Amid shouts of “you gutless coward” and “watch, bud,” Blake Leggette, the 25-year-old man accused of first-degree murder in the death of Loretta Saunders, appeared in court Friday.
The family of Ms. Saunders, the 26-year-old Saint Mary’s University student who was missing for nearly two weeks before her body was found at the side of the Trans-Canada highway in New Brunswick earlier this week, packed the courtroom. It was the first time the family – her sister, two brothers, aunt and uncle – and friends have seen Mr. Leggette in person.
He was represented by his lawyer at previous appearances this week. Tensions were high as five sheriffs and two Halifax police officers accompanied Mr. Leggette into the courtroom.
But the family sat quietly. The outburst came from a spectator in the Halifax courtroom, someone who was apparently not known to the family.
Mr. Leggette, dressed in a light green sweatshirt, stared straight ahead as he listened to the proceedings. His co-accused, Victoria Henneberry, 28, did not appear, although she was in the courthouse. She was represented by her lawyer,Patrick MacEwen.
The two will be in court again on March 19 where they could make a plea.
Halifax police laid first-degree murder charges against Mr. Leggette and Ms. Henneberry on Thursday afternoon. The two were described as roommates of Ms. Saunders, and had lived in her apartment for about a month.
At an emotional press conference, the family said one of the things they wanted to come out the court proceedings was that people be held accountable.
They did not dwell on Mr. Leggette’s appearance. Her sister, Delilah, 21, said that it was not difficult. Rather, she says she feels “Loretta living inside me.”
It has given her strength and “power,” she said, adding, “We’ve got them.”
They thanked the media for shining the light on Ms. Saunders’s situation and the broader issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women.
Ms. Saunders’s eldest brother, Edmund, 37, who has said little throughout the ordeal, spoke eloquently about the issue and what he believes will be his sister’s legacy.
“No more of our beautiful women will go missing,” he said. “…Now we have the means to come and look for them. We are young and we’re smart. We’re not the old ones that are going to sit down and be quiet anymore. We are going to come looking for our women. We are going to make this an issue that everybody is aware of...".
He said that these last two weeks, in which family, friends and other supporters searched for his sister and kept a light shining on her disappearance, has proven that aboriginal women will not go missing without an explanation.
“We came here. We got explanations and we’re not one of the ones who don’t see them no more,” Mr. Saunders said. “We got her back and it’s a proven point that any and every missing aboriginal woman can be found and they will be found from now on.”
Ms. Saunders, who was taking an honours degree in criminology, was planning to write her thesis on missing and murdered aboriginal women. Delilah said Friday that she had helped Ms. Saunders with her research and edited her proposal.
Delilah said that her sister faced “marginalization” as an aboriginal woman and “was fighting to make change.”
Their parents, Miriam and Clayton, want the thesis proposal returned to them, and family members vowed Friday that they would finish what Ms. Saunders had begun. “They want to finish it … as a family,” said Barb Coffey, Ms. Saunders’s aunt.
At a news conference Thursday, Halifax police Superintendent Jim Perrin refused to say what police believe is the motive, nor would he reveal whether police had a murder weapon.
“As you know [with] first-degree murder there has to be some planning to the crime and our investigators are satisfied that existed,” Supt. Perrin said. “It’s a tragic, tragic event and we are just glad we can report today that the people responsible are in custody.”
The case is attracting attention across the country, prompting Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo on Thursday to call for a “national public commission of inquiry supported by immediate action to prevent these senseless tragedies.”
“We cannot add one more name to the list of murdered or missing women,” he said, describing Ms. Saunders as a “bright young Inuk woman who was dedicating her time and energy to researching violence against indigenous women.”
In the House of Commons Thursday, Halifax NDP MP Megan Leslie called on the Tories “to establish a national action plan on violence against women.” Labour Minister Kellie Leitch deflected that proposal.
Mr. Leggette and Ms. Henneberry were arrested on Feb. 18 near Windsor, Ont., after police found Ms. Saunders’s car. The two were initially charged with auto theft; earlier this week they were transferred to Halifax.
Mr. Leggette was questioned by investigators Monday; Ms. Henneberry was interrogated Wednesday, the same day there was a break in the case.
Supt. Perrin would not say whether her interrogation led to the breakthrough, nor would he reveal any details around the journey the two took from Halifax to Ontario. He would not talk about how Ms. Saunders’s body was located in a wooded median along the Trans-Canada Highway. Her body is now at the Coroner Services office in Saint John. An autopsy is expected to be performed in the next few days.