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Tensions high in Loretta Saunders murder case

Tensions high in Loretta Saunders murder caseBlake Leggette, 25, is escorted into Halifax provincial court on February 28, 2014 in Halifax, N.S. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mike Dembeck

HALIFAX - Amid a heavy security presence and tensions that ran high, the friends and family of Loretta Saunders packed a Halifax courtroom Friday to get their first glimpse of the man charged in the death of the Inuit student.

Moments after 25-year-old Blake Leggette entered provincial court, a man in the gallery screamed "You gutless coward" and "Watch, bud, watch" before being reprimanded by one of many sheriffs and police officers.

Sitting on the prisoner's bench in a light green sweatshirt and jeans, Leggette stared ahead as the case against him and his 28-year-old girlfriend, Victoria Henneberry, was adjourned until March 19. She did not appear in court and was instead represented by her lawyer.

The couple were charged Thursday with first-degree murder after Saunders's body was found on a snow-covered median off the Trans-Canada Highway in New Brunswick a day earlier. The 26-year-old Saint Mary's University student had disappeared Feb. 13.

Saunders's sister said she remained composed upon seeing Leggette in court by drawing strength from the memory of her older sister, an honours student at Saint Mary's University doing her thesis on missing and murdered aboriginal women.

"I've felt Loretta living inside of me, which sounds crazy but I feel her energy and I feel like her sometimes," Delilah Terriak, 21, said outside court. "I dealt with things the way she would have."

Other family members, some wearing purple shirts that said, "Stop Violence Against Aboriginal Women," said they were relieved Saunders's body was found and would be returned to her parents in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L., following an autopsy in New Brunswick.

"Not very often are aboriginal people returned and she's being returned home," said Barbara Coffey, her aunt. "She's going home."

Lyle Howe, Leggette's lawyer, said he has not received any material on the case and he and his client are waiting for more information to be disclosed before they can proceed.

"He's just extremely concerned about what's going to happen," Howe said outside court when asked about Leggette. "There's a lot of unknown at this point, so it's mostly questions."

Police allege Saunders was killed the day she was last seen at a Halifax apartment she once shared with the two accused. Police could not say how long the three lived together.

At a news conference earlier in the week, Saunders's boyfriend said he last saw her as she was leaving his home to check on the apartment he said she was subletting to Leggette and Henneberry.

Saunders's disappearance triggered a widespread search and public appeals from her family for help in finding the young woman. Dozens of supporters papered the city with posters with pictures of a smiling Saunders and her bright blue car.

It also renewed debate on the plight of aboriginal women across the country, with Saunders's family and some members of Parliament calling for a national inquiry and action plan to address the problem.

The Nova Scotia legislature held a moment of silence Friday in honour of Saunders.

Several relatives said her life and loss have drawn attention to the issue of violence against native women and that they hoped that would not be forgotten.

"Loretta made a grand point and she hasn't died in vain," Terriak said.

Supt. Jim Perrin of Halifax Regional Police explained Thursday that a charge of first-degree murder requires some planning and that "our investigators are satisfied that existed."

He wouldn't give any details of how Saunders died.

The Crown dropped charges of auto theft that were filed against Henneberry and Leggette after her 2000 Toyota Celica was found Feb. 18 in Harrow, Ont., south of Windsor.

Follow @alison_auld on Twitter.

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