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Defence lawyer Lydia Riva questions Kalen Schlatter as Justice Michael Dambrot looks on in a Toronto courtroom on March 9, 2020. Schlatter had pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in the November, 2017 killing of Tess Richey.

Alexandra Newbould/The Canadian Press

A Toronto man was found guilty of first-degree murder Monday in the killing of a young woman whose body was found crumpled at the bottom of an outdoor stairwell days after she failed to return from a night out with a friend.

Jurors convicted Kalen Schlatter after three days of deliberation in a courthouse that was largely deserted due to precautions surrounding the novel coronavirus. The case was one of two jury trials allowed to proceed as Ontario’s Superior Court wound down its operations.

Mr. Schlatter had pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in the November 2017 killing of Tess Richey, a 22-year-old woman whose disappearance sparked a widespread search in Toronto’s gay village.

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The conviction on first-degree means jurors found Mr. Schlatter sexually assaulted Ms. Richey as part of the same series of events that led him to kill her.

In his instructions to the jury last week, Ontario Superior Court Justice Michael Dambrot said that if jurors believed beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Schlatter had strangled Ms. Richey but not that he had sexually assaulted her, they must instead find him guilty of second-degree murder.

First-degree murder carries an automatic life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years. A sentencing hearing has been scheduled for Wednesday, and the court may hear victim impact statements from Ms. Richey’s friends and family.

Ms. Richey, an aspiring flight attendant, went out with a high school friend to drown her sorrows following a painful breakup on November 24, 2017, court heard during trial. She never made it home.

Prosecutors alleged Mr. Schlatter “stalked and isolated” Ms. Richey, whom he’d met after they left the same club, and tried to prevent her from going home because he was determined to have sex with her.

The Crown argued he lured her into a dark alley when she tried to go meet her Uber, then sexually assaulted her and strangled her when she put up a fight.

Testifying in his defence earlier this month, Mr. Schlatter told the court Ms. Richey led him down an alley to the stairwell to “make out” hours after they met.

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He said Ms. Richey did not want to have sex because she was on her period, but they continued to make out for a while. Mr. Schlatter said he ejaculated in his pants and they parted ways a short time later.

The 23-year-old said he left Ms. Richey alone – and alive – in the alley.

During trial, court heard Mr. Schlatter’s semen was found on Ms. Richey’s pants and his saliva was found on the inside of her bra.

Jurors also viewed surveillance footage that showed Mr. Schlatter and Ms. Richey walking together toward the alley around 4:15 a.m., then Mr. Schlatter emerging alone roughly 45 minutes later.

Ms. Richey was never seen leaving the alley, which is between two buildings and fenced off at the back. Her body was found in the stairwell days later by her mother and a family friend.

A forensic pathologist testified Ms. Richey died from strangulation, likely with a soft ligature.

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In her closing arguments last week, prosecutor Bev Richards argued Ms. Richey showed no interest in Mr. Schlatter, pointing to the lack of physical contact between them over dozens of security videos from that night.

Ms. Richards called Mr. Schlatter’s account “pure fantasy,” arguing Ms. Richey wanted to go home, not make out in a concrete stairwell.

No one will ever know why Ms. Richey agreed to head down the alley with Mr. Schlatter, but it’s possible he offered to walk her to her ride, Ms. Richards said.

Court also heard testimony from Mr. Schlatter’s former cellmate, a career criminal turned jailhouse informant, and two undercover officers who said Mr. Schlatter confided in them.

The informant, who can only be identified as E.S., told jurors Mr. Schlatter confessed to strangling Ms. Richey with a scarf after she refused to have sex with him. He also told the court Mr. Schlatter showed no remorse and only felt sorry for himself.

The undercover officers, meanwhile, said Mr. Schlatter described making out with Ms. Richey and ejaculating in his pants but not having sex because she was on her period. They said Mr. Schlatter told them Ms. Richey was alive when he left her.

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The defence argued Mr. Schlatter was an “easy target” for investigators because he was the last person seen with Ms. Richey, but insisted he was innocent.

Defence lawyer Lydia Riva said in her closing submissions that the Crown had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that her client was the only one who had the opportunity to kill Ms. Richey.

She pointed to another man seen in the area that night as a potential alternate suspect, suggesting he jumped at least one tall fence to get into the alley in the moments after Mr. Schlatter left.

Ms. Riva also urged jurors to disregard E.S.’s testimony, arguing the informant was testifying in an effort to get special consideration from the justice system. She suggested that what E.S. called a confession was in fact her client recounting information and accusations put to him by detectives.

The defence lawyer also argued the undercover officers took some of Mr. Schlatter’s comments out of context, particularly the ones where he bragged about his sexual conquests. Ms. Riva noted, however, that Mr. Schlatter did not tell the pair he had killed Ms. Richey.

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