In the spring of 2000, 42-year-old Mark Stobbe, the former senior advisor to Roy Romanon, the premier of Saskatchewan, Canada, moved his family from Regina, Saskatchewan to St. Andrews, Manitoba, a rural community north of Winnipeg. The new senior communications advisor for Manitoba premier Gary Doer, moved his wife Beverly Rowbotham and their two sons into a sprawling old house in the country.
In his new position as the premier's communications strategist, the tall, 350-pound political operative left his house most days at six in the morning and didn't return until eleven at night. This left his wife Beverly alone all day with their sons in a run-down house in the middle of nowhere. Her husband's new job, and the move, had placed Beverly and the marriage under stress.
At 2:30 in the morning of October 25, 2000, Mark Stobbe telephoned Betty Rowbotham, his wife's sister, to inform her that Beverly had gone missing. Earlier in the day, Beverly had been to the Safeway grocery store in Selkirk, 12 kilometers from the house. Because the boys had acted up in the store, she had returned home without completing her shopping. That evening, Beverly had driven back to Safeway to finish the job. Mark said he had fallen asleep in bed with one of his sons and woke up to find that Beverly had not returned from the store. Worried that something had happened to her, he called the police, and several hospitals.
Ten minutes after the call, Betty arrived at her sister's house. The police were still on their way. Shortly after her arrival, Mark went into the backyard where he used a hose to water down something. Ten minutes later, he was back inside where he greeted the first officer to arrive at the scene. While the RCMP officer was questioning Mark, the detective received a call from his office. They had found Beverly, dead in her car, with massive blunt-force wounds to her head. Her Ford Crown Victoria was parked at a gas station in Selkirk. The police recovered Beverly's purse in the vehicle, but her wallet was missing. The killer had also removed the $7,000 ring she had been wearing.
Based on the RCMP's initial investigation, it appeared that Beverly Rowbotham had been murdered in her backyard where investigators had found fragments of her skull and clumps of her hair. In the garage, where her Ford had been parked, crime scene officers found two large blood stains on the floor, and one on the wall. Also in the garage, police recovered two blood-soaked tissues and a bloody towel, evidence that the killer had tried to clean up. In the car abandoned in Selkirk, the police discovered traces of blood on the victim's purse. They eventually located Beverly's missing wallet on the bank of the Red River, not far from the gas station.
In the beginning, investigators figured that Beverly had been murdered sometime that night while her husband and children were asleep in the house. But why would the killer put her body in the Ford, and drive it to Selkirk? And how did the killer get to the murder scene in the first place?
As the investigation moved forward, detectives became more skeptical of Mark Stobbe's account of his whereabouts and activities on the night of the murder. They began to suspect that he had killed his wife. As Stobbe's questionings became more accusatorial, he continued to deny having anything to do with his wife's death. He also insisted that he and Beverly were not having marital problems. Over the next several months, the police chased down 240 tips, and interviewed 400 people. But it wasn't until the DNA reports started coming in did the investigation start getting some traction.
According to DNA analysis of the crime scene evidence, the bloodstains in the garage and in the backyard had come from the victim. The blood stains on the towel and tissues belonged to Mark Stobbe. And there were stains that comprised a mixture of his and his wife's blood. There were, however, DNA traces at the scene that belonged to an unidentified male. The spots of blood on Beverly's handbag found in her car had also come from an unidentified man.
By 2001, RCMP investigators had focused their attention on Mark Stobbe as the primary suspect in the murder. According to his story, Beverly had not completed her shopping that day because one of the boys had misbehaved at the grocery store in Selkirk. But a store surveillance tape showed that she had been in the place almost an hour, and her cash register receipt indicated she had spent $108.32, an amount equal to her average purchase. The investigators also considered Stobbe's differing accounts of his activity on the night of the murder incriminating. He told some people that he had fallen asleep in front of the television, and he told others that he had been in bed with one of his sons.
In January 2001, the RCMP acquired a warrant allowing them to tap Stobbe's home telephone. After listening in to 1,000 hours of his phone conversations, they heard nothing directly incriminating. In a February 28, 2001 conversation between the suspect and Betty Rowbotham, his former sister-in-law, she informed him that the police were gathering physical evidence from his backyard. To that he replied, "Damn it all." Toward the end of the phone call, Stobbe said, "I feel horrible."
The Rowbotham/Stobbe case eventually hit a wall, and for several years, lay dormant. In 2008, almost eight years after Beverly Rowbotham's murder, the Crown charged Mark Stobbe with second-degree murder. He was arrested, made bail, and pleaded not guilty to the charge.
On January 16, 2012, Stobbe's trial got underway in the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench in Winnipeg. Representing the Crown, Wendy Dawson, in her opening statement to the jury, laid out the prosecution's theory of the case: On the night of October 24, 2000, the defendant, during a heated argument with his wife in the backyard of their house, hit her in the head 16 times with a hatchet. He dragged her body into the garage, hit her again, stuffed the body into her Ford, then drove to the gas station in Selkirk. Using a bicycle he had put into the trunk, he rode back to St. Andrews. Along the way, Stobbe tossed his dead wife's wallet into the Red River to lead investigators into thinking Beverly's killer had robbed her. Stobbe also removed her ring. Back at his house, he waited a few hours before calling the police and his sister-in-law. Before the RCMP arrived, Stobbe used a garden hose in an attempt to wash away physical evidence in his backyard.
Stobbe's attorney, Tim Killeen, assured the jury that Beverly Rowbotham had been bludgeoned to death by an unidentified intruder who had been lying in wait outside her house. The defense attorney pointed to the unidentified male DNA found on her purse, and in the garage.
During the next several weeks, the Crown put 70 people on the stand, including several witnesses who testified that on the night in question, they had seen an overweight man riding a bicycle between Selkirk and St. Andrews. None of these witnesses, however, specifically identified the defendant as the man on the bike.
On March 7, 2012, the defense put on its case which depended almost entirely on the defendant's taking the stand on his own behalf. If just one juror believed Mark Stobbe's account, there would be no conviction. If all of the jurors believed that he might be telling the truth, there would be an acquittal. It was all up to the defendant.
Under direct examination by attorney Tim Killeen, Stobbe denied killing his wife. "I've spent a lot of nights looking out that window, wondering," he said. When Stobbe learned of his wife's death, "It was confirmation of my worst fears. What it meant was that I was 50 to 60 feet away when she was killed....I should have been able to stop it. I was completely useless in helping her." The defendant, at this point, broke down on the stand.
The following day, Crown prosecutor Wendy Dawson began her cross-examination of the defendant. She asked Stobbe why he hadn't filed an insurance claim for his wife's $7,000 ring. "You didn't make a claim," she said, "because the ring wasn't stolen. You took it off her hand before you brutally killed her." Stobbe said he hadn't bothered filing a claim because he just didn't care about the ring's value.
The prosecutor tried to get the defendant to admit that his marriage was under considerable stress. Didn't his long hours at work with his wife alone in the house with the children have an adverse effect on their relationship? "I think it would be fair to say," he replied, "that she wanted me around more, but...she understood that the long hours were part and parcel of my job. She never made a suggestion to me that I change my career."
Wendy Dawson cross-examined the defendant for five days. In keeping him on the hot seat for so long, the prosecutor risked making him an object of sympathy in the eyes of some of the jurors. On March 22, 2012, the attorneys made their closing arguments. The prosecutor said she didn't want Stobbe to get away with the "near perfect murder of his wife." She said the circumstantial evidence against him was "overwhelming," and that the defendant had "demonstrated all the hallmarks of a dishonest, lying witness. He couldn't keep his story straight," she said. "Certainly he should have been able to hear a cry for help from his wife, or a commotion in the garage. This was a crime of rage."
In his closing argument, defense attorney Tom Killeen admitted there were reasons for the police to suspect his client, but suspicion alone was not enough to convict a man of murder. The Crown, he said, has not proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt. "Mr. Stobbe has to prove nothing," he said.
On March 27, 2012, after 82 witnesses and 100 hours of testimony, Judge Chris Martin gave his instructions to the jury. Mark Stobbe's fate was now in the hands of twelve jurors.
After deliberating two days, the jury found Mark Stobbe not guilty. The prosecutor, with no solid evidence of a motive, no murder weapon, weak eyewitness testimony, and the unknown male DNA on the victim's purse, simply didn't carry, in the minds of this jury, its burden of proof. Some of the jurors may have believed that Stobbe had murdered his wife, but belief and proof beyond a reasonable doubt are not always the same.