The ripples of grief caused by William McDonald filled rows of courtroom seats at his sentencing.
Near the back sat Amedeo and Ellen Awai, the parents of murder victim Emmanuel Awai, 26. With them was Rebecca Schlax, Awai’s girlfriend at the time of his shooting death on Dec. 28, 2016, who found out three days after Awai was murdered she was pregnant with his daughter.
Closer to the front of the courtroom was Jean Zak, the mother of Jonathan Zak, McDonald’s other murder victim, who was shot with a sawed-off shotgun along a pathway behind the Boullee housing complex on July 31, 2012.
They’re two families brought together by McDonald’s enthusiasm for violence and crime. The Awai family was there to see McDonald sentenced to life with no chance of parole for 23 years for second-degree murder.
William McDonald, left, and Emmanuel Awai
Had the Crown proceeded with a first-degree murder charge, Superior Court Justice Jonathon George said he had no doubt the jury would have convicted him. The sentence was just shy of the maximum of life with no parole for 25 years.
Jean Zak was there to prepare for McDonald’s sentencing in her son’s death, sometime in the future.
“That was an extraordinary support that they have done to come and listen,” Awai’s father said outside of court.
Not that any of it seemed to matter to McDonald, 29, who strolled into the courtroom with security in a black Air Jordan track suit, hands in his pockets, his hair in strange braids, and with a look of pure boredom.
George didn’t hesitate to characterize the man the Crown said was “an enormous danger to the community” as an unrepentant thug.
“It is absolutely the case that there are no mitigating factors, none,” he said in his sentencing decision. “It is absolutely clear that Mr. McDonald was entrenched in a criminal lifestyle, one he was never going to escape if left to his own devices.”
McDonald’s criminal record told part of the story. His adult record, starting in 2011, begins with gun charges and theft. The day after he killed Zak, he was picked up for having a stolen loaded gun for which he was sent to prison for three years.
He violated his parole three times for having weapons and intimidating people. While in custody, then and now, he assaulted people and was written up for various problems. He had three knives taken away from him.
He had murdered Zak, who was walking home on July 31, 2012, when he was faced with McDonald, accomplice Thomas Lako, 28, and a sawed-off shotgun that McDonald fired into his chest. The motive was robbery, but the aftermath suggested McDonald got a thrill out of it. He wouldn’t be charged with that murder until after he was arrested for killing Awai.
Awai, had he lived, would have been a key witness in the Zak trial and was a part of McDonald’s criminal subculture, but there had been indications he was trying to pull back from it when he died.
However, the Zak murder could not be applied to the Awai murder sentencing as aggravating because the trial was held after McDonald was convicted in Awai’s death.
Assistant Crown attorney Konrad de Koning, in advocating for the maximum sentence, told George the Zak murder could be considered when assessing McDonald’s character.
A pre-sentence report told of how McDonald has an elementary school education, and started selling marijuana at age 13 and cocaine at 15. His drugs of choice were Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication and Percoset, a painkiller. He also drinks, including secret jailhouse brews.
He’s never worked and told the author of his report he “had no desire to turn his life around” and had no concerns about carrying loaded weapons around the community.
After he shot Awai in the head at Awai’s apartment, McDonald stole gold chains off the body and tried to cover his tracks. He tried to destroy evidence, implicated innocent people and threatened key witnesses not to talk.
All of this “paints a picture of a very, very dangerous man,” de Koning said.
Defence lawyer David Stoesser , who suggested 18 to 22 years of parole ineligibility, said there was “a glimmer of hope” in McDonald’s future is that his lengthy sentence could bring a shift in attitude when “he will have time to reflect.”
George agreed with Stoesser that he couldn’t ignore the recommendations from the jury that found McDonald guilty. The majority set the term at 10 and 15 years.
Before both the Crown and defence made their arguments, assistant Crown attorney Meredith Gardiner read two victim impact statements, one from Awai’s family and another from his girlfriend.
“Emmanuel had so much potential and there were many things he wanted to do with his life. … All of this potential was extinguished forever, never to be realized,” the family wrote.
“The laughter that used to reverberate throughout the whole house, refusing to be contained in a single room had now been replaced with a deep, inescapable sadness that is like a never-ending void that remains with us each day.”
Amedeo Awai, father of slain Emmanuel Awai speaks after the sentencing of William McDonald at the London courthouse on Thursday January 23, 2020. With Awai is Emmanuel’s girlfriend Rebecca Schlax who had a child with Awai. (Mike Hensen/The London Free Press)
Awai’s girlfriend, Schlax, wrote she fears for the future of her daughter. “Every single moment, even the best ones, such as the birth of my daughter, are bittersweet and not fully enjoyed because there will always be something missing,” she wrote. “Him.”
George said Awai’s criminal past “has nothing to do with the value of his life. . . . It has no impact on sentence. Mr. Awai was a son, a brother, a partner and as we now know about to become a father.”
McDonald had nothing to say when asked and only seemed concerned when he was told that among the people with whom he couldn’t communicate while in jail was Eliase Surafel – identified at the trial as co-conspirator Lil Homie – and another friend, Mason Ireland.
George said it would be irresponsible not to include them. “It’s simply part of his new reality and he must adjust to it or face further consequences” he said.
Schlax said outside of court she was relieved McDonald had been dealt a long sentence.
“There’s nothing that will bring Emmanuel back, but it definitely brought a sense of peace and closure that he will be gone for a long time,” she said.
“Hopefully forever. “