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Former Amherst jail guard convicted for ‘A frenzy of slashing and wounding’ over child support

A judge has found a former Amherst jail guard guilty of aggravated assault for attacking his ex-wife’s boyfriend with a knife because he believed his child support payments were supplementing their lifestyle.

David Alexander Baxter was charged with having a knife in his posession for the purpose of committing an offence, wounding Katie O’Neil, thereby committing agravated assault, and the attempted murder of Todd Smith by stabbing and slashing him with a knife.

“On June 1, 2017, David Baxter inflicted terrible injuries on Todd Smith. These could easily have resulted in his death,” Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey Hunt said in a written decision released Tuesday.

Baxter and O’Neil used to be married.

“These (arguments) centered on Baxter’s view that he was paying an amount for support which was unreasonable. Baxter believed and complained that Katie O’Neil was voluntarily taking the summer off and living off his payments.”

- Judge Jeffrey Hunt

“They have three children together and in June 2017 shared custody,” Hunt said. “There was a child support order requiring maintenance payments from Mr. Baxter who was a correctional officer. Ms. O’Neil had a modest income working seasonally.”

Smith had been the couple’s neighbour before they split up.

“After separation, Smith and O’Neil were in a relationship which was ongoing in June 2017,” said the judge.

Baxter testified he had no issue with the relationship.

“The issue appeared to be that Baxter felt he was unfairly subsidizing the lifestyle of O’Neil and Smith with his child support payments,” Hunt said. “When his payments went into arrears, the Maintenance Enforcement Program began to garnishee his wages.”

Smith — “a big man but relatively soft spoken,” according to the judge — testified that during his relationship with O’Neil, Baxter made threats toward him, but he never took them seriously.

He knew the former couple had argued over money.

“These (arguments) centered on Baxter’s view that he was paying an amount for support which was unreasonable. Baxter believed and complained that Katie O’Neil was voluntarily taking the summer off and living off his payments.”

Matters “came to a flash point” when Baxter’s wages were garnisheed, Smith told the court.

“(The attacks) were terrible. They were gruesome. And they were inflicted in a sneak attack with a very serious weapon,”

- Judge Jeffrey Hunt

Smith was outside his home at 56 West Pleasant St. when an “upset” Baxter showed up, using foul language to ask when O’Neil was going to get another job.

“Baxter with a raised voice asked her to get another job. The context was that O’Neil was then on summer layoff and did not intend to work till the fall. Baxter’s extreme unhappiness with this had been voiced on many occasions previously. The children were in shared parenting, so her income was relevant to the amount he paid.”

Smith testified that Baxter asked to speak to him privately.

“Smith says that Baxter asked him more than once to make O’Neil get a job. After Baxter made this statement a final time, Smith replied saying words to the effect that this had nothing to do with him. At this point Smith recalls Baxter saying, ‘Well then, I guess, it’s just you and me big boy.’”

Smith testified that Baxter moved very swiftly to close the space between them, grabbed him by his long hair and pulled him off the stairs where he was standing.

“He recalls seeing Baxter with a knife, which he believed came from behind his back. He recalls being stabbed almost immediately. He was taken to his knees. He never really managed to mount a defence of any sort.”

Baxter stabbed him in the back and the neck, then twice in the chest, Smith told the court.

“And then he pulled the knife back out and started stabbing me again in the shoulders. And at that point, Katie was already coming running down the steps and she stood between us.”

Smith had 24 separate wounds or cuts.

“They were terrible. They were gruesome. And they were inflicted in a sneak attack with a very serious weapon,” said the judge.

“It was a vicious and cowardly attack on a defenceless person.”

One of Baxter and O’Neil’s daughters came out screaming at her father to stop, her mother testified.

“This as much as anything appeared to break through to him,” said the judge. “He moved away from Todd Smith who picked himself up and struggled towards and into her nearby apartment.”

O’Neil’s thumb was cut during the attack, requiring 14 stitches.

A paramedic called to the scene that afternoon “described (Smith’s) multiple wounds including the exposure of the jugular vein and injuries that ranged, he said, from the head and neck down the chest and torso, left arm and inner leg. It was a frenzy of slashing and wounding.”

Baxter is also a big man, said the judge. “In June 2017 he was six-foot-two and 190 pounds. As a correctional officer he had some specialized training in physical combat.”

Baxter testified about his “history of increasing anxiety and level of stress” before the attack.

“He tied this to his financial problems and his sense that the support situation was unfair and unjust.”

Baxter denied he intended to kill Smith. He claimed to have “no direct memory of the attack itself.”

The judge dismissed Baxter’s claim he acted in self-defence. “Simply put there is no air of reality to such a suggestion.”

But Hunt acquitted Baxter of attempted murder, instead convicting him of the included offence of aggravated assault, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.

It would be reasonable to infer that Baxter wanted Smith dead, said the judge.

“It is also a reasonable inference that he didn’t care if he lived or died.”

The judge also found Baxter guilty of the aggravated assault on his ex-wife and the weapons charge.

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