Racial slurs fuelled fatal attack at Winkler bowling alley, court hears

A dispute over a small bill at a Winkler, Man., bowling alley ended in the death of Saskatoon's Zachary Straughan after his attacker became the target of racial slurs, a court has heard.

Justin Bird pleaded guilty to manslaughter in death of 25-year-old Zachary Straughan

Zachary Straughan, 25, died in a Winnipeg hospital after being beaten several times with a pool cue at a bowling alley in Winkler, Man. (Cassie Straughan/GoFundMe page)

A dispute over a small bill at a Winkler, Man., bowling alley ended in Zachary Straughan's death after his attacker became the target of racial slurs, a court heard Thursday. 

Justin Bird, 29, has pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the Sept. 24, 2016 killing. He appeared in a Portage la Prairie courtroom Thursday for sentencing.

The Crown recommended Bird be sent to prison for up to 10 years, while the defence argued he should serve no more than four years.

Both Bird and Straughan were from Saskatoon, but were in Winkler, approximately 100 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg, as part of a concrete work crew. 

According to an agreed statement of facts provided to court, Bird, Straughan and another co-worker had been drinking, bowling and playing pool at the bowling alley. Bird — a new hire — and Straughan began arguing over a $16 tab. 

The two men were pushing each other when Straughan called Bird a "rubby" and said he "should return to the reserve where Indians belong," says the agreed statement of facts.

As Straughan turned to his other co-worker, Bird heard Straughan say "dirty Indian."

Bird then struck Straughan once in the head with the thick end of a pool cue, knocking him to the floor. He struck Straughan two more times on his throat and back before dropping the pool cue to the floor and walking out of the bowling alley.

Straughan, 25, was transported to Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg, where he later died.

'I killed a guy over $20'

Police arrested Bird a short time later at a convenience store and charged him with assault causing bodily harm. Later, when he learned Straughan had died, Bird started crying and hyperventilating. When told by police to calm down, Bird replied, "How can I when I killed a guy over $20?"

Bird has remained in custody since his arrest. While in custody, he has spent a "a significant period" under suicide watch, said defence lawyer Scott Newman.

"This is something that is hanging heavy on him … the fact that he has killed a person," Newman said. "That has decimated him and he has had trouble living with his actions that night."

Victim impact statements provided to court described Straughan, a father of four, as a loving and caring man who "put everyone ahead of himself."

Anthony Straughan, Zachary's older brother, is in custody and was unable to attend his funeral. 

"I had to sit down and say my last words to my brother from a penitentiary phone," Anthony Straughan wrote in a victim impact statement read out in court.

"My last words were, 'You thought you were looking up to me, but I was really looking up to you and I will always love you.'

"Ever since he died, I live my life in misery and depression," he said.

Judge Larry Allen reserved sentencing to a later date.

About the Author

Dean Pritchard

Court reporter

A reporter for over 20 years, CBC Manitoba's Dean Pritchard has covered the court beat since 1999, both in the Brandon region and Winnipeg. He can be contacted at dean.pritchard@cbc.ca.