CAMPBELLTON, N.B. - The deaths of two young boys who police believe were killed by an African rock python while they slept at a friend's apartment has rattled the northern New Brunswick city of Campbellton where the children were remembered Tuesday as fun-loving free spirits.
Noah and Connor Barthe, aged four and six, were found dead Monday morning after the 45-kilogram snake escaped its enclosure in the apartment, slithered through a ventilation system above and fell through a ceiling into the living room where they were sleeping, police said.
Dave Rose, the great uncle of the boys, said Noah was looking forward to starting kindergarten this fall, joining his older brother at elementary school, before "this awful tragedy."
"We appreciate the outpouring of sympathy that's been shown," Rose told a news conference in Campbellton.
Rose said the boys were spending the day with family friend Jean-Claude Savoie, who took them shopping and to a farm where they played with lamas, goats, horses, dogs and cats before they returned to his apartment for a sleepover.
"They were two typical children, they enjoyed life to a maximum," Rose said.
Paul (Little Ray) Goulet, founder and co-owner of Little Ray's Reptile Zoo in Ottawa, said snakes don't recognize humans as a source of food, but if the children smelled like animals, it could explain an attack.
"If a snake sees an animal moving, giving off heat and smells like a goat, what is it? It's a goat," said Goulet.
"This is the reasonable explanation of how this has happened is that they had been playing with farm animals, they did smell like their prey items and the snake sadly enough mistook them as a food item when they weren't."
Relatives and friends of the boys and their family said they could not fathom what happened.
"It's like a bad dream," said Shawna MacEachern, who has been a friend of the boys' mother, Mandy Trecartin, since childhood. "She loved her babies. They meant everything to her. She was an awesome mother.
"They were both so sweet. They were fun-loving typical little boys."
Trecartin's Facebook page shows a mother devoted to and proud of her boys. It features dozens of photos depicting them swimming in a kiddie pool, frolicking at a playground and posing with her for a family portrait.
"My two super handsome boys sporting their Christmas PJ's," Trecartin wrote on a photo of the boys with their arms wrapped around each other in front of a Christmas tree last year. She could not be reached for comment.
Her last photo of the boys dated July 30 shows them playing a handheld video game console together.
"We're all overwhelmed here," said Stephanie Bernatchez, who shares a mutual friend with Trecartin and whose children sometimes played with the boys.
"They could have been hit by a car, but a snake? That's not something people around here expect."
Bernatchez said the boys were well-raised and courteous.
"They were two kids who were very well brought up," she said. "Kind, polite — they loved being together and playing together. They were sociable, played well with other kids."
The RCMP said the boys were found dead Monday at around 6:30 a.m. in an apartment located above Reptile Ocean, an exotic pet store. The Mounties initially said that the 4.3-metre long snake escaped from the store at some point during the night, but on Tuesday Sgt. Alain Tremblay said it escaped its floor-to-ceiling glass tank inside the apartment through a vent, allowing it to escape through a ventilation pipe.
But the snake's weight caused the pipe to collapse and fall into the living room where the boys slept on a mattress, Tremblay said.
The RCMP said Monday they believe the snake strangled the boys, but Tremblay said Tuesday investigators are waiting for the results of an autopsy on the children as well as a necropsy on the snake before commenting further on the cause of death.
"We can speculate, however, for the real cause of death we're going to have to wait for the pathologist's report," he said.
"As police officers in this type of investigation, we try not to focus on one thing. But at this point we believe the snake is involved."
Asked why anyone in the apartment didn't appear to have heard anything, Tremblay said that was still under investigation.
"It's something the investigators are going to talk to people about and we are not there yet," he said.
The snake was later captured by Savoie, who also owns Reptile Ocean. It was later put down by a veterinarian and sent for a necropsy in Fredericton to help determine what may have prompted it to attack the boys, Tremblay said, adding that the RCMP have enlisted the help of a reptile expert from the Magnetic Hill Zoo in Moncton, N.B., for their investigation.
Yellow police tape surrounded the apartment where the boys were killed. Teddy bears and candles were placed at the base of a utility pole across the street.
Terry Rose, Trecartin's uncle and great uncle of the boys, said the family was just coming to grips with what happened.
"The rough road is just starting," he said. "It is a tragic thing. It is something that never should have happened, but it happened. Life must go on."
Dave Rose said funeral arrangements for the boys were not yet finalized.
A Facebook page for Reptile Ocean offered condolences to the boy's family before it was taken down after comments were posted that it said unfairly targeted the snake's owner.
"We all have a heavy heart today, as anyone would, and attacks on the animal's owner are unnecessary," the Facebook page said before it was taken offline.
Tremblay said he was he unaware of any threats against the store's owner but police would ensure everyone's safety throughout the investigation.
New Brunswick's Natural Resources Department said a special permit is required for African rock pythons, a non-venomous species that is the largest snake in Africa. But the department said the snake's owner didn't have such a permit and it wasn't aware the animal was in the apartment.
Savoie could not be reached for comment. But he told Global News on Monday that he could not believe the snake escaped.
"I can't believe this is real," Savoie told the television station, adding that the two boys are the children of his best friend and were often at his apartment to visit his own son.
He told Global News he didn't hear a sound during the incident and only discovered the "horrific scene" when he went into his living room Monday morning. At that point, Savoie said he saw the snake, pinned it down and put the reptile in a cage.