Jennifer Cusworth’s smiling face was injected into Kelowna’s annual news cycle 18 years ago.
What people learned if their eyes panned to stories that accompanied the re-appearance of the 19-year-old’s photo each fall, was that she disappeared from a Richter Street house party that went into the wee hours of Oct. 16, 1993. Unlike 200-plus others there that night, she didn’t get a chance to regret the experience.
Her body was found the next morning on Swamp Road, face down in a ditch.
Until Neil George Snelson was convicted of manslaughter last month, her legacy was a grisly mystery that cast a pall over the late-night happenings of a small-town.
Thursday, however, Cusworth’s friends and family read victim impact statements that breathed life into the world she inhabited until that fateful night, and gave shape to the loss they suffered in the years that followed.
“We wanted to bring Jennifer to life for you,” said Jennifer Cusworth’s mother, Jean, as she read from a statement to Justice Alison Beames, which included 25 photos of everything from visits with Santa to line-dancing competitions. The statement also included two letters she wrote to her daughter’s attacker in the years after her murder.
In letter “to a killer” dated Mother’s Day 1994, Jean wrote: “Since you didn’t know Jenn well, and being as you’re her killer, I feel you should know (some things).”
Jennifer, who’d only recently relocated to Kelowna to attend college, was afraid of spiders and cried at old movies. She named her truck Percy, after a childhood imaginary friend, and once got her tongue stuck to a frozen flag pole. She could line dance, play flute and guitar and had just become a trekky.
She hated being called Jenny, “spelled creatively,” was trying to quit smoking, never used the word goodbye and would always knock on her parents’ bedroom door if she came home late at night.
“Despite the emptiest feeling, there’s comfort in memories that your vicious act can’t destroy,” she read from the letter, which at times prompted many in the courtroom to break out in tears.
A friend of the slain teen, Jennifer Schroeder, also contributed a victim impact statement to Justice Beames, which was read aloud Wednesday by Crown counsel.
Schroeder explained she became close with Jennifer when she was 19 and pregnant. Upon the urging of a physician she considered adoption.
The two were looking at brochures, when Schroeder burst into tears, and Jennifer got up and walked away.
She came back minutes later with a baby-sized snowsuit, and told Schroeder, “You are not alone, I will always be here for you.”
“It made me smile through my tears,” she said. “(Her) smile felt like a warm embrace.”
Now Schroeder’s son is 19, the age that Jennifer was when she was killed, and she can’t help but draw parallels.
On his 19th birthday, she wrote, she couldn’t take her eyes off of her son.
“I’m not done with you yet,” she said of her thoughts about her son that day. “I can’t comprehend you being taken away at such a young age.”
It was a revelation that gave her greater understanding of the loss Terry and Jean felt—a loss which family and friends said broke down relationships, turned some to drugs and alcohol and ultimately left a painful scar that each has dealt with in a different way.
“My family went into shock, I went into a depression,” said Jennifer’s uncle, Ted Morris, noting that he was plagued by the idea he “failed his sister’s daughter,” who had just moved in with his family at the time of her death.
He was sent home from work often in the years that followed, and his depression led to a divorce.
In time, he went to counselling, and realized forgiveness would be the key to moving on.
But Snelson’s choice to start each day of his six-week trial “smiling, winking and blowing kisses” to family changed him.
“(He was) stealing our grief and substituting it with disgust and anger,” said Morris.
Jean was similarly impacted by the actions of her daughter’s killer.
“It disgusted me to see him turn and smile and wave to people in the courtroom,” she said. “It was a very grandiose, cavalier and callous way to behave for someone charged with first degree murder.”
For that reason, forgiveness is no longer an option for Jean.
“He remains a coward to this day who refuses to accept responsibility for his cold-blooded, brutal actions and dragged not only us but his family through a very, very painful trial,” she said.
Snelson’s lawyer Wade Jenson closed out the proceedings noting, among other things, he never saw the gesturing instead highlighting how Snelson had deep roots in the community that don’t indicate a violent history.
A sentence is expected Friday. Crown counsel is seeking a sentence of 16 to 20 years for Snelson.
His defence countered with a proposal for eight to 12 years.
New light shed on killer’s character
Neil George Snelson tried to portray himself as an innocent family man with deep roots in Kelowna’s Christian community over the course of his six week trial, but jurors convicted him of manslaughter nonetheless.
Now the verdict is in more details explaining how the father of four became embroiled in a high profile murder investigation are being revealed. And Crown Counsel Iain Currie has asked that Justice Alison Beames recognize them as fact so they can be worked into her sentence.
Currie’s preference is that Snelson, 45, be handed down a sentence of 16 to 20 years, in recognition of the severity of his crime.
Revisiting the details of the trial to start his argument for a stiff sentence, Currie said he believes jurors recognized the storyline he presented over the course of that trial.
Snelson, he said, encountered Jennifer Cusworth on the street as she was walking to a friend’s home, subdued her physically and abducted her.
Snelson then sexually assaulted her, choked her and bludgeoned her to death before dumping her in the ditch on Swamp Road.
It’s clear, said Currie, that the jury rejected Snelson’s testimony that he and Cusworth had met at the party that night and hooked up, going their separate ways later.
What the jury didn’t get to work into the story, however, was that Snelson was already on probation for acts of sexual deviance when he killed Cusworth.
The Crown wasn’t permitted to use that evidence during the trial because it only “had value if the assumption was of (Snelson’s) guilt.”
“Now he’s guilty so the jury has been the circle,” said Currie. “We can start from the premise that Mr. Snelson killed Jennifer Cusworth.”
Snelson was first convicted of committing an indecent act July 30, 1987. His second conviction came September 1993.
For that conviction he’d followed a woman, while in his truck, and been caught masturbating. It landed him a $250 fine and was on two years probation. Another similar act was admitted to Snelson’s parole officer in 1995, while he was on probation.
Although Snelson’s lawyer Wade Jenson argued that his client earned the respect of his community in the intervening years—a claim for which he has plenty of letters of support to back up—Currie argued strange sexual proclivities didn’t stay in the 1980s and ’90s, when the first convictions rolled in.
Currie alleges that Mounties caught Snelson masturbating in public twice in May 2009, when they were surveilling him to get DNA. Both times were in the Orchard Park Mall parking lot, in his vehicle during his lunch break from work. “His offending behaviour was associated to driving around,” said Currie, noting that Snelson admitted to as much before being sentenced in ’93, for indecent exposure.
In addition to public behaviours, Currie said investigators intercepted reams of disturbing pornography that he was downloading.
RCMP intercepted 112,500 images being downloaded to Snelson’s computer and analyzed 80,000 of them.
Of those, 735 were of violent pornography, including bondage, sex torture and bestiality.
A video of a man holding a gun to a woman, while another man performed sex acts was among the electronic evidence gathered.
Further, one of the predominant themes was that the victims were in pain and humiliated as the acts continued.
Snelson’s defence lawyer, Wade Jenson, argued neither evidence of public acts nor pornography should be accepted as fact and worked into a sentencing decision.
In terms of the images, there’s no way to be sure they were destined for Snelson’s eyes.
Jenson, who’s asking for an eight- to 12-year sentence for Snelson, also argued that Crown did a woeful job of proving a sexual assault to begin with.