WINNIPEG - Mark Stobbe became so enraged after an argument with his wife, he hit her with a hatchet 16 times, drove her body to a parking lot and returned home on by bicycle to report her missing, a Crown attorney said Monday.

Stobbe, who had worked as an adviser to former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow before taking a job with the Manitoba government, committed a "brutal assault" on his wife in the backyard of their sprawling rural home, Wendy Dawson told court.

"The Crown's theory is that the accused had a 5.5-hour period of opportunity to commit this crime," she said.

Stobbe has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder in the death of his wife, Beverly Rowbotham, whose body was found in the family sedan in October 2000.

The Crown indicated it will rely on circumstantial evidence and 76 witnesses in a trial that is slated to last until the end of March.

In her opening statement, Dawson painted a portrait of a once-happy family falling apart.

Life was good in Regina, where neighbours reported seeing the family playing together and laughing. But after the family moved to St. Andrews, a rural suburb north of Winnipeg, in early 2000, it was a different story.

"There were some small cracks developing in the relationship," Dawson said.

"In stark contrast to Regina, neighbours did not observe the couple playing happily with their children on the front lawn."

Stobbe had taken a job with the Manitoba government and was working long hours, Dawson said. The home was in need of repairs, there were no other children for the family's kids to play with and, in the weeks before her death, Rowbotham told her sister that the marriage was troubled.

"She said, 'I don't know if I can do this anymore', or words to that effect," Dawson told the jury.

The Crown's theory, based in part on forensic evidence, is that Stobbe attacked his wife in their backyard, hit her repeatedly on the head with a hatchet, then dragged her to the garage, put her in a car and drove to a parking lot to make it appear that she had been robbed.

Stobbe returned to the house by bicycle and called the RCMP to report his wife missing, Dawson said. He told them Rowbotham had gone out grocery shopping in the evening and he had fallen asleep, only to wake up after midnight and find her still gone.

The Crown will point to what it says are inconsistencies in what Stobbe told police, friends and relatives in the following days. He told some people he had fallen asleep on the couch and woke up at 1:30 a.m., but told others he had fallen asleep in one of his children's beds and woke up at 2:30 a.m., Dawson said.

"There are some variations in the details," Dawson said. "They may indicate a person who cannot keep their story straight."

The first witness to testify was an RCMP forensics expert who examined the car after Rowbotham's body was discovered. Insp. Bruce Prange told court there was blood in the back seat and on the ground under the rear passenger door. But, he added, there was a lack of blood spatter inside the car, which immediately struck him as suspicious.

"We thought this could possibly be a site where the body had been transported to after (the death)", he said.

The trial is expected to be so lengthy, 14 jurors are hearing the case. Recent changes to the Criminal Code allow for larger juries in so-called mega-trials, to ensure there are still a minimum of 12 jurors at the end of the trial despite illnesses or personal emergencies.

If there are still 14 people in the jury box when deliberations begin, two juror numbers will be drawn at random and those people will be excused.

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