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Entries in Free Press (1)

Thursday
Apr192012

A Dark and Stormy Night

A Winter's Night (16x12 watercolour on board)

It wasn't a Kennedy assassination moment, or a 9/11 moment. But I quite vividly remember a morning 12 years ago when news came on the radio that a body had been found in a car in the city of Selkirk, just north of Winnipeg.

Call it premonition – you wonder where they come from - but I thought: 'Who do I know in Selkirk?' And in that instant Mark Stobbe bounced to mind. We'd bumped into each other a few days earlier and he mentioned he had recently bought a home in St. Andrews, not far from Selkirk.

I met Stobbe in the mid-1990s when he was a political operative in Roy Romanow's Saskatchewan government. As a PR guy he was impressively large and friendly and helpful to an interloping newspaper reporter trying to get a feel for the political imperatives in a neighbouring province. I was a bit surprised in September 2000 to see him on the streets of Winnipeg and to hear he was now working for Manitoba Premier Gary Doer.

Called to commiserate

Later, on that October day more than a decade ago, when I got to my office in the Globe and Mail bureau in downtown Winnipeg, more details trickled out about the body in the car in Selkirk. There had been a slaying. And the victim was Bev Rowbotham, wife of Mark Stobbe, senior communications advisor to the Manitoba government.

It was surreal as I reflexively called Mark's home to commiserate. I told him I could not believe what I had heard on the news. “It's shitty,” he admitted in his understated Stobbe-esque way.

Of course I knew, and he knew that I knew, that suspicion would fall on him for the killing. Nine times in 10 it's the husband, out of anger. Until he was ruled out as a suspect, Stobbe would have to be the RCMP's main man.

Since Bev Rowbotham's body was found some distance from the family home and the story was that Bev had failed to return home after a late evening shop to Selkirk for groceries, we were being asked to believe she was attacked and killed in a random act by an unknown perpetrator. Not very likely, but not 100 percent impossible either, I thought. At that time I did not know Bev was killed in the back yard of the family home. Nor did I know Bev had been bludgeoned repeatedly with a hatchet or hammer – apparently 16 times – an emotional outburst.

Before long Mark Stobbe no longer worked for the government. A dark cloud of suspicion hung over his head as he took to operating a candy route to support himself and two young children. I'll admit to feeling some sympathy: if the guy is innocent, he's tragically lost his wife, his job, his reputation. I tried to buck him up and we had lunch a few times in the months that followed.

Full of food

Several times I asked him if he killed Bev and, just as he repeatedly told jurors at his murder trial last month, he steadfastly denied any involvement in her terrible death.

As police leaked selective details of the case to the media, Mark gave me explanations for things that might cast suspicion. Why did Bev need to go shopping when the family fridge was full of food? The fridge was full of food because family members, friends and neighbours all brought food in the hours and days after the murder.

Months passed and Mark was bitterly frustrated that the focus of the RCMP investigation appeared to be only on himself as a suspect. He mentioned that around the time of Bev's killing a woman driving on a rural road near Selkirk had been attacked by two hammer-wielding women who tried to rob her as they pretended their car had broken down. How coincidental is that? Why weren't the Mounties chasing down that possible lead?

It was only at trial that the public were told DNA and bone fragments pointed to the back yard as the location of the killing. And so the question arose: Who had a motive after the fact to remove Bev Rowbotham's bodyand take it in the family sedan 15 kilometres to Selkirk, where the car and body were some hours later found abandoned?

Sometime in late 2002 Mark moved back to Saskatchewan and we lost contact.

In 2008 he was arrested and charged with second degree murder. Police apparently had shopped around for a prosecutor who would support a charge on the strength of not much more than suspicion. Four prosecutors who were  previously consulted said there was insufficient evidence to lay a criminal charge against Mark Stobbe or anyone else.

A wise conclusion

So then, last month, after a seven week trial, the testimony of 80 some witnesses, several gruelling days on the witness stand and 12 years under a cloud, Mark Stobbe was found not guilty in the death of his wife Beverly Rowbotham.

I'm relieved and impressed that 12 citizen jurors reached this wise conclusion.

From what I could parse from news reports at trial, there wasn't evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mark Stobbe was connected to the killing.

Oh, you may have your  suspicions. But our justice system requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt to convict.

So a finding of not guilty was the correct verdict, in law.

In the end, Mark Stobbe may be the only person to know whether it was correct in fact.

(A version of this was published in The Winnipeg Free Press on April 20, 2012.)

(Top: A Winter's Night 16 x12 Italian watercolour pigments on board)