Animal bone expert struggles during testimony at Laura Babcock murder trial

Dellen Millard called three witnesses Tuesday, including an expert in animal bones, at the Laura Babcock murder trial in Toronto. The accused killer is acting as his own lawyer in Ontario Superior Court.

The body of 23-year-old Toronto woman has never been found; Crown alleges it was burned

The trial for two men accused of killing Laura Babcock, a University of Toronto graduate, started Oct. 23. It was originally expected to run 10 weeks, though the Crown wrapped its case earlier than anticipated. (Toronto Police Service/Canadian Press)

An animal bone expert, called as the first defence witness by accused killer Dellen Millard, faced tough questions from the Crown at the Laura Babcock murder trial today, and seemed to flip-flop on some of his earlier testimony.

Scott Rufolo, a research assistant at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, specializes in zooarcheology and told Millard, who is acting as his own lawyer, that photos shown at the trial appeared to be consistent with deer bones.

But when faced with a fiery cross-examination by Crown Jill Cameron, Rufolo conceded it's possible the objects in the photo could be human.

"You've never testified at a murder trial or looked at bones burned in an incinerator?" Cameron asked.

Rufolo admitted he hadn't.

Millard, 32, of Toronto and Mark Smich, 30, of Oakville are both charged with first-degree murder. Both men have pleaded not guilty at the Ontario Superior Court trial in downtown Toronto. They're being tried in front of a jury.

Babcock, a 23-year-old University of Toronto graduate, disappeared in early July 2012 and her body has never been found. The Crown contends she was killed by Millard and Smich and her body burned inside an animal incinerator, owned by Millard.

Rufolo clearly struggled in the witness box, as the prosecution pointed out he neglected to bring his full report on his findings to court — the documents were back at his office in Ottawa, he said. He arrived instead with three pages of handwriting scribbled on a hotel notepad.

"When you prepared your report, did you know you were coming to court to testify?" the prosecutor asked.

Rufolo said he did not.

Dellen Millard, acting as his own lawyer, called his first witness Tuesday, an expert in animal bones. He testified about photos taken of the inside Millard's animal incinerator that showed objects burning. (Court exhibit)

Human or deer bones?

He is the second bone expert to testify at the trial after analyzing two photos that showed objects burning inside an animal incinerator, called The Eliminator — a farm machine purchased by Millard for more than $15,000, although the jury was told previously he owned no animals.

Forensic anthropologist Tracy Rogers earlier testified as a Crown witness and concluded the burning objects appeared to be human bones.

During this morning's questioning by Millard, Rufolo said, "What I see, is in my opinion, is quite consistent with deer. It doesn't easily match with human bones."

He then appeared to waffle when faced by Cameron.

"I have little doubt they are bones," he said.

Cameron asked, "Possibly human?"

Rufolo, "Possibly yes."

He repeatedly highlighted the poor quality of the image he was given to study — something Rogers also pointed out during her testimony.

Scott Rufolo, who works as a research assistant at the Canadian Museum of Nature, testified in court Tuesday. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Millard zoomed in on the image a number of times, even though Justice Michael Code pointed out there was another photo the court had seen, which he believed was better quality — though Millard continued with the same image.

Linda Babcock, Laura's mother who sits in the front row as she has since the trial started, kept her eyes closed for a few moments, not looking at the large flat screens in the courtroom.

'This is my first time doing this'

Millard apologized to Justice Michael Code, after Code repeatedly had to remind him about proper legal procedures.

Millard was attempting to re-examine Rufolo once the prosecution wrapped its cross-examination, and presented an email correspondence to the court, that hadn't been entered as an exhibit.

Cameron quickly stood to say she'd never seen the document or questioned the witness about it.

Millard moved on to another area, about Rufolo's earlier testimony, but was quickly interrupted once again by Code.

"You are repeating your questions. Now stop it. That's an order."

Code then explained, "The re-examiner is not allowed to re-hash what you said in your examination in chief."

Millard then concluded his re-examination, "Your honour, I apologize, this is my first time doing this."

Possible Babcock sighting?

Late Tuesday, Millard called a witness who testified he thought he saw Babcock in October 2012, months after her friends and family stopped hearing from her.

"People have said I'm crazy, but that's how I feel," Gabe Austerweil, told the jury. His son, David, briefly dated Babcock in early 2012, he said.

He knew she was missing, when he believes he saw her at a nut store in Toronto.

Austerweil told the jury she was dressed in a leather jacket and was talking to a cashier about using hemp as part of a diet.

He testified he was 97 per cent sure he saw her, and said, "I was shocked."

During cross-examination, the prosecution pointed out despite his shock, he didn't reach out to Babcock's parents, who he had met, about seeing their daughter, or even contact police.

When he was later contacted by officers, he told them the woman pictured in a missing persons ad was not Babcock.

Three people have now testified at the Laura Babcock murder trial, saying they possibly saw her after she disappeared. Court has heard her phone, bank and social media accounts have not been touched since early July 2012. (Court exhibit)

Cameron then projected a screen capture of a news article about Babcock's disappearance, and asked Austerweil, "Would you be surprised to learn this is Laura Babcock?"

He answered yes.

Millard then stood and asked the Crown to play a brief video clip of Babcock, also previously shown to the court. It shows her in sunglasses, smiling and meowing to the camera — an inside joke between friends.

Austerweil again repeated that he would not recognize the woman as Babcock.

The trial resumes Wednesday at 10 a.m. ET.

For more in-depth coverage, read our live blog here from inside the courtroom. On mobile? Follow along here.

About the Author

Shannon Martin

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Shannon is an award-winning reporter with CBC Toronto. She was part of the core team that launched "No Fixed Address", a hugely popular series on millenials renting and buying in Toronto. In 2016, Shannon hosted a special live broadcast on-air and on Facebook simultaneously from Toronto Pride, which won top honours in the Digital category at the RTDNA awards. Contact Shannon: shannon.martin@cbc.ca or find her on Instagram at @ShannonMartinTV.