Alberta man pleads guilty to 1st-degree murder in Hinton homicides of mother and young son

A convicted sex offender has pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder in the 2021 killings of a 24-year-old woman and her 16-month-old son in Hinton, Alta.

Robert Keith Major, a convicted sex offender, to be sentenced in November

A family photo shows Mchale Busch and Cody McConnell with their son, Noah. Mchale and Noah were found dead on Sept. 17, 2021. Robert Keith Major has since been convicted of first-degree murder in their deaths. (Submitted by Cody McConnell)

Warning: This story contains details of sexual assault and murder that readers may find distressing.

A convicted sex offender has pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder in the 2021 killings of a 24-year-old woman and her 16-month-old son in Hinton, Alta.

Robert Keith Major, who appeared in court virtually from the Edmonton Remand Centre on Monday morning, pleaded guilty to killing Mchale Busch and her toddler, Noah McConnell.

Major had initially been charged with two counts of second-degree murder and one count of indignity to human remains. Those charges were later changed to two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of interfering with human remains. The charges of interfering with human remains have been stayed.

Court of Queen's Bench Justice Marta Burns convicted Major on Monday after he entered his guilty pleas.

He is scheduled to be sentenced in November. 

According to an agreed statement of facts, Major intentionally killed Busch before suffocating her son in the afternoon on Sept. 16, 2021.

Busch and her fiancé, Cody McConnell, had recently moved to the town of Hinton, about 300 kilometres west of Edmonton, so McConnell could work in the oil and gas industry. 

They lived in a low-rise apartment building with their son. Their suite was next to Major's. 

Edmonton police had issued a public warning in 2017 when Major was released into the community, saying they had reasonable grounds to believe he would commit a sexual offence against a woman, including children, again.

McConnell told CBC in September that the family had no idea about his criminal history.

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According to the agreed statement of facts, it is unknown how Busch ended up in Major's apartment.

Months earlier, he had asked a female janitor multiple times to enter his apartment — she declined — and a female neighbour had also refused to do so, reporting an interaction to the building's landlord.

Earlier in the day on Sept. 16, Major had offered to clean up mud outside Busch's apartment. The mud was believed to be from her fiance's work boots.

According to a neighbour, who overheard Major and Busch talking, he had asked when her husband would be home from work.

Once Busch was inside Major's apartment, he tried to sexually assault her and she fought back, leaving scratches and bite marks on his body, the agreed statement of facts says.

Using his hands and a cable, Major strangled Busch to death, then violated her body, leaving it in his bathtub.

After killing Busch, Major suffocated her son and put his body in a garbage bag. He put the bag in a dumpster near the apartment building, disposing of Busch's phone in another dumpster.

RCMP found the bodies and arrested Major the next day.

Because he pleaded guilty, he has waived his right to a trial.

His sentencing hearing is scheduled to start on Nov. 22.

The minimum sentence for first-degree murder is life in prison with no possibility of parole for 25 years.

'We want people to band behind us'

Cody McConnell and Busch's father were in court on Monday, along with nearly two dozen supporters. Most travelled from the Camrose area, where McConnell is living at the home of a close friend, Verna Sand.

Sand told CBC News the group is grateful for the guilty pleas because years could have passed before the case headed to trial, but it was difficult listening to a recording of Major being interviewed by an RCMP officer.

Mchale Busch and her son, Noah McConnell. (Cody McConnell)

Sand said every day is still a struggle for McConnell, who for a long time could not imagine a future without his fiancé and son.

"In the time that has passed we've worked really hard on being together as a family, surrounding him constantly with people and trying to get his mental health in a place where he's now starting to talk about [the] future," she said. 

McConnell and his supporters are advocating for stricter sex-offender laws.

Yellowhead MP Gerald Soroka plans to introduce a private member's bill called "Noah's Law" in the House of Commons.

According to Sand, the bill includes lifetime monitoring for people convicted of multiple sexual assaults or aggravated assault against children. It also includes tools for landlords evaluating prospective tenants.

"We need to change things in our criminal justice system that protect the innocent and not just protect the accused," she said.