Edmonton·Exclusive

Weeks before Wainwright murder, estranged husband uttered chilling threat

Victim's best friend recalls threat: "When she told him it was over and he was leaving her parents' house, he looked her directly in the face and said, 'I meant my vows when I said until death do us part.' "

Nichole Clifford’s friends, family say police and justice system failed to protect her

Nichole and Robert Clifford on their wedding day. (Remembering Nichole McKeith/Facebook)

He tried to control her, and when that stopped working he killed her. 

Nichole Clifford was stabbed to death in the basement of her Wainwright home four years ago this week. Her estranged husband, Robert Clifford, was found guilty on Friday of second-degree murder. 

Now the victim's friends and family are speaking out about domestic violence and the abuse Nichole suffered, and say they believe the RCMP and the justice system let her down.

Delilah McKeith knew her daughter's marriage had problems. She tried to convince Nichole to pack up her two children and move back home to Red Deer, where they could take care of her.

"The children told me he used to push mommy and make mommy cry," McKeith said. "Call her names. When I sat down and talked with her, she said, 'Mom, this is my life.' "

But McKeith was troubled by things her son-in-law did. 

"He cheated on her many times and he had threatened her many times," she told CBC News. "I can remember him at our house. He would stand over top of her while she was sleeping. He would stare at her. Creepy things like that." 

Nichole's best friend, Krista Perkins, said Clifford demanded to know his wife's whereabouts at all times and often insulted her. 

The Wainwright house where Nichole Clifford was murdered on Feb. 23, 2017. Her body was discovered the next day. (Court exhibit)

"He held her back," Perkins said. "He didn't let her be who she truly was, because he was so controlling of her. It made her very cautious about herself. She didn't like the way she looked. Her self-esteem was very low." 

Finally, Nichole decided she'd had enough. 

"She kept saying, I will not let the abuser abuse me," her mother recalled. "He will not control me." 

Nichole told her husband she wanted a separation on Jan. 2, 2017, while they were at her parent's house in Red Deer. 

His reaction now seems like foreshadowing, Perkins said. 

"When she told him it was over and he was leaving her parents' house, he looked her directly in the face and said, 'I meant my vows when I said until death do us part.' "

Clifford moved out of the couple's Wainwright house nine days later. He told friends he was determined to win his wife back. 

"She was done with him," Perkins said. "She wanted nothing to do with him anymore." 

Broke into the house and hid under a bed

Clifford later admitted to RCMP he snuck back into the house through a broken basement window. 

The broken window Robert Clifford used to gain entrance to the house. (RCMP/Court exhibit)

"I conclude that the accused entered Ms. Clifford's residence on at least two occasions after their separation and without her consent," Court of Queen's Bench Justice Nate Whitling said in handing down the murder conviction. 

"On at least one of those occasions, he was found hiding under a bed. And on at least one of those occasions, he was present at her residence in breach of release conditions." 

Nichole got a restraining order, but it didn't keep her estranged husband away. 

"It was closer to her death where she would call me every single day," McKeith recalled. "She'd say, 'Mom, he tried running me off the road. Mom, he hid in the basement. Mom, he beat himself up and tried to tell the police that I beat him up.' "

RCMP charged Clifford with break and enter and he was taken into custody in February 2017. 

He was released less than two weeks later, on Feb. 16, 2017, after his mother posted $1,000 for bail. 

Nichole Clifford and her mother, Dalilah McKeith, in an undated photo. (Delilah McKeith/Facebook)

One week later, Nichole was stabbed 17 times in the neck, chest and back, her body found at the bottom of the basement stairs.

Evidence entered at the trial showed that Clifford accessed the Wi-Fi router in Nichole's house at 6:22 p.m. on Feb. 23. No one was home at the time. He may have waited in the dark until she got home at 10:26 p.m. after having dinner at Perkins's house. Her children stayed with Perkins. 

The router showed that Clifford left the home 46 minutes after Nichole arrived. 

"The number of stab wounds and the slitting of the throat suggests more rage and revenge," defence lawyer Timothy Dunlap said during closing arguments at the trial. 

Family forced to go into hiding

McKeith said she knew right away that Clifford had killed her daughter. She rushed to Wainwright to gather up her grandson and granddaughter. Then victim's services and the RCMP major crime unit told her they couldn't return to their house in Red Deer right away. 

They placed the family in hiding for a week. 

"They didn't know if our lives were in trouble or the children's lives were in trouble," McKeith said. 

It took RCMP eight months to charge Clifford with second-degree murder while investigators waited for DNA results. He has been in custody ever since. 

McKeith and her husband are raising the children. Worried about their emotional well-being, she showers them with love and patience. 

"I pray a lot for strength," she said. "For guidance. Some days I can barely handle it." 

When Clifford was convicted, McKeith broke the news to her grandchildren after they got home from school. 

"I said, 'Your dad was found guilty for second-degree murder.' And they both went, 'Yes! We're safe.' "

Clifford is scheduled to be sentenced later this year. He faces an automatic life sentence with no chance of parole for 10 to 25 years. 

"So the next thing we're waiting for here is when do we have to prepare to go into hiding again?" McKeith said. "Ten years down the road? If it's 20, we may be OK." 

McKeith and Perkins both believe the RCMP should have been more diligent about Nichole's well-being when she repeatedly called them with concerns. 

On the day Robert Clifford was convicted, a Wainwright flower shop handed out balloons to be released into the sky in honour of his victim. (Supplied by Ashley Moores)

"They didn't take any of Nichole's worries seriously," Perkins said. "It seemed to be brushed off. They never did do follow-up calls with her. They never did any of that." 

A childhood friend thinks Nichole would still be alive if Clifford had been denied bail. 

"I think the system is flawed in that sense," Ashley Moores said. "When there's an incident, they need to take it a lot more seriously than what they're doing right now." 

The day Clifford was convicted, a Wainwright flower shop gave out balloons in Nichole's memory to be released into the sky. 

"I wish that her life wasn't defined by this awful death," Moores said. "Every time I think of Nichole, I think of her beautiful brown eyes. She always had a smile and an infectious laugh."

Perkins said she thinks about her friend every day.

"I pick up the phone to call her constantly. She was my sister. She was my soulmate. She was my best friend."


If you or someone you care about are experiencing domestic violence, please reach out to the shelter nearest you. Visit www.acws.ca/shelters for more information. You don't have to stay at a shelter to get help from one.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janice Johnston

Court and crime reporter

Janice Johnston is an investigative journalist with CBC Edmonton who has covered Alberta courts and crime for more than three decades. She won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award in 2016 for her coverage of the trial of a 13-year-old Alberta boy who was acquitted of killing his abusive father. You can reach her at janice.johnston@cbc.ca.

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