Nova Scotia

Tatamagouche-area man pleads guilty to murdering neighbour

A Nova Scotia man who was facing a first-degree murder charge pleaded guilty on Friday to the lesser charge of second-degree murder in the 2017 death of his neighbour, Susie Butlin.

WARNING: This story contains graphic details

Ernest (Junior) Ross Duggan is shown outside of Truro provincial court in October 2017. (Robert Short/CBC)

A Nova Scotia man who was facing a first-degree murder charge pleaded guilty on Friday to the lesser charge of second-degree murder in the 2017 death of his neighbour, Susie Butlin.

Ernest (Junior) Ross Duggan, 51, was supposed to go on trial in September for first-degree murder.

The killing was the culmination of an escalating dispute between the two, who lived side-by-side in Bayhead, west of Tatamagouche, N.S.

"We had significant negotiations between Crown and defence," Crown Prosecutor Perry Borden said outside Truro provincial court.

"This has been ongoing for some time and this was a true joint recommendation agreed to by the parties and we're confident with the second-degree plea."

Duggan killed Butlin with a single shotgun blast through her front door in the fall of 2017.

Susie Butlin was found dead in her home on Sept. 17, 2017. (SimplySellProperty.ca)

An agreed statement of facts was introduced in court on Friday to support the guilty plea.

The statement said the two families had been friends for years and regularly socialized together.

Duggan struggled with alcoholism and depression, but had abstained from alcohol until earlier in 2017 when he resumed drinking.

On the night of July 2, according to the statement of facts, Duggan went to Butlin's home where, she said, he was sexually inappropriate toward her. Butlin told Duggan's wife about the incident and told her she wanted an apology from her husband.

Duggan's wife told him at this point that she was leaving him.

Continued accusations

Throughout the latter part of July and into August, Butlin continued to make accusations against Duggan, both verbally and on social media.

On Aug. 7, Butlin made a formal complaint to police about the July 2 incident. Police investigated, but decided charges were not warranted. However, they helped her apply for a peace bond against him.

Duggan was growing increasingly upset about the breakdown of his marriage and about the allegations Butlin continued to spread in the community, which he worried would harm his livelihood.

On Aug. 21, Duggan returned home with two guns and some ammunition, which he told his wife he had found. Duggan pleaded with his wife to intervene with Butlin. She did, but she couldn't persuade her neighbour to drop the peace bond application.

At that point, Duggan told his wife that Butlin was ruining his life and she would have to die.

Peace bond hearing

Duggan's wife became so concerned by her husband's behaviour that she contacted police and they arrested him for drunk driving.

When he was released from custody, Duggan prepared suicide notes for his wife and their son. He also told her he was suicidal. She was moved to a transition house by then.

On Aug. 30, Duggan faced a peace bond hearing in Truro provincial court. Upon reviewing the peace bond application, the presiding judge said the information in it appeared to constitute a criminal offence. The hearing was adjourned to allow police to investigate the same allegations they had already looked into.

Duggan spent much of the day of Sept. 15 drinking at a bowling alley. That afternoon, he texted his wife about Butlin and said he would "blow her lying brain out."

In a subsequent text, he told his wife Butlin could not hide forever and he would get her.

The night of the murder

Late on the evening of Sept. 17, after another day of drinking at the bowling alley, Duggan took a shotgun and walked to Butlin's home. He knocked on the window of her door. When she came to the door, he fired the single, fatal blast. Duggan walked into the home, leaving bloody footprints, and then returned home.

Two international high school exchange students were staying with Butlin. They heard the shotgun blast, discovered her body and called 911.

At home, Duggan gathered another firearm and left in his truck.

RCMP started looking for Duggan and around 3 a.m., they caught up to his vehicle. He drove his truck into the Lockerby Cemetery, just east of Tatamagouche.

A lengthy armed standoff followed.

RCMP exchanged gunfire with Ernest (Junior) Ross Duggan on Sept. 18, 2017, at the Lockerby Memorial Cemetery in Tatamagouche, on Nova Scotia's north shore. (Pierre-Alex Bolduc/Radio-Canada)

Duggan told police that he was prepared to die and he became more and more agitated. He fired four shots at police officers who had taken up positions around the cemetery. Police responded with two shots of their own.

Duggan then got in his truck and started driving toward the Mounties, who opened fire on the vehicle, wounding him seven times in the process. He was taken to hospital and then arrested.

The standoff resulted in a charge of attempted murder and various weapons charges against Duggan. The attempted murder charge was dropped earlier in the court process. Duggan pleaded guilty to two weapons offences at the same time he admitted to the murder.

While the murder conviction carries an automatic life sentence, Justice Jeffrey Hunt must still set the amount of prison time Duggan must serve before he can begin applying for parole. The range is between 10 and 25 years.

Borden said there will be a joint recommendation on parole ineligibility when the case returns to court on Sept. 16. That was supposed to be the start of Duggan's jury trial. Instead, it will be the day when members of Butlin's family and friends can tell the court what her loss has meant to them.

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