Jury sees first photos of murdered woman, hear autopsy results

MIRAMICHI - Several jury members became emotional this week at seeing photos of Maria Tanasichuk's dead body.

As the murder trial continued against Maria's husband David Tanasichuk this week, investigating officer Sgt. Brian Cummings of the Miramichi Police Force returned to the stand to speak about the pictures he took in 2003 after her body, covered by tree branches, was eventually discovered in the woods near the Chatham snowmobile trail.

Autopsy and firearm experts testified as well, concluding the death was caused by gun shots to the head.

Maria's sister Sharon Caroll was in the court room as the photos were discussed and wiped tears from her eyes. Two female jurors also appeared to be upset.

The body was discovered more than five months after Maria went missing and the photos depict a body that had begun decomposing.

The series of pictures were taken upon the discovery of the body and an image was taken after each branch was removed.

On Wednesday Crown prosecutors John Henheffer and Bill Richards focused the case away from the relationship Tanasichuk had with his wife before she went missing and turned to the evidence of the body and the analyses performed by authorities on the crime scene itself.

Cummings described the clothing found on Maria at the scene.

"She had on a green camouflage jacket, orange on the inside, very warm, a tan sweater with a deer and a lighter sweater underneath. She had two bluish purple gloves, long underwear, two pairs of socks and black boots."

The Crown asked if she wore anything on her head.

"No, there was nothing on her head."

Several pieces of jewelery were discovered as well— the loop earings in each ear and a stud, as well as a cross in her hair and two diamond rings.

Cummings told the court Carroll's husband found a sawed off rifle in the woods under an abandoned pick up truck box and he sent it to the lab in Bathurst looking for prints. After discovering Maria had been shot to death, he began to look for casings at the scene and sent the rifle to be tested by a firearm expert.

On cross examination, defense lawyer Brian Munro, continued to suggest Maria had angered local drug dealers when she confronted them about not selling to Tanasichuk.

"Have you heard of the phrase rat?" Munro asked Cummings.

"Yes. When a person goes to the police about illegal activities," he answered.

"And drug dealers don't like them," said Munro. "Could they have believed she would go to police?"

The defense asked why surveillance was done on Tanasichuk when Maria went missing and not on others, such as Ralph Chapman, a man once convicted of drug dealing.

"I had no reason to believe Ralph was peddling drugs," replied Cummings.

He also questioned why no one had noticed the rifle under the truck uring the many sweeps they'd performed in the woods in the months before is was discovered.

The officer indicated he may have missed the gun for the same reason the search team was unable to find Maria's body for so long — because of all the snow.

Search and rescue dogs were brought in from Maine to help search for a body back in 2003.

Deborah Palman, game warden for the MaineWildlife Department testified to being the one to find the body. The team came in May but found nothing and had to return in late June to search again.

She and her teammates used cadaver dogs to search the area and tracked their locations using GPS to record the spots where they had already been.

"On the second morning we looked on the laptop and noticed a block in behind the Portage Restaurant that had not been done," said Palman. "It was a block with no easy access, there was no trail in that section. They wanted it gridded, eliminated."

As she began to sweep the area with her dog Alex, she said Alex clearly picked up a scent and ran out of view.

"Because of the heat he usually stayed close, but he left and headed up wind," she said, "He came back and had that look like, ‘hey you, you've got to follow me."

Though Palman expected her dog found a dead moose carcass she quickly realized he'd found a human body when she saw the dog had run to a pile of branches with a green piece of cloth visible underneath.

She also noted what she believed to have been old marijuana growing operation that had been abandoned in the area.

Munro questioned why she thought there had been marijuana growing there.

"There was none there anymore but I've come across that sort of thing and it looked like marijuana was there at one time. There was old chicken wire."

The experts

Sgt. Guy Chamberlain was a forensic identification specialist with the Bathurst RCMP who was not only involved with the search at Tanasichuk's home after Maria went missing but also a part of the search team that discovered her body. He was the officer who looked at the gun seized in the woods as a possible murder weapon for fingerprints and attended the autopsy.

"The branches were piled on top of the remains," said Chamberlain of the scene where Maria's body was discovered. "There is no natural way those would have landed there like that."

Chamberlain examined the sawed-off rifle and green tarp it was found in for any traces of fingerprints or DNA but could not find anything suitable.

He did find a print on a piece of electrical tape attached to the gun, however the mark was too distorted to use.

"Because it didn't match Mr. Tanasichuk, it was not suitable?" asked the defense. "Were you told to focus on Mr. Tanasichuk?"

"Not at all," replied Chamberlain. "I don't look for a specific person. There was no proper fingerprint to compare. It could have been for anybody."

Dr. Marek Godlewski conducted the autopsy on Maria's body.

At trial he was sworn in as an expert as an anatomical pathologist and for forensic pathology.

Godlewski identified two "defects" to the skull — two round holes above the right eye and above the right ear.

He determined these to be entry wounds of bullets and found two metal objects on the x-ray as well as several metallic fragments.

The bullet wound to the forehead, he said, had created fracture lines through the face of the skull.

The court heard Godlewski could not perform several standard autopsy procedures due to the level of decomposition of the body, but he believed the evidence was clear.

"My conclusion is the death was caused by gun shot wounds to the head," said Godlewski.

During defense questioning, Munro wanted to know more about the size of the bullet wound holes, asking whether a small discrepancy in their size could mean they were different bullets that came from different guns.

" One was .6 centimetres, the other .7. The report does not show a distinction between between the [holes]," he said.

"There weren't three defects?" asked Munro.

"Well I only identified two," said Godlewski.

However, Justice Glady Young heard once the skull was taken for further examination a third bullet was found in Maria's head.

Darryl Barr, civilian member of the RCMP, was sworn in as an expert in firearms and tool marks, including damage assessment, ammunition examination, trajectory analysis and wound ballistics.

Investigating officers delivered the sawed-off rifle discovered in the woods as well as .22 caliber ammo found in the Tanasichuk residence during the seizure and the skull and tissue containing the bullet fragments.

He examined the marks the barrel of the gun left on bullets when they were fired and matched two of the bullets from Maria's body as coming from that rifle.

"I could not identify where the third bullet came from, there was too much damage too that bullet," he explained.

He added the fact that because the rifle in the wood had been altered when the barrel was shortened, it became easier to match the source of the bullets because the jagged cuts at the end of the barrel would create more distinct grooves in the surfaces of the bullets.

Barr's cross examination continued later in the week, however, Munro did ask him about two other bullets the investigators sent for him to analyse.

These weathered bullets were found 70 metres from the crime scene and Barr indicated one bullet had definitely not matched the markings left by the sawed-off rifle, while the other was too weathered to determine its origins.

Munro suggested that with two inconclusive bullet examinations and one bullet that did not come from the rifle, two shooters or a second gun should not be ruled out of the murder.

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