CALGARY – The family of a woman who was raped and brutally beaten before dying alone on an isolated Calgary pathway told a judge Tuesday that Arcelie Laoagan was a loving mother whose faith in God sustained her.
Justice Kristine Eidsvik listened to the victim impact statements after convicting Christopher Watcheston, 24, of first-degree murder for attacking Laoagan on the path that ran between a transit train station and her home, passing behind a church.
“It saddens me that she died at the base of a church,” she told Laoagan’s siblings and mother after their emotional descriptions of how Laoagan’s loss has devastated their lives.
Watcheston admitted that he sexually assaulted and physically battered the 41-year-old mother of five on a frigid, snowy night in January 2008, but said he didn’t intend for her to die – he just wanted to stop her from contacting police.
Prosecutor Gord Wong had argued that Watcheston killed Laoagan in the commission of a sexual assault, which under Canadian law meant he was guilty of first-degree murder. But defence lawyer Alain Hepner countered that there was a time gap between when Watcheston raped Laoagan and when he attacked her, so his client could only be convicted of second-degree murder.
Eidsvik ruled that Watcheston’s domination over Laoagan was continuous from the time he first attacked her on the snowy path to the severe beating that resulted in her death.
She pointed to cellphone records that show only a matter of minutes between when Laoagan called a friend pleading for help and saying she was being raped and when the friend reached her on the phone again to find her mumbling and incoherent, likely near death.
Laoagan was found with her pants still tangled around one ankle and her legs splayed apart, which Eidsvik said showed she had no time to make an escape between the rape and the beating.
“She was not even able to pull her pants up in the few minutes … let alone run away,” she said.
Surveillance video captured Watcheston at three different light-rail train stations in downtown Calgary, including the one where Laoagan stepped on board shortly after 10 p.m.
She was heading home from her night shift at a printing company, an extra job she worked because she wanted to make enough money to bring her husband and five children from the Philippines to Canada.
Cameras also caught the pair walking up an escalator at Laoagan’s stop. Watcheston is seen walking just a couple of steps behind the small woman from the train to the station door. His hood is pulled tight and low, partially obscuring his face.
Watcheston testified that he was so drunk and high on a hallucinogenic drug that he initially thought Laoagan was his mother, who was murdered when he was 11. He said he called out to her and didn’t realize his mistake until they were alone together on the path.
He told court the small woman immediately begged him not to rape her and he followed her simply to try to explain his initial misconception.
But Eidsvik found that some of Watcheston’s memories of the night are unreliable and unbelievable.
She said a trail of Laoagan’s belongings and clothing strewn along the path points to a physical struggle before the rape and not the peaceful discussion that Watcheston recalled.
“I believe that the accused got angry and exploded and this led to the sexual assault,” she said.
Watcheston told court he panicked after seeing Laoagan on the phone, thinking she had called 911, and decided that kicking her in the head with his steel-toed work boots would cause her to forget the assault.
Court heard Laoagan was in fact on the phone frantically describing the attack to a friend, who relayed the information to police.
Officers testified they rushed out to find her, but her friend believed the call for help came from near her work downtown. They described how they checked every car and dumpster in the area, but couldn’t find any trace of her.
It’s not known how long Laoagan lay dying alone in the snow.
A woman on her way to work called police at 5 a.m. when she found Laoagan’s body.
A doctor testified the victim’s head was so badly injured in the attack that her brain could no longer function. Her stomach was badly bruised and her nose, jaw, cheekbones and bones in her throat were fractured.
Four victim impact statements from Laoagans’ family were read in court.
Laoagan’s mother said she fears for the safety of her other children living in Canada, adding “I’ve grieved so deeply, almost crying all the time.”
Her brother had only questions as he described reliving the day of his sister’s death again and again.
“How do you console a child who cries for his mother?” asked Oswald Sombrito. “And how do you celebrate life when there’s no life to celebrate?”
Watcheston read a brief apology to Laoagan’s family after the judge sentenced him to a mandatory life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years.
“I do know that I will live forever with the sorrow that will always be on my soul.”