New Brunswick

Python deaths trial hears mother say she never felt her boys were in danger

The mother of two boys who were killed by an African rock python more than three years ago testified she never felt her boys were in danger at her best friend's reptile-filled apartment next door.

Mandy Trecartin testifies in trial of Jean-Claude Savoie for criminal negligence causing death

Mandy Trecartin leaves court after testifying in Campbellton on Wednesday. (Alan White/CBC)

The mother of two boys who were killed by an African rock python more than three years ago testified she never felt her boys were in danger at her best friend's reptile-filled apartment next door.

Mandy Trecartin was remarkably composed as she spoke publicly Wednesday for the first time about the events of the night of Aug. 5, 2013, when her sons Connor, 6, and Noah, 4, were killed during a sleepover with her friend's son.

That friend, Jean-Claude Savoie, is standing trial in New Brunswick Court of Queen's Bench in Campbellton on two counts of criminal negligence causing death.

Trecartin, 35, told the court she probably saw the 18-foot long python in an enclosure in Savoie's apartment on a daily basis.

"I never once thought that my children were in danger," testified Trecartin.

Trecartin said she and Savoie had known each other since they were preteens and had been friends since 2001.

"He was my closest friend, my best friend."

Jean-Claude Savoie is charged with criminal negligence in connection with the deaths of the Barthe brothers. (Julie-Anne Lapointe/Radio-Canada)

Wednesday's court appearance was the first time Trecartin had come face-to-face with Savoie since she tucked her boys into bed at his apartment on that fateful night in 2013.

"I don't want to say, 'I have nothing to say,' but I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings."

While Trecartin was composed throughout her testimony, Savoie was seen wiping tears from his eyes on occasion as she testified.

'Your kids are dead'

Trecartin described a typical day on the long New Brunswick Day weekend. Her sons awoke and "the first words out of Connor's mouth" were whether he could sleep over at Savoie's that night.

The African rock python that killed Connor Barthe, 6, and his brother Noah, 4, measured 12 feet, four inches long and weighed 53 pounds, a veterinary pathologist who did the necropsy on the snake testified. (Campbellton Court of Queen's Bench exhibit)
The children played that day, splashed in a pool, were children "being children," and ended the day with a trip to Savoie's father's farm to collect some mice and rats to feed to the animals back at Savoie's Reptile Ocean, an unlicensed zoo and pet store beneath his apartment.

"They probably touched every animal at the farm, I would say," said Trecartin.

They left the farm around 10:30 p.m., went to Savoie's and set up for the sleepover in the living room. Trecartin said they arranged the mattresses, turned the television to Treehouse and set up video games for the boys to play.

Then she and her boyfriend went to her apartment next door.

The next thing she heard was pounding on the door the next morning and Savoie yelling, "Oh my God, your kids are dead," and swearing.

Trecartin's boyfriend went next door to see what was happening. He returned and said, "It's true. It's a f-----g nightmare, but it's true."

Ventilation escape

RCMP Const. Eric Maillet was one of the first people on the scene at Reptile Ocean, arriving at about 6:50 a.m.

Maillet noted the python enclosure had an air vent at the top, which was lying on the floor directly beneath the opening.

The python enclosure was in the upstairs apartment. The enclosure has been described as basically floor-to-ceiling Plexiglas or tempered glass, and it shared a common wall with the living room. The python is believed to have got into a vent in the ceiling, slithering through the vent system and into a space over the living room.

In the living room, three ceiling panels — the pliable, foamy kind typically found in a finished  basement — were on the floor near the couch.

The police officer said he deduced the snake had gone through the air vent and onto the ceiling tiles and its weight then sent the tiles crashing to the floor in the room where the boys were sleeping.

At the other end of the room, Connor Barthe and Noah Barthe were found dead.

Connor Barthe, 6, and his brother Noah, 4, were killed in August 2013 after an African rock python escaped from its enclosure. (Facebook/Canadian Press)
Maillet also testified when Savoie managed to capture the python and put it back in its enclosure, it would hiss and lunge and hit the glass wall with its jaw open. That happened several times, he said.

He also saw the snake rise straight up.

"I didn't expect such a big reptile to be able to do that," he said.

The snake was going for the air vent again and Maillet grew concerned, fearing it wanted to go back to ingest what it had just killed.

"In my mind, if a snake takes an animal's life, it is for food," the officer said. "I thought it was going back to the living room to feed."

Key Crown witness

Former Reptile Ocean volunteer Ocean Eagles spent the rest of the day in the witness box, testifying and undergoing an intense cross-examination by defence lawyer Leslie Matchim.

Eagles testified the vent cover for the air duct in the python enclosure was "always off" and on the floor of the enclosure.

"The snake had already gotten out before that," she said.

However, under further questioning it became apparent the python did not fully get out of its enclosure previously, but did make it into the air duct, and may or may not have gotten partially out the other end.

Eagles testified Savoie told her about two-and-a-half weeks before the Aug. 5 incident that the python was "halfway out" the air vent.

The vent cover from the air duct in the python enclosure was entered into evidence in Jean-Claude Savoie's trial on two counts of criminal negligence causing death. (Julie-Anne Lapointe/Radio-Canada)
Eagles repeatedly said she took that to mean the snake was dangling out of the other end of the pipe in the living room, where Savoie was sitting when he saw it.

The two did not converse much about it, Eagles said, testifying that she popped the vent cover into the pipe. She said it didn't come out after that, although she said it should have been screwed in place or fastened in some manner.

Under cross-examination, Eagles was asked whether Savoie could have meant the snake travelled half the length of the pipe, and half of it was not dangling out of the other end of the pipe. 

If I was Jean-Claude, I probably wouldn't have screwed [the vent in place] either.- Ocean Eagles, former Reptile Ocean volunteer

Eagles said she didn't ask and assumed it was dangling out of the pipe.

Eagles, who owned snakes, including two pythons, said she felt the snake couldn't get out through the pipe because its girth was as much as two inches bigger than the air duct.

Her children had also stayed for sleepovers with Savoie's son and Eagles testified the account of the attempted earlier escape would not have made her worry about the safety of her children there, or changed her mind about allowing them to stay there.

Eagles also said in her first police interview on Aug. 5, 2013, she was "angry" at Savoie and tried to cast him in a bad light. She also admitted to telling another police officer on Aug. 13 that Savoie would never put those children in harm's way.

"If I was Jean-Claude, I probably wouldn't have screwed [the vent in place] either," she said.

Before being dismissed as a witness, the judge passed Eagles a book of evidence photos and questioned her about ceiling tiles and the air vent. However, Eagles accidentally came across a photo of the dead boys in the book of photos.

"Oh my God," she said, breaking into tears. "That's never going to get out of my mind."

Ferguson apologized profusely.

The judge told the jury the Crown must prove three things for a conviction: that Savoie had a legal duty to care and protect the Barthe brothers, that he failed to do so and showed wanton and reckless disregard for their lives in that failure, and that Savoie's action showed a marked and substantial departure from the actions of a reasonable person.

The trial is scheduled to last until Nov. 11.

WARNING: Graphic testimony

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alan White is a Fredericton native who has been working as a journalist since 1981, mostly in New Brunswick. He joined CBC in 2003 and is now a senior producer. He can be reached at alan.white@cbc.ca

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