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St. John's court hears emotional testimony from families of Larry Wellman and Brandon Phillips

Brandon Phillips, who was convicted in December of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Larry Wellman, speaks to his lawyer, Mark Gruchy, during his sentencing hearing in St. John’s Thursday afternoon.
Brandon Phillips, who was convicted in December of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Larry Wellman, speaks to his lawyer, Mark Gruchy, during his sentencing hearing in St. John’s Thursday afternoon. - Tara Bradbury

‘He died because he was a hero’

There were tears on both sides of the courtroom Thursday afternoon as the tragic tales of two very different men were told.

Larry Wellman, 63, a husband, father and grandfather, a former firefighter, lover of the outdoors, traveller and artist, was the victim of murder, shot and killed when he attempted to intervene during an armed robbery at the Captain’s Quarters Hotel in St. John’s in October 2015.

“When Dad was killed, my youngest child was three and in order to protect her, I told her that her grandfather died because he was simply very old,” Wellman’s daughter, Heather McGrath, told the court, reading aloud from her victim impact statement. “Luckily, by the time she becomes old enough to understand, she’ll know he died because he was a hero.”

McGrath was the first member of her family to address the court, opting to read their written statements themselves through tears instead of handing them to prosecutors to read on their behalf.

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“When I was a child, my dad taught me right from wrong, he showed me how to treat people, and he led by example,” said McGrath’s brother, Chris Wellman. “This didn’t change as I got older. The last night of my dad’s life he was doing the right thing. He was standing up for someone in trouble and he was leading by example. He could have turned and ran or he could have stood there and done nothing. Instead, he calmly assessed the situation and stepped up when he was needed.”

Linda McBay, Larry Wellman’s wife, was with her husband when he was murdered.

“Larry was patient, intelligent and strong, and now as I try to get through life, he is not here to help me. I feel broken and alone, never to be whole again without Larry,” McBay said. “Every day I just try to get through this living hell. The loneliness and sadness I feel is enormous. I now have to exist in a world where Larry doesn’t. The weight of this sorrow has crushed me.”

Brandon Phillips, 29, had no criminal record before he murdered Wellman during what the court heard was drug addiction-induced desperation. He sat in the prisoner’s dock, looking to the floor as the Wellman family spoke, and did the same when his aunt, Roseanne Roche, took the stand and told of his upbringing.

Phillips lived in a house filled with domestic abuse, she said, with his father beating his mother up on a regular basis, at one point breaking her arm. Another time, when Phillips was about two, his father tried to strangle his mother with a phone cord, Roche said.

“Brandon saw a lot of it. When his father was around, he was well-behaved because he was afraid of him. He wasn’t jumping up and down like normal children,” Roche said through tears. “He was very timid. If he was at a birthday party or around a crowd of people, he looked out of place, like he didn’t want to be there.”

The court heard Phillips would sometimes injure himself deliberately in an effort to take his father’s attention away from abusing his mother, once throwing himself down a set of stairs.

Roche said it wasn’t her first time testifying in court. She did the same 26 years ago, after Phillips’ father, Eric Squires, murdered Nina Walsh, his wife’s — Phillips’ mother’s — best friend. Squires was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole. Phillips was eight at the time.

“(Brandon) went from very timid to almost not talking at all. He was nervous and worried about what people were saying about his father,” Roche said, adding Phillips was bullied at school.

Later, when Phillips was a teenager, Roche didn’t see him as much. She knew he was doing drugs, she testified.

Phillips’ addiction eventually led him to opiates like fentanyl, the court heard Thursday, and earned him significant drug debt. The night of Oct. 3, 2015, he entered the Captain’s Quarters hotel armed with a sawed-off shotgun, and demanded money.

Phillips was convicted in December of second-degree murder, which carries a life sentence.

Justice Valerie Marshall must determine parole eligibility and, to that end, defence lawyer Mark Gruchy and Crown prosecutors Mark Heerema and Shauna McDonald each presented their cases at Phillips’ sentencing hearing Thursday.

Heerema argued for a mandatory 15 years behind bars before Phillips could be eligible for parole, saying anything else “trivializes, minimizes and excuses” the murder. Wellman was killed in public, he pointed out, and Phillips has not accepted responsibility. His childhood no doubt had a significant impact on him, Heerema said, but would have also given Phillips first-hand insight into the devastating impact of murder.

“The fact Mr. Phillips had first-hand knowledge yet chose to act the way he did is hard to reconcile,” Heerema said.

Heerema also pointed out Phillips had been selling drugs, and although he has made efforts in prison to rehabilitate, there have been relapses. He was charged with drug possession while in jail, and his most recent relapse was the day he was convicted, when he failed a drug test.

“In this case, the motivation (for the murder) is greed. There’s no other reasonable conclusion,” Heerema said, noting Phillips did not attempt to help Wellman as he lay dying. “Certainly the facts suggest nothing but a cold and callous killing.”

Gruchy argued for 10 years, the minimum period of jail time before parole eligibility. Seven of the 12 jurors in the case had suggested the same to Marshall the day they presented their verdict.

“I don’t think Mr. Phillips had much of a chance to not have any contact with the justice system since he was eight years old,” Gruchy told the court.

He referenced a pre-sentence report that revealed Phillips has been participating in “everything he can get his hands on” in terms of programs to improve himself in prison, and called two witnesses to the stand — HMP addictions counsellor Susan Green and Hayley Crichton, a volunteer with the 7th Step Society. The latter is an organization dedicated to helping offenders change their lives for the better through peer support.

Phillips has progressed to the point where he now facilitates some of the 7th Step Society meetings, Crichton said, and is a “massive advocate” for the group inside the prison.

“He absolutely stands out, quite frankly, as someone who is a champion of this group,” she said.

Green said Phillips participates in a number of programs, from yoga and guided meditation to group support meetings.

“He seems genuinely interested in change and improving his life,” Green said. “He is, in my opinion, sincere about wanting to change some of the things in his past.”

When asked by the judge if he had anything to say, Phillips stood and said he couldn’t comment since he is planning to appeal his conviction.

“I would like to express my sincere sympathy to the Wellman family,” he said, turning to look at Wellman’s family members.

His words may or may not have an impact on McBay.

“As for Brandon Phillips, quite frankly, I choose not to think of him, as it is not helpful to me and does not change anything,” she told the court in her victim impact statement. “I will, however, attend all his future parole board hearings, as that is my right to do so.”

Marshall will give her parole eligibility decision on Wednesday.

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

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