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Another 'horrific' Ontario killer is living in minimum and he gets day passes

The family of a Woodstock, Ont. woman who was brutally stabbed to death by her estranged husband is urging other families affected by homicide to check up on the status of their loved ones' killer inside the corrections system.

Shelley Cowell was handcuffed, stabbed 19 times by her husband, who is now in a BC minimum security prison

'He's not getting the punishment he deserves' 1:05

The family of a Woodstock, Ont. woman who was savagely stabbed to death by her estranged husband is urging others who've lost family members to homicide to check up on their loved ones' killer after making a shocking discovery. 

The family of Shelley Cowell says they recently found out her killer, Christopher Cowell, has not only remarried and had a child, but is living in a minimum security prison in British Columbia.

Cowell was convicted of first degree murder in 2002 after stabbing Shelley Cowell 19 times, an act the sentencing judge called brutal, vicious and horrific. 

All this time we thought he was in maximum security prison behind bars.- Darlene Nichol, sister of Shelley Cowell

The family's discovery comes a week after Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale ordered tougher rules on prisoner transfers. He made the announcement after a public uproar over child killer Terri-Lynne McClintic's transfer to an Indigenous healing lodge in Sasktachewan, less than a decade into her life sentence for the brutal murder of eight-year-old Tori Stafford. 

The family of Shelley Cowell contacted CBC News after Rodney Stafford spoke out about McClintic's transfer. 

Their own inquiries with the Parole Board of Canada shocked them.

"Three years or less [after Cowell was convicted of first degree murder], he was moved to medium security. In 2012 he was moved to minimum security," Darlene Nichol, Shelley's sister, told CBC News.

"All this time we thought he was in a maximum security prison behind bars."

Documents show Christopher Cowell, 56, is living at B.C.'s Mission Penitentiary, a minimum security facility 67 kilometres outside Vancouver. It has no fences or walls and is "based on the open campus design concept," according to Corrections Canada's website. 

'High risk for future violence'

Shelley Cowell's family, from left to right, Patty Miller, Tom Kramer, Perry Kramer, Pat Kramer, Darlene Nichol, Jim Kramer, Bonnie Kramer and Vince Nichol. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

What surprised Darlene Nichol and her family most, however, was that Cowell has married a woman who once worked at a prison and has fathered her child. That despite a September 2017 parole board report stating Cowell had a "high risk for future violence in the context of an intimate relationship."

"Our whole family is worried about her and her little girl. She's only known him with an escort during family visits," Nichol said. "I feel for her. She needs to be protected."

The reason for the worry is the manner in which Shelley was murdered.

Cowell killed her on May 17, 2001, three days after her 38th birthday. She was lured to the Woodstock home the couple once shared on the premise that he wouldn't be there and that it needed cleaning before being sold. 

What she didn't know is that she was walking into a trap. 

'For days he planned it' 

Three days after her 38th birthday, Shelley Cowell was lured into the basement of her Woodstock, Ont. home before being viciously murdered by her estranged husband Christopher Cowell in 2001. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"For days he planned it," Nichol said. "He blackened out the basement windows. He had a yellow rope tied to a support post in the basement."

Cowell also hid his car around the corner from the home so that Shelley wouldn't spot it when she arrived, the family said. Parole board documents show that once she had entered the home, Cowell confronted her, accusing her of cheating on him. 

The family learned in court that she was handcuffed and beaten with a hammer, then a metal rod, before being stabbed 19 times with a filet knife.

"He slit her throat so badly he nearly decapitated her," Nichol said. "Then he dragged her body and he smoked a cigarette and he ashed on top of her body and he put his bloody clothes in the washing machine and went to his parents' house."

During the sentencing hearing, the judge described the bloody pictures of the crime scene "as mute testimony to the horrific manner of [Shelley's] death." 

Cowell appealed his case, which was dismissed on June 19, 2006.

Wants more freedom

Cowell is scheduled for a parole board hearing this month, where he is applying for even more freedom. Right now, he gets an eight-hour leave from the facility once a month as well as two 90-minute leaves for community work and personal development.  

"Now he's applied for more time and that's what we're in the middle of right now, is to stop him from getting more time away from prison."

A 2016 parole board report says that Cowell "should never drink alcohol or use non-prescribed drugs again" but a psychiatrist also indicated Cowell is "not psychopathic," "showed no sign of mental illness" and that his "risk of general violence is low," describing his behaviour behind bars as "impeccable" throughout his sentence.

The report also notes he has completed several rehabilitation programs over the years, where he has "made notable gains in programming" and has the warden's support for increased family visits under the watch of correctional staff. 

Remembering the victim

The family insists Cowell is not getting the punishment he deserves.

"We are getting the punishment," Nichol said. "If he can commit a crime like he did and be in minimum security, what do you have to do to qualify to stay in maximum security prison?" 

'He's a cold-hearted killer,' Darlene Nichol says of her sister Shelley's estranged husband and killer Christopher Cowell. 'He’s not getting the punishment he deserves. We are getting the punishment.' (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Despite all the heartbreak and emotion, when the family gets together and remembers Shelley, they can't help but laugh. 

"Shelley was a presence, I'll tell you," Darlene Nichol said of her sister. "If she came in a room and laughed, everybody was laughing." 

They describe her as a loving woman, who enjoyed her work as a community support worker, helping people with developmental disabilities in Woodstock. 

Warning to others

Now Nichol and her family are joining Rodney Stafford, encouraging other victims of murder to speak out and ask about their loved ones' killers.

"If you have a family member who's been murdered, then in order to receive any kind of information on his status, you have to fill out a victim registration form and send it in. We did not know that. Nobody told us that 17 years ago."

CBC News has requested comment from the Corrections Service of Canada. It said in a written statement that it does not comment on specific cases due to privacy reasons.

It also wrote that while marriages are governed by provincial legislation, it has a clear code of ethics and professional standards in place to "ensure that relationship dynamics between staff and offenders remain appropriate by setting out the boundaries and providing a framework to take corrective action if those boundaries are not respected."