A Calgary man accused of killing his 30-year-old blackjack friend says he accidentally strangled her during a struggle in his car when she tried to steal $10,000 from him.
Chris Lee, aka Kevin Burton, testified in his own defense on Monday.
Lee, 63, is on trial for second-degree murder in the death of Vida Smith, 69. Her body was never found.
Lee told jurors Monday that he left her body on a tarp in the mountains near Banff.
Under questioning from defense lawyer Corey Wilson, Lee said he and Smith dated off and on between 2000 and 2010 but had been “just friends” since then.
“I have no doubt that each of you has more questions than answers,” Wilson said in his opening remarks to the jury.
Wilson said the killing was a “tragic accident” that occurred during a fight that lasted “no more than 30 seconds.”
A defense attorney told jurors that Lee should only be convicted of manslaughter.
On July 21, 2020, Lee and Smith met at a Starbucks in northeast Calgary. Lee said he planned to buy the passport belonging to Smith’s ex-husband, but hoped to negotiate lower than her $10,000 asking price.
Lee testified that he believed the document would help him get into local casinos.
Both Smith and Lee made money as blackjack card counters. They sometimes travel the world – including South America, India and Australia – to gamble.
But Calgary’s casinos have been smart about card-counting skills, and while it’s not an illegal practice, businesses have banned them.
‘I grabbed her’
After about 20 minutes at Starbucks, the couple got into Lee’s vehicle to complete the transaction, he said. After counting the $10,000, Smith handed Lee a document that was not a passport.
Her daughter previously testified that Smith planned to sell the birth certificate to Lee.
Lee said that when he refused the certificate, Smith told him “that’s what you get” and started to get out of the car with his money.
“I grabbed her,” Lee said. “It was a split second reaction.”
The two were fighting, Lee told jurors. He said his hand was on her neck.
Then, as he put it, she became “grinded … like a rag doll.”
“Within seconds she was gone too,” he said.
Lee said he started thinking about life in prison and “panicked”.
He drove to his girlfriend Winnie Law’s house and loaded Smith’s body into the back of his Cadillac Escalade.
Body taken to the mountains
The plan, Lee said, was to “live off the land” in northern Alberta.
Over the next few days, Lee said, he collected all his money and weapons.
The body, despite ice packs placed on top, began to deteriorate, Lee said. He testified that four or five days after killing Smith, he drove into the mountains and left her body at a rest stop “somewhere between Banff and Kenmore.”
After that, Lee said, he worked to get rid of the odor, using baking soda, hydrogen peroxide and other cleaning products.
When Lee learned on July 29 that the police had knocked on his door and were looking for him, he began to get rid of more evidence.
The surveillance unit recorded Lee vacuuming the back of his Escalade and observed him throw Smith’s keys into nearby bushes.
After buying more cleaning supplies, the police moved in and arrested Lee.
At the time, Smith had $44,000 in cash, five loaded guns, 1,000 rounds of ammunition, knives, masks and a set of handcuffs – all of which were seized by officers.
Inside the vehicle, police found Smith’s purse, cell phone and wallet.
Lee admitted to lying to police during questioning, explaining that he was “very scared” at the time.
On the first day of the trial, Lee offered to plead guilty to manslaughter, which prosecutors Shane Parker and William Tran refused.
The prosecution will have an opportunity to cross-examine Lee on Tuesday.