Loretta Saunders' two former roommates admitted Wednesday that they murdered her.
In a surprise move the day after jury selection finished, Blake Leggette and Victoria Henneberry entered guilty pleas.
Minutes later, Judge Josh Arnold found the pair guilty of murder.
Leggette went first, pleading guilty to first-degree murder, meaning he will serve an automatic 25 years in prison. Henneberry then pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, which carries a 10-to-25 year jail sentence.
The pair will be sentenced next Wednesday.
Loretta's family quickly left the Halifax courthouse after the judgment. They briefly told media outside they were happy with the decision.
Saunders, a 26-year-old Inuk student who was researching the national crisis of missing and murdered First Nations women, disappeared on February 13, 2014 in Halifax.
Her family in Labrador travelled to Halifax to search for her. Police found her body hundreds of kilometres away almost two weeks later, in a snow-covered hockey bag along the side of the Trans Canada Highway in New Brunswick.
During the preliminary inquiry into the case, some family members were included on the witness list and couldn't enter the courtroom, making the process more painful for them, they told media.
When video evidence was screened during the inquiry, one of Loretta's relatives stood and made a sudden move toward the bench where the two accused were sitting. Her relatives comforted each other as the man was removed from court.
During jury selection Tuesday, Saunders' parents appeared calm, but when her mother, Miriam, left the courtroom, she let out a loud wail. Family members followed her into the bathroom.
Leggette's lawyer Terry Sheppard said his client decided to plead guilty because he felt remorseful for the pain he caused Saunders' family.
"He's been thinking for a long time now about this, and about this day and about this trial, and it's been weighing on him since February 13 of 2014," Sheppard said after court adjourned.
"He has been very concerned all along. He did not want to have the Saunders family go through the very grueling process of a public trial with all of that evidence coming out over the next four weeks, and wanted to make sure that didn't happen."
In the last couple days as the jury was being selected, Leggette knew he had to decide on a plea, Sheppard said. By end of day Tuesday, a mostly white jury of ten men and four women was selected.
On Wednesday morning, the Crown, defense and judge had the closed court to themselves as they discussed the case. Wednesday afternoon the jury entered the courtroom and barely took their seats before the judge excused them. Leggette then entered a guilty plea and Henneberry followed suit.
When asked why they went through the process of jury selection if Leggette wanted to enter a guilty plea, Sheppard answered: "Well again, we have to get to this point, we have to see what all the evidence of the Crown is, and he has to be given some time to think about that, it's a very significant decision for him of course, and we wanted to see what the jury looks like. I needed to give him some time to think about that and make sure he absolutely wants to do this, and at the end of the day he absolutely wanted to plead guilty and accept responsibility for his actions."
"The sentence is moot," he said. "It's automatically a life sentence. No chance of parole. Twenty-five years."
Leggette did not speak to media. Neither did Henneberry or her lawyer Pat Atherton.
In two agreed upon statements of fact, Leggette admitted he suffocated Saunders and Henneberry admitted she helped him do it.
In January 2014, Leggette and Henneberry agreed to sublet Loretta's apartment, but after they moved in, conflict arose. The couple had financial woes and wanted to leave Halifax. Leggette plotted to kill Loretta, take her car, and leave the province. Henneberry knew his plans.
On February 13, 2014 around 11 AM, Saunders went to the apartment to collect rent from the couple. Henneberry lied and said she had lost her bank card and had to call the bank. In fact, the couple didn't have the money.
Loretta sat on the couch in the living room, waiting.
Leggette then came up behind Saunders and choked her. She struggled, and he tried to suffocate her with three different plastic bags, but she tore through each one. He knocked her out and wrapped her head in saran wrap. Then he placed her in a hockey bag and tidied up the living room.
Leggette carried the hockey bag containing her body out of the building and dumped it in the trunk of her car. The couple packed up their belongings and fled the province in Saunders' car, stopping along the way to buy food and supplies using her bank card.
While police and Saunders' family were searching for her, Henneberry lied to them about her whereabouts. She also used Saunders' cellphone to text her boyfriend pretending to be her.
Henneberry and Leggette were arrested in her car on February 18 in Ontario. In their possession were her bank card, ID and cellphone.
Prosecutor Christine Driscoll said the Crown had strong cases against the pair.
"We felt we had a realistic prospect of conviction on Mr. Leggette for first-degree murder. Always in something like this there's always a risk with the jury of an outright acquittal, a finding of a different level of responsibility. With Ms. Henneberry, we had a realistic prospect of conviction on second-degree murder."
Driscoll said she thought the outcome was appropriate for the case. She said the family had told her they were content with the decision.
"We're pleased obviously, we're pleased for the family that they don't have to sit through a lengthy proceeding. We're pleased that people are taking responsibility for their actions, and we feel that it is just."
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