KENTVILLE, N.S. — A man who admitted to burning the body of his dead friend following a botched 2020 break and enter is going to prison for four and a half years.
For the father of the late Robert Michael Campbell, the sentence was a welcome step in the family’s journey for justice.
“It won’t bring Rob back, but I feel that with all the circumstances involved here, I’m glad he got enough to go (to federal prison),” Michael Campbell said following the verdict in Kentville on Dec. 5.
Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Gail Gatchalian sentenced Darroll Murray Atwell, 45, to four years and six months, less 12 days for time spent on remand. Ancillary orders were imposed, including a 10-year firearms prohibition, to start following his sentence. However, he will be able to use a firearm at two specific properties on Melanson Road solely for animal husbandry purposes – protecting livestock and carrying out the humane dispatch of animals.
On Aug. 31, Atwell pled guilty to three offences related to what transpired in the early morning hours of May 24, 2020. He pled guilty to breaking into an occupied Ridge Road, Kings County, home with the intent to commit an indictable offence; interfering with the human remains of Robert Campbell by burning a vehicle with his body inside; and intentionally causing damage, by fire, to a Dodge Caravan owned by Robert Campbell’s father.
Two other charges – relating to wilfully attempting to obstruct or defeat the course of justice – were dismissed Dec. 5.
Gatchalian addressed Atwell at the sentencing and said the events surrounding Campbell’s death have been a tragedy for all involved.
“Although you have received a significant sentence for these serious crimes, I do believe that you are fundamentally a good person,” said Gatchalian.
“You are clearly loved and needed by your family; you have a child coming into the world soon. That child will need you to be healthy and present,” she continued.
“My sincere wish for you is that you participate in structured addictions recovery programming and that when you’ve completed your sentence, you will be able to focus on your well-being and the well-being and happiness of your child.”
Gatchalian then allowed Atwell a moment to say goodbye to family and friends in the courtroom before being taken to jail. His common-law partner cried as they embraced.
The Crown had requested a period of six to eight years in jail while the defence recommended three to four years.
Gatchalian considered their recommendations, reviewed multiple case law examples, and examined a pre-sentence report which provided insight into Atwell’s character and life choices.
The court heard Atwell graduated high school and joined the military for two years before working out west on oil rigs, for a seismic exploration company and a roofing company. When he returned to Nova Scotia, he took over the family property in Kings County, Gatchalian said, noting he “turned it into a farm and established a roofing company, which he ran for 10 years.”
Gatchalian said over the past two and a half years, he was making a good income and owned his own property. However, prior to the 2020 offences, he was addicted to multiple substances.
“Mr. Atwell has a lengthy history of substance abuse. Mr. Atwell began to smoke cannabis at the age of 11 and never stopped,” she said.
He started using cocaine when he was 19, which he continued until Campbell’s death. He also had issues with using hydromorphone and was abusing opioids for about a year when the offences occurred.
“Mr. Atwell describes himself as an alcoholic and acknowledges that his excessive use of alcohol has cost him relationships,” she noted.
Atwell has been with his common-law partner for about eight years and is expecting a child with her. Gatchalian said Atwell’s partner indicated that he has not been using any substances since the offences. Atwell’s parents and in-laws also wrote letters of support.
At a sentencing hearing on Nov. 24, a teary Atwell briefly apologized to Campbell’s family, referring to Campbell as Soup – a nickname that friends of the 51-year-old retired master corporal often used.
“While his comments were brief, I find that Mr. Atwell was emotional and sincere in his expression of remorse to the family of Robert Campbell, to his family and to the court,” said Gatchalian.
The justice noted the letters of support from Atwell’s parents and in-laws all indicated he was remorseful for his actions, saying that his in-laws “have observed that the death of Robert Campbell has been devastating for Mr. Atwell and that his grief has been immense.”
Gatchalian said Atwell’s criminal record was an aggravating factor.
“There are 11 offences over a six-year period between March of 2014 and March of 2020,” she said, noting none of the offences were as serious as those currently before the court.
Gatchalian said the most serious prior offence dated back to July 2019. He was sentenced in December 2020 to 45 days in custody, to be served intermittently, for impaired driving and driving while disqualified.
While providing her decision, Gatchalian said Atwell “has good rehabilitation prospects.”
At the sentencing hearing on Nov. 24, victim impact statements were provided to the court by Robert Campbell’s parents – Michael and Barbara – as well as the mother of Robert Campbell’s teenage daughter.
The court heard the 16-year-old “feels empty and numb and has loneliness she feels will never subside.” It was noted she cries every day.
“While Mr. Atwell is not responsible for Mr. Campbell’s death, it is clear from the victim impact statements that Mr. Atwell’s crimes have deeply and negatively affected Robert Campbell’s family, especially Mr. Campbell’s daughter,” Gatchalian said at the December sentencing.
Michael Campbell told SaltWire following the sentencing that the family is “hanging in there,” noting it’s been nearly three and half years since Robert Campbell’s death and they’re still not close to having closure.
Related charges against Devyn Adam Dennis, of Lockhartville, have not been tested in court. His next scheduled court date is Jan. 16 for a pre-trial conference.
Two other people – Brandon Michael Doucette, of L’Ardoise, and Rebecca Elizabeth Moir, of Five Islands – were initially charged with Campbell’s murder, however, those charges were withdrawn by the Crown.
Michael Campbell said the family remains hopeful anyone involved in their son’s death and the disposal of his body will also face jail time.
“Maybe somewhere along the way, we will be able to actually find out who took Robert’s life,” he said.