Blackjack card counter gets 10-year sentence for killing friend

Vida Smith, left, and Chris Lee were involved in the gambling world together. Lee was convicted last Friday of manslaughter in Smith's death. (Calgary Police Service - image credit)
Vida Smith, left, and Chris Lee were involved in the gambling world together. Lee was convicted last Friday of manslaughter in Smith's death. (Calgary Police Service - image credit)

A Calgary man who admitted to killing his friend and gambling partner of 30 years has been sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Chris Lee, who also goes by Kevin Barton, was originally charged with second-degree murder in the July 2020 death of Vida Smith, 69.

A jury found Lee, 63, guilty of manslaughter last week. At the beginning of the trial, Lee pleaded guilty to firearms offences stemming from the seizure of guns from his vehicle during his arrest.

On Friday, Court of King's Bench Justice Rosemary Nation handed down Lee's sentence for manslaughter and weapons offences. With credit for the time he has already served, Lee has just over eight years left in prison.

During sentencing submissions earlier this week, Nation was told that Lee is working with police to locate Smith's body, which he testified he left in the wilderness near Banff or Canmore.

Prosecutor Shane Parker had proposed an 11-year sentence while defence lawyer Cory Wilson argued for a 5½-year prison term.

Career card-counters

Over the course of the two-week trial, jurors heard Smith and Lee had known each other for 30 years and travelled to casinos all over the world.

They were so skilled at blackjack card counting, gambling was their sole source of income — earning, in the good years, $100,000 or more.

On July 21, 2020, the pair met so that Smith could sell her ex-husband's passport to Lee for $10,000.

He testified he planned to use it in casinos where he'd been banned.

But after handing her the money, Smith instead gave him a birth certificate and then tried to get out of the car, he testified.

Body left in the mountains

He said he grabbed her and pulled her back in, with his arm around her neck in a chokehold.

After about 30 seconds, Smith went limp, he said.

Afterward, he took steps to conceal her body and then discarded it days later in the mountains west of the city, Lee testified.

Once he realized police were looking for him, Lee began cleaning the trunk of his SUV and discarding evidence, such as Smith's car keys.

In victim impact statements read in court on Wednesday, Smith's children talked about their "beautiful" mother.

"The world without her is darker, it's quieter," said son Sina Oroomchi. "I laugh less."

Neda Power called her mother her "best friend."

"She had so much life left to live."