A 33-year-old recluse who admitted killing his next-door neighbour but insisted he did so accidentally was convicted of second-degree murder yesterday by a jury that deliberated less than four hours.
Daniel Sylvester displayed no emotion at the verdict. His mother, Olga, was also passive, shaking her head slightly before slipping out of the Newmarket courthouse.
The parents of Mr. Sylvester's victim, 25-year-old Alicia Ross, appeared relieved. Sharon Fortis bowed her head and cried, as did her husband, Julius.
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Mrs. Fortis later praised the jury, the prosecution and York Regional Police detectives for unearthing the truth from "a pile of bones that once were a beautiful woman." Scornfully, Mrs. Fortis also derided Mr. Sylvester's "craftily rehearsed" version of events designed to bolster the fiction of "a remorseful confession."
Neither of Mr. Sylvester's lawyers commented on the outcome, but prosecutor Kelly Wright, who had maintained the crime was sexually motivated, said she was content.
"Justice was done," she said.
How long Mr. Sylvester spends behind bars remains to be seen. A second-degree murder conviction brings automatic life imprisonment, with at least 10 years to be served before parole eligibility. Trial judge Mr. Justice Edwin Minden will pass sentence after hearing submissions July 4.
Defence lawyers David Hobson and Dennis Reeve had sought to persuade the jury that Ms. Ross's death in August of 2005 was a tragic accident at the hands of a lonely, dysfunctional misfit who killed her in an explosion of rage after she mocked him.
The eight-woman, four-man jury didn't buy that argument. Nor, in all likelihood, did it accept the contention that Mr. Sylvester admitted killing Ms. Ross and led police to her bones in a fit of conscience.
Rather, he almost certainly confessed because he realized that his dreadful secret was about to come to light.
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On Sept. 19, 2005, Detectives John Braybrook and Tim Kelly of the York homicide squad showed up at the large home in Markham, Ont., shared by Mr. Sylvester and his 70-year-old mother. Politely but insistently the detectives asked him to undergo a polygraph test. It was their third such request and for both mother and son it must have been a bad moment.
Five weeks had elapsed since Mr. Sylvester killed and possibly raped Ms. Ross, in circumstances that will likely never be known.
In all, 33 of her bones were fractured, including most of her ribs, but neither the cause of death nor proof of a sexual attack could be established. What seems certain is that Mr. Sylvester killed Ms. Ross in the early hours of Aug. 17 in the area around their homes, and that three weeks later he hauled her decomposed remains from one wooded dumping ground, near Manilla, to another, near Coboconk.
During those five weeks, the chief focus in what was still a missing-person investigation fell squarely on Ms. Ross's boyfriend, Sean Hine, the last person (apart from Mr. Sylvester) to have seen her alive, just hours before she disappeared.
To police, Mr. Hine seemed evasive. When questioned, he said he wanted legal advice. His attitude was combative. His history of minor run-ins with the law included making threatening phone calls. And he too was reluctant to undergo a polygraph test.
As detectives circled Mr. Hine, some loose ends needed tying up. One of the biggest was the quiet, eccentric young man who lived next door to Ms. Ross: a night owl who had freely admitted being out and about at around the time his neighbour vanished, taking a 5 a.m. drive as he often did.
And the more they scrutinized Mr. Sylvester, ostensibly a bit player, the less they liked what they saw.
Mr. Sylvester, meanwhile, had a problem. When he dumped Ms. Ross's body, he also jettisoned nearby garbage bags stuffed with clothing stained with her blood and his semen. In a pair of shorts was his wallet, complete with driver's licence, health card and bank cards. He thought the wallet had been stolen but later realized he had inadvertently tossed it with the incriminating clothing, which he now could not locate, despite returning to the Manilla site many times.
Detectives Braybrook and Kelly did not know it when they appeared on the Sylvesters' doorstep that morning, but the panicking Mr. Sylvester had a few days earlier informed Mr. Hobson, the family lawyer, that he was the killer.
Taking a polygraph is voluntary under Canadian law, and its findings are inadmissible in court. But it is a powerful tool of persuasion, especially when police say - as Det. Braybrook did to Mr. Sylvester - that it is "99.9-per-cent accurate" and that refusing to co-operate would necessitate taking "other steps."
The polygraph question would be simple, the amiable homicide detectives told the Sylvesters, even offering to do the test "here in the comfort of your own home." Mr. Sylvester stalled. Call Mr. Hobson, he said.
A transcript of the conversation between the two discloses only the detective's words, but he must have been pleased, because he closes by telling Mr. Hobson: "Absolutely, that would be great ... that would be fantastic."
With that, the interview abruptly ends. The next day, accompanied by Mr. Hobson, Mr. Sylvester walked into a Newmarket police station and told what Ms. Wright viewed as a highly selective account of events: In the walkway dividing their homes, he said, he and Ms. Ross had had a furious altercation culminating in her accidental death.
As the members of the jury absorbed all the ghastly evidence about bones and bloody clothing, semen stains and Mr. Sylvester's obsessive masturbation habits, they never heard a word from the killer throughout the three-week trial.
But via lengthy police interviews recorded on audio and videotape the jury had a chance to assess Mr. Sylvester's demeanour, both before and after his arrest. And what's striking is his polished, affable courtesy.
It was a mask, concealing a recluse who essentially had no life: No social activities; no girlfriend or sex life; no work history save some clerking for his deceased father, Grant Sylvester, a successful financial consultant; few hobbies except television and driving his mother's car late at night. His two elder siblings had long ago moved out. There was not even an Internet connection in the silent home.
Ms. Ross's home was always lively, as she, her family and their many friends came and went. But no one in the house had had any real dealings with the wealthy widow next door and her hermit son. Indeed, before the night that Mr. Sylvester killed Ms. Ross it's not clear whether the two ever spoke. Yet from the isolation of his basement, Mr. Sylvester formed a strong opinion about his neighbour, and, as an admitted voyeur, it seems probable that he spied on her.
He disliked her, he said, telling a forensic psychiatrist of an incident two weeks before the murder in which Ms. Ross had "stared down" his mother.
Alicia Ross, Mr. Sylvester concluded, was "a snarky, inconsiderate, pushy bitch ... not a nice person at all."
In fact, with a job she loved, a university degree, a boyfriend she cared about and a supportive family who adored her, Ms. Ross was everything Mr. Sylvester was not: a success story, cut down in her prime by a murderous loser.