney's body was found burned on New Year's Day

The girlfriend of a Nova Scotia man who was found dead in a provincial park on New Year's Day says close friends charged in his killing diverted suspicions at her.

Rachel Maher, sobbing, tried to hold her 14-month-old son still as she described how her friends acted in the days following the discovery of Mathew Penney's body.

"They even tried to point their fingers at me. They told his family that he was supposed to be leaving [a get together] to meet me when they said he left at about two in the morning," Maher told CBC News.

"His family actually believed that I had a part in his murder for the longest time because of that. They know now, obviously, that that's not the case."

Penney, a lifelong resident of north-end Dartmouth, was shot to death and his body was found burned at Oakfield Provincial Park, near Enfield, on New Year's Day.

Two couples are charged in his death.

Tyler Berry, who Maher says was Penney's best friend, is accused of manslaughter, criminal negligence causing death by a firearm and indignant disposal of human remains. He is 23 years old.

Berry's girlfriend, 24-year-old Keisha Slawter-Vassel, is charged with being an accessory to manslaughter. Jason Patrick MacKenzie, 27, is charged with the same offence.

MacKenzie's girlfriend, 23-year-old Caitlin Fay Thompson, is charged with public mischief.

'Disgusting and unspeakable'

After the four were charged last week, forensic investigators spent the day at MacKenzie's rental home scouring for evidence.

"If they were his best friends and if it wasn't murder, they would've done what anybody else would've done — and that would be to call the police. I would've been the first person to forgive them," said Maher.

"If they had called the police and said, 'You know, it was an accident,' I would've tried to help them get off from the charges. I would've done what I know that Mathew would've wanted me to do if it was an actual accident.

"If it started as an accident what they did afterwards was on purpose. And it was disgusting and unspeakable what they did to him."

Maher said she swings from feelings of anger to hurt to emptiness as she thinks about Berry and Slawter-Vassel. They were so close that Maher called them first when she learned about her boyfriend's death.

"It was Tyler and Keisha. Before I called anyone, before I called my mum, my dad, anyone," she said.

Maher even vouched for them when they were being questioned by police.

'They loved him'

"I swore to the police on my life that they had nothing to do with it. It wasn't even a question to me. I thought the idea of them even being questioned about it was absurd because there's no way, there's absolutely no way," she said.

"Those were his best friends, my best friends.… They loved him."

Maher, who is 25 years old, is left trying to keep Penney's memory alive for their son, Elias.

"We look at his pictures every day," she said. "He asks for him all the time. He takes my phone, he kisses my phone, and he kisses pictures of his dad. It makes me feel like a bad mom that I can't give him his dad."

And Maher misses the children of the accused — those she considered her nephews, who even posed for family photos with her son.

"They were our family. It wasn't even like family, they were our family. We were aunt Rachel and uncle Mat and they were aunt Keisha and uncle Bear to our son," she said.

"I don't know how they could've done this to any of us."

The two women accused in this case have no previous criminal records. However, the two men both have convictions on gun offences.

Berry was convicted of possessing a semi-automatic rifle with an oversized magazine. MacKenzie was convicted in 2008 of having a concealed weapon — a 20-gauge shotgun — in a car.