Manitoba

Brandon man on trial for wife's death caused explosion that destroyed home, court told

A trial began Monday in Brandon for a man accused of killing his wife before their home blew up two years ago.

Trial scheduled to last 3 weeks in Brandon's Court of Queen's Bench

Brandon police charged 63-year-old Robert Hughes with second-degree murder in the death of his 63-year-old wife Betty in 2019. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

A trial began Monday in Brandon for a man accused of killing his wife before their home blew up two years ago.

Eight women and six men were selected at the Westman Centennial Auditorium in Brandon, which was turned into a makeshift courtroom for jury selection on Monday morning. 

The 14 people will eventually decide whether or not Robert Hughes is guilty of killing his 63-year-old wife Betty.

Hughes was charged with second-degree murder in the death of his wife in Oct. 2019. She died at the home in Brandon's Green Acres neighbourhood that they had bought months earlier.

Police allege Betty died before the couple's home exploded, leaving it in ruins. Her body was later found in the rubble. Robert was found critically injured among the ruins. 

Hughes, who was 63 at the time of the incident, was arrested after his release from hospital. He has been in custody since his arrest. 

Sheriff's officers led Hughes, dressed in a black suit with leg shackles, into court on Monday. He sat in the prisoner box hunched over and looking frail. 

Marriage problems

"The last day of Betty Hughes' life was not something she or her family could have expected. She was cut badly and needed medical help," said Crown attorney Chris Vanderhooft in his opening remarks. 

"Her husband, who was the only other person there, did not help her. What he did, while she bled to death, was go to the basement and cut the gas line." 

In his remarks, Vanderhooft said the trial will hear how the couple's marriage was falling apart. Despite purchasing a new home together, he said the relationship wasn't able to be repaired. 

Robert and Betty Hughes had purchased the home in July 2019, according to Land Titles documents obtained by CBC News. (Betty Hughes/Facebook )

He said the relationship took a fatal turn after Robert returned home to find a realtors' "For Sale" sign on the front lawn and the couple got into a fight in the home's kitchen.

Betty was killed after being slashed multiple times with a yellow-handled utility knife, he said. The extent of her injuries and bleeding caused her death, court was told. 

"He killed his wife and knew there was no turning back," he said. "Rather than calling 911, he dealt with the situation in a cowardly way."  

Vanderhooft said Hughes then tried to take his own life. He was pulled from the rubble with a rope around his neck, and with a utility knife in his hand, court was told. 

Tampered gas line led to explosion

"Robert Hughes, after he killed Betty, went downstairs and tampered with the gas supply to the boiler. The accumulation of gas in the basement area ignited due to the pilot light on the water heater, causing a massive explosion," he said. 

Both the Crown and defence agreed that the explosion was caused by the actions of Hughes. 

Const. Travis Foster, with the Brandon police forensic identification unit, was the first witness to take the stand in the Crown's case. He and his partner were called to the scene shortly after the blast and were able to see inside the home's kitchen area, where Betty's body was located. 

"There was a significant amount of blood on the floor around where Betty Hughes was located, more so where her head was located," he testified. "The back of her shirt was completely saturated with blood." 

Foster said Betty's body was laid onto a tarp and moved to a detached garage on the property to prevent further harm to her body.  He said further inspection of the area revealed blood on the refrigerator door, counters and floors of the kitchen.

The next day, police were able to get into the basement. 

"Within the mechanical room, we observed that the main gas line coming into the hot water boiler for the house had been disconnected," Foster testified. "There was a pipe wrench and some blood staining on the floor at the base of the hot water tank.

"The control valve on the hot water tank was switched to the pilot position and there was blood staining on the hot water control valve." 

The coveralls Hughes was wearing that night, a rope tied in the form of a noose, shoes with blood stains and other articles of clothing were later seized by police after he was taken to hospital. 

A pair of blood-stained sweat pants was also seized by police, Foster testified. 

On cross-examination, defence lawyer Saul Simmonds pressed Foster on why and he and his partner, Const. Robert Gale, who also testified Monday, only took swabs of certain blood stains and only did a search of part of the ruins of the home.

He also questioned why a further search wasn't done to find the missing blade tip from the utility knife, yet other items, like the individual contents of Betty's purse, were itemized.

Members of the Brandon Fire and Emergency Service, a fire investigator and DNA and pathology experts are expected to testify this week. 

The trial is scheduled to last three weeks, at which point the jury will begin deliberations.

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