Fear on the Family Farm

The true story of a man who killed his father

A picture of a tree and a cattle skull on the Crichton farm.

Edmonton Journal
March 16, 2013

Mat ran across the field with his bad leg dragging through the grass, the tractor rumbling behind him, his father Sandy’s angry screams ringing in his ears.

Mat had lived his whole life in fear, but he was different now. He was a husband and would soon be a father. Something fundamental had changed inside him.

So when his father cornered him on the road that warm September morning, eyes blazing and furious, Mat headed across the field toward the shop where he kept his guns, walking at first, then running, knowing this time it had to be different.

With a single gunshot, the violence that had been building on the Crichton farm for decades came to a head on Sept. 3, 2010.

The shooting stunned a community and exposed the truth about decades of almost unimaginable cruelty on a seemingly idyllic Alberta farm. What emerged is a story of tragedy and survival, of a father’s abiding rage and a son who finally stood up to protect his family in the only way he thought he could.

Holly Crichton had known for a long time that someone would have to die. She hoped her husband would die of a stroke or a heart attack, but expected he would probably kill her instead, pushing her wheelchair down the elevator shaft in their house or squeezing the life out of her with his powerful hands, as he had almost done many times.

Anyone who had looked into Sandy’s eyes during one of his rages knew what he was capable of. You could see it right there, as clear as anything.

By the summer of 2010, Holly thought her husband seemed increasingly like a teetering house of cards, where if you pulled one, they would all come toppling down.

Others saw something bad coming, too.

Sandy’s brother, Glen, had been waiting on the phone call for a long, long time.

“I feel sorry for Holly. He’s going to kill her,” a cousin said once, and Glen agreed.

But he’d twice helped Holly leave his brother, and both times she’d gone back. He didn’t know how else to help her after that.

A picture of Mat Crichton on the family farm.

Mat Crichton on the family farm. (Photo by Ed Kaiser/ Edmonton Journal)

The Crichton farm is half an hour south of Grande Prairie, across the Wapiti River and up Highway 666, which climbs broad hills toward an endless northern sky. From there, a township road winds through the trees before opening into the Crichton’s sweeping fields, 390 hectares dotted with cattle and sheep and buildings. The closest community is Grovedale, a hamlet of about 500 people a 15-minute drive away. 

Sandy Crichton bought the land soon after he finished school in the 1950s, moving away from his childhood home near La Glace to his own property. He was the oldest of nine children, his father a soldier who had fought at Normandy during the Second World War, both of his parents good people who tried to raise their children well.

Sandy soon married Mary, a pleasant and well-liked woman from a nearby reserve who had been cooking at a logging camp, and the two of them started building up the farm together.

Glen Crichton was turning 13 when he went to live at his brother’s farm for the summer of 1966. Sandy had always been argumentative and volatile, with sides so different it later seemed to Glen almost like a split personality. Sandy could be perfectly content one moment and irate the next, set off by the oddest and most irrational things, as if someone had flipped a switch.

Mary took the brunt of her husband’s anger. One beating was so vicious, Glen stepped in to protect Mary against his older and stronger brother, grabbing a two-by-four and walloping him. Sandy collapsed to the ground under the blows, then got up and left the house as if nothing had happened.

Sometimes his wrath was directed at Glen. Sandy once tried to run over the teenager with a horse, and another time chased him with a tractor until he escaped into a ravine.

The teen soon took to hiding weapons around the property to protect himself, and they squared off in the barn one day after Sandy blew up over how Glen was sweeping out a stall. Glen fought off his brother with a pitchfork, sticking him in the stomach with the prongs to keep him away. Sandy drove off to get a tetanus shot in town, and Glen expected the worst when he got home. But Sandy came back in a fine mood, bothered only by the fact that he had missed an afternoon of work.

Glen asked Mary, “Why do you stick around? Why are you still here?”

She never answered him. After two summers, Glen told his mother he wasn’t going back to that farm.

Sandy was a stocky man with an uncanny strength that stayed with him his entire life. Even in his 70s, he was a solid five-foot-11 and 230 pounds, able to pick up a cast-iron stove that two other men hadn’t been able to lift together. When Sandy was angry, that strength became a fearsome weapon.

A man who worked on the farm with Sandy and Mary remembered his boss grabbing him across the table over lunch one day, dragging him to the wash basin by the hair, yelling, “You better learn how to wash your face if you want to sit at the table with me!”

The man would still marvel at Sandy’s strength years later, remembering how he had felt like a small child as Sandy lifted him almost off the ground.

A photo of Sandy Crichton as a younger man

Sandy Crichton in an undated family photo.

Holly met Sandy on the horse racing circuit in the summer of 1979. She was Holly Loseth then, a rodeo girl turned jockey, 21 years old, small and lean with boyish good looks, a broad grin and a cocky attitude. Sandy was a thoroughbred trainer, well-known and well-respected, with a commanding presence around the track. His real name was Alexander, but most people called him Sandy.

Mary was gone by then, having fled after nearly 20 years of marriage to a reserve near Grande Cache to get away from Sandy. (She would die a few years later in a car crash.)

Holly didn’t like Sandy at first. He seemed arrogant, and she’d seen him yelling at someone once and thought it was mean. But as time passed, a romance began to develop. At 42, Sandy was twice her age, but Holly was attracted by his strength and self-confidence, and her negative first impression soon faded away. It was nice to have someone on her side at the track.

Holly’s success rankled some of the other jockeys, almost all of them men, many not thrilled by a young woman winning so many races. Some of the male jockeys tried to intimidate her, even threatening to knock her off a horse during a race, the animosity bubbling to the point of violence on a couple of occasions.

When Holly found out Sandy had threatened to break a few arms if the jockeys didn’t lay off, she liked it. It didn’t seem like a bad thing to have a big guy looking out for her.

Early on in their relationship, Holly’s aunt heard a rumour that Sandy was a wife-beater, and told Holly. When Holly asked him, Sandy denied it and seemed shocked that someone would say that about him. She believed him, and in the fall of 1980, though Sandy and Mary’s divorce was not yet final, Holly moved from her parents’ house in Valemount, B.C. to the Crichton farm.

She thought of Sandy as her Prince Charming, and loved being out on the land with him. She gave him $12,000 she’d earned racing the previous summer so they could build a big new barn. She was soon pregnant with Sandy’s baby.

Holly saw the rage for the first time when she was more than eight months pregnant, working alongside her husband one day pushing posts into a log skidder. It was difficult work, and Holly had trouble reaching around her swollen belly. As Sandy got angry and frustrated, he started to scream. No one had ever talked to Holly like that before.

When she stood up to him, he exploded, threw her down in the dirt and mashed her head into the ground while she struggled and squirmed under his hands. He didn’t let her up until she stopped fighting. When it was over, she went back to work at the skidder, her face dirty and streaked with tears, neither of them saying a word. Sandy stayed mad for weeks. When it came time to have the baby, he dropped Holly off at the door of the hospital and drove away.

Holly was ashamed and embarrassed, scared that if she left he would make good on his threats to burn down her parents’ house, then find her and kill her. Everyone else seemed to like and admire Sandy, and Holly wondered if the problem was her.

A picture of Holly and Sandy at the racetrack in 1994.

Holly and Sandy after a race in 1994.

They married in 1981 when Jason was two weeks old. Their second son, Matthew, was born 18 months after that.

Sandy’s family says that if your car slid off an icy highway into the ditch, he would help haul you out. If you broke down near the farm, he’d invite you in for a coffee while you waited for a tow truck. Friends and neighbours knew that if they needed help, Sandy was always happy to lend a hand. He’d even lend money if he had it to give.

When Jason Crichton brings a picture of his father to mind, it’s almost a generic image: an old farmer with suspenders and a big belly, jeans and a ball cap and a long-sleeved shirt with snaps. But the face he pictures is specific to his dad: crimson with rage, eyes crazed with anger.

Many people in Grovedale witnessed Sandy’s outbursts through the years. Other parents had watched him screaming at Mat during hockey games, scenes that got so bad the team eventually asked Sandy to step down as assistant coach out of concern for his son. Some in town had heard Sandy belittling Holly or the boys, and parents of Mat’s friends noticed how the easygoing youth sometimes seemed afraid to go home.

On the farm, it was much worse. Jason says his father always tried to hide his temper in public, but could never hold it in for very long.

“For him, it was a very untenable situation, where he had to be really nice around people all the time, not only in public,” Jason said. “Being loud and violent was almost an addiction for him, and not being able to do it was almost like quitting smoking cold turkey.”

One neighbour saw Sandy knock out a dog’s teeth with a fence post, and others watched him go wild beating a horse with a hammer when it didn’t do what he wanted.

But though many people knew Sandy’s temper and had their suspicions, no one had a clear picture of what was truly happening on the Crichton farm.

Even inside the family, Sandy was good at keeping much of the physical abuse private. If he heard anyone talking quietly, he’d say “Whispers are lies,” and stop the conversation, always certain they were talking about him.

Laurie Wedler went to live and work on the Crichton farm five years ago after meeting Holly at a stock dog demonstration, and soon realized Sandy was a dangerous man. The farmhand and dog trainer says she stayed away from him as much as she could, and usually disappeared when things got bad, but that approach wasn’t possible for everyone. She remembers how Sandy would get so mad at Mat even the animals would get nervous.

“It seems bad, because you see this stuff and you should be saying something, you know?” Laurie said. “But it’s just the way everything was here. You just kind of fell into that, and just dealt with it like they did.

“If a person did mention it, you’d think he’d kill you. You’d feel bad if someone else got hurt or killed, other than Sandy. You’d feel really bad, but it was scary. He was a scary guy.”

In a rage, Glen says, his brother was like a wild animal.

“When he was staring at you, it was just like he was going to tear you apart.”

A family portrait from 1997, with Sandy standing over Mat, Holly and Jason.

A family portrait from 1997, with Sandy standing over Mat, Holly and Jason.

No matter how mad Sandy got, and no matter how badly he hurt someone, he never seemed to feel sorry. One second he would be livid, threatening to throw Holly down the elevator shaft. The next he was sitting back to watch TV.

“It wasn’t like you were talking to a person, it was like you were talking to a grizzly bear,” Mat remembers, then pauses to reconsider. “No, not a grizzly bear, because they’re not always mean.”

Holly loved being on a galloping horse. It made her feel invincible, almost like a superhero, like nothing could hurt her. After taking time off when Mat and Jason were little, she went back to racing in the early 1990s, winning five races on a single card in Calgary in 1994, and becoming one of the top riders in the country that year.

She was 38 years old when she mounted Gypsy Dancer for a race in Grande Prairie on a Sunday afternoon in July 1996. Holly had the No. 1 position on the inside of the track. As the horses thundered around the first turn, Gypsy Dancer bolted toward the barns, veering out of control in front of the field of galloping horses. “Heads up, I’m in trouble here!” Holly shouted. There was the sharp clack of hoofs smashing together, a crack as Gypsy Dancer’s leg broke and the horse collapsed.

Holly had always known racing was dangerous, and left sealed letters to her family locked in a safe at home, just in case. She’d been in many spills through the years, but always escaped without serious injury. This was different. This one felt like slow motion.

When it was over, Holly lay face down on the ground, listening to people she knew speaking in tense voices around her. “Check her mouth, she always chews gum,” one said. Another said, “Don’t move her! Don’t move her!”

Holly flexed her hand open and shut, and thought: “Thank God my hands still work.” She couldn’t feel her legs.

Mat was at the track that day, and was beside his mother as they loaded her into the ambulance, a lanky teenager staring worriedly at Holly as they sped toward the hospital, the ambulance workers poking her legs with needles she couldn’t feel.

Lying in bed at the University of Alberta Hospital, Holly got the full catalogue of her injuries. She had seven shattered ribs, a broken collarbone, and both of her lungs were punctured. She had a T6 complete spinal cord injury and was paralyzed from below the shoulder blades to her toes. She could use her arms, but would never walk again.

Her first thought was about going home to Sandy.

“I could barely survive there when I was walking,” she thought. “I don’t think I can do it in a wheelchair.”

From her hospital bed, Holly told her parents and some close friends what had been going on at home, and they started making plans to get her and the boys out of the house.

Meeting with a psychologist to talk about becoming a paraplegic, Holly said: “My biggest stress and worry in my life is not my injury. It’s my relationship with my husband.”

The beatings had been brutal and regular, some almost deadly. Many blurred together, but others were sharp in her memory: The time Sandy dunked her head under water in the barn until she blacked out. The time he kicked her again and again and left her in a closet for the night, huddled on a pile of shoes. The time he swatted Mat’s birthday cake out of her hands as she put it in the oven, sending batter flying, then smashed her into the counter until her cheek split open and blood poured down her face. The long, crescent scar from that day would stay permanently etched in the lines of her cheek.

She’d left him twice by then, both times had gone back. During the months in hospital after her accident, Holly thought about the life she would face as a paralyzed, single mother of two teenage boys with no way to support herself. She was afraid of what Sandy could do to her, or the boys. Somehow, it seemed safer to keep him close, and in the end she decided to go back to the farm.

The house had been adapted to accommodate her wheelchair. They put in an elevator, had the kitchen counters lowered, and built a special bathroom. The renovations were paid for by workers’ compensation, because Holly had been injured on the job.

She arrived home helpless, unable to lift herself off the couch. Sandy was good for a while, but soon lost patience. When Holly asked him for something, he’d snap: “You have two big boys. Get them to do that for you.”

From her wheelchair, she watched helplessly as Sandy unleashed his anger on their sons.

The old barn at the Crichton Farm. (Photo by Ed Kaiser/ Edmonton Journal)

The old barn at the Crichton Farm. (Photo by Ed Kaiser/ Edmonton Journal)

It wasn’t long before the violence turned on her again. Only one thing had changed: It was harder for Holly to get away.

Jason can’t quite say what made that day different. It started, as so many days did, with Sandy screaming at him, shoving him around in a rage over something or other. It was months after his mother’s accident in 1996, and Jason was 15 then, taller than his father, with a similar strong physique. As Sandy hovered over him in the corner of the living room, Jason decided he’d had enough. He stood tall and got ready for a fight, thinking that either his father would kill him or realize he couldn’t treat him like that anymore. Either way, he was ready.

“Is it going to make you feel good to beat up a 15-year-old?” Jason asked.

As they stared at each other, Jason saw something change in his father’s face, like he suddenly realized he might not win the fight. Sandy turned and walked away.

From then on, he focused his anger on Mat.

Jason says his father was almost the perfect bully, his brother the perfect victim. Mat was smaller, more gentle, and though he would talk back, he would never fight back. And he wouldn’t leave Holly or the farm.

“My dad knew that no matter how hard he pushed, my brother wouldn’t leave,” said Jason, who moved out at 18 and returned for only a couple of brief periods after that. “Aside from the obvious ‘he would get arrested’ limits, there were no limits to his behaviour by that point.”

On any given day, Sandy would slap Mat, jab him in ribs, grab his hair, toss him around. He might throw his coffee cup at Holly, ram her wheelchair into walls while screaming obscenities into her face. On a bad day, it was worse. More than once, Sandy chased Mat through the fields with a truck, his son scrambling behind hay bales and buildings to avoid being hit. One day he intentionally crashed a tractor into the granary, nearly pinning Mat inside.

“There was a way his eyes went,” Jason says. “If you’ve ever seen in a movie when someone plays someone who is completely crazy and just detached, that would be the closest thing I could come to describing how he would look at you. It was one of those situations where you almost wondered if he was thinking about whether he could get away with killing you. Like he was debating the consequences of what would happen if he did it. And I think the fact that he would get caught was, at certain points, the only thing that kept him from doing it. Especially when my brother got older.”

A drawing of Sandy Crichton by his wife, Holly.

A drawing of Sandy Crichton by his wife, Holly.

But no matter how bad it got, no one ever called the police, knowing that would only make it worse.

Mat and his best friend, Derek, were heading home from a movie in Grande Prairie on a frigid January night in 2004 when an oncoming truck lost control and plowed into the passenger side of the car where Mat was sitting. Members of the Grovedale volunteer fire department used the Jaws of Life to free Mat from the wreckage, and he was flown to hospital in Edmonton in a condition assessed as one step above brain-dead. He had just turned 21.

Six inches of Mat’s right femur were shattered, his right ankle, right wrist and jaw were broken. But the most serious injury was the severe damage to his left temporal lobe. He lay in a coma for 30 days, and Holly stayed at the hospital with him nearly every moment. At first, she didn’t know if he would live or die, and, if he lived, how much he would recover. Holly had met many people with brain injuries after her own accident, and had a vivid picture of how bad it could be.

She knew her son was still there when he started to squeeze her hand.

Recovery from the crash was slow and excruciating. Mat had to learn everything again: How to walk, feed himself, read and write. His brain injury made thinking slow and difficult, his memory muddled. He often searched for words, or said the wrong word altogether. He was partly blind in his right eye, partially paralyzed down the entire right side of his body. His right leg was rebuilt a 1/2-inch shorter than the other, leaving him with a laboured limp and a hip that ached even under the weight of pants.

People immediately stepped up to help Mat and his family. Fundraisers took in more than $60,000, and everyone looked out for Mat in those early days at home, when he was still so confused and foggy. When he played in his first slow-pitch tournament in Grovedale after the crash, the competitive game slowed to accommodate him. After he caught a fly ball, everyone at the field jumped to their feet, clapping and cheering, many moved to tears.

Back on the farm, Holly was glad she’d stayed with her husband. She wondered what kind of life Mat could have elsewhere, without friends and community to support him, without work he could do, or the land he loved. All she wanted was for her son to have a happy life, and she wasn’t sure how he could have that anywhere else. Holly felt like they were now tied even more closely to the farm, that Mat needed it more than ever.

Jenny Christensen saw Mat’s profile on a dating site in October 2009, and made a date to meet for dinner at Boston Pizza in Grande Prairie.

They liked each other right away. Jenny appreciated that Mat was so open and genuine, and respected his goals. She liked that he just wanted to work hard, have children, and be on the farm. A town girl from Grande Prairie, she’d been dreaming about living in the country since she was a teenager.

As a nurse, Jenny was understanding about Mat’s brain injury and its challenges.

A picture of Mat and Jenny's wedding, with Sandy looking on.

Mat and Jenny at their wedding, with Sandy looking on. (Crichton family photo)

They shared a ham and pineapple pizza, Mat eating the pineapple she picked off her slices. A few days later, he took her home to the farm. She moved into his trailer by December, and he proposed marriage to her on a horseback ride in April. She was pregnant that summer, and they married in August, in a small, simple ceremony on the farm. Jenny wore a flowing white summer dress and cowboy boots and clutched two orange flowers. Mat dressed in his cowboy hat, Wranglers and a new shirt. They ate hamburgers afterward and everyone was back at work by the afternoon. The next day, Jenny and Mat took their dogs and headed to B.C. for their honeymoon, spending two weeks touring and visiting relatives.

The morning after they got back, Jenny headed into town to meet her mother for lunch. Mat went outside to move some gravel.

It was Sept. 3, 2010. Mat would remember what a beautiful day it was, how happy he felt. It was a perfect later-summer morning, so warm you didn’t need a jacket, barely a cloud in the vast blue sky. Holly and Laurie were away doing a dog demonstration, and it was the first time Mat and his father had been alone on the farm for a long time.

Mat vowed that day, as he did every day, that if his father started in on him he would just go work somewhere else on the farm.

He was moving gravel with the Bobcat when Sandy showed up, fuming about how Mat was doing the job. Sandy reached up and tried to grab Mat in the machine, and when Mat drove away, his father chased him down with the tractor, catching up along the road at the side of the hayfield.

As Sandy screamed at him, Mat left the Bobcat and started heading past the bales toward his shop, running from his father. Inside the shop, Mat went straight to the cupboard at the back and got the combination to the gun safe. He wrote it on his hand, went across to the safe and punched in the code. It always took him a few tries to get the safe open, but this time it opened right away. He took out the .22-calibre Ruger pistol and pushed in the clip. There were three shells inside.

Mat was sure he heard the tractor running out on the road. Then the door flew open and Sandy was there, eyes burning hotter than the sun.

Mat squeezed the trigger once, nothing happened, then again, still nothing, then he realized the safety was on and clicked it off, and raised the gun once more. The pistol fired. He felt it kick in his hand. Sandy had already turned to walk away when the bullet struck the base of his neck. He crashed to the ground face down, heavy and stiff, like a tree falling.

Outside, a breeze rustled through late summer grass, tinkling wind chimes on the porch of the house.

Mat stood there for a few minutes, then locked the gun and the ammunition back in the safe and called 911, his mother, and his wife.

“Jenny, I think I’m going to jail,” he said when she answered. “I just shot dad.”

The words left Jenny gasping, unable to talk. She got up and pulled her mother and four-year-old niece toward the car, telling her mother to take her to the farm, saying only: “Go home — fast.”

After locking away the gun and ammunition, Mat stepped over his father’s body and left the shop. He walked the dogs, thinking it would probably be a long time before someone walked them, then grabbed a juice box and a granola bar. When his brother arrived, they sat together on the picnic table while Jason talked to the RCMP on the phone and made a plan for Mat to surrender at the end of the road.

As Jenny and her mother got close to the farm, they saw police cars and ambulances along the highway, and Jenny thought she might be able to get to Mat in time. But when they turned onto the farm road, a policeman stopped them. They were so close to the farm, Jenny thought about running in but knew she couldn’t, so she stood helplessly along the road with her mother. The Grovedale fire department had also been called and some firefighters joined Jenny along the road. They knew the family, and some had been at the scene of Mat’s crash. Many were visibly shaken, crying and hugging Jenny as they waited in the warm afternoon sun.

Mat did exactly what the police told him. His brother drove him up to the road and he got out of the truck, lay on the ground and crossed his ankles. The metal handcuffs bit tight into his wrists. He was surprised to see so many police cars, and it occurred to him that he should have just turned himself in at the detachment and saved everybody a lot of trouble.

An RCMP officer loaded Mat into a police truck and drove him out toward the highway. When they passed the people gathered along the road, Mat saw Jenny. She watched his face through the window, turning to look at her as the truck took him away.

News of the shooting travelled fast, and stories started swirling around the community.

“You always hope things are not as bad as the rumours make them sound,” school board trustee Christine Schlief told a reporter from the local newspaper. “It is hard to believe that somebody could be pushed to murder their own father.”

Childhood photos of Mat & Jason on the wall of the Crichton family home.

Childhood photos of Mat & Jason on the wall of the Crichton family home.

It was particularly hard for some people to believe about Mat. He was one of the most well-known and well-liked people in Grovedale. There was something about him that made a strong impression on many people he met, and his openness made people feel close to him quickly. Many who knew Mat said they thought of him as a son or a brother, like he was part of their own family. The girls at Mat’s favourite sandwich shop in Grande Prairie always fought about who got to serve him, and his chiropractor and her husband thought Mat was one of the most remarkable people they’d ever known. Mat’s spring pig roast was one of the most popular events in Grovedale, and people looked forward to it all year.

When Glen got the call that Mat had killed Sandy, anger broke over him like a wave.

“I understood why it happened, but I was mad,” Glen says. “I was mad at myself because it had to be Mat that done it.”

In the days after the shooting, friends and acquaintances stepped up to help Mat and his family, some volunteering to help with farm work that needed to be done, others forming a team to help fight the murder charge. The first hurdle was getting Mat released on bail.

To bolster the case for his release, the team started to gather letters of support from the community. They hoped for 30 or 40 letters but soon ended up with almost 250, a stack of paper nearly two inches thick. There were letters from Sandy’s own brothers and sister, from Jenny’s family, from politicians, business owners, local officials, and friends throughout the province.

Many people wrote impassioned pleas for Mat’s release. Several, including an elderly widow, offered him a place to stay or a job if he needed it.

Some letters mentioned Sandy’s explosive temper, the frequent outbursts against his family, and the signs there had been violence on the farm.

“Sandy will not be mourned by me,” one person wrote, “but every day that Mattie spends locked up will be.”

Another wrote: “When a dog is backed into a corner he will come out fighting.”

The letters were filed with the court at a bail hearing on Oct. 25, 2010, and presented a convincing argument for Mat’s release despite the serious charge. A judge released Mat on strict conditions and, nearly two months after the shooting, he was able to go back to the farm.

With Mat home, the reality of the situation became increasingly clear. First-degree murder carries a mandatory life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years. Mat maintained he hadn’t meant to shoot his father, and had only been trying to fire over his head as a warning.

There were a number of things that backed Mat’s claim: He’d taken the .22 pistol from the gun safe, rather than the much bigger .30-30 rifle. The .22 wasn’t powerful enough to put down pigs at close range, and Mat had been 15 metres from his father when he pulled the trigger.

Mat’s vision had been poor since his accident and he was a terrible shot — “the worst shot I’ve ever seen,” Jason says — and Sandy was moving through the brightly sunlit doorway. The defence would argue the chance of Mat hitting his father in that light, with that gun, from that distance, was low. That the bullet hit Sandy’s neck in one perfectly centred shot and killed him instantly was almost inconceivable.

Mat said he was surprised when his father fell. He thought Sandy had suffered a heart attack or was faking it, waiting for him to come close so he could pound him.

Having seen glimpses of her father-in-law’s temper, and knowing her husband, Jenny never asked Mat exactly what happened that day. She didn’t need to.

“There was no question,” she says. “If something that bad happened, it would have been a terrible situation and Mat did what he had to do.”

Mat at work on the farm. (Photo by Ed Kaiser/ Edmonton Journal)

Mat at work on the farm. (Photo by Ed Kaiser/ Edmonton Journal)

At first, supporters couldn’t imagine how anyone who heard the truth could convict Mat of murder, but there were serious problems with his case.

A 27-year-old shooting a 73-year-old from behind sounded bad. The Crown prosecutor at the bail hearing had described Sandy’s death as a “heinous crime” and Mat had given a full confession to police. Sandy’s most serious abuse had all happened on the farm and hadn’t been witnessed by anybody else.

Going to trial would be a gamble: If the judge or jury believed Mat, he would walk away a free man. But if he was convicted of first-degree murder, he’d go to prison for life. Even a conviction on a lesser second-degree murder charge would see him imprisoned for at least a decade before he could even apply for parole. The stakes were enormous.

On March 23, 2011, Jenny lay in the delivery room at the Grande Prairie hospital while a nurse pushed down hard on her stomach. It was too late to do an emergency caesarean, but they needed to get the baby out fast or he would die. A Code Pink had been called indicating that a baby was in cardiac arrest, and doctors and nurses were streaming into the room. Jenny’s epidural had worn off and the pain was intense, but all she could think about was the baby. The umbilical cord was tangled, cutting off his supply of oxygen, and he was stuck in the birth canal. When he finally came out, he was pale and limp, not breathing, with no heartbeat. Jenny watched helplessly as they did CPR on her son.

“I just want to hear him cry,” she said.

“We all do, honey,” a nurse told her.

As Jenny was wheeled away for surgery, Holly and Mat followed the baby to the NICU, where doctors began cooling his body to mitigate the impact of the oxygen loss on the brain. The hospital staff in Grande Prairie had just been trained in the technique a few weeks earlier, and this was the first time they were using the procedure.

Jenny saw the baby once before they airlifted him to Edmonton. She could only stroke his hand and cheek so the heat from her body wouldn’t warm him.

When Jenny was discharged, she and Mat rushed to Edmonton. Mat was on bail, so before they left they contacted his lawyer to make sure he wasn’t breaking his release conditions.

Jenny knew how serious their son’s condition was. As a nurse, she had learned that brain damage starts to set in after four minutes without oxygen, and they’d recorded the baby without oxygen for at least three times that long. Her head swam as the doctor told them what to expect, explaining: “He’s most likely going to have severe cerebral palsy. He’s going to be the one in class that needs the worker. He might not walk. He most likely will be wheelchair-bound. He might not talk.”

Jenny couldn’t stop crying, but Mat seemed calm.

“Do you understand everything?” she asked him, thinking that he may not have fully comprehended what the doctor had said.

Mat told her he was just happy their son was alive.

“Whatever comes, we’ll deal with it,” he told her.

During the pregnancy, Mat and Jenny had agreed that if they had a boy, Mat could choose the name. He named the baby Percy, after an old neighbour who was a kind man and a good farmer. Mat couldn’t imagine a better namesake than that.

Mat and Jenny walked together into the Grande Prairie courthouse on the morning of Dec. 9, 2011. He had decided to accept a deal and plead guilty to manslaughter. He would go to prison, but had decided he’d rather serve a shorter sentence than risk doing life.

He told Jenny, “I can’t be without you guys for that long.”

The courtroom was hushed as Judge Morris Golden listened to the Crown prosecutor outline the facts of the shooting, Mat’s injury, and the history of abuse the family had experienced. Defence lawyer David Cunningham told court it was important to mention the violence Mat and others had endured.

“There was real teeth to the violence this man was capable of,” the lawyer said.

Cunningham also filed the letters that were written about Mat for the bail hearing, and asked Golden to read them.

“I hope they don’t leave the court cold,” Cunningham said. “They’re a collection of the most singular letters from a community that I’ve ever seen in my life. They’re from doctor, lawyer, baker, candlestick maker, bus driver, and they tell you more than this lawyer could ever tell you about Matthew Crichton.”

After adjourning over lunch to read some of the letters, Golden said he’d never seen so many letters of support.

“Even with acquaintances to have taken the time to generate such letters is an indication of the respect in the community that Mr. Crichton has,” Golden said.

He also acknowledged Sandy’s long history of random and unprovoked violence, and recognized the circumstances in which Mat and Holly had been living.

“The impression that is left with the court is that Alex (Sandy) Crichton was a time bomb waiting to explode, ” Golden said. “No one knew when this would occur or why it would occur. When his temper raged he was out of control, both with people and with animals.”

As part of the joint submission, the Crown prosecutor asked Golden to disregard the fact that a gun had been used in the death, in an attempt to avoid the mandatory minimum sentence for manslaughter with a firearm. Golden said he couldn’t ignore the legislation , even if it wasn’t intended for a case like Mat’s.

“This is a situation clearly where such amendments have unintended consequences,” he said.

Instead, he sentenced Mat to the minimum he could under law: Four years in prison minus credit for time spend on remand and bail. Mat would serve his time at the prison in Grande Cache.

The guards let Jenny and Holly say goodbye to Mat, then led him out of the courtroom so they didn’t have to see him in handcuffs.

Through the years, Holly Crichton has often wondered what made her husband the way he was. Whether there was anything that could have been done to make him different.

After the shooting, a woman emailed Holly saying she had information that could help Mat’s case. When Holly got in touch, the woman told her she’d been sexually abused by Sandy when she was a child, but had never told anyone. She said she would testify in court if it helped Mat.

After that, four other women, all middle-aged or older, came forward to Holly with similar allegations from when they were children.

The allegations floored Holly, and made her think about her husband in a different light. She wonders if Sandy was worried the allegations would one day become public, or if it was shame or self-hatred that made him so angry. If the allegations are true, Holly imagines Sandy was living through his own hell, inside.

A portrait of Sandy and Holly in 1997.

A portrait of Sandy and Holly in 1997.

But Chris and Glen say their brother was angry for as long as anyone in the family can recall. Always aggressive and bullying, different from the rest of them, with something unknowable raging deep inside from the time he was a boy.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know why he was like that,” Chris says. “Dad, mom, they weren’t that way.”

Even when they were children, Chris says, when Sandy was mad it was “like all hell breaking loose.”

Jason, too, has struggled to understand what made his father that way.

“I still wish he could have been a decent human being, and that’s probably what actually profoundly bothers me the most of anything about this whole thing, is that he was given every opportunity to be a decent, good person, and he chose not to take that opportunity at any turn. He actively chose not to. I still want to love my father, but I can’t. I can’t forgive it, I can’t accept it … On a fundamental level, I think he was just mean.”

The parking lot of the Grovedale Community Centre was full on the night of Feb. 15, 2013, with music and voices spilling out into the winter chill. It was Mat and Jenny’s wedding party, originally planned to take place a few weeks after their wedding, but delayed more than two years until Mat got out on full parole. The party was supposed to be small and simple, but had taken on a life of its own. One of Holly’s friends took over the decorating, repurposing things from her own kids’ weddings to adorn the hall in purple and mauve, setting goblets with twinkling candles on each table. When Holly tried to get a caterer, a crew assembled to do all the cooking for free, and another friend baked more than 300 buns fresh that morning. They set 240 places for dinner, and each had a wineglass with a napkin pleated daintily inside.

When Holly got to the hall, she was dazzled by how beautiful it looked, and as the room filled with people, her heart swelled. There was Jenny’s family, dog trainers and people from the racetrack, the local Grovedale crew, and other friends and relatives. Every person there was so important to her family, and Holly was grateful to them all.

Mat’s Grade 7 teacher emceed the night, and Holly gave a speech. She read excerpts from the presentation Jenny had made at Mat’s parole hearing, then turned to her son and his wife.

“Always, always have respect for each other,” she said. “Be kind to each other, and be thankful for what you have. You are so very fortunate to live in this great country and this wonderful community.”

The party went on all night, with people dancing and laughing until the early morning hours. Mat talked to everyone in the room and Jenny, who rarely takes a drink, got a little tipsy. As it got late, Holly made a bed for Percy in the kitchen, but he would only lay down for a minute before getting up and running back to the party. Those who were still there at 2: 30 a.m. helped clean up the hall and put away tables.

Holly didn’t think about Sandy, until a friend mentioned him.

“What an idiot,” her friend said. “Look at everything he missed.”

There’s a pot of soup bubbling on the stove, as there always is around lunchtime at Holly’s. Percy pulls himself up the side of his grandma’s wheelchair into her lap, enthusiastically trying out some of the new words he’s learning: vegetables in the soup, the names of the farm dogs, the trucks he sees parked outside in the snow.

They call Percy their miracle baby, because his health defies all odds and explanation. Despite the grim prognosis after his birth, Percy came out of hospital with no signs of brain damage and, as his second birthday approaches, there have never been any problems.

Holly and Percy at home on the farm in February 2013. (Photo by Ed Kaiser/ Edmonton Journal)

Holly and Percy at home on the farm in February 2013. (Photo by Ed Kaiser/ Edmonton Journal)

When Mat comes in from the field, Percy yells “Daddy!” and goes straight to his father’s arms. Mat is back on the farm, living with his wife and son in their cosy trailer beside his mother’s house. He got weaker in prison, and is building up his strength and stamina. The effects of his car crash are still apparent; he struggles for words sometimes, and his body aches in the parts where it was broken and put back together.

Mat says the shooting still seems unreal and absurd. He still finds it hard to believe it all happened the way it did, but says he doesn’t think about what could have been different.

“I can’t regret it because that wasn’t my intention,” he says. “But it’s been for the best. My mom might eventually have been killed by my father, and now Percy will never have to know his crazy grandpa, and everyone can just be who they want to be.”

When Mat thinks about his father, he says he is grateful for one thing: That Sandy had two sons, and brought them into the world.

On Holly’s kitchen counter, a fat caterpillar is building a cocoon inside a coffee pot lined on the bottom with dirt and sticks. Mat found the caterpillar in a log over the winter, and brought it inside so it wouldn’t die in the cold. Over lunch, Mat and Holly chat about their new sow, Miss Piggy, who is heavy with piglets. Outside, the sheep bleat in the field as the guardian dogs stroll by. Bawling cattle loiter by the red barn. Pulling on his coat, Mat pauses for a moment.

“I’m just glad it’s finally over,” he says. “Now all we have to do it wait for spring.”

Then he takes his son by the hand and they walk outside together, into the sunlight.