In 1995, reeling after a breakup, Laura Letts took a one-year leave of absence from her job as an elementary schoolteacher in rural Alberta.
She wanted to travel.
Letts spent half of that year about as far away from rural Alberta as one could hope to get — Australia and New Zealand.
Then 35, Letts was taking part in all of the textbook tourist activities she could.
That’s how she crossed paths with the man who would become her husband — the same man who is now in a Kamloops jail cell charged with her murder.
At the time, Peter Beckett was operating one of the can’t-miss tourist attractions on New Zealand’s North Island.
He had bought a pair of surplus Unimog off-road trucks from the New Zealand Army and converted them into four-wheel-drive tour buses that he’d drive up and down the eight-kilometre stretch of coastline between Napier and Cape Kidnappers, all the while offering commentary to the riders, pointing out wildlife and explaining the history of the area.
Recently separated from his wife, Beckett was focusing on his work — and business, at least during the seven-month tourist season, was good.
On Nov. 30, 1995, Letts bought a ticket for Unimog Adventure Tours.
Beckett said the job kept him busy enough that it was rare he’d actually have individual conversations with any of his patrons.
Letts, however, caught his attention.
“She brought me a banana skin,” Beckett, 59, told KTW.
“She asked me, ‘Where’s your garbage?’
“I just kind of looked at her. In New Zealand, we say ‘rubbish.’”
Eventually, Beckett said, Letts made her request clear and the banana peel was disposed of.
They hit it off. After further discussions — during a conversation about the taste of abalone — Beckett said he took a leap of faith.
“We were just talking and I said, straight out of my mouth, ‘Would you like to come home and try some?’” he said.
“And, I thought, ‘What have you just done?’”
To his surprise, Letts accepted the invitation.
“We went back to the car yard, went to buy some salad stuff and then right back to my house,” Beckett said. “I had some wine and whipped up some paua [abalone] fritters on the barbie. We visited until 2:30 in the morning.”
Beckett and Letts spent the next two weeks together.
He took 10 days off work to travel with her to the South Island.
“We just clicked,” he said.
“It wasn’t a love-at-first-sight thing; it was more a meeting of the minds. I hate to use cliches, but it was soulmate stuff.
“I’d been married before, I’d had breakups before, I’d fallen in love before — but this was different than that.
“It’s just an amazing love story.”
The two parted ways and Letts returned to Canada.
Beckett eventually got back together with his wife, only to break up for good a few years later.
On Christmas Day in 2000, Beckett flew from New Zealand to Edmonton and drove north for an hour to Westlock, Alta., the small town of 5,000 people Letts called home.
That visit turned into regular flights overseas for both Beckett and Letts whenever their respective work schedules would allow.
In 2002, fresh off a three-year term on Napier’s city council, Beckett sold everything and moved to Westlock, joining Letts in her half-duplex on the northern edge of town.
They married in 2003.
John Latimer, who lived next door to Letts prior to Beckett’s arrival and for the duration of his stay in Westlock, said he thought highly of the relationship.
“I thought they were a very nice couple,” the retired police officer said.
“We visited with them, went out for suppers. We had a hell of a good relationship and I never ever heard a bad word between them.”
But, Latimer said, there were marital bumps.
In 2007, Letts went to Westlock police, alleging Beckett had been abusive.
They separated and she filed for divorce.
Latimer said the troubles began when Letts’ family found out about Beckett’s previous marriage.
“It was all to do with her parents,” Latimer said.
“They’re religious. They’re against divorce. I think she was a little bit dominated by her family.”
But, the couple was able to reconcile within months and life appeared to get back to normal.
Letts taught second-graders at Dapp School, 25 minutes north of Westlock, and Beckett worked as a driver; sometimes long-haul truck routes, other times fill-in jobs behind the wheel of a school bus.
Beckett and Letts loved to get away in their motor-home — often weekend trips to Alberta lakes, with longer vacations in B.C. during summer holidays.
That’s precisely what they did in August 2010 — a trip that would eventually leave Letts dead and Beckett behind bars.
Remembering a ‘passionate’ teacher
DAPP, Alta. — In the five years since Laura Letts last darkened the doorway of Dapp School, the small, rural elementary-junior high has changed its name and most of its staff — but one thing remains the same.
“Laura was very highly regarded in our community,” said Darcie Eamor, the principal of what is now called Pembina North Community School.
“This is still a very sensitive topic for us.”
Dapp School is a tiny building on Highway 661, about 25 minutes north of Westlock, Alta.
It sneaks up on you, hidden between windbreaks among miles and miles of farmland.
Wendy Scinski was principal of Dapp School when Letts was a teacher. Today, Scinski is assistant superintendent of Pembina Hills regional school district, but she holds fond memories of her close friend.
“We were good friends,” Scinski told KTW.
“We commuted back and forth from Westlock a lot together.
“She was a kind person.
“As far as teachers go, she was just a very dedicated teacher.
“She was passionate.”
Letts grew up in a prominent agricultural family in the Westlock area.
“The Letts family, they’ve been here a long time,” said Westlock Mayor Ralph Leriger.
“They’re a strong and proud family.”
After studying education at the University of Alberta, Letts started teaching at Dapp School in 1983.
“She was a good teacher,” Scinski said.
“She’s probably one of the few people that I know of that I can’t believe there’s anyone who would say anything bad about her.
“She was an incredible lady. I think she should be remembered.”
Scinski said she was shocked to hear Letts had died in 2010, and blown away by the later allegations against her husband, Peter Beckett.
“You don’t think that something like this could happen,” she said. “It’s like a TV show. It’s hard to believe it’s happening.”
Letts’ longtime next-door neighbour shared a similar sentiment.
Cathy Latimer said Letts was very well-regarded, both in Westlock and Dapp.
“She was a beautiful person,” Latimer said.
“Everyone thought very highly of her.”
Letts was 50 when she died.