Calgary

Calgary jury convicts blackjack card counter of manslaughter, not murder

A Calgary man has been found not guilty of second-degree murder but guilty of manslaughter for killing his friend and blackjack partner of 30 years during a fight over money.

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

Kevin Barton and Vida Smith were involved in the gambling world together. Barton admitted to killing Smith but maintained through the trial that he was guilty only of manslaughter, not murder. (Calgary Police Service)

A Calgary man has been found not guilty of second-degree murder but guilty of manslaughter for killing his friend and blackjack partner of 30 years during a fight over money.

Chris Lee, 63, a.k.a. Kevin Barton, admitted to fatally choking Vida Smith on July 21, 2020, while the two sat in his car.

Jurors had been deliberating since Thursday morning.

Lee appeared to show relief as the jury foreperson read the verdict Friday night around 8 p.m.

His defence lawyer Cory Wilson called the verdict "the right decision." 

"While we are very happy with the outcome, this decision in no way diminishes the fact that this was a terrible tragedy and an unspeakable loss for the family of Vida Smith," said Wilson outside of court.

'A tremendous responsibility'

Lee will be allowed to remain on bail ahead of a sentencing hearing set for next week.

Before they left the courtroom for a final time, Court of King's Bench Justice Rosemary Nation thanked jurors for their efforts over the last two weeks.

"Judging ones fellow man is a tremendous responsibility," said Nation

Lee and Smith were successful card counters who, during their heyday, were winning tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars playing blackjack.

They travelled Canada, the U.S., South America, Australia and India. Neither had jobs outside gambling. 

Lee never denied killing Smith and offered to plead guilty to manslaughter on the first day of the trial — a move rejected by the prosecution.

On the day she was killed, Lee testified that Smith had offered to sell him her ex-husband's passport for $10,000.

But on the day they met, after grabbing a coffee together at a northeast Starbucks, the two counted Lee's cash and then Smith handed over a birth certificate instead of a passport, according to the Lee's testimony.

He said she then tried to get out of the car with his money.

Lee testified he had a "split-second reaction" and grabbed Smith to prevent her from leaving with his money.

The pair struggled, and Lee had his arm around Smith's neck. After 30 seconds, she went limp, he said.

Smith's body in the mountains, says Lee

Lee said he moved Smith's body to his Cadillac Escalade and, days later, took it to the mountains near Banff or Canmore. He said he left the body wrapped in a tarp near a roadside rest stop. 

A week after Smith disappeared, police came looking for Lee. They knew the pair had met for coffee on the day Smith was last seen alive. 

When he found out officers had knocked on his girlfriend's door, Lee began destroying evidence.

Chris Lee (a.k.a. Kevin Barton) is seen in this security camera image at a northwest car wash immediately after he threw a set of keys, later determined to be Vida Smith's, in the bushes. (Court exhibit)

He cleaned the back of his Escalade, tossed Smith's car keys and discarded a homemade silencer that later tested positive for gunshot residue.

Prosecutor Shane Parker suggested Lee shot Smith, an allegation the killer denied. 

When he was arrested on July 29, police seized $44,000 in cash, five loaded guns, 1,000 rounds of ammunition, knives, masks and a set of handcuffs from Lee's vehicle. 

Court of King's Bench Justice Rosemary Nation will hear sentencing submissions from Parker, co-counsel William Tran and defence lawyer Cory Wilson next week.

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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