The Kelowna man standing trial for the 1993 murder of Jennifer Cusworth told jurors he had sex with the teen the night she was last seen, but that’s all.
Going back to the night that he crossed paths with Cusworth, Neil Snelson told jurors he decided to go to the Richter Street party after a night of drinking rye and Coke at local rock bar Iggyz.
Knowing he was too drunk to drive, he asked his friend Bart Ciancone to get behind the wheel of his truck. Ciancone, “who wasn’t a heavy drinker,” parked the brown GMC pickup on DeHart, facing Richter Street where the party was held.
What Snelson remembers very clearly from that moment in the early hours of Oct. 16, 1993, is swinging open the door and registering the presence of a telephone pole. It was noteworthy, he said, because he was rarely the passenger in his own truck.
From there, details about the night go in and out of focus.
Snelson remembers people were standing “shoulder-to-shoulder.” He knew a few partygoers, such as his bandmates, but when he was asked to drum up memories of other people during specific moments of that night, he couldn’t.
He referred to them as “shapes” once, during his day and a half on the stand.
“I socialized with people I knew, drank a few beers, hung out in the kitchen mostly…I talked with people I knew there,” he said, in response to a question from his lawyer, Wade Jenson.
His opportunities to engage in two separate sexual encounters with strangers, he recalled, were set into motion when a female friend also at the party asked for a belt she left in his truck.
The pair retrieved the item and headed back to the party.
Snelson, however, was waylaid. He met a girl and they “talked for awhile, and ended up kissing,” he said. In 15 minutes, he was done.
The next time he went outside for a bathroom break, it turned out, was more fateful.
He met another girl and they also ended up talking and kissing. The second girl, who was Cusworth, went back to his truck with him and they had sex, he said.
Snelson didn’t remember if the truck door was open or closed when they had sex, or if anyone would have seen them together. Under Jenson’s questioning, he offered up that there was no light in the interior of the truck, the street was dark and he didn’t see her clearly.
It was over quickly, and he went back to the party and didn’t remember seeing her again.
In fact, he had no clear image of what she looked like, what she was wearing or if they introduced themselves to each other.
He did know that he left the party around 20 minutes later.
On the journey home Snelson drove, with Ciancone in the passenger seat along with two women, named Lynn and Shawna. Ciancone was left off at his home at the base of Knox Mountain first, he testified, and then the two girls were brought to their Springfield Road place.
He testified he drove by Denny’s at that point, to meet up with some friends, but when he didn’t see their car he went home to his now ex-wife.
In the 16 years that passed between that night and the moment he became a prime suspect in the murder investigation, Snelson repeatedly told jurors upon prompting from Crown counsel Iain Currie, he didn’t think much of the encounter.
Not when his friends were asked to submit DNA in 1994, relating to the investigation.
Not when pictures of Cusworth covered the city.
Not even when police called him about the investigation in 2001.
The idea of “what if” it was Jennifer Cusworth he’d slept with that night, wasn’t pronounced, or even notable, until 2009 when police announced their investigation was focusing on DNA, he testified under cross-examination Wednesday.
Snelson, Currie offered, wasn’t telling the truth on that matter, in addition to many others.
Raising a litany of questions and posing suggestions about contradictory testimony rendered in the two weeks preceeding Snelson’s decision to take the stand, Currie portrayed the accused murderer as someone who often deviated from the truth.
It was demonstrated in conversations he had with family members days before his October 2009 arrest. As one example, he told his father he drove Ciancone home last, and the two girls first. Ciancone offered contradictory testimony a week earlier, and when Snelson took the stand this week he sided with Ciancone.
He also told his father he didn’t have a canopy on his truck ever. It was a statement Snelson conceded was an “exaggeration of the truth.” He had a canopy that he took on and off for work.
Such exaggerations have previously been demonstrated, Currie said. Snelson, during the course of another trial, was caught offering false testimony.
And this time around, Snelson favoured some seemingly benign details, while issues that occupied the attention of the city caused him to draw a blank. It was all part of a “deflect and deny” strategy, Currie suggested, to Snelson’s protest.
It would have been difficult, for example, to not register an image of Cusworth.
She had some standout features that just about everybody who testified earlier in the trial could remember. Her auburn hair was voluminous, curly and long. She was wearing a loud multi-coloured animal print blazer, that was a stand-out even for the time.
Neither of those details twigged a visual for Snelson, although he referred to his parking spot on several occasions.
“Despite alcohol and despite not remembering anything about the clothing of this woman, you’re able to tell us you opened your passenger door and there was a pole?” asked Currie.
Snelson replied, “yes.”
He noted later, that what he did remember of Cusworth is the feeling of having sex with her, and how far he had to bend down to kiss her, The latter detail led him to believe that she was around 5-foot-6 and heavy. She was actually 5-foot-10, and around 135 to 140 lbs —“fairly lean” by Currie’s estimates.
Snelson’s assessment didn’t have the air of truth, said Currie, because it was offered hastily in an attempt to “deflect and deny” police inquiries.
Snelson first offered the physical description of his second fling in 2009, when Corp. Bill Parmar and now former staff sergeant Dean Filipchuk went to his door, and asked: “Is there any reason your DNA would be found at the crime scene?”
His response to the suggestion he may have left his mark on the crime scene was out of character, and both officers have since testified it raised a new line of questioning.
“No, no, I don’t think so,” they remember Snelson saying, upon hearing the question, his eyes downcast and voice lowered.
“Which is it, no or I don’t think so?” asked Filipchuk two years ago, earning the same response.
Snelson turned to Parmar and told him about his hookups that night, and how it all started with returning a belt.
Today, said Currie, the statement still seems unusual.
“The first thing out of your mouth when you started explaining a story you weren’t going to tell, was about a belt?” asked Currie on Wednesday, in reference to his encounter with the police.
“That’s how it unfolded at the party, that’s why I went outside,” said Snelson, defending his answer. “It seemed a logical place to start.”
Currie then said he didn’t believe Snelson returned a belt—or that there ever was a belt. That recollection, he said, was merely another attempt at covering his tracks.
“You didn’t know what police were trying to match DNA with,” said Currie. “You knew that (belt) was a loose end. When he asked if your DNA would be found at the crime scene, your mind went to that belt.”
“No sir,” said Snelson.
Currie went on to say that Snelson’s second lie stemmed from knowing his DNA could have been found on Cusworth’s clothing and that’s why he offered up the story about a woman he’d made out with.
Currie said Snelson lied about knowingly having sex with Cusworth — a woman who may have been visible to him over their 30 minute courtship, from the on-and-off of the porch lights. All of Currie’s suggestions were denied by Snelson. The trial continues Thursday.