It was supposed to be a quick drug deal before a night out with friends. Taylor Samson, 22, was a physics student at Dalhousie University; family and friends say he had been selling marijuana for years. His girlfriend told jurors that Samson left his frat house on the night of August 15, 2015 with only a duffel bag—no keys, no medication for a chronic liver condition. She knew he had been dealing, although he tried to shield her from the details. She figured she'd see him again soon.
She never did. No one would, except for his killer and two witnesses.
Justin Blades and Pookiel McCabe, two other Dalhousie students, say they were hanging out in McCabe's apartment near campus when they heard a gunshot. Then there was someone at the door. It was their track teammate, William Sandeson, who lived just down the hall. He was panicking. The guys came over to his apartment and saw a man slumped over in a chair, bleeding from his head. Sandeson paced, saying something about how he had to clean up. Bloody money and drugs littered the floor. They left but when they returned they saw bloody streak marks leading towards Sandeson's bathroom.
Sandeson would initially offer up several different stories to friends and police about what happened that night. Since his third interview with police, he has maintained that his $40,000 deal to buy 20 pounds of weed from Samson—an exchange that people on all sides of the case say was unusually large for both men—went awry when two unknown people broke into the house.
Sandeson said the culprits were dressed in morphsuits—full body clothing items made of a spandex-like material that covered the assailants' heads, faces and eyes—and that they forced him to turn off the security cameras he kept running in his apartment building to protect his drug dealing business. According to this version of events, which Sandeson's defence continued to the maintain throughout the trial, one of the assailants shot Samson in the back of the head and they fled through Sandeson's apartment window.
On Sunday, a 12-person jury in a Nova Scotia Supreme Court decided they didn't buy that story. Instead, they believed the Crown attorneys, who argued that Sandeson had planned to murder Samson and take the weed to sell for himself, then took Samson's body out of the apartment in a hockey bag and somehow got rid of his remains.
The jury convicted Sandeson, 24, of first-degree murder in Samson's death after more than 20 hours of deliberations. The result capped off a two-month trial, putting an end to what had been one of the most talked-about Nova Scotian murder cases in years. Yet despite the verdict, many questions remain.
When Sandeson was charged with Samson's murder, he was only about a week away from his first year of med school. How exactly did the respected student athlete, who was repeatedly honoured as an "All-Canadian Scholar" for his well-rounded accomplishments and worked in a group home for people with disabilities, get to this point where he was shooting another student in the back of the head in a drug deal?
The Crown said Sandeson's motive to murder Samson was simple: money.
The trial heard that Sandeson was in a significant amount of debt, owing about $70,000 on a $200,000 line of credit and had been under pressure from his parents. Police also noted that only $7,200 in cash of a $40K drug deal was recovered.
The trial heard little about Sandeson and his drug dealing past. His ex-girlfriend, Sonja Gashus, testified that she thought he was tying up some loose ends and leaving the business on the night Samson died. "I believed it was him making a deal and he was going to get out of that whole thing," she said, according to the Canadian Press. Gashus dated Sandeson for about eight months. She says he told her to stay away from the apartment that night, then got a text at about 12:30 in the morning saying it was OK to come back. When she did, the apartment smelled like bleach.
Defence lawyer Eugene Tan told VICE that his client asked his family not to be there when the verdict was read, as emotions were "running high on both sides."
While Samson's body was never found, the Crown was able to point to circumstantial evidence that suggested he could have been buried at Sandeson's family farm near Truro, NS.
Police later found a shower curtain from Sandeson's apartment, covered in Samson's DNA, on the property of Sandeson's family farm. They also found a rotten-smelling hockey bag.
And while the jury never heard the following information, a bail hearing revealed that Sandeson sent a series of texts to a friend describing how he'd kill Gashus if she was cheating on him. The texts said that if she was being unfaithful he would kill her, dump her head and hands in lye to disintegrate them, and leave her body at the farm.
Police found a 9mm Smith & Wesson in a safe in Sandeson's apartment with Samson's DNA on it. A blood-spatter expert testified that the gun was used to shoot someone at very close range.
Sandeson's lawyer would argue that his client was "not a criminal mastermind" and argued that if he committed a premeditated murder, why would he keep the gun in his bedroom?
Everyone close to Samson who spoke with VICE said they knew he was dealing. It was a way to pay his way through school. At well over six feet, he was described as "a leader" and "larger than life." Friends and family remember him as someone always quick to help out his family and who was very involved with his fraternity, Sigma Chi.
Thomas McCrossin, one of Samson's closest friends, told VICE that Samson had a modest upbringing in the town of Amherst where they both grew up—a rural Nova Scotian town of less than 10,000 people where the median household income is about $20,000 below the national median. McCrossin says his friend had an "undying entrepreneurial spirit," and planned to get out of the business and grow his tutoring company. Samson made YouTube videos that explained mathematical concepts in the hopes that struggling students who couldn't afford one-on-one help could at least follow along online.
"For a while there when he died I felt almost lost," McCrossin said. "That man I would have trusted with my life. There's not really anyone else I would do that with."
While the guilty verdict includes a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years (Sanderson will be eligible to apply for parole after 23 years, because of time served) and some measure of closure, Samson's family is still searching for his remains.
Samson's mother Linda Boutilier says she has searched through the woods near Truro, the town where Sandeson's family farm is located, looking for anything that could help her find closure. A couple friends will join her in her search, but "it's a lot to ask of a person," she says.
Some of Samson's friends from Amherst have set aside for a scholarship in his name. A friend of Boutilier's has also set up a GoFundMe to help her continue searching for his remains. They say they want to help Boutilier hire "cadaver dogs, private investigators, search teams and more" as regional police can no longer spend the kind of resources she wants to see dedicated to finding her son.
Boutilier says she's already worked with a cadaver dog and a volunteer who had donated some spare time. They found two hits, but both turned out to be false alarms.
"People say [Taylor is] chopped up everywhere, so who the hell knows," Boutilier told VICE. "I'm immune to that."
By Sunday morning, a few days into the wait for the verdict, Samson's friends were starting to get stir crazy. Three people began playing mini golf in the courtroom hallway—with a Tim Hortons cup as the hole and a walking cane used by Samson's father as the club. The previous afternoon, McCrossin had made a brief appearance in a tuxedo-themed morphsuit—a darkly humourous reference to Sandeson's claim that two men in morphsuits had been responsible for Samson's death.
"It was funny," one woman yelled at McCrossin, "but you still suck."
The mood shifted on Sunday when a pair of sheriffs walked into the room to open the courtroom doors. The jury had reached its decision.
Samson's brother, stepsister, and friends sobbed while they waited, shaking. As the ruling was read, Samson's survivors cheered and clapped when the verdict came down.
Sandeson sat frozen in place. Three of his friends sat quietly in the back of the courtroom, looking grim. (They declined to speak about the case to VICE.)
Sandeson's next move remains to be determined. He's expected to be in court for sentencing on July 11. His lawyers have not said whether they will be appealing the decision.
As Sandeson walked out of the courtroom Sunday for another night in what could be decades in prison, his victim's family has two lasts message for him.
"Turn around and take a bow, Billy," Linda Boutilier said.
Samson's stepsister, Kathleen Hollett, simply yelled: "Tell us where he is."
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