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Belcourt gets life with no parole for 15 years in Fernwood home-invasion murder

Mary Beech lingered in the courtroom as the man who murdered her gentle, mentally-ill brother during a botched home invasion in March 2010 was led away in handcuffs to begin serving a life sentence.
Victoria courthouse generic photo

Mary Beech lingered in the courtroom as the man who murdered her gentle, mentally-ill brother during a botched home invasion in March 2010 was led away in handcuffs to begin serving a life sentence.

“I hope you do what you said you were going to do — that you will try hard to better your life to make this better. I’d like to see you prove it more than anything. It would mean the world to my family,” Beech told Andrew Belcourt before a sheriff escorted her out of the courtroom.

In February 2017, Belcourt was convicted by a jury of the second-degree murder of Leslie Hankel, a paranoid schizophrenic, who lived alone in a Fernwood apartment.

At his sentencing hearing Thursday, Belcourt expressed his deep remorse to Hankel’s family, saying he is a changed man and wants to become a contributing member of society.

On Friday, minutes after B.C. Supreme Justice Keith Bracken said Belcourt must serve 15 years in prison before he is eligible for parole, Beech tried unsuccessfully to engage Belcourt.

“He couldn’t even look at me,” she said on the steps of the courthouse, holding her husband’s hand.

“I wrestle with a lot of this. One day you’re angry. Then you regret that. It’s an emotional rollercoaster. I could have said more but I didn’t.”

Hankel’s other sister, Kathy Rogers, said she and Beech had talked about saying “Prove it,” to Belcourt but were told they couldn’t say anything to him.

“But if he can turn it around. Wow. It would be awesome” Rogers said.

“I don’t believe he can. But if he could, that would be good. There’s a whole society that doesn’t need him in the space he was in when he killed Leslie.”

Beech and Rogers have sat through two trials and two sentencing hearings. They think of their kind, harmless brother all the time. “To have these guys burst into his house and terrorize him must have been the worst part of his life,” said Rogers, tears rolling down her face. “I can’t imagine what he went through.”

In November 2012, Belcourt was convicted of the second-degree murder of Hankel and sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 17 years. His accomplice Samuel McGrath was convicted of manslaughter at the same trial and sentenced to 12 years in prison. The two had entered guilty pleas to robbing Hankel with a firearm and break and enter, and were sentenced to 10 years and seven years respectively for those crimes.

However, Belcourt successfully appealed his murder conviction and the Court of Appeal ordered a new trial in 2015.

The crime was set in motion when Belcourt’s stepfather Michael Rennie, told Belcourt and McGrath that there was a large quantity of marijuana and cash in a Fernwood apartment, the judge said in a review of the evidence and testimony. The two men planned to break in and steal the drugs. They bought a 12-gauge shotgun and ammunition from Rennie, who showed them how to use the shotgun.

On the early morning of March 3, 2010, they dressed in black clothing, masks and gloves and kicked in the door to Hankel’s apartment. Hankel was asleep in the back bedroom. Belcourt took the loaded shotgun from McGrath, who started searching the other rooms. Belcourt demanded drugs and money from Hankel, but the terrified man didn’t have any.

Belcourt punched Hankel and struck him in the back with the butt of the shotgun, hard enough to leave an imprint. The shotgun was discharged into the ceiling. Fifteen seconds later, Belcourt pointed the shotgun directly at Hankel and shot him at close range, said Bracken.

There was only a small personal stash of marijuana and Hankel’s wallet in the apartment. Belcourt and McGrath ran off, threatening residents who had heard the gunshots and warning them not to move.

After the killing, they asked Belcourt’s girlfriend to wash their clothes and shoes. Belcourt called his stepfather and told him what happened. Rennie told them to get the shotgun and the clothes and drive to the Shawnigan Lake area to dispose of them. They were arrested as they left town.

Belcourt testified that the shotgun discharged accidentally. The jury did not accept that.

“There can be no doubt the conduct of the defendant was callous and cruel,” Bracken said.

“Mr. Hankel was elderly and helpless. He was no threat whatsoever to Mr. Belcourt or McGrath. … They forced their way into his home and terrorized him.”

Bracken found an aggravating factor was that the robbery with a firearm was planned and that Belcourt used gratuitous violence.

But he considered that Belcourt, now 27, was only 19 at the time of the killing, had a limited education and no skills except for a few weeks working on a construction site.

Bracken also considered Belcourt’s Aboriginal ancestry in determining an appropriate sentence. The judge noted that Belcourt had little guidance in his early life. His mother’s partners abused him. And although he has much more work to do, he is embracing the spiritual aspect of his Aboriginal heritage in the prison system.

Belcourt has a daughter from a very short-lived relationship. He is married to a woman who is studying at Camosun College to be a nurse.