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Port Alberni woman sentenced to four years for manslaughter in shooting death of son

“The trauma I felt watching my son die in front of my eyes is unbearable,” she said. “And I am so sorry that happened.”
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Samantha Jesselynn Dittmer has been charged with careless use of a firearm after the shooting death of her son, Jesse McPhee. JESSE McPHEE VIA INSTAGRAM

A Port Alberni woman convicted of manslaughter in the shooting death of her adult son two years ago has been sentenced to four years in prison.

Samantha Dittmer, 64, was originally charged with the second-degree murder of Jesse McPhee, a 37-year-old longshoreman who was shot and killed at point-blank range with a hunting rifle in their shared home on Aug. 29, 2021. In October, after a four-week trial, a jury convicted Dittmer of the lesser offence of manslaughter based on her careless use of a firearm.

At her sentencing hearing Friday, Dittmer told the court she was devastated that her son was dead.

“The trauma I felt watching my son die in front of my eyes is unbearable,” she said. “And I am so sorry that happened. … If I could take it all back I would. No one is going to miss him more than me. I am very very sad.”

Both Crown and defence asked for the four-year prison sentence, which is the mandatory minimum sentence for the offence of manslaughter committed with a firearm.

Justice Margot Fleming said although she did not consider Dittmer to be a credible witness, she believes Dittmer did not intend to kill her son. Based on the evidence, Fleming was satisfied that Dittmer committed the unlawful act of careless use of a firearm. She found that Dittmer’s handling of the rifle was objectively dangerous and a significant contributing cause of McPhee’s death.

The trial heard that Dittmer moved to Port Alberni from the Lower Mainland several years ago. She planned to sell her house in Tsawwassen where McPhee was living with his wife and two young children and have everyone live with her.

However, McPhee and his wife went through a bitter and painful separation. There were arson attempts on the home in Tsawwassen and McPhee was beaten up and injured. Eventually, he and his new partner, Brandy Kazakoff, moved to Port Alberni, and lived on the main floor of Dittmer’s house.

Dittmer and her son were still fearful for their safety and set up security cameras. McPhee had several firearms and a significant amount of ammunition. He insisted on putting the rifle upstairs under his mother’s bed in case of an attack. Dittmer had a rough idea how to use the firearm. She knew it had a safety and knew it had ammunition in the buttstock.

The trial heard that McPhee was trying to teach his mother self-defence. He would sneak up behind her and slide his thumbnail across her throat, which she found unnerving. In the summer of 2021, McPhee was violent, erratic and never sober.

McPhee was not able to cope with his separation and was completely dependent on his mother. As a result, Dittmer was extremely stressed and unwell. She had dangerously high blood pressure and was experiencing panic attacks. Her doctor referred her to Port Alberni mental health.

On Aug. 29, 2021, Dittmer, Kazakoff and McPhee went to Great Central Lake to check on crayfish traps. McPhee drank a lot of beer. The women were also drinking.

Back at home, Dittmer was stressed and asked her son for a hug. McPhee hugged her so hard he hurt her and whispered in her ear that maybe he should just put her out of her misery.

Dittmer was appalled and left the house, the trial heard. While she was out, she decided she wanted McPhee to take the rifle from under her bed and put all his guns away.

Returning home, she grabbed the rifle without doing any safety checks and walked downstairs into McPhee’s suite. He was standing there looking away. Dittmer decided to put rifle down and walk away quietly.

“All of a sudden, there was some kind of physical contact between Mr. McPhee and Miss Dittmer caused by him suddenly rushing towards her. The rifle discharged during this contact, the muzzle pushing or pressing against his chest. He was shot and landed face down on the floor,” Fleming said.

An autopsy found that McPhee’s blood alcohol level was two-and-a-half times the legal limit.

Although Dittmer testified that she never had her finger on the trigger, Fleming said she was satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that Dittmer caused the rifle to fire by pulling the trigger accidentally during the sudden physical contact with McPhee.

“He could not have pulled the trigger. The trigger had to be pulled. And her evidence denying she pulled the trigger is completely unreliable. Her memory is very poor, fragmented and somewhat inconsistent,” Fleming said.

The amount of force to pull the trigger was just under four pounds, she noted.

Although McPhee was not functioning well, his violent death is a tragic loss to those who knew and loved him, including his two daughters, his step-sister and his mother.

“He was not only troubled, he was passionately alive, loving and very creative,” said Fleming.

Although Dittmer spoke about how much she loved her son and never intended to harm him, she did not take responsibility or express remorse for the shooting, said the judge. Rather, Dittmer said: “If people think I was careless because I didn’t think it was loaded, well, I guess I was.”

The judge found Dittmer’s moral blameworthiness was reduced by her emotional and psychological distress.

ldickson@timescolonist.com