Neil George Snelson did indeed kill Jennifer Cusworth in 1993, a jury concluded Tuesday night.
It’s the second time the Kelowna man, now 48, has been convicted of manslaughter in connection with the death of Cusworth, but the verdict still came as a relief to her loved ones.
“If I’d have been a little weaker I’d have fallen over,” Terry Cusworth, the victim’s father, told a Kamloops This Week reporter following the verdict in that city.
He, up until the very end, was unsure what the jury would find, despite the fact he’d long since decided on Snelson’s guilt.
Few people are more intimate with the details of the case that Cusworth’s parents.
Until 2009, however, the cause of her death was a community mystery, despite a high profile media campaign.
Posters and commercials ensured her smiling face and final wardrobe choice were familiar to Kelowna, but details on how Cusworth’s body ended up slumped over in a ditch on Swamp Road were in short supply.
Reports from the time didn’t even offer autopsy findings that she’d been strangled, but ultimately died from seven or eight blows to the head from a cylindrical object.
Nor that evidence of sexual activity was present.
Behind the scenes, however, investigators were asking attendees of the last party she was at for statements and DNA samples in an attempt to get a fix on who she spent her last living moments with.
The statements amounted to 800-plus tips that led nowhere, and all the DNA collected was a bust.
As the community learned years later, Snelson was the missing piece of the puzzle.
Mounties testified that when Snelson, who had been at the same party as Cusworth in 1993, was routinely questioned about the matter as their investigation got underway he declined to offer a DNA sample.
It was his right to decline. And he may have been more savvy than his peers when it came to legal matters, as he had already dealt with problems relating to sexual activity.
His first round with the courts happened in 1987, when he was found guilty of committing an indecent act, namely, masturbatory exhibitionism.
He received a suspended sentence and one-year probation for that episode, Justice Alison Beames told the court in 2011.
On Sept. 29, 1993 he was convicted again of committing an indecent act, again involving masturbatory exhibitionism.
A pre‑sentence report was prepared prior to a sentence being imposed in that case. He was interviewed for that report Oct. 15, 1993, within hours of the commencement of the house party on Richter, where Cusworth was last seen.
At that time, the court heard during his 2011 sentencing, he maintained his innocence to the probation officer.
He didn’t change his tune until around Oct. 29, 1993, admitting to the offence as well as other incidents of similar conduct.
Around that time his decision to not offer a DNA landed him on a list of 100-plus other party-goers who had yet to be definitively ruled out as a suspect.
As time marched on, that list was whittled down. When the cold case was dusted off in 2009, there were just seven, two of whom still lived in Kelowna.
At that point police decided to collect DNA from those still on their list.
Police testified in the original trial that the process required finding samples of saliva and the like on used cups or cigarette butts, discarded in public places.
Mounties were never able to procure a sample in that manner from Snelson, who in the meantime had become a father of four and a staple in the local Lutheran church.
So they eventually showed up at his house.
When investigators spoke to Snelson at his home June 18, 2009 with a picture of Cusworth in tow, he told them he had sex with a woman, all those years ago, but didn’t know her identity. He also made mention of a belt.
From information they cobbled together from that conversation, investigators got a warrant to force him to submit a DNA sample.
It was a match.
Semen found in Cusworth matched Snelson’s DNA profile making him the prime suspect in the murder investigation, and he was arrested shortly thereafter.
Snelson declined the opportunity to testify during his second trial, but he did speak at length during the 2011 trial.
At that time he claimed it wasn’t until police started talking publicly about DNA evidence in Jennifer Cusworth’s cold case murder file, that he entertained the question of “what if” she was the woman he had sex with. He had never linked the two when her face was plastered across the city. Nor when her parents came to Kelowna year after year, making a public plea for any information about their daughter’s last moments.
Snelson and Cusworth’s relationship, he explained when he first offered testimony in his own defence, had been brief.
He said he and Jennifer met at the party, left to have sex, then walked back to the group together.
When asked by Crown counsel Iain Currie during cross examination why nobody saw them together, Snelson changed his tune and said they went their separate ways after having sex.
When the party was over he told Currie, he drove a few friends to their houses, stopped at Denny’s to meet a friend who wasn’t there and went home to his wife. At both trials that timeline was scrutinized.
A friend who had been expecting to meet him at Denny’s waited, but Snelson never came. His then-wife, who worked a late shift at a bar, didn’t remember when he came home.
Issues pertaining to the vehicle he drove also came to the fore.
What resonated with the jury will remain a mystery, but it’s clear with the second conviction on a manslaughter charge that when asked Snelson’s peers believe he was the man who killed Cusworth.
Whether he will ever shed any light on what really happened that night remains to be seen.
Snelson will appear in court again Monday to fix a date for a pre-sentence hearing. His previous 15 year sentence will be thrown out.
A manslaughter conviction carries a wide range of sentencing, from a suspended sentence to life in prison and the matter of how much time served will be put against his newest sentence still needs to be worked out. He would have already been eligible for day parole had he not appealed the last verdict.