Raymond Cormier spoke of wanting to have sex with Tina Fontaine days before her death, Crown tells court
Fontaine's great-aunt breaks down in tears as she hears 911 tape of Fontaine's voice
The man accused of killing 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was hoping to have sex with her days before the Indigenous girl washed up on the shores of the Red River in 2014, wrapped in a tan-coloured duvet cover and weighed down with rocks, a packed courthouse in Winnipeg heard Monday.
Crown attorney James Ross told 12 jurors and dozens of people in court Monday that throughout the trial, which is expected to last five weeks, they will hear entered into evidence recordings of Raymond Cormier, 55, that suggest he was involved in Fontaine's death.
Cormier, who is originally from New Brunswick, is charged with second-degree murder in the death of Fontaine, whose body was found near the Alexander Docks on the Red River on Aug. 17, 2014.
Among those recordings, which are bound to be "hotly contested," Ross said jurors will hear one where Cormier is allegedly heard saying he was hoping to sleep with Fontaine one night when they met without her boyfriend present.
Cormier became angry when he found she was 15 and said she died because someone didn't want to be known as a "skinner" — slang for pedophile, Ross said of one of the phone recordings.
"Mr. Cormier told associates that Tina Fontaine 'got killed because we, I, found out she was 15,'" Ross said, reading a transcript of the call in question.
In his opening remarks, Ross told the jury they wouldn't hear from any eyewitnesses or see direct DNA evidence linking Cormier to Fontaine's death, saying the current of the river had swept away much of the forensic evidence. But the Crown will prove Cormier had the motives and means to kill Fontaine, Ross said.
He called Fontaine's great-aunt Thelma Favel to the stand, the first of six witnesses to testify Monday. She explained she took care of Fontaine, and her sister, for 11 years, starting from the age of four.
"She was such a happy girl, polite … That's just the kind of girl she was."
Tina Fontaine hurt by father's death
Favel said Fontaine's mother was not in the picture and her father, Eugene Fontaine, lived with cancer, worked full-time and was unable to care for her. She and her sister lived with Favel in Powerview near Sagkeeng First Nation.
Fontaine's father was murdered in October of 2011 and that "hurt her bad," Favel said of her great-niece.
"She cried constantly," Favel said of Fontaine, adding she got a tattoo of angel wings to honour her father. "[She didn't] know how to function without her father."
After years apart, Favel says Fontaine expressed interest in meeting up with her mother. She left for Winnipeg in late June of 2014 and Favel was expecting to hear from Fontaine again but never did.
"She was supposed to call us when she was ready to come home," Favel said, adding she called CFS and police in an attempt to find her.
At the time of her death, Fontaine was a ward of Child and Family Services (CFS)
Fontaine was last seen leaving the Best Western Charterhouse hotel at 5pm Friday August 8. She was wearing the same clothes when her body was recovered days later. Ross says Cormier used the name Sebastian & that Fontaine called 911 to say her friend Sebastian stole a truck.—@cbarghout
While Fontaine was in care, she was placed in the Best Western Charterhouse Hotel in downtown Winnipeg. She would later run away from the hotel.
Ross said Fontaine was using drugs and alcohol and was found by police one night working in the sex trade.
"Tina Fontaine never fully appreciated the danger she was in," he said.
Before she went missing, Ross said she told a social worker she was going to meet friends at downtown mall Portage Place, and was then going to get a new bike from an older man named Sebastian.
A call to 911 on Aug. 6, 2014 — two days before Fontaine disappeared — was played in court while Favel was still on the stand. Ross said it was of Fontaine reporting a truck that was stolen by her friend, "Sebastian" — an alias the Crown attorney said Cormier used.
"I'd like to report a blue truck that was stolen," the person says to the 911 dispatcher, who then instructs the caller to report the theft to a different police phone number. "He is my friend and he stole it earlier today."
Favel wept and wiped away tears with a white cloth as she identified the voice on the recording as that of Fontaine.
David Bowman, a crime analyst and civilian member of the WPS, told court there were 12 vehicles reported stolen on Aug. 6, 2014, in Winnipeg. Two were pickup trucks; one was a black 2005 GMC Sierra, the other a blue 2008 Ford F150.
Shape of a body
A man from Calgary, Dwayne Oliver, who had moved back to Winnipeg, testified Monday about finding Fontaine's body.
He said that he and his son were looking for a place to fish by the Alexander Docks on Aug. 17, 2014, when he noticed something near shore.
"I noticed what appeared to be the shape of a body wrapped in a blanket, kind of slouched over," he told court.
"I could see lots and lots of flies hovering over that shape."
He told court he called emergency crews and later directed them to the area where they would find the body of Fontaine, which the Crown says was weighed down with nearly 12 kilos of rocks.
Cormier, dressed in a grey and black shirt and with short hair, was escorted into court Monday and seated behind defence lawyer Andrew J. Synyshyn and Anthony Kavanagh before jurors arrived. He has pleaded not guilty.
Members of Fontaine's family were in the crowd.
Prior to the Crown's opening statement, Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal told the four men and eight women jurors that they are to assess the charges against Cormier based only on evidence entered into court. He implored them to avoid media reports on the case and to discuss details only behind closed doors with fellow jurors.
"Punishment has nothing to do with your task as jurors," he said. "Decide without sympathy, prejudice or fear."
Wrapped in tan duvet cover
Three members of the Winnipeg Police Service and one from the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service were also called to the stand on the first day.
Const. Kelsey Mahoney, an eight-year member of the police force and a member of the dive team since 2013, was helping search by boat for Farron Hall, a prominent homeless Winnipeg man reported missing days earlier, when he was reassigned to the Alexander Docks that day in 2014.
He attended the scene via boat and recalled seeing an object in the shallows north of the docks wrapped in a tan-coloured sheet in about a metre of water.
"Originally I thought it was a bag … I couldn't tell exactly what it was," Mahoney told Crown attorney Breta Passler, adding it became clear it was a body as he neared. "I was able to see an arm."
Firefighter Darrell Stephen Robinson, a primary care medic with the fire paramedic service who has been with its water rescue crew for six years, was also called to the scene and reported seeing a dark-coloured material, "possibly a bedsheet." As he got nearer Robinson said he saw arms sticking out of the sheet.
"The arms looked blue, there was some mottling. The skin looked spotty," he said.
"There was definitely a very obvious odor of decomposition that was unmistakable."
The body was later identified as Fontaine.
The Crown says further investigation determined Fontaine was wrapped in a duvet cover sold only at Costco. Ross said it was one of only 100 such duvet covers sold in Winnipeg at the time and that investigators believe Cormier owned one.
An autopsy revealed Fontaine's body exhibited signs of bloating throughout and had started to decompose when she was found, said Winnipeg police patrol Sgt. Kevin Pawl, the final person to testify Monday.
Pawl has spent 22 of his 29 years with the WPS on its dive team and was described as an expert in underwater search and recovery.
Pawl detailed the stages of what happens to a body after it's been submerged in water for several days. He said typically in order for a body to remain at the bottom of a waterway for more than a few days it must be weighed down by at least half of the person's own body weight
Pawl said Fontaine was 5-foot-3 and 77 pounds; the Crown said she was weighed down by 25.5 pounds (11.5 kilograms) of rocks that were placed in the duvet cover.
Pawl said temperature, current speed, bacteria present in a water basin and the final meal a person ingested all contribute to how quickly a body might float to the surface.
Though she was found near an isolated eddy in the river north of the docks, where water churns against the current and debris often collects, Pawl said he couldn't be sure where Fontaine's body was originally put in the river.
Death highlighted crisis
Her death deeply troubled people in Winnipeg and further underscored the need for a national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous girls and women, Nahanni Fontaine said.
"At the time, as most will remember, a national inquiry was not even on the agenda," said Nahanni Fontaine, NDP MLA for the north Winnipeg riding of St. Johns and former special adviser on Indigenous women's issues for the government of Manitoba.
"So there's those changes, but the fact remains that today we still have cases of Indigenous women who go missing or are murdered. That is unacceptable for all of us."
At a 2014 news conference after Tina Fontaine's death, homicide investigator Sgt. John O'Donovan referred to Fontaine as a "petite little thing" who had just turned 15 and died within about a month of her coming to Winnipeg.
Nahanni Fontaine said O'Donovan's words marked a departure from how people often talk about Indigenous women and girls who are murdered or go missing.
"Typically the narrative has been, they put themselves at risk or they were sex trade workers or all of this really egregious social constructions that have nothing to do with the fact that somebody's life has just been taken or somebody's life has been stolen," she said.
"He stood up for that and I think it allowed the public to see themselves reflected in Tina."
Tina Fontaine's death spurred several community-level initiatives aimed at preventing similar deaths, solving cold cases and more.
After years of not being active, citizen watch group the Bear Clan Patrol relaunched in February 2015 in response to Fontaine's death, its leader James Favel saying in 2016 it was "the last straw."
Volunteer group Drag the Red formed and focused on trolling Winnipeg's rivers for signs that might help investigators solve missings persons cases.
Manitoba CFS also ended an emergency housing program that saw at-risk youth such as Fontaine placed in hotels when there were no vacancies in local foster homes.
The trial resumes Tuesday afternoon.
With files from Cameron MacLean, Caroline Barghout and Karen Pauls