Life sentence handed down in robbery-murder of MacGregor man, 96

A Manitoba man who murdered a devout and defenceless elderly man in order to get money to go drinking will serve a prison sentence of life with no chance of parole for at least 10 years.

Jason Conway pleaded guilty to May 2014 murder of Niels "Arne" Nielsen

Friends found the body of Niels "Arne" Nielsen, 96, inside his tiny home in the town of MacGregor on May 25, 2014 (RCMP)

A Manitoba man who murdered a devout and defenceless elderly man in order to get money to go drinking will serve a prison sentence of life with no chance of parole for at least 10 years.

Jason Conway, 25, was recently handed the punishment in Portage la Prairie Court of Queen's Bench after pleading guilty to second-degree murder in the fatal May 2014 stabbing of Niels "Arne" Nielsen.

Friends discovered Nielsen, 96, dead in the kitchen of his MacGregor, Man. home after he failed to turn up to religious services, Crown prosecutor Larry Hodgson said.

At first, RCMP had little idea what had happened to Nielsen, who lived alone in the tiny town. The case broke open after a server at a local hotel bar noticed Conway and another man spending money on drinks and food. Usually the pair, who were regulars at the bar, had little cash, the server told police.

Conway was interviewed by police as a potential witness, but arrested for murder after he admitted his DNA or fingerprints may be in Nielsen's house, court heard.

He gave a full confession and a sketch he drew of the crime scene basically matched one drawn up by forensic investigators, Hodgson said.

Hodgson said Conway and a co-accused believed Nielsen had money in his house, so they went there armed with knives to rob him.

When Nielsen let them in under the ruse of using his phone, he was confronted and stabbed to death in his kitchen after handing over some money.

Hodgson described the crime as "not the most sophisticated robbery" as Nielsen was found with $1,800 in his pocket. Conway has been in custody since his arrest a few days after the murder.

'Am I safe in my home?'

Long-time friends presented victim impact statements to Justice Scott Abel and described Nielsen as a devout Jehovah's Witness who had lived through much sorrow but still thrived.

"He really worked hard at living," said one friend. "He had an excitement for life, and just sitting in the sun."Nielsen wanted to help others, she said. "And that was met with a violent outcome, how betrayed he must have felt."

The friend described how the violence has taken a toll on her and suggested what happened to Nielsen has left her with fundamental questions about her own wellbeing.

"Do I help others? Do I trust a stranger? Am I safe in my home? … Today I feel unsafe and anxious."

Killer 'totally without guile,' says lawyer 

Conway, who grew up in a loving foster family, has no prior history of violence and no criminal record.

Court heard he lives with what was termed "pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified" but was living independently with help from some social supports prior to his arrest.

A long-time teacher described him as "easily led astray," defence lawyer Bruce Bonney said. A probation officer's report described him as a low-risk to reoffend.

Some time prior to killing Nielsen, Conway began misusing alcohol and was taken advantage of by a co-accused, a man twice his age who used Conway's amenities as a "bed and breakfast" and otherwise took advantage of him, Bonney said.

Conway is "totally without guile," the lawyer told Abel. "If it weren't for (a co-accused), this never would have happened."

Conway is co-operating with the prosecution and police, Abel was told.

Abel described Nielsen's killing as "horrific," but rejected the Crown's request to hike Conway's period of parole ineligibility to 15 years instead of the mandatory 10 years.

"The murder of Mr. Nielsen was unprovoked and senseless," said Abel.

A few months after Nielsen's death, RCMP charged Martin Sutherland, then 54, with first-degree murder.

A trial is currently set for October.