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Dreadful details surface at Laura Babcock's murder trial: DiManno

On Monday Dellen Millard, representing himself, questioned witness Clayton Babcock — the father of the woman he is accused of killing.

Dellen Millard, left, and Mark Smich, centre, have pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in the death of Laura Babcock.

Dellen Millard, left, and Mark Smich, centre, have pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in the death of Laura Babcock.

“Dad, here’s Dellen.”

From that winter day, maybe seven or eight years ago when his daughter introduced him to her date, standing in the doorway of their home, Clayton Babcock had never spoken to the young man again.

Until Monday morning, in a downtown courtroom, with Babcock in the witness stand, recalling a daughter he last saw alive in June, 2012. No one has seen or heard from Laura Babcock in the past five years.

The thin fellow asking the questions — lank brown hair, jeans resting on his bony hips, bookish spectacles — is Dellen Millard, on trial for first-degree murder in Laura’s presumed death.

He is representing himself. Thus Millard could cross-examine Clayton Babcock, first witness called in a trial which is expected to last a couple of months. Just as if he were a real lawyer, afforded all the courtesies of the court and the witness compelled to answer, whatever thoughts may have been running through his mind, whatever he was feeling in his gut.

“Are you nervous, sir?” Millard, who’s pleaded not guilty, asked, to begin the tense exchange.

Yes, he was.

Millard: “Do you find this difficult?”

Babcock, tersely: “Getting better at it.”

Millard: “This can’t be easy for you, being asked questions by me, considering I’m the accused. Does this make it extra difficult?”

Babcock: “No.”

But how could it not be? So much time has passed since Babcock’s last conversation with Laura, on the phone, June 30, 2012. Parents never stop grieving the loss of a child, though, made all the worse when there’s no body to lay to rest.

She was 23 years old.

And this man is accused of having done ghastly things to her.

The prosecution maintains that Millard and co-accused Mark Smich killed Laura on July 3 or 4, 2012, mere days after she left her beloved Maltese dog, Lacey, and an envelope stuffed with about $1,000 at her parents’ home while they were attending a family function. While she was still nominally living at home, Laura had for months been “couch-surfing”, crashing with friends, unwilling to abide by her parents’ rules, but popping in and out.

A few weeks later, according to the Crown’s narrative, the two defendants disposed of Laura’s body in an incinerator intended for animal carcasses, dubbed by its manufacturer “The Eliminator.”

In her opening address to the jury Monday, Crown attorney Jill Cameron quoted from a July 23, 2012 text message Millard sent to Smich: “The BBQ is ready for meat.”

Twenty days earlier, Millard had set a reminder in his iPhone calendar: “Barn smell check.”

It is believed Laura Babcock was cremated inside a hangar at Millard’s rural property near Kitchener.

The jury was shown photos of Smich standing in front of “The Eliminator” and of an object wrapped in a long blue tarp — taken on Millard’s phone July 4 — the inference that Laura’s 5-foot-10 body was contained within.

During the opening, the jury also watched a short segment from a video (not yet introduced into evidence) which court was told was made in September of 2012, depicting Smich performing a rap song. But the lyrics, said Cameron, had been composed July 23 on an iPad which had recently been loaned to Laura by an ex-boyfriend.

The lyrics:

The bitch started off all skin and bone,

Now the bitch lay on some ashy stone.

Last time I saw her’s outside the home

And if you go swimming you can’t find her phone.

Smich — who at one point Monday asked for a break because he was feeling ill — has also pleaded not guilty. He has his own defence lawyer.

Millard and Smich had been best friends.

Not that motive is necessary but the prosecution has a theory for why Laura Babcock vanished: She was allegedly the odd-woman out in a three-way love triangle, had told his current girlfriend she was still sleeping with Millard — many years after they’d first briefly dated — and the other woman, Christina Noudga, was upset about it.

“First I am going to hurt her. Then I’ll make her leave,” Millard texted Noudga in April, two months before Laura disappeared. “I will remove her from our lives.”

He asked another friend to keep tabs on Laura. Then he sent a message to his mechanic. “Soon I’m gonna want you to put together a homemade incinerator.” By May 25, it was ready for a test run. From Smich to Millard, via text: “We gotta bring something with bones in it.”

Turns out the jerry-rigged thing allegedly didn’t work to their satisfaction. So Millard instructed his mechanic to buy a commercial version, paying $15,000 for it.

There were so many dreadful details coming fast and furious on Day 1 of the trial that the core of it — a murdered woman — was almost obscured.

Clayton Babcock tried his best to put some flesh on the bones — bones which have never been found.

Laura, he said, was a bubbly young woman who had graduated from the University of Toronto and had ambitions of becoming an actress. Theirs was a happy family, he insisted, playing games together, taking trips; Laura and her dad even watched Say Yes to the Dress together.”

Until things began to fall apart in 2011. She began rebelling against what he considered modest restrictions and, simultaneously, indications of mental health issues arose. “We couldn’t figure it out. She seemed agitated, couldn’t sit still.”

Laura saw several therapists. “Nobody could pinpoint what was wrong with her. But you could tell she was not herself.”

His daughter started spending nights away, claiming she was at her sorority house or with girlfriends. “She would never be gone for any length of time without letting us know where she was.”

Laura’s peripatetic habits by 2012 — and a claim to her parents in late June that she was likely going away on a trip — was why the family waited for about a week before reporting her missing to police, her father explained.

What Clayton Babcock didn’t know — and court heard Monday — was that Laura had begun working for an escort agency after breaking up with a yearlong boyfriend over the Christmas holiday in 2011. She seems to have been partying hard and doing drugs, running with the wrong crowd.

The disintegration — like her manic mood swings — happened rapidly.

On cross-examination, Millard attempted to allege figment of a happy home, picking up on the witness’s evidence that the Babcocks had their locks changed during the period when Laura was coming and going.

“It wasn’t done to keep Laura out,” countered Babcock, noting that his daughter knew where the spare key was kept.

Millard pivoted. “You’ve met me before?”

Babcock: “Yes. You seemed decent. You stood there not much dissimilar to now. And then you left.”

Millard: “Did she ever tell you she worked as a prostitute?”

No, she had not.

Millard: “You said she had a bubbly personality?”

Babcock, glaring: “Would you say she didn’t?”

Justice Michael Code directed Babcock to just answer Millard’s questions. He also admonished Millard for repetitive questions.

Millard: “Did you ever hit her, abuse her in any way?”

Babcock: “No I didn’t. It just wasn’t in my nature. Hitting my daughter is repugnant.”

Millard suggested that Babcock was there to “give us a happy perfect image of the family in your home.”

The witness acknowledged there were stresses, especially as his daughter’s personality shifted and she cast about for a cause.

“I was really happy with our family. It was a good family. I was blessed for 53 years. And then this happened. So, I’m not as happy now.”

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