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B.C. community braces for trial in death of Taylor Van Diest

Kirstie and Marie Van Diest, sister and mother of Taylor Van Diest, listen during an RCMP news conference in Armstrong, B.C., April 5, 2012.

Jeff Bassett/The Globe and Mail

To say the community of Armstrong – a close-knit town of 5,000 in British Columbia's northern Okanagan – is unused to the type of violence that brought national attention 21/2 years ago would be an understatement.

The death of 18-year-old Taylor Van Diest on Halloween, 2011, is the most recent homicide the town has seen, according to an RCMP spokesman who could not recall the last Armstrong slaying before that.

The days that followed Ms. Van Diest's death saw residents rally around her family – they dropped off food and flowers, held bake sales and fundraisers, and donated to a trust set up at a local bank.

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Now, with the trial for the man charged in Ms. Van Diest's death set to begin in B.C. Supreme Court in Kelowna on Monday, Armstrong's mayor says residents will be keeping a close eye on the case.

"I think our whole community has been waiting for this trial for a long time now. We'll be watching as it proceeds," Mayor Chris Pieper said.

Ms. Van Diest was discovered unconscious near a set of railway tracks and her death sent shock waves through the community.

Police urged the public to be vigilant and travel in groups. One resident cancelled a Christmas party for fear of people being out at night.

Mr. Pieper said at the time that he felt the town had become "more cautious, sort of lost our innocence."

"I think everybody knows now it doesn't have to be in a big city for something like this to happen; it can happen absolutely anywhere," he said in a recent interview.

Mr. Pieper said the teen's death was "a pretty traumatic time in our community."

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"Things like that don't happen very often, thank God."

The mayor said life in Armstrong regained some normalcy when an arrest was made.

But Ms. Van Diest's memory remains. A community walk was held last Halloween and a scenic trail has been named in her honour.

Marie Van Diest, the teen's mother, said in an interview that she will be in court for the first day of the trial. She knows, however, that the case will be difficult to endure.

"It's just something we feel a strong need to do," she said.

"… We're just trying to brace ourselves for what's to come. It's a little hard health-wise. The stress is getting to be a bit much, but we're hoping we'll get through it unscathed."

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The RCMP has said the case was an "absolute mystery" at the beginning, as investigators had little information to go on.

Ms. Van Diest's cause of death has never been formally revealed – her autopsy results were not made public.

A dedicated tip line was set up by police and more than 100 leads came in. More than 40 officers were working on the case at one point.

Matthew Foerster was arrested in connection with Ms. Van Diest's death in April, 2012. He was taken into custody at an Ontario motel.

Mr. Foerster faces a charge of first-degree murder. The allegation against him has not been proven.

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