Two New Brunswick brothers were asphyxiated by a python that escaped from its cage not far from where they were sleeping at a friend's apartment, according to preliminary autopsy results.
Noah and Connor Barthe, ages 4 and 6, were found dead early Monday in the Campbellton apartment. They were on a sleepover. Their friend's father, Jean-Claude Savoie, owns the African rock python that killed the boys. He also operates an exotic pet store located just below the apartment.
Just months earlier, the boy's mother, Mandy Trecartin, posted a series of pictures on her Facebook page of her sons and a friend happily cleaning out a large snake tank. "It started with cleaning the tank … But a few buckets of water later … it turned into a water park," she wrote.
On Wednesday night, hundreds of people gathered at the Salmon Plaza monument downtown to honour the boys whose deaths have horrified the small northern New Brunswick city. A funeral is set for Saturday.
The preliminary autopsy results provide police with a key piece of evidence as they continue to investigate the events of that night – and the history of the snake.
"We still have … to get the complete final report, but right now the way that those two boys died is consistent with being attacked by a snake of that size," said Sergeant Alain Tremblay. He told The Globe and Mail that the RCMP are waiting for the results of further tests. He said the pathologist has also taken tissue and blood samples to determine whether "the kids were breathing normally before they passed away."
Sgt. Tremblay said that for everyone, including the pathologist, this is "learning experience" because "it's probably the first case in Canada like this."
"We have to take baby steps," he said.
He would not discuss the extent of the boys' injuries, saying investigators are awaiting the final report from the pathologist.
Police said the four-metre-long python, which weighed about 45 kilograms, escaped from its glass-walled enclosure through a vent and slithered around in the duct work before falling through the ceiling of the living room, where the boys were sleeping.
Sgt. Tremblay said investigators plan to conduct an in-depth interview with Mr. Savoie, the snake's owner. "The investigation's going to show if there is any criminal offence that has been committed."
The RCMP also said a postmortem examination of the snake found it "was, over all, in good health," although investigators are still awaiting a final report. The remains of the animal, which was euthanized, are with a provincial veterinarian and will be destroyed, police said.
Part of the police investigation focuses on the snake and how it came to New Brunswick. Sgt. Tremblay says there is a large amount of documentation to pore over.
Marc Doiron worked with Mr. Savoie for about six months in the early 2000s. He says the snake, which was then about 1.5 metres long, arrived around then. Mr. Savoie's store, Reptile Ocean, was operating as a private zoo with the proper permits to house a snake of that kind, Mr. Doiron said.
He says the python was originally owned as a pet but then seized by authorities and given to Mr. Savoie. Mr. Doiron said he did not know which agency seized the snake.
Keeping the snake is illegal in New Brunswick unless a permit is issued. Accredited zoos have permits to house these snakes, but such documents are not issued to people who want to own them as pets. A source told The Globe that Mr. Savoie did not have a permit.
Asked about its involvement in the snake coming into Mr. Savoie's possession, an Environment Canada spokesman said the snake was dropped off in 2002 at a local SPCA and its wildlife officers helped with transportation.
The boys' deaths mark the first time that a python is known to have killed two people in the same incident, said Johan Marais, who has written several books on snakes and runs the African Snake Bite Institute. "That's most unusual," he said.
The province's Department of Natural Resources is determining what will be done with the other exotic animals in Mr. Savoie's store.
It has engaged Bry Loyst, curator of the Indian River Reptile Zoo, to help transport the animals to accredited facilities.
"It's really up in the air at the moment," Mr. Loyst said as he prepared to travel to Campbellton. "Hopefully we'll be flying them to different accredited zoos across Canada."