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Laundry hamper prevented girl from joining friends on fatal drive

Tabitha Stepple (right), 21, and two others were killed and a third injured when her ex-boyfriend Derek Jensen allegedly opened fire on their car. Caitlin McFarland (left) was supposed to be in the car but volunteered to stay behind.

Cait McFarland may owe her life to an oversized laundry hamper.

Ms. McFarland was supposed to drive from Lethbridge to the Calgary airport last Wednesday night with her good friend Tabitha Stepple. They had agreed to give a couple of guys they knew, Tanner Craswell and Mitch MacLean, a lift to catch a 7 a.m. flight. Mr. Craswell's girlfriend, Shayna Conway, was joining them too.

They met up at a local pub called the Blarney Stone before heading out, where they ran into Ms. Stepple's old boyfriend, Derek Jensen. On seeing her in the bar, Mr. Jensen became enraged, started yelling and shoved her chair.

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The group quickly left and went to the home of Mr. Craswell and Mr. MacLean to pack up Ms. Stepple's car. "There was a laundry hamper that we couldn't get to fit, so I offered to stay home," Ms. McFarland recalled Sunday in an e-mail exchange with The Globe and Mail. "They dropped me off at my car, I told them to have a safe trip and I'd see them at work on Thursday."

She never saw them again.

The five knew each other well. The women worked together at Montana's Cookhouse in Lethbridge and they had gotten to know Mr. Craswell and Mr. MacLean through Ms. Conway. The men were budding baseball stars with a local team called the Lethbridge Bulls and they were heading home to Prince Edward Island for Christmas.

Unbeknownst to Ms. McFarland, Mr. Jensen went looking for the others in his car, bringing along a 9 mm Heckler & Koch handgun, a 12-gauge shotgun and a Winchester rifle. Police say that at around 3 a.m., he tracked them to a 7-Eleven in Claresholm, Alta., about 80 kilometres north of Lethbridge. The four made a quick pit stop and got back into Ms. Stepple's car, seemingly unaware of Mr. Jensen. With Ms. Conway behind the wheel, they headed north on Highway 2.

Mr. Jensen caught up and rammed the car. According to police, Ms. Conway stopped and got out. Mr. Jensen stopped and got out as well. Then he raised his handgun and opened fire. He shot Ms. Conway several times, walked over to the car and shot the others. Then he turned the gun on himself. Somehow Ms. Conway survived and she is expected to recover. Ms. Stepple and Mr. Craswell died where they sat. Mr. MacLean got out of the car, made it a short distance and collapsed. He died later in hospital. They were all in their early 20s.

The next afternoon, Ms. McFarland's roommate told her there had been a murder suicide on Highway 2 and that a green Sunfire had been towed from the scene. Ms. McFarland felt sick. That was Ms. Stepple's car.

"I knew right away what happened," she recalled Sunday. "I'm so thankful I wasn't in that car, but I'm so devastated for Tab and the boys. It's really difficult knowing that I so narrowly escaped being in that back seat, but nothing happened to keep everyone else safe … this entire thing is just a nightmare."

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She'd seen trouble brewing for months. Ms. Stepple had met Mr. Jensen nearly a year ago and they had lived together for about five months. They'd had a tumultuous relationship and last weekend, according to Ms. McFarland, Ms. Stepple had told him to leave the apartment they shared after he slammed her into a wall during an argument.

To his friends, Mr. Jensen was a quiet, Mormon-raised young man who loved the outdoors and cared for his guns religiously. Police confirmed his weapons were properly registered.

Ms. McFarland saw a different side. "I loved him when I first met him, but after [he and Ms. Stepple]moved in together he really changed," she said.

He became jealous and controlling, texting and phoning constantly to find out what Ms. Stepple was doing. He soon began to resent Ms. McFarland and her close relationship with Ms. Stepple, frequently yelling at them for going out too much and calling Ms. Stepple vulgar names. "He put his fist through their window, punched a huge dent in the rear driver's side of his car, told her he killed her dog," Ms. McFarland added.

"Last weekend, after he broke their window, he slammed her against the wall in his room and that's when she told him to get out. He was supposed to move to Edmonton Thursday morning … that's why we didn't call the police after he pushed her at the Stone," she added.

Now she's trying to cope with the loss of her closest friend. "She's the most loving, caring, genuine person I've ever met and it just makes me sick that we all have to go through the rest of our lives without her."

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Others are feeling profound grief as well.

Across town, from Ms. McFarland, the Lethbridge Bulls have put the flags at their stadium at half-mast and posted a tribute to the young players on the club's website. In Ottawa, friends of Ms. Conway said prayers for her at the Bikers' Church, an evangelical church made up of motorcycle enthusiasts. "Shayna is a dear friend to many in the church," said Pastor Rob Dale.

In Winsloe South, a suburb of Charlottetown, Christmas decorations still adorn the MacLean house and at the nearby Winsloe United Church, the glittering Christmas tree will remain in place during the funeral expected to happen later this week. Mr. MacLean's family specifically requested that, Revered Eric Lynk explained after a service in which he called on the congregation to remember all the families involved.

"Let us keep all of the victims of this tragedy in our hearts as we prepare to celebrate Christmas," he encouraged parishioners, many of whom volunteered to prepare the church for the funeral or assist during it. Mr. MacLean's parents did not attend the service and, along with the parents of the other victims, have not spoken publicly about their loss.

Amid the grief on PEI, there was a solidifying sense that the family of Mr. Jensen needed to be remembered as well. Parishioners at Winsloe United spoke about how terrible it would be for his parents to lose a son and then have to remember him as a murderer. "What level of torment he must have been going through," said a person close to the victims who did not want to be identified.

Ms. McFarland offered one other insight into her friend. "People keep asking me why she so readily agreed to drive these boys to Calgary so late, and all I can tell them is that it would have surprised me if she disagreed, or even hesitated to agree," she said. "It was just such a Tabitha thing to do."

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About the Authors
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More

Oliver Moore joined the Globe and Mail's web newsroom in 2000 as an editor and then moved into reporting. A native Torontonian, he served four years as Atlantic Bureau Chief and has worked also in Afghanistan, Grenada, France, Spain and the United States. More


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