Derek Saretzky charged with 3 counts of 1st-degree murder, committing indignity to body
It has been a year and a half since Amanda Blanchette's brother Terry and her two-year-old niece, Hailey, were killed in the Blairmore community in Crowsnest Pass, Alta.
As the trial for the man facing first-degree murder charges in their deaths begins Wednesday in Lethbridge, she hopes the world will focus on the good in their lives instead of the horror of their deaths.
"I was Terry's protector when he was born," says Blanchette, who was nine years older than her brother and is one of the very few willing or able to talk publicly about the victims.
Terry Blanchette, who was 27, was found dead in his duplex in the town of fewer than 6,000 people on Sept. 14, 2015. An Amber Alert was issued for his missing daughter, Hailey Dunbar-Blanchette, and garnered nationwide attention.
The Amber Alert was cancelled the next day when Hailey's remains were found in a rural area nearby.
Amanda Blanchette remembers her niece going everywhere with her stuffed animal Scout. (Amanda Blanchette)
The same day, Derek Saretzky, 24, was arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree murder, as well as committing an indignity to the body of the toddler.
In early 2016, Saretzky was also charged with first-degree murder in the death of Hanne Meketech, 69, whose body had been found on Sept. 9, 2015, in her home in the nearby Crowsnest Pass community of Coleman.
Hanne Meketech was found dead inside her home in the Crowsnest community of Coleman a few days before the deaths of Terry Blanchette and his daughter in Blairmore. (RCMP)
The 69-year-old worked in a thrift store, where she was employed through Mountain View Industries, an organization that provides work and training to mentally disabled adults.
The homicides shook the usually quiet municipality about 230 kilometres south of Calgary, leaving family, friends and the community with many questions.
A jury of 14 has been assembled and the trial is expected to last for a minimum of four weeks. Voir dire hearings, to determine the admissibility of evidence in this case, have been under way since May 8.
Amanda Blanchette and her family are bracing for the next few weeks of hearing the details of Terry and Hailey's deaths for the first time, not having been privileged to that information before it could be presented to a jury.
Siblings Rick, Amanda and Terry Blanchette grew up in Elkford, B.C. Amanda still lives in the house where they were raised. (Amanda Blanchette)
Escaping memories of Terry is nearly impossible for Blanchette since she lives and is raising her family in the home where she and her two brothers grew up in Elkford, B.C., about 70 kilometres from Blairmore.
"I was babysitting him, he was six and I was 15, and he stole the lawn tractor and went up the street to the park with it," Blanchette says.
"The neighbours up the street called my mom at work and told her Terry was pushing the lawn tractor home because it had run out of gas. Different things just trigger memories, it just depends on the day, I suppose."
Blanchette says that her brother "was living a bit of a rough life" before he found out he was going to be a father, but says he turned it around when he got the news.
Blanchette remembers when Hailey's mother, Cheyenne Dunbar, gave birth, she did not originally use Blanchette in the little girl's last name, but Terry insisted he be a part of it.
"She was a little water baby. She wanted to go to the falls, or the lake, or the river."
On many days when Terry needed a babysitter while he was working, he called on their dad, who made the 45-minute drive from Elkford to Crowsnest Pass to take care of his granddaughter.
"Terry was a cook, he didn't make very much money. So my dad always helped out," Blanchette says.
Blanchette says she will attend some parts of the trial, but her mom, Faith Durban, is choosing not to listen to the details.
"This was her baby. Terry and Hailey were the youngest of the youngest, her youngest son, and youngest grandchild.... We know what happened to Terry and I don't think she wants to know what happened to Hailey. It really, really bothers her," Blanchette says.
Durban declined an interview, but sent some of her thoughts electronically, saying she thinks about her son and granddaughter constantly.
"I can tell you my family and I are trying to find peace in all this.... I know there will never be understanding. Acceptance doesn't come easy either."
Hailey's mother was separated from Terry and lived in Edmonton at the time of the homicides. Dunbar has declined to comment ahead of the trial.
As the trial approached, the presence of news agency vehicles caused a mix of reactions among the residents of Coleman, Frank and Blairmore — the three communities that make up the municipality of Crowsnest Pass. Feelings ranged from anger and exasperation to sadness and apprehension.
Many of those closest to the victims refused interviews, saying they didn't want to open up old wounds again.
Jessica Atkinson, owner of Stone's Throw Cafe in Blairmore, only had passing interactions with any of the victims.
When the homicides happened, she remembers that being all anyone in the community could talk about, but now, people have let it fade into the background. But even if people aren't talking about it, the damage done has been lasting.
"The whole myth of being a safe, small town was just shattered," Atkinson says.
Even though she didn't know Blanchette or his daughter, she still has a hard time driving past their former residence.
"All over again you remember the street roped off, police cars, it was the picture that was used in countless news broadcasts, so it's pretty cemented in your mind what happened there."
Atkinson didn't know Meketech well but had some interactions with her at Bagatelle — the thrift store where she worked.
"I'd go there with my kids and she would just fawn all over them, just a really sweet lady," Atikinson says.
Lisa Sygutek, owner of the local newspaper, has decided to minimize coverage of the murder trial.
"Once it's over, then the healing for everybody can begin, one way or the other."