Harley Lawrence's murder and the disturbing details of how he died

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Harley Lawrence's murder and the disturbing details of how he died

Harley Lawrence was found inside a burned-out bus shelter in Berwick on Oct. 23, 2013. (Courtesy of Debbie Saltzman)

A homeless man who was murdered in Nova Scotia more than a year ago was doused with $10 worth of gas and set on fire with a cigarette lighter while he was still alive.

Now that the two men who killed Harley Lawrence have pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, we can tell you some of the evidence that police and prosecutors amassed and presented during a preliminary inquiry earlier this month.

The most important detail is also the most disturbing: Lawrence was burned alive.

That fact was revealed in the preliminary inquiry during testimony from medical examiner Dr. Marnie Wood. She told court that soot particulate matter found in Lawrence’s airways could have only accumulated there if he inhaled it.

Under cross-examination from defence lawyers, Wood couldn't say whether Lawrence took one breath or several before succumbing to the intense heat and flames.

Wood arrived in Berwick the morning after Lawrence was killed. She examined the body and the scene before preparing the remains for transit back to the forensic lab in Burnside.

She said Lawrence's body was lying face down just outside the bus shelter when she first examined him.

Lawrence was found inside a burned-out bus shelter on Commercial Street in Berwick on Oct. 23, 2013. On Monday, Daniel Wayne Surette and Kyle David James Fredericks, pleaded guilty to murdering Lawrence.

Fourth-degree burns

Wood conducted an autopsy on Oct. 24, 2013. She concluded his death was a homicide; something RCMP would not confirm for another six months.

She described for the court the condition of Lawrence's body, saying he had fourth-degree burns and a lot of charred tissue. She said in some places, the tissue had been burned away and his bones were exposed.

The preliminary inquiry revealed that RCMP had a fairly good idea who their suspects were very early in their investigation. Cpl. Michael Carter testified that his job was to collect security video from various businesses along Commercial Street in Berwick in the vicinity of the bus shelter.

Security video

Carter recovered video from a Tim Hortons, a Royal Bank, the retail store Bargain Harley's and a Petro Canada gas station. But the most critical piece of video Carter retrieved was from the 24-hour Needs convenience store and gas station on Commercial Street.

That video showed two men approaching the pumps the night Harley Lawrence was killed. One man went into the store to pay for gas while the second man pumped gas into a white container.

Carter assembled all the security videos into a sequence, which showed the two men walking along Commercial Street to the gas station, then back along the street in the direction of the bus shelter where Lawrence was sleeping.

The sequence Carter prepared was played several times in court during the preliminary inquiry. While Carter did not know who was depicted in the video, another witness did.

Becky Surette, Daniel Surette's mother, testified at the inquiry. When the Crown played the RCMP video sequence for her, she recognized her son as the man who went into the Needs to pay for the gas.

Mother breaks down on stand

Becky Surette told court that on the night Lawrence died, she went to bed early because she was not feeling well. She said at some point in the night, her son Daniel came upstairs and woke her. She testified he told her, "Mom, I did something bad to the homeless guy."

When she asked him what he meant, Becky Surette testified that his reply was, "I was home all night, mom."

Becky Surette broke down on the stand during her testimony, sobbing uncontrollably at one point.

She described how her son Daniel, Kyle Fredericks and their friends partied all the time. She said her son and Fredericks sold drugs to buy party supplies, which she said included hard liquor, four dozen beer a day plus cocaine, dilaudid, ecstasy and marijuana.

Becky Surette said everyone in Berwick knew Harley Lawrence. She said there was a rumour he was an undercover officer. Members of the Lawrence family were in court to hear that and they snorted in reaction.

Having a 'shitty night'

The preliminary inquiry also heard from a couple who deliver the Chronicle Herald newspaper in the Berwick area. They were bundling their papers that night and saw the two men walking along Commercial Street. They were also among the first to come across the burning bus shelter, although they did not appear to know the fire was a human being.

Tyler Hanson testified on the first day of the preliminary inquiry. He was working the night shift at the Needs. He identified himself on the surveillance video as the clerk who took the payment for the gas.

Hanson said the customer showed no signs of impairment. He said the customer told him his truck had run out of gas and he was having a "shitty night."

The preliminary inquiry did not run its course. Lawyers started discussions outside of court before all the witnesses had testified.