NEWS
12/14/2011 04:00 EST | Updated 02/12/2012 05:12 EST

Charges expected against small-town Quebec mayor in wife disappearance case

SALABERRY-DE-VALLEYFIELD, Que. - A former small-town mayor, whose wife went missing nearly four years ago, was charged Wednesday with murdering her.

An emotionless Paul Laplante stood before a judge near Montreal and was charged with first-degree murder in the death of his wife, Diane Gregoire.

Wednesday's court appearance came 47 months after Laplante reported Gregoire missing. The sudden disappearance and ensuing search transformed her into a recognizable face in Quebec.

Laplante, 54, has been ordered to remain in custody and is forbidden from talking to three people — including the couple's two adult children. The relationship with the third person was not disclosed by the Crown.

The children, Elizabeth and Francis Laplante, said they were struggling to come to grips with the news.

Elizabeth Laplante, a journalist, cried in her seat as her father was formally charged.

Later, she stood next to her brother Francis, a police officer, to deliver an emotional statement to the media outside the courthouse.

"Our mother was an extraordinary woman and we're ready to get through this ordeal in her honour, remembering her smile and her courage, and the unconditional love she brought us," said Laplante, choking back tears.

The accused did not enter a plea during the appearance but his lawyer indicated following his arrest Tuesday that Laplante intends to fight the charge.

Robert La Haye said he hadn't decided whether or not to seek bail for his client, whose detention was automatic given the severity of the charges.

"Before presenting a motion for bail, we have to have a good knowledge of the evidence," La Haye said.

Laplante has a hearing scheduled for Dec. 21, during which La Haye hopes to see more evidence.

Family and curious onlookers gathered for the arraignment of Laplante, who was mayor of nearby St-Liboire between 1995 and 1998.

Laplante arrived at the courthouse in a van. Handcuffed, sandwiched between two detectives and walking with the help of a cane, he was heckled as he was ushered inside the building.

Police say Laplante was the last person who reported seeing his wife, in a parking lot in St-Bruno, south of Montreal. Laplante told police in 2008 he left Gregoire in the car and went inside to have breakfast.

He said she never joined him in the shopping centre as agreed. The 51-year-old woman was never seen again.

Gregoire's skeletal remains were finally found last month, in a densely wooded area off a highway in Coteau-du-Lac, not far from the Ontario border.

In the months that followed, volunteers searched different areas for signs of the missing woman. Posters of the woman were circulated widely across the province.

Laplante was arrested by Quebec provincial police on Tuesday.

Elizabeth Laplante thanked the police forces and the people who have lent their support over the years. However, she said she and her brother now want to grieve in private.

"Even if, over the past four years, we hoped to find answers and, in the last four months, we were ready to face the worst," Elizabeth Laplante said, "Francis and I are still in shock today."

(With files from Sidhartha Banerjee)