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Wade Skiffington

Mounties use elaborate Mr. Big sting to get confession in murder case

Wade Skiffington

The News speaks to convicted killer Wade Skiffington in an exclusive prison interview

What does it take for a man to confess to a murder he later says he didn't commit?

Wade Skiffington, a federal prison inmate serving a life sentence for shooting his girlfriend, Wanda Lee Martin, six times with a 9mm handgun, says he knows the answer.

In January 2001, Skiffington told an undercover police officer how he killed Martin on Sept. 6, 1994, at a Richmond apartment. It was a confession six years in the making; the result of a complex undercover operation, 'Mr. Big', involving dozens of specially trained RCMP officers posing as underworld thugs.

"They set me up big time," says Skiffington.

The props were elaborate: limousines and Lear jets, strippers, booze and thousands of taxpayer dollars.

Over the course of three months, the sting travelled across the country, culminating in a $1,000-a-night Halifax hotel room where Skiffington told in detail how he shot Martin for allegedly having an affair.

The confession - which included where he purchased the gun and how he got rid of the blood-soaked evidence - was all captured on a surveillance videotape and, last October, it was shown in B.C. Supreme Court.

With little other forensic evidence to connect him to the crime, the conversation on that tape, along with testimony from undercover police and other independent witnesses, was enough to convince a jury that Skiffington was guilty.

For his part, Skiffington now maintains his innocence. He didn't take the stand during the trial because his lawyer thought he would lose his temper, he says.

"I've got a lot of bitterness," he says today of his lingering hostility directed at the police.

But Wade Skiffington now wants the public to hear his side of the story and how the police landed the confession. Speaking to the News last month from a small interview room at Matsqui prison in Abbotsford, Skiffington says he made the confession because he was terrified for his life.

"All I was thinking was that I was going to get bricks tied around my ankles and thrown into a river," he says. "I wanted it over with. I wanted out of there. I was frightened to death."


Boyfriend arrested in Richmond murder

The former boyfriend of a 20-year-old woman shot to death in a Richmond apartment in September 1994 has been arrested in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Wade Skiffington, 33, has been charged in connection with the slaying of Wanda Lee Martin, who moved from Newfoundland to attend the University of B.C. just six weeks prior to her death.

Skiffington was arrested Wednesday and charges against him were sworn Thursday in Richmond.

Police reports at the time said Martin was living in Burnaby with Skiffington but had gone to a girlfriend's apartment with their 18- month-old son.

She was shot and killed while her friend was absent from the apartment. Police said any visitors to the apartment would have had to announce themselves before being buzzed in.

Skiffington, a carpet cleaner, left the Lower Mainland following Martin's death and returned with the child to Newfoundland.


Accused murderer: 'I just lost it'

The only sound in the courtroom, save for a muffled sob from a woman in the front seat of the gallery, comes from the voices on a television set up on a stand in the centre of the red-carpeted floor.

In the subdued light of the window-less room, the images projected are deceiving in their calm.

It's a tight shot of two men seated next to each other in a hotel room in Nova Scotia. One man, the bigger one, stretches casually back in his chair. The smaller, dark-haired man leans forward, his hands cupped around a glass of dark rum and coke. Ice cubes can be heard cracking when the conversation lapses.

This is no ordinary video.

It is a secretly recorded police surveillance tape. And the talk of the night is murder.

"Was it love or lust?" the bigger man asks.

"I thought she was, or found out she was (messing) around on me a few times," the smaller man answers. "Just pissed me off."

"Where? On the Rock or in Vancouver?"

"On the Rock and I think there, too."

"Is that why you whacked her?"

"Yeah. That's _ more or less. I just lost my temper. I just lost it," is the answer.

"How many bullets did you shoot?" asks the bigger man.

"Half dozen, maybe five," the second man says. Then, later on, he adds about the gun, "I squeezed it until it was empty."

"I'm scared," the smaller man says before the meeting draws to a close, "because I've never told anyone this before."

It's been seven years since the murder of 20-year-old Wanda Lee Martin, a pretty young mom from the small town of Manuels, Nfld.

Martin was found dead Sept. 6, 1994, on the bedroom floor of a friend's apartment on Bath Road in Richmond.

There was no question it was murder. Martin had been shot six times. Any one of four of those wounds, a jury would later hear at the second-degree murder trial of the man accused in the killing, would have killed her.

Two shots had been fired at point-blank range into the back of her head.

Besides the killer, Wanda's son, then an 18-month-old toddler, was the only witness to the crime. Luckier than his mother, the boy was left unharmed in the attack.

From day one, police suspected Wade Skiffington, Wanda's boyfriend of three years and the boy's father.

According to the Crown counsel who tried the case, Skiffington appeared to have the only motive. He was a jealous man who was insecure in the relationship and afraid she was going to leave and take their son with her.

When Skiffington showed up at the crime scene outside the apartment on the afternoon of her death Richmond RCMP remember him showing little emotion.

"He wasn't crying. He was speaking in very calm, low tones," one officer recalled. "He said, 'You know, I should be bawling my eyes out, but it's just not sinking in.'"

The last few months of her life were not happy ones for Wanda Martin.

She'd left her home in Newfoundland in July to join Skiffington on the West Coast where he'd landed a job cleaning carpets and upholstery. They lived in a basement suite in Burnaby, while their friends lived upstairs.

Wanda was homesick.

In interviews with police following her murder, Skiffington said he'd found her crying on a couple of occasions.

She took a job with Blockbuster Video but left it after only a month because she had no car and found it difficult to transport her son to daycare while she worked.

She was wary of the big city and of talking to strangers. She rarely went out, and when she was home, she would deadbolt the doors and windows so she was safe.

The couple also fought.

Skiffington told police their arguments were about "silly stuff."

"We argued like everybody else," he said. But he loved Martin, describing her as a real homebody who liked to watch soap operas, read paperback romances and listen to country music.

Friends of the couple said their relationship was much darker.

They remembered conversations where Skiffington regularly put down Martin in public, telling her her breasts were saggy, that she smelled bad, and that she was a terrible cook. He hit the roof one night when she joked about becoming a phone-sex operator and he brooded after they ran into an old boyfriend of hers on a downtown street, the week before her death.

"Jealousy is a worm that will eat into the very heart of a relationship," Crown counsel Mike Luchenko would later tell a jury in the case. "Once jealousy reaches its peak, there is no limit to the rage one will mete."

It took the police six years to bring Skiffington, now 35, to trial on a charge of second degree murder. The case opened in the B.C. Supreme Court in downtown Vancouver Sept. 18.

It was a tricky investigation. No murder weapon was ever found. No fingerprints. No forensic evidence of any kind to tie Skiffington, or anyone else, to the scene.

What police needed was a confession.

And, after months of working undercover in B.C., Newfoundland, Ontario, and Nova Scotia, they got it in February, 2000.

The police undercover sting was elaborate. So much so, Skiffington's own defence lawyer, Mark Hilford, commented to the jury during his closing remarks last week, "I suspect most of you in your wildest dreams never thought they (undercover investigations) were this well done."

"Just look at the complexity," he said of the months-long operation. "The police did an amazing job of creating a completely fictitious world, a complete lie."

To protect the officers involved and their techniques used, B.C. Supreme Court Mr. Justice Warren has ordered a publication ban covering the details of the police undercover work and the identity of the officers involved.

The job culminated in a pricey hotel room in St. John's, Newfoundland with Skiffington confessing to his new boss - an undercover officer - how he killed Wanda Martin.

That conversation was recorded.

And earlier this month, from their seats to the right of the judge, the 12 members of the jury got their first look at the videotaped evidence.

What they, and others in the court room, saw was a nervous Skiffington telling the man how he bought the gun for $50. How he had dropped Wanda and the baby off in Richmond on his way to work. How he doubled back later in the afternoon, parked his van nearby and waited until he was sure she was alone before heading up to the apartment through a broken basement door.

She had been fooling around on him, he said, and taking their son with her.

He only meant to scare her, he said. But they got in a fight and he just started firing.

"We just started arguing about something. I don't know, from then on it was just blank."

He said he fired five or six shots into her upper body. He remembered the room was small and that his son was asleep when it happened.

As for other witnesses, "I'm almost positive no one saw me," he said as he fled the building.

He threw the gun - a 9mm handgun - into the water (what police believe was the South Arm of the Fraser), along with his bloody shirt and shorts. He had a fresh change of clothes in the van, he said.

Then he went back to work.

As the conversation wraps up, he leans forward and tells his companion he never wants to handle a gun again.

"Even though I did that," he says, "I'm not really like that. I never was a violent person."

Mark Hilford, Skiffington's lawyer, told the jury yes, his client said he killed Wanda Martin.

But "that's only the beginning of the discussion."

Skiffington is a liar, Hilford said. He lied to the undercover officers repeatedly throughout the sting. And he was lying when he said he killed his girlfriend.

It was a false confession made because he was afraid for his life.

Skiffington isn't the sophisticated killer the Crown has alleged, Hilford said. He couldn't be.

In one conversation with an undercover officer, Skiffington was asked if he had a "heater." His answer? "I have a hair dryer."

"Now does that sound like a master-minded criminal to you?" Hilford asked the jury.

On Thursday, Oct. 18, the judge gave the jury his final charge - a brief lesson on legal terms like "reasonable doubt" and "burden of proof."

By Friday, the courtroom was empty, save for the quiet movement of court clerks and sheriffs, as the jury deliberated on their verdict.

Nearby, at an unknown location, Skiffington was waiting with his mother and father to learn of his fate.

In earlier interviews during the trial, he was friendly, but declined to talk about the case until it was over.

"I'm fighting for my life here," he said in his thick Newfoundland accent that had become familiar through the police tapes presented in the trial.

Wanda's mom and dad, Bev and Doug Martin, were also waiting anxiously close by.

The Martins had attended every day of the trial and the preliminary hearing before that in support of their daughter. Wanda's younger brother Darryl had also come out from Newfoundland. And the family was always surrounded by a rotating army of friends and relatives.

They wore buttons on their jackets that featured pictures of Wanda: at her high school graduation in a beautiful white gown; smiling in a red sun-dress after the birth of her baby.

The photos weren't welcome in the courtroom, the judge told them early on, because they might unduly influence the jury. But the family would pin them back on as soon as they walked out of the room.

Like Skiffington, the Martins wouldn't discuss about the case. But they were happy to talk about Wanda herself: how she was a loving mother, how she was studying to become a math teacher and sang in the church choir back home.

The two families had been separated by court sheriffs during breaks and there was palpable tension between parties. But besides quiet talk out in the halls about the evidence presented, and whispers in the courtroom, there were few emotinal outbursts from anyone.

They all said they just want to go home. Skiffington back to Paradise to take care of his son. And the Martins back to Manuel to finally lay their daughter to rest.

A verdict in the case was not returned by presstime. Watch the Richmond News for more news on this trial as the matter continues.