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A good guy emerges at grim trial into Laura Babcock’s murder: DiManno

After Laura Babcock's disappearance, her ex-boyfriend Shawn Lerner went so far as to file a complaint about what he felt was a deficient police investigation.

Shawn Lerner turned himself into an amateur sleuth after the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend Laura Babcock.

Torstar File Photo

Shawn Lerner turned himself into an amateur sleuth after the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend Laura Babcock.

“You don’t like me, do you?”

It probably would not have required being under oath for Shawn Lerner to give an honest answer.

“No.”

Lawyers don’t give a fig whether witnesses under cross-examination like them or not. It’s an adversarial process.

But Dellen Millard, who is representing himself in court, is one of the two defendants on trial for first-degree murder in the death of Laura Babcock, whose remains have never been found.

The prosecution says Millard and Mark Smich killed her five years ago, then disposed of the young woman’s body in an incinerator.

“You find me sketchy.”

More a declaration than a question but Lerner responded. Yes, he does.

When Babcock went missing in early July, 2012, it was Lerner, her former boyfriend, who raised the alarm.

Just as it had been Lerner, still fond of his ex in a close friend way, who put Babcock up in a west end Toronto motel for a couple of nights, just before her vanishing, because she had nowhere to stay, had been couch-surfing and quarrelling with her parents. And, as Lerner discovered when they met for dinner at a food court — the last time he saw the 23-year-old alive, their final texts exchanged on July 1 — had been working for an escort service.

It was Lerner, too, who loaned Babcock an iPad that night — the same device on which investigators would later find rap lyrics which appear to allude to her murder. “The bitch started off all skin and bone, now the bitch lay on some ashy stone . . . ” In a brief video segment shown to the jury earlier this week, Smich is seen singing that repugnant ditty.

Both Smich and Millard have pleaded not guilty.

The last eight phone calls Babcock made on her phone were to Millard, Lerner told court. He learned this when examining the phone bill that Babcock’s mother had given them after family and friends became deeply worried about her unknown whereabouts. After those calls to Millard’s number, there was no further activity on her phone.

In the early days of Babcock’s disappearance, Lerner testified, police seemed not to take the matter seriously. Just another missing adult — most of them show up eventually. When Lerner provided details of Babcock’s life — the escort connection, her drug use, the bizarre behaviour over recent months — police interest waned further.

But Lerner, who’d dated Babcock for about 18 months — they’d broken up around Christmas, 2011 — would not let it rest. Indeed, he ended up making a formal complaint about the investigation to the Office of Independent Police Review Director.

If there is an admirable individual in the whole sordid and grim mess that has been unfolding in court, it’s Lerner.

He cared.

A 27-year-old businessman by profession, he turned himself into an amateur sleuth.

Lerner knew Babcock’s phone password so he accessed it for messages, a clue. He created a group page on her Facebook account to share information with friends — he’d retrieved their names — anything to assemble a trail. Nobody had heard from her. Babcock, who had been keenly active on social media, had gone silent.

Crucially, Lerner called Millard. “I’m not looking to point a finger at anyone,” Lerner texted, “but we’re concerned about Laura and it looks like you were the last person to correspond with her.”

After ignoring the first few texts, Millard answered that he’d “heard” about Babcock being missing. “Don’t know where she is.”

Not accepting the brush-off, Lerner urged they meet to talk.

They did so, at a Starbucks, on July 27.

During that conversation, as Lerner recalled under direct examination earlier, Millard told him that Babcock had been using drugs, developed a cocaine addition and had been bugging him to get her drugs, which he’d “vehemently” refused. “He implied she’s gone,” said Lerner. “She got mixed up with the wrong people. And I should have no reasonable expectation of finding her.”

It was not the first time Lerner and Millard had met. In February, 2011, Lerner had planned a surprise birthday party for Babcock. Millard — whom he did not personally know — was invited. Afterwards, a group of them went back to Millard’s condo.

This was one of the areas Millard pursued in his cross-examination Tuesday; his assertion that Lerner found him “sketchy” dated back to that evening.

“I don’t recall if I found you sketchy immediately upon leaving (the party). But by the time I left that evening I certainly did find you sketchy.”

Lerner recounted that, in their conversation at his condo, Millard had given inconsistent details about what he did for a living. He also observed Millard giving drugs to Babcock that night — he thought it was ecstasy.

“You’re against the use of hard drugs?” Millard asked.

Lerner: “I was against her getting her getting pills from you, unsolicited by her. You made it clear that it was a birthday present.”

Why should Lerner care, Millard continued.

“Because she (was) my girlfriend and I cared about her and I loved her.”

Millard asked whether, at their Starbucks meeting, he’d informed Lerner that Babcock had been working as a prostitute.

“No. I had to that point understood that she was working as an escort.”

He’d admittedly not been thrilled when Babcock told him about that, at their dinner. “She did say there was no sex involved. She seemed brand new to the business. The way she explained it to me, it was sort of . . . men looking to have a pretty girl on their arm. She may have believed it. I was obviously not convinced that might be all there was to it.”

Had he, Millard, not expressly stated, at Starbucks, that he wasn’t providing drugs to Babcock? “I had witnessed you giving her drugs in the past,” said Lerner.

Millard: “You asked if I was having sex with Laura at that time. I said no and that I have a girlfriend.”

Babcock and Millard had dated briefly several years earlier, court has heard. It is unclear when or how their paths crossed again. The prosecution theory is that Babcock had boasted to Millard’s current girlfriend that she was still sleeping with him. The woman became upset. In the opening address on Monday, Crown attorney Jill Cameron quoted from texts Millard had sent his girlfriend in April: “First I am going to hurt her. Then I’ll make her leave.” And: “I will remove her from our lives.”

It was at that point, the prosecution maintains, that Millard set about getting an incinerator. The Crown believes Babcock was killed July 3 or 4.

Millard suggested to the witness that Babcock had “a number of strange men in her life” at the time she disappeared.

Millard: “Are you trying to shift the case one way or another?

Lerner: “No, absolutely not.”

Millard: “Are you trying to shift suspicion on to me?”

Lerner: “No, I’m trying to answer your questions.”

And this exchange:

Millard: “How do you feel about Laura today?”

Lerner: “I miss her.”

The trial continues.

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