BURNABY — Hannele Sairanen had a bad feeling talking with her son, Branson Sanders.
It was Nov. 27, 2011, only weeks before Christmas. She told him to come for a visit.
Whatever was troubling him at the time, she remembers thinking it would all be better if he came to see her in the Comox Valley.
“That was the last conversation I had with him.”
From what Sairanen has been told, he was dead only hours later. Sanders was 20 years and four months old.
His severely burned body was found in bushes off Fareham Avenue and Elwell Road in Burnaby by someone walking their dog on Dec. 2, 2011. The location was near the George Derby Conservation Area next to Robert Burnaby Park.
Sanders graduated from Cariboo Hill secondary and grew up at Mulberry Place, a housing complex, both nearby.
The Integrated Homicide Investigation Team believes he was killed in a home in the 18000-block of 55 Avenue in Surrey and his body dumped where it was found.
Media reports have said it’s believed Sanders was killed after a fight at a house party.
Two men, Shakib Shakib of Burnaby and Brandon Nandan of Surrey, both now 21, were arrested in March 2012 and originally charged with second-degree murder. That was raised to first-degree murder and carrying out an indignity to a human body.
They pleaded guilty to manslaughter Dec. 5 at Surrey provincial court. Their sentencing hearing is scheduled for March 28.
A 17-year-old young offender was arrested in November 2012 and pleaded guilty on Dec. 4 to attempting to obstruct justice. He was originally charged with first-degree murder and accessory after the fact to murder. That offender, who has not been identified due to his age at the time of the crime, has a sentencing hearing set for March 18.
But for Sairanen, there can be no satisfaction in whatever sentence is meted out.
“It’s a joke. It’s a really bad, bad joke.”
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Sanders was born in Vancouver to Sairanen and her husband at the time, Kerick Sanders.
He was 22 months old when his parents separated and later divorced. He stayed living with his mom in Vancouver until he was about 10 years old. Sairanen was moving to Gabriola Island and Sanders wasn’t keen.
So he moved to Burnaby to live with his dad full-time at Mulberry Place, making regular visits to his mom.
“Branson was a city kid always,” Sairanen said with a laugh. “He liked malls and going to movies.”
Sairanen says they were close. She had since remarried and moved to Courtenay. On his visits Sanders would bring her CDs of music he thought she’d like.
“He had the best laugh and the best hugs. He was always very loving.”
And it was unusual for him not to call.
“If two to three days go by and he doesn’t call to check in, I’ll be calling him. We were pretty tight.”
So when she hadn’t heard from him for several days in December 2011, she started to worry. She was calling Kerick asking him what was going on. But he had no idea.
Then came the knock on the door.
It was Dec. 5, 2011, eight days after she’d last spoken with her son. Courtenay RCMP officers arrived at about 10 p.m. to tell her Sanders was dead.
“It was like all I could do was scream,” Sairanen recalled. “There weren’t any real words, disbelief, it was like a horror picture show.”
The officers told her it was being treated as a homicide. “When I heard those words, that was like, Oh my God.”
It took some time for the initial shock to wear off.
“There’s a couple months of my life there that are totally missing because I couldn’t even speak after that for a long time,” she said. “I went into this numb, numb place where, I can’t describe it.”
And for months she had no idea how her son died. She was tormented with the wondering. “Oh my god, did they torture him? Did they burn him alive?” she thought.
During a phone interview, the one time Sairanen broke down was recalling what the coroner told her.
“She said, ‘You don’t want to come see your baby.’ She said, ‘Just remember your son.’ By that time I had some idea that what happened to my son wasn’t pretty.”
Once she learned some of the details, as grim and horrific as they were, “It was a weird comfort. At least I knew.”
But the nightmare hasn’t ended for Sanders’ loved ones.
His father, Kerick, moved back to his native South Carolina where his family is from.
He was devastated by his son’s death. But he also “knew that people knew more about what happened to Branson and were not speaking out.” He simply couldn’t live in that environment.
As for Sairanen, she admits to using alcohol to sleep at night. And she knows she’s lost a handful of friends because they no longer know how to talk to her anymore.
She’s also gained friends through a support group for parents who have lost their children. And she’s grateful for the support of her husband Doug.
Sairanen will be at the March 28 sentencing hearing in Surrey to get a look at her son’s killers. But she’s frustrated that there will be no trial.
“Branson didn’t get a voice in that. I didn’t even get to speak.”
Meanwhile, her son is never far from her thoughts.
She’s lit a candle for Branson every night since she learned of his death. Every morning she looks at photographs of her son.
“Every morning I go, ‘I miss you, my son. I wish you were here.’ “