Calgary

Calgary murder trial hears international blackjack card counters had 'complex' relationship

Chris Lee and the woman he is accused of murdering were “frenemies” — blackjack card counters who spent decades travelling to casinos all over the world, according to the victim’s daughter, who was first to testify on Day 1 the accused's trial. 

Vida Smith was last seen on July 21, 2020, but her body has never been found

Vida Smith, left, and Chris Lee, a.k.a. Kevin Barton, were involved in the gambling world together. On the first day of his jury trial, Lee offered to plead guilty to manslaughter, which the Crown rejected, proceeding to trial on the murder charge. (Calgary Police Service)

Chris Lee and the woman he's accused of murdering were "frenemies" — blackjack card counters who spent decades travelling to casinos all over the world, according to the victim's daughter, who was first to testify on Day 1 the accused's trial. 

Vida Smith, 69, was last seen on July 21, 2020. Her body was never discovered. 

Before the second-degree murder trial got underway Monday, Lee, also known as Kevin Barton, admitted he killed Smith and offered to plead guilty to manslaughter.

Prosecutors Shane Parker and William Tran rejected Lee's offer made through defence lawyer Cory Wilson.

DNA on handcuffs, blood in cargo hatch

Tran told jurors they will hear evidence that a week after she disappeared, Smith's blood was found in Lee's Cadillac Escalade along with her DNA on a set of handcuffs. Police also seized her purse, cellphone and five loaded firearms from the SUV.

Cleaning product residue and maggots were also discovered in the back storage area of the vehicle. 

Jurors were told that Vida Smith's blood was found in Chris Lee's Cadillac on the day he was arrested. Her purse and phone were found there as well. (Calgary Police Service)

At the time of her death, Smith was living in a small apartment in Montreal, gambling at Quebec casinos after being banned from Alberta establishments that had identified her as a card counter, Neda Power, the victim's daughter, testified Monday.

Smith travelled back to Calgary several times a year to visit her daughter and grandsons, staying weeks at a time.

"She'd always meet Kevin for coffee," Power said.

World travel, big paydays

In the early 1990s, Smith split with her husband and met Lee. He taught her blackjack and how to count cards.

For years, Smith's only job was playing blackjack, her daughter told jurors.

In the first couple of decades of their relationship, Smith and Lee would travel all over the world, working collaboratively.

Back then, Lee was like family, said Power. She and her mother lived in Calgary together and Lee was "always around."

"She seemed happy," said Power, who told jurors there was a lot of "excitement and travelling" at the time.

Power said the pair was "very successful," sometimes seeing payouts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

'Frenemies' 

But over the years, mistrust crept in, according to Power, and the relationship between Lee and Smith became "complex."

"When you're dealing with that much money with each other, there may have been some disagreements. It was very up and down," said Power.

Smith lost trust in Lee, which Power said made her lose trust in him, too. 

"Toward the end, I couldn't see why she was maintaining that relationship with Kevin."

The two eventually became "frenemies," prosecutor Tran said in his opening statement.

Financially, 2020 "was really a struggle" for Smith, according to Power. The pandemic had led to casino closures and it was affecting her livelihood.

"I don't think she was winning big," said Power.

A 'cheating device'

Around the same time, Power believes Lee was working on some kind of "cheating device" and had enlisted Smith to help him.

This made Power nervous.

"That's where I was feeling very apprehensive," said Power. "It had gone beyond using your brain."

Power said her mother had made a deal with Lee to sell him her ex-husband's birth certificate for $10,000. 

The two met at a coffee shop on July 21, 2020, around 12:30 p.m.

Earlier in the day, Smith had a doctor's appointment and stopped at a bakery for lemon cake and cinnamon buns.

Lee under surveillance

After about 30 minutes at the coffee shop, security camera evidence will show the pair emerged, according to the Crown. Ultimately, the two drove off in the SUV that Lee had arrived in.

Smith's footprints of life ended that day.

On July 22, 2020, Power reported her mother missing.

One week after Smith disappeared, police were conducting surveillance on Lee when they observed him at the home of an ex-girlfriend in the northwest community of Varsity, said Tran.

Officers knocked on her door and the woman lied to police, telling them she hadn't seen Lee in years.

After police left the home, Lee was then observed getting into the white Cadillac Escalade. He drove away and spent the night in the SUV.

Lee discards homemade silencer

Jurors will hear evidence that in the morning, Lee drove to a car wash, where officers witnessed him vacuuming the vehicle, according to the Crown.

Lee threw items away, which police later seized, including boxes of baking soda, a homemade gun silencer covered in gunshot residue and Smith's car keys.

Lee then drove to a nearby Safeway and threw away more items later discovered to be empty baking soda boxes.

Police witnessed Lee at a Petland next to where he bought stain remover.

Soon after, police arrested Lee. 

Lee arrested with $44K cash 

At the time of his arrest, police seized $44,000 in cash, five loaded handguns and rifles, 1,000 rounds of ammunition, knives, masks and cellphones. 

Inside the vehicle, police also found Smith's purse, cellphone and wallet.

Smith's DNA was on a pair of handcuffs discovered in the Escalade.

A droplet of her blood was found in the rear cargo area of the SUV.

Forensic testing would also come back to show baking soda and cleaning products had been used in the back area where the blood was discovered.

Tran also told jurors a forensic entomologist will testify about maggots found in the back of the Escalade.

At the start of the trial, Court of King's Bench Justice Rosemary Nation accepted Lee's guilty plea to three firearms offences.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Meghan Grant

CBC Calgary crime reporter

Meghan Grant is a justice affairs reporter. She has been covering courts, crime and stories of police accountability in southern Alberta for more than a decade. Send Meghan a story tip at meghan.grant@cbc.ca or follow her on Twitter.

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