New Brunswick

Python deaths trial hears details of snake's attack on sleeping boys

The many injuries inflicted on two boys killed by an African rock python were quietly laid out before the jury in a Campbellton, N.B. courtroom on Thursday.

Questions about air vent in python enclosure features prominently Campbellton, N.B., case

Brothers Noah, 4, and Connor Barthe, 6, were killed by an African rock python on Aug. 5, 2013. (Facebook/Canadian Press)

The many injuries inflicted on two boys killed by an African rock python were quietly laid out before the jury in a Campbellton, N.B., courtroom on Thursday. 

Forensic pathologist Dr. Marek Godlewski performed the autopsies on Connor Barthe, 6, and Noah Barthe, 4, three days after they were killed while on a sleepover at their friend's house next door.

Their friend's father, Jean-Claude Savoie, is standing trial on two counts of criminal negligence causing death arising from the deaths of the Barthe boys on Aug. 5, 2013.

Speaking in a quiet voice, and with a Polish accent, Godlewski gave a medically and scientifically detailed account of his findings in each of the autopsies.

The African rock python that killed Connor Barthe, 6, and his brother Noah, 4, measured nearly 3.8 metres), a veterinary pathologist said Thursday. (Campbellton Court of Queen's Bench exhibit)
Godlewski described 13 groups of linear puncture wounds in groups of four that were found on Connor's body. Puncture wounds are wounds deeper than they are wide.

Many of those wounds were on Connor's face and neck.

The pathologist had requested to examine the python's head so he could compare its teeth to the puncture wounds.

"The pattern fits with the head," said Godlewski.

"I would say they are compatible with bite marks or bite attempts."

But those bites did not kill Connor

There were also "pattern abrasions" on the skin and hemorrhages in the muscles of the neck.

Asked by the Crown prosecutor for the cause of Connor's death, Godlewski replied: "Underlying cause … snake attack."

"Immediate cause, asphyxiation by neck strangulation."

The autopsy findings for four-year-old Noah were similar, with multiple puncture wounds and abrasions.

On several places on Noah's body, "flaky material" was found, said Godlewski.

"Scales," he said.

There was more blood — both dried and liquid — on Noah than on Connor.

Cause of death, he said, was "likely traumatic asphyxia by constriction."

Vent cap on air duct off

The plastic vent cap on an air duct leading to the python enclosure in Savoie's apartment continued to be a focus of his trial.

Through that air duct, an African rock python is believed to have escaped its enclosure and killed the brothers in their sleep while staying with Savoie's son in Campbellton.

Evidence from veterinary pathologist Dr. James Goltz on Thursday put the snake's measurements at 12 feet, four inches (nearly 3.8 metres) in length and weighing 53 pounds (just over 24 kilograms). The python's circumference at its largest was 12 inches (30 centimetres). Its diameter was 4.25 inches (nearly 10.8 centimetres), said Goltz.

As the trial resumed in the Court of Queen's Bench, John O'Brien was called to the stand. O'Brien is the boyfriend of Mandy Trecartin, the 35-year-old mother of the dead boys, but is not their father.

John O'Brien, the boyfriend of Mandy Trecartin, the 35-year-old mother of the two boys killed by the python, leaves the courtroom in Campbellton, N.B., after testifying Thursday. (Ed Hunter/CBC)
O'Brien told much the same story as Trecartin relayed in her testimony on Wednesday — a day of fun and adventure for the boys that ended in the unthinkable.

O'Brien testified he was sleeping at Trecartin's apartment the morning Savoie came banging on the door, waking them up, and yelling, "Oh my God, the kids are dead."

O'Brien said he got out of bed and went to the building next door to see what was going on.

"I checked for a pulse. They were both blue," he said.

Vent cap on the floor

O'Brien estimated he had been in Savoie's apartment about 20 times in the previous months. When Crown prosecutor Pierre Roussel  asked if anything attracted his attention in the python enclosure, O'Brien responded; "The cap. It was on the floor and not where it should be."

O'Brien said he saw the cap on the floor within a week of the boys being killed.

Jean-Claude Savoie is charged with criminal negligence in connection with the deaths of the Barthe brothers after the boys were killed by the python in 2013. (Julie-Anne Lapointe/Radio-Canada)
"I never thought anything of it."

He didn't notice the air duct the cap was supposed to cover as he didn't look at the ceiling of the python enclosure, he said.

O'Brien said he saw the vent cap on the floor on all 20 occasions he was in the apartment.

Contradictory testimony

However, on cross-examination, defence lawyer Leslie Matchim produced transcripts of O'Brien's testimony at the preliminary hearing in November 2015 when O'Brien said he was in Savoie's apartment 10 times, not 20 times as he had just testified.

Trecartin, with O'Brien, leaves court after testifying Wednesday. (Alan White/CBC)
O'Brien countered that perhaps it was 15 times.

Matchim also pointed to preliminary hearing testimony in which O'Brien stated he saw the vent cap on the floor of the snake's enclosure "at least once."

"That's a far cry from 20," said Matchim.

"Is there a difference if it was 20 times or once?" asked O'Brien.

Under questioning, O'Brien conceded his memory of things more than three years ago may be fading as time marches on.

"I can only guarantee I seen it once," said O'Brien.

The jury has been told that for a charge of criminal negligence causing death, the Crown must prove:

  • 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.
  • Savoie's actions showed a marked and substantial departure from the actions of a reasonable person.

Zoo co-ordinator testifies

Magnetic Hill Zoo co-ordinator Bernard Gallant was called as a Crown witness and testified to knowing Savoie since the mid-1990s due to Savoie's interest in reptiles.

Over the years, Gallant came to refer reptile issues in northern New Brunswick to Savoie.

Gallant saw the African rock python previously when officials from the Canadian Wildlife Service brought it to the Magnetic Hill Zoo and asked them to take it. However, the zoo had no room and referred them to Savoie.

Gallant was also asked about what measures were taken when building enclosures for large snakes.

"Whenever we construct anything we err on the cautious side, build it tougher than we think we need," said Gallant.

The snake got into an air duct and its weight caused it to crash the ceiling tiles in the adjoining living room where the Barthe boys were sleeping.

The Crown prosecutor pointed Gallant to the  living room ceiling tiles on exhibit — the typical lightweight ceiling tiles used in finishing basements — and asked if that type of material would be used by the zoo in a snake enclosure.

"No," replied Gallant.

Jim Goltz, New Brunswick's provincial veterinarian, performed the necropsy on the African rock python that killed the two brothers. (CBC)
Goltz, the provincial veterinarian who performed the necropsy on the python, took the witness box next.

"There was nothing much that was abnormal," said Goltz. "In the end I found nothing of note."

He also found nothing in the snake's digestive tract.

Goltz said that led him to believe the snake hadn't eaten in at least 24 hours.

The trial resumes Friday morning at 9:30 a.m. when the Crown said it will call its final witness, reptile behaviour expert Robert Johnston of Toronto.

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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