‘Nicholas was the bond that held my family’: Murder victim’s family seeks justice

The Calgary man who killed a nursing student in an unprovoked attack on a CTrain platform will be sentenced next month, but ahead of learning his fate — the victim’s family had their say.

Keeton Gagnon, 43, was convicted of second-degree murder in the 2017 death of Nicholas Nwonye, 46, a father of three who had just moved to Canada 18-months earlier.

Nwonye was an engineer in Nigeria, but was unable to find work in that field in Calgary because of the downturn. He worked two jobs while studying nursing at Bow Valley College.

‘Life itself is choking me’

Nwonye’s wife, Ugonna Nwonye, was left to raise her three young children — three and five years old and a three-month-old infant — when her husband died.

The Crown read her statement to the court.

In it, Nwonye spoke directly to her husband’s killer.

“I keep asking what we have done to deserve this,” the statement read. “You wrecked and slaughtered the hearts of innocent children.”

Nwonye’s statement says she was a young wife and ambitious individual when she arrived in Canada who was taking steps to pass the bar in Alberta.

She had been a practising attorney in Nigeria.

Now, she says she has trouble maintaining relationships with people, has acute anxiety and suffers from a panic disorder.

“I feel that life itself is choking me,” Nwonye said.

Nicholas Nwonye’s mother Anne also spoke directly to Gagnon in her statement, which was read aloud by her daughter.

“Nicholas was the bond that held my family,” Anne Nwonye’s statement reads, going on to say he was a Christian man with a strong faith and family values.

“He never had any encounters with the law, so it was confusing that he died this way.”

Nicholas Nwonye had been in Canada for 18 months when he was killed. The father of three was taking nursing classes after he struggled to find an engineering job in Calgary. (Submitted by Ugonna Nwonye)

‘Swift, brutal’ attack

In September, Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Michele Hollins described Gagnon’s attack on Nwonye as “swift, brutal and purposeful.”

A second-degree murder conviction comes with a life sentence with no parole for 10 to 25 years.

On Friday, prosecutors Ken McCaffrey and Will Tran argued Gagnon should face a 14 to 15 year parole ineligibility period while defence lawyer Shelley Moore proposed her client should be allowed to apply for release in 12 years.  

Nwonye had just finished class

On June 2, 2017, Nwonye had finished class at Bow Valley College where he was training to become a nurse. He was waiting for the CTrain on the City Hall platform, when Gagnon tapped him on the shoulder.

When Nwonye turned, Gagnon stabbed him three times, once through the heart.

Gagnon then walked away, crossed the street and boarded a train, where he was ultimately arrested.

At trial, Gagnon’s lawyer argued her client should be found guilty of manslaughter not murder.

But Hollins ruled the killing “was not an accident.”

Gagnon is no stranger to the justice system. Just months before he killed Nwonye, he was released from prison after serving a three-year sentence for assault with a weapon.

His criminal history dates back 20 years in British Columbia and includes dozens of convictions, including several for crimes of violence.

Sentencing arguments

Crown prosecutor, Will Tran, told court Friday there had been no evidence Gagnon made efforts toward rehabilitation in the past four and a half years since the crime.

Gagnon’s lawyer, Shelley Moore, says her client has been in the Calgary Remand Centre since his 2017 arrest, and that due largely to the COVID-19 pandemic, rehab programming hasn’t been an option for her client.

For his part, the accused offered an apology to Nwonye’s family.

“I am truly sorry,” he said during the sentencing hearing. “This trauma should not have happened.”

However, Gagnon did not take responsibility for the crime and appeared to try and shift the blame.

Faith in the Justice System

Nwonye’s mother, sisters and wife say they have to trust that Canadian courts will provide justice for Nicholas.

His sister Ezi Agwu says she still questions whether she did the right thing in helping her brother and his young family move to Canada.

“I invested in his relocation thinking it was the right thing for him and his family. Sometimes I’m filled with regret and guilt — thinking to myself that he would still be alive if he had not relocated to Canada ‘ she said via remote link to the courtroom.

“I put my hope in the justice system because I know for every wrong, the law provides a remedy,” Nwonye’s mother wrote in her statement.

His wife closed hers by speaking directly to her deceased husband.

“You were a perfect husband and father. You sacrificed everything, including your life for your family.”

Keeton Gagnon will be sentenced on January 18.

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