A guilty verdict brought closure this week to the family of an Elmira woman murdered almost six years ago.
Michael Ball, now 27, was convicted May 5 in a St. Catharines courtroom of the first-degree murder of Erin Howlett. He faces at least 25 years in jail after a jury found him responsible for the June 27, 2013 killing – driven by jealousy, he choked the 28-year-old woman and disposed of her body in a duffel bag that was later found in the Grand River in Kitchener.
The decision was welcomed by Howlett’s family.
“It’s something we’ve never felt. Elation, joy, and relief that we finally got justice for Erin and we’re able to start moving on,” said the victim’s brother, Dane Howlett. “And just remembering Erin for the good times, rather than thinking about a trial.”
Family and friends in the community mourned the loss of Howlett, who had been reported missing hours before her remains were found in July of 2013.
Ball was arrested and charged in connection with her death in November 2013. He pleaded not guilty. The first trial in 2016 ended in a mistrial, when the jury was unable to reach a verdict unanimously. The retrial began in January this year and was moved to St. Catharines to find a jury that knew nothing about the case.
Dane Howlett said he felt that the change in venue was a tactic to keep friends and loved ones further from the trial.
“I wanted to reach out on social media and different groups, friends, and family. Because the jury will see how real Erin was,” he said. “If they can see real people, who miss her, otherwise she would be just a name on a page. A picture in evidence. When we come there, and they can see real people representing Erin … it’s hard for the jury to ignore that.”
Two Crown prosecutors alleged that Ball choked Howlett in his Kitchener home in a jealous rage. Before Howlett disappeared, Ball had told friends he suspected Howlett had cheated on him and stole drugs from his apartment. There were also several witness accounts incriminating Ball.
Two defence lawyers, Anne-Marie Morphew and Anthony Bryant, said no forensic evidence tied Howlett’s death to Ball, maintaining she died of a drug overdose. The defence argued that Ball was cooperative with police and continued to text Howlett after her death, suggesting that he did not know about it. Neither defence attorney responded to request for comment.
“I can tell you this time around; they switched up on the delivery of the evidence a little bit. So I got to hear more details than I did in the previous trial,” said Dane of the differences between the first and second trial. “So I think going into the deliberations, I was feeling more confident this time around than last time.”
There were four days of deliberations before a verdict was reached. When it was announced, there was a collective sigh of relief from Erin’s side, while Ball’s family was visibly distraught.
Howlett’s family read their victim-impact statements to the courtroom, taking solace in the fact that the years-long process was finally over, though Ball has 25 days to file for an appeal.
Howlett, who had attended Elmira District Secondary School, worked as a waitress at the Elmira Sip & Bite restaurant, where she was popular with customers.
Jayme Scherrer met Howlett when they were in high school.
“You could be having a bad day, and if you bumped into her, whether she knew it or not, she was going to make you smile, lift your mood,” said Sherrer. “Her energy was just so positive. People in the community can all attest to that for sure. I don’t think anyone could say anything bad about her. She was one of a kind. Very upbeat and positive energy.”
Dane created a Facebook page to share memories and connect with others mourning her loss, In Loving Memory of Erin Howlett. He added he has been overwhelmed with support from the community.
“I would say you go through a situation like this and you start to lose a little faith in humanity. And then a community comes together to help support you through something like this,” said Dane. “It’s not only close friends that have supported us with kind words – in person, and at court – but the greater community of Woolwich, Wellesley, Waterloo Region, Listowel – it’s coming from all over, the support. It’s tremendous. It restores your faith in the community.”