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Canada Edmonton man found guilty in brutal child slaying

Ray Gustavson still feels gut-wrenching guilt, but after waiting 13 years for justice to be handed to the rapist and killer of his six-year-old daughter, yesterday was an important and liberating day.

"[I'm]relieved that it's finally come to an end. . .that justice has been done," he told reporters as tears rolled down his cheeks shortly after a jury found Clifford Sleigh, 42, guilty of first-degree murder, kidnapping, and aggravated sexual assault in connection with the sex slaying of Corrine Gustavson on Sept. 6, 1992.

Mr. Gustavson had been watching Corrine -- who went by the nickname Punky because of her spiky, blond hair -- playing in the yard of the family's rented townhouse the morning Mr. Sleigh abducted her.

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"I was only gone for two to five minutes and all of a sudden she was gone," Mr. Gustavson recalled, adding that it would take a while "before I get the pain off my chest. The guilt."

Corrine's abduction shocked Edmonton and prompted a massive city-wide search. Two days later, on Sept. 8, her body was found face down in mud in an industrial yard about nine kilometres from her home. Her body was fully clothed, but her tiny white runners were missing and never found.

Quickly, Edmonton police launched one of the largest and longest investigations in the city's history. The sex slaying was twice featured on NBC-TV's Unsolved Mysteries, but for years it seemed that the culprit would never be caught.

It's not that the police didn't unknowingly come close.

Mr. Sleigh had been a potential suspect within the first year of the crime. His possible involvement was No. 4,411 of more than 5,000 tips city police were sorting through.

And even though police seized a pair of Mr. Sleigh's baseball cleats in 1993, he evaded charges until March 14, 2003.

That's when a breakthrough linked to a development in DNA technology discovered four years earlier finally led police to Mr. Sleigh, who was serving time for another crime involving sexual assault at a federal prison near Red Deer.

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When the verdict was read yesterday, Mr. Sleigh, who was wearing jeans, a blue t-shirt and his black hair braided, didn't express any emotion.

Earlier this month, Mr. Sleigh pleaded guilty to kidnapping and sexual assault. His lawyer, Peter Royal, tried to offer a guilty plea to manslaughter, but the Crown refused to accept it.

At one point during the two-week trial, graphic testimony prompted a jury member and members of Corrine's family to sob.

The province's medical examiner testified that the 3-foot-10, 17.5 kilogram girl was likely smothered and that severe genital wounds could have contributed to her death.

The court also viewed a five-hour video-taped confession Mr. Sleigh made to police shortly before he was charged in March of 2003. He claimed that he never intended to kill Corrine and that she was alive when he left her blindfolded and sitting on the fender of a flatbed trailer shortly after he raped her.

Mr. Sleigh also told the two officers the crime had been haunting him for years, and he hoped his confession would bring "closure to this whole thing.

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"I think I owe that to Punky's family," he said.

Previously banned testimony from the trial suggested that Corrine wasn't Mr. Sleigh's first choice the day he grabbed her from her yard and brutally raped her because, he said, she was the closest one to the fence.

A parole officer told court that Mr. Sleigh indicated he wanted to rape the daughter of his domestic partner, and kidnapped Corinne because he couldn't find the other girl. However, Justice Terrence Clackson ruled the parole officer's statement couldn't be used because she didn't keep a complete record of the conversation, so the jury was not allowed to hear it.

Corrine's family, and several officers who were involved with the original investigation, packed the courtroom yesterday to hear the verdict, which took the 11-member jury less than 11 hours to render. Muted cheers were heard when it was delivered.

"Good job," Corrine's mother, Karen Vallete, quietly told prosecutor Jason Track as he left the courtroom.

Ms. Vallete later said she plans to visit Corrine's grave to tell her the news that "we caught him and that she can rest in peace now."

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Corrine's uncle, Ron Davies, who police once considered a potential suspect, also expressed relief the ordeal was finally over. "I never got a personal apology from the police on this, but now everyone around here will know I had nothing to do with it," he said.

Retired Edmonton homicide detective Terry Alm, the main investigator on the case for nearly a decade, said the verdict sent details of the horrific crime flooding back to him.

"This is the last case I have outstanding and there isn't a day that goes by that I haven't thought about it," he said.

Mr. Sleigh will be sentenced tomorrow. Several members of Corrine's family are expected to read victim impact statements.

Because of the first-degree murder conviction, Mr. Sleigh will automatically receive a life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years.

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