Blackjack card counter on trial for murder caught on video throwing victim’s keys in bushes

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Blackjack card counter on trial for murder caught on video throwing victim’s keys in bushes

Chris Lee had no idea a strike force team was watching his every move as he cleaned the back of an SUV and tossed a set of keys belonging to a woman he is now accused of murdering.

The 62-year-old Calgary man is on trial for second-degree murder in the July 2020 death of Vida Smith. Her body has never been found.

Smith, 69, and Lee (a.k.a. Kevin Barton) were gambling partners. For 30 years, the pair played blackjack and counted cards at casinos all over the world, including in South America, India and Australia.

In July 2020, Smith disappeared after leaving a Starbucks in northeast Calgary with Lee.

One week later, Lee learned police were looking for him and he began cleaning his Cadillac Escalade. What he didn’t know was that the Calgary Police Service had already set up surveillance.

Covert officers watched as Lee took his SUV to a car wash and vacuumed it before tossing car keys belonging to Smith in nearby bushes.

They would also recover what turned out to be a homemade gun silencer, which Lee tossed over a wall at the car wash.

Vida Smith and Chris Lee were involved in the gambling world together. Lee is charged with second-degree murder in Smith’s death, as well as 27 firearm offences. (Calgary Police Service)

Video from the strike force team’s surveillance mission was played in court for jurors on Wednesday.

After tossing the keys, Lee drove to a nearby business area. Footage shows him placing a tarp and mats in the back of the SUV before walking into a pet store and purchasing stain remover.

Const. Jonathan Luck of the strike force unit told prosecutor William Tran that he witnessed Lee placing sun screens on the windows of the Escalade. 

When it appeared Lee might be about to resume cleaning the SUV’s trunk, officers moved in and executed an arrest.

Inside the vehicle, they seized five loaded firearms, knives, $44,000 in cash and handcuffs.

DNA on the handcuffs would later come back as a match to Smith as would a droplet of blood inside the cargo area of the SUV.

The same area also tested positive for baking soda and cleaning product residue. 

‘Frenemies’

In an opening statement delivered Monday, prosecutor Shane Parker told jurors investigators found Lee had thrown out four empty baking soda boxes.

At the time of his arrest, Lee also had in his possession Smith’s credit card, her purse and her cellphone. 

On the first day of the trial, jurors heard evidence that over the years, mistrust had built between Smith and Lee over big payouts sometimes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Parker described their relationship as “frenemies.”

Around the time of her death, Smith wasn’t winning big, according to her daughter, who said the pandemic’s closure of casinos had caused financial strife.

When they met for coffee on July 21, 2020, Smith planned to sell Lee her ex-husband’s birth certificate for $10,000.

On the first day of trial, defence lawyer Cory Wilson offered a guilty plea to manslaughter but Parker declined and proceeded to trial on a charge of second-degree murder.

It’s not yet known if jurors will hear Lee testify in his own defence.