Hunters recount seeing male in blue car before fatal shooting at marsh

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ST. THOMAS – Goose hunting season was open and it was a perfect September afternoon and evening for three friends to meet at the Hullett Marsh.

But later just after sundown, when they emerged from the bush north of Clinton after bagging some birds, they unexpectedly found themselves up to their hip waders in an OPP homicide investigation.

At the Superior Court retrial of Boris Panovski, 79, three hunters testified to what they saw and heard on Sept. 13, 2014, at the Hullett Provincial Wildlife Area when Toronto-area businessperson Donato Frigo, 70, was shot to death and his wife Eva Willer Frigo was injured while riding their horses at a field dog training event.

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Panovski has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and attempted murder in the shootings. He has been in custody for almost decade, but finds himself fighting the charges again, after he was convicted at a Goderich trial in 2018, successfully appealed the convictions in 2021, had the case moved to Elgin County in 2023 and began his retrial in St. Thomas last month.

This time around, the case is not being tried by a jury, but by Justice Marc Garson alone. The Crown said in its opening statement that the Frigos were ambushed while riding along a road in the conservation area with their dogs during the annual field dog event at the site.

The prosecution says it is setting out to prove Panovski had a long-standing beef with Frigo and blamed him for his loss of reputation as a top-notch bird dog breeder that was sparked by an embarrassing incident in Waynesboro, Ga., in 2005. Years earlier, Panovski had sold Frigo a champion dog named Panovski Silver, whom Frigo renamed Belfield Silver after the incident.

The details about what happened in Georgia have not been discussed openly during the retrial, except that the head of the prestigious Georgia Field trials testified Panovski was driven to the county line by Burke County sheriffs in the middle of the competition. A short mid-trial agreed statement of facts concerning some pieces of evidence filed as an exhibit with Garson had attached to it a redacted copy of a news report from the area.

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There are other complications with the retrial with witnesses reaching a decade back in their memory banks. Also, Panovski, who has simultaneous Macedonian translation of the proceeding, changed lawyers in April and opted for a judge-alone trial days before a jury was to be picked.

On Tuesday, Garson heard testimony from Josh McLeod, Jason Bayne and Matt Black, three friend who met up at the Hullett wildlife area to goose hunt.

McLeod said he caught a ride with Bayne to the hunt and met Black mid afternoon at what McLeod called the “Airport Pond parking lot” where they plotted out their course for the day. There was another vehicle in that lot, which meant there were already hunters staking that area.

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So, McLeod and Bayne drove to another lot near the area called the Cedar Swamp, with Black following them there five minutes later.

Both McLeod and Bayne testified that when they pulled into the Cedar Swamp lot, they was a small blue car with tinted windows parked at an angle, with the nose facing out.

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Bayne pulled in beside the car. Both men said they could see a male driver wearing old-style camo coat with his hood up sitting in the car. The car “almost instantly drove away,” McLeod said, when they parked beside him.

Both men thought the car might be a four-door Toyota, based on their car knowledge and the quick look they got of the vehicle.

Police photographs from the investigation have already been put into evidence, including photos of a blue Toyota identified as belonging to Panovski.

Black drove into the lot and the hunting trio spent about 30 minutes organizing their decoys, gear, guns and ammo and putting on their hip waders before walking into the swamp area.

But before heading into the bush to the pond, all three men testified to seeing the blue car two more times, driving up and down on Wildlife Line.

The men made their way to the hunting area and all three testified to hearing about a dozen gunshots, some from other hunters far away, but three that were “uncomfortably close,” McLeod said.

The three hunters headed out of the area about 8:30 p.m. Bayne went to retrieve his pickup truck, while McLeod and Black walked along the road.

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McLeod and Black could see lights coming at them “really fast” and two OPP cruisers stopped abruptly when they saw the hunters.

“They were pretty close to us when they hit the brakes,” McLeod said.

Two officers – a female and a male – approached them, and the male officer had his gun pointed at them, until he cleared up who they were.

Bayne drove up a moment later. The officers told the trio that someone had been killed on the property and two of the men testified they asked specifically about a vehicle.

McLeod said the police asked about a blue SUV and he told them about seeing the blue car. Black testified that the officers asked about “a small bluish car.”

The three men then drove to the OPP detachment in Goderich where they gave their statements.

The retrial continues on Wednesday.

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