The man who pleaded guilty to killing January Marie Lapuz two years ago says he killed her in self-defence in an argument over the price of sex services, the BC Supreme Court heard Oct 2.
Charles Jameson “Jamie” Mungo Neel pleaded guilty to manslaughter in June for killing Lapuz, a well-liked trans woman, whom friends remembered as a kind, generous person. The 26-year-old New Westminster resident died Sept 29, 2012, as a result of stabbing injuries to her face, neck, chest and torso, Crown prosecutor Rusty Antonuk told Justice Frits Verhoeven.
Calling the killing a “terrible crime,” Verhoeven sentenced Neel to a total of eight years in custody. Neel will serve five years and three months because of time already spent in custody. The sentence recommendation was a joint submission to Verhoeven from Antonuk and Neel’s defence lawyer, David Tarnower.
Neel was initially charged with second-degree murder in connection with the fatal stabbing in Lapuz’s home on the 500 block of 3rd Avenue, New Westminster. In pleading guilty to the less severe, included charge of manslaughter, Neel accepted responsibility for causing Lapuz’s death but denied any intent to kill her.
Before he passed sentence, Verhoeven asked Neel if he had anything to say.
“I am sorry for all the trouble and pain I have caused,” Neel said. He said he expressed his “dearest condolences to the victim’s family.”
Verhoeven said he accepted that Neel has problems expressing himself and accepted the statement as sincere.
Antonuk told the court the five-foot-six, 110-pound Neel, then 20, had contacted the five-foot-eleven, 258-pound Lapuz for sexual services and agreed to meet at her home.
“The accused contacted January Lapuz for the purpose of exchanging sex for money,” Antonuk said. “Charles Neel did know January Lapuz was a transgendered sex trade worker.”
When they met, Antonuk said, Neel removed his shoes and pants, but then a dispute ensued over a price, and a struggle started. He said Lapuz grabbed some scissors and injured Neel’s left hand. Neel found a knife and defended himself, the court heard.
“The accused in stabbing January Lapuz overreacted in an explosive and highly violent manner,” Antonuk said.
Lapuz suffered damage to major arteries and internal damage. “The accused did not have the required intent for murder but rather used excessive force to defend himself,” Antonuk said.
Antonuk did not present the case as a hate crime and did not suggest that Lapuz’s gender had anything to do with the argument. The RCMP told Xtra at the time of Neel’s 2012 arrest that hate did not appear to be a motive in the case.
Neel fled when neighbours arrived and witnessed the struggle. Police later recovered the knife. After being treated for injuries to his hand at home and in hospital, Neel fled by bus to Calgary on Oct 2, 2012, then flew to Thailand two days later. When he returned to Vancouver on Dec 5, 2012, Neel was arrested at the airport. He has been in custody ever since.
While he was born in Victoria and lived in Campbell River and North Vancouver, Neel spent part of his life in Thailand, where his father, David Neel, operates a business. In a letter David Neel sent from Thailand, the court heard that Charles was abandoned by his mother when he was 18 months old and that members of both sides of his family had been in residential schools. Neel is a member of the Kwakiutl First Nation.
David Neel said his son, who was born prematurely by caesarian section, has had social and developmental problems all his life. He expressed regret for what happened to Lapuz. “The family is shocked by what occurred and very upset by so much grief they have caused to the other family,” he wrote.
Charles Neel, who has no prior criminal record, showed no emotion as a victim-impact statement from Lapuz’s mother, Betty, was read. Betty’s statement said that she adopted January as a baby in the Philippines and that January later moved to Canada when she was 18. “January is a person with no sadness,” her mother’s statement said. “She made everybody laugh. She loved helping people regardless of race, colour or age. She is sweet to everyone. Her smile is like sunlight up in the sky.”
“Her absence is breaking my heart,” the statement continued. “She was everything I had.”
Sitting on the other side of the court were Neel’s twin sister Ellena and older brother Edwin. Neel looked at his siblings silently even as he was being led out of court. His twin stood and watched until the door to the cells closed behind her brother.
Lapuz was actively involved in the trans and queer immigrant communities. In April 2009, she became the first transgender person to hold an executive position with Sher Vancouver, a support group for South Asian gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
As he sentenced Neel to prison, Verhoeven acknowledged that Lapuz lived her life as a woman and referred to her consistently as “Miss Lapuz.” Tarnower, however, referred to her as “Mr Lapuz.”
Verhoeven also ordered Neel to provide a DNA sample and imposed a lifetime firearms ban.