When Ernest Sexsmith retired in 1979 from his job as chief forester for a pulp and paper company at Longlac in northwestern Ontario, he and his wife, Florence, wanted to live quietly in rural retirement. But after the couple settled into the house that they bought in the tiny western New Brunswick community of Debec, the Sexsmiths became embroiled in an escalating series of threats and violence that reached a shattering climax when Sexsmith fired his shotgun at 21-year-old Leif Williams and fatally wounded him. After listening to six days of testimony, a Woodstock, N.B., jury last week deliberated for 5!/2 hours before acquitting Sexsmith of second-degree murder, convicting him instead on a lesser charge of manslaughter.
Sexsmith testified that a gang of local youths often used a bridge adjacent to his property for late-night beer parties. On the first Halloween that they lived in their 2 V2-storey frame home, Sexsmith testified, eggs were thrown at his house. “That was the start,” he said. During the next two years, he added, local youths sometimes threatened his wife.
For his part, Crown prosecutor Stephen Wood said that Sexsmith caused some of his own difficulties. “You people were not accepted in the community,” he told'Sexsmith in court. “You did not fit in.” As well, a neighbor testified that the Sexsmiths created resentment by fencing off part of their property and telling local residents that they could not fish on their land.
Last May the feud grew more violent. Sexsmith told the court that at 1:30 a.m. one night, a crowd gathered near his house. “I heard rocks being thrown against the garage. There was a loud crash of glass upstairs, and I found a broken window and a rock on Florence’s bed,” he said. “Someone could have been killed.” RCMP Const. Kevin McAuley testified that after that the Sexsmiths appeared to fear for their safety.
A month later Williams was shot in front of the Sexsmiths’ garage minutes after he had left a party on the bridge. Sexsmith told the court that he went downstairs with a shotgun after he had seen someone on his property. When he opened the garage door, he was confronted by Williams holding two beer bottles, asking if he was going to call the police. “He raised his fist and said, ‘My fist is faster than your gun,’ ” Sexsmith testified. “I swung the gun and fired. I don’t think anything was going through my mind when I fired.”
On the last day of the trial Sexsmith looked subdued but he comforted his sobbing daughter Wendy, 33, of Fredericton, when it became apparent that the jury was having trouble reaching a decision. When he was found guilty of manslaughter, Sexsmith appeared surprised but calm. Defence lawyer Gary Miller said that there had been no decision on whether to appeal the verdict—which could bring a suspended sentence or up to life in prison when Sexsmith is sentenced next week.
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