WINNIPEG - By almost all accounts, Mark Stobbe was a successful man in a happy marriage.
By the age of 42, he had already served as a senior adviser to Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow and was moving to Manitoba for a job as a communications strategist with the recently elected NDP government.
Did this man with a respected political mind suddenly turn murderous, bludgeoning his wife, Beverly Rowbotham, while their children slept nearby? The Crown attorney in Stobbe's second-degree murder trial says yes.
"The Crown's theory is that the accused had a 5 1/2-hour period of opportunity to commit this crime ... and then drive the car to another location," Wendy Dawson said at the start of Stobbe's trial last month.
Dawson's theory is one of a sudden killing followed by a complex coverup, starting in the late evening of Oct. 24, 2000.
She alleges Stobbe hit his wife in the head 16 times with a hatchet or axe during an argument in the backyard of their home north of Winnipeg, dragged her to a car in the garage and drove 15 kilometres to a parking lot in Selkirk, Man.
Having stuffed a bicycle in the trunk, he cycled back home, and waited a few hours to report her missing, according to Dawson, who suggested Stobbe then took a water hose to the backyard and washed away evidence. All the while, the couple's two young boys were sleeping in their bedrooms.
Rowbotham's body was found in the family's large sedan in Selkirk in the early morning of Oct. 25. She died of severe blunt-force trauma to her head.
The Crown's case is circumstantial. It relies on 76 witnesses that have either testified already or are scheduled to testify before the lengthy trial winds down at the end of March.
There were no witnesses to Rowbotham's death. Neighbours who have testified so far say they did not see or hear anything unusual the night she was killed.
No one has even testified that the couple fought. Friends and family have said the couple were very happy in Regina and were seen holding hands and hugging in the weeks leading up to the death, most notably at a barbecue at their new home at the end of September.
Court has heard that the night of Rowbotham's death, Lynn Lee was driving her nine-year-old daughter Krista from house to house so the child could sell chocolates. Krista walked up to a man raking leaves in the front yard — presumably Stobbe. A woman, presumably Rowbotham, came out of the front door. The young girl was paid and returned to the car with an assessment of the couple.
"Krista got in the car and ... she said they were very nice,'' Lee testified.
As far as problems within the marriage, the most that Crown witnesses have said so far is that Rowbotham was stressed by moving to a new area, buying a house that had severe problems — including a bad foundation and an ant infestation — and trying to run the household while Stobbe worked long hours in his new job.
A few weeks before her death, Rowbotham complained about the stress she was under during a visit to her sister. But she did not specifically mention any problems with Stobbe.
"She said she didn't know if she could do this any more. I said she was a farm girl from Saskatchewan and she could do anything," Betty Rowbotham told the trial last week.
Around that same time, Beverly Rowbotham visited Mary Ellen Dewar, a friend in Calgary, and said things were "not going well," but that it was nothing unusual for any marriage, Dewar testified.
The Crown has forensic evidence. Dozens of blood drops, hair clumps and small bone fragments were found in the couple's backyard and garage. Eleven of those items were shown to have come from Rowbotham through DNA tests done by RCMP.
That same area was very wet the following day, according to one of Rowbotham's nieces, while the rest of the lawn was dry.
Rowbotham's wallet was found in the Red River, not far from the family home and well upstream of where her body was found in Selkirk.
The Crown has also pointed to what it says are holes in Stobbe's story. Several witnesses have testified Stobbe told them his wife disappeared while on a late-night shopping trip to a grocery store in Selkirk. He said she had been at the store earlier in the day, but had to leave because the couple's youngest son was acting up, they testified.
But surveillance video from the store shows Rowbotham spent 46 minutes perusing the aisles that afternoon. She spent $108.32 — $33 more than the average spent in her previous visits, testified Linda Fortne, the store's assistant manager at the time.
Crown witnesses have also given slightly different versions of what Stobbe told them he was doing when his wife disappeared. Some have said he told them he fell asleep in front of the television while watching a ball game. Others have said he told them he had fallen asleep with one of his boys in their bed.
One thing that all the witnesses have agreed on is that Stobbe started calling relatives, hospitals and the RCMP sometime around 2:30 a.m., saying he had woken up and found his wife still gone.
The trial continues Monday.