'This is not their fault': Saretzky and Blanchette families support each other during murder trial
On Wednesday, the jury found Derek Saretzky guilty of 3 counts of 1st-degree murder
The relationship between the Blanchette and Saretzky families could easily have been one of hate and hurt, but relatives have shared incredible gestures of kindness and forgiveness.
The two families were central to a triple-murder trial in Lethbridge, Alta. On Wednesday, the jury found Derek Saretzky, 24, guilty of three counts of first-degree murder in the 2015 slayings of Terry Blanchette, 27, his daughter, Hailey Dunbar-Blanchette, 2, and Hanne Meketech, 69.
He was also found guilty of performing an indignity to a body, related to the toddler.
During the three-week trial, jurors were only presented with evidence relevant to the crimes.
They did not hear about the "messages of love" sent by the Blanchettes to the Saretzkys, and the appreciation felt by the family whose name is forever connected to the gruesome, heinous killings that shook the small southern Alberta communities of Blairmore and Coleman.
That relationship of support began in the months after the slayings of the Blanchettes in the Crowsnest Pass community of Blairmore and Meketech in neighbouring Coleman.
At a hearing held shortly before the trial, Const. Amanda Wilkinson was called to testify and recalled conversation she had with Saretzky's mother, Sherri Megli, in February 2016. That testimony was protected by a publication ban until now.
Megli told the RCMP officer her family had been ostracized by many, including some of their own relatives. She said they'd also experienced vandalism, including slashed tires and smashed windows.
Blanchettes reached out when people 'really mean' to Saretzkys
The Blanchettes heard of the Saretzky family's troubles and reached out to them.
We started hearing stuff … about people being really mean to [the Saretzky family] and damaging their property. And I said to my mom, 'That's not necessary. This is not their fault.'- Amanda Blanchette , whose brother and niece were slain
"We started hearing stuff shortly after Terry and Hailey died about people being really mean to them and damaging their property. And I said to my mom, 'That's not necessary. This is not their fault,'" Terry Blanchette's sister Amanda told CBC in an interview prior to the trial.
"We are civilized human beings. We don't need to act like that."
Amanda Blanchette said her mother, Faith Durban, had been especially upset when she heard the Saretzky family believed that the Blanchettes hated them. It bothered Durban so much that she wrote the Saretzkys a letter to assure them that her family held no ill will towards any members of the family, except Derek.
"I can tell you my family and I are trying to find peace in all this," Durban told CBC in a statement. "As I'm sure the Saretzky family is also."
'Their own personal hell'
That letter meant the world to the Saretzkys.
"I'd like to thank all those people for supporting us, and the Blanchette family who continue to send us messages of love and support and prayers," Derek Saretzky's aunt, Carmeilla, said outside the Lethbridge courthouse after she finished testifying last week.
"Our heart goes out to those families of Terry's, Hailey's and Hanne's; it's hard for all of us until we have answers."
Threats directed at Derek Saretzky, and the impact the case has had on his parents and two older brothers nag at Amanda Blanchette. She sometimes wonders how she would feel if the roles were somehow reversed.
"I do, I have moments where I just hate this kid, he did a horrible thing, but why should his family have to sit there and worry about what's going to happen to him?
"There's no saving Terry and Hailey, it's over. They're at peace. And [the Saretzkys] are going through their own personal hell, I'm sure. I know it bothers me and my mom a lot that they have to go through this."
'It means a lot to us'
The Saretzkys' hell was likely exacerbated by the fact that not only was Derek Saretzky facing horrendous allegations, many family members had been called on to help police and prosecutors.
Saretzky's father, grandfather and aunt all testified for the prosecution, while others including his mother, uncle and cousin all co-operated with police during the homicide investigations.
When police realized Hailey was missing after her father's body was found, an Amber Alert was issued that said police were looking for a white van with distinct features.
The van sounded similar to one owned by the Saretzkys' dry-cleaning business.
Family members began to contact police.
First it was Derek Saretzky's father who told them about the van and later he told them his son had indicated he knew something about Hailey's disappearance.
A cousin and aunt alerted police to a smoking fire pit on the family property where bones appeared to be sticking up from the ashes.
After telling police he killed the Blanchettes, Saretzky took them to the fire pit where he claimed he burned the toddler's remains.
Begged son to be honest with police
Larry Saretzky's very private grief was on display in a public courtroom earlier in the trial as he testified against his youngest son in Alberta Court of Queen's Bench.
Jurors heard audio of Larry begging his son to tell police what he knew about the missing child after Derek had told him the girl "was in heaven."
It was a very hard thing and at first I don't think we believed Derek was involved. We had no idea really. Your mind is numb.- Derek Saretzky's aunt, Carmeilla Saretzky
"[Larry] Saretzky is a person of great integrity," prosecutor Photini Papadatou said in her opening statement on the first day of the trial.
"He came forward and told the truth … regardless of the consequences to his family."
Derek Saretzky's aunt, Carmeilla Saretzky, holds on to those words.
"It means a lot to us, it really does," she said.
"It was a very hard thing and at first I don't think we believed Derek was involved. We had no idea really. Your mind is numb. You're thinking no, it can't be real."
Forgiveness in a small town
Lisa Sygutek owns the local newspaper and knows the Saretzkys, referring to them as a "wonderful family." She says the last year and a half has been devastating for them.
I think people realize … the actions of one family member doesn't taint the rest of the family's image.- Jessica Atkinson, owner of Stone's Throw Cafe
"They're just really good people. People who didn't deserve to go through what they're going through."
Tensions in Blairmore seem to be easing, albeit slowly, according to Jessica Atkinson, owner of Stone's Throw Cafe.
"I think people realize that it's a good family, they contribute a lot and the actions of one family member doesn't taint the rest of the family's image.
"There's been a lot of forgiveness, I think."
That forgiveness is something Carmeilla Saretzky says her family has been feeling.
"The community of the Crowsnest Pass, the citizens of Lethbridge, our family, friends, those that know us vaguely, they've been very very good with us throughout this very trying time."
- Derek Saretzky hung out with toddler he's accused of murdering and her mother a year before killings
- Derek Saretzky 'lost' and 'shaking' hours before he's suspected of first murder, says aunt
- Derek Saretzky told police he didn't think anyone cared about senior he's accused of killing
- 'She cried a little bit': Derek Saretzky details kidnapping and killing of child in interrogation video
- Alberta senior knew her accused killer and likely kept $90K in her home, triple-murder trial hears
Read the tweets from our reporter who was in the courtroom throughout the trial. On our mobile app? You can also see it here.