It’s been five years since Adeilah Dahlke lost her “protector” – older brother, Dylan – but still, not a day goes by when she doesn’t reach for her phone, hoping for a text or one of his impromptu calls.

Dylan was 29 when he was murdered by Robert Anthony Ferguson, a now 63-year-old Highlands East resident, in the early hours of July 6, 2019. Ferguson was found guilty of second-degree murder in June 2023 after the court heard he stabbed Dahlke while he slept and left him to die.

Ferguson was sentenced to life in prison by Justice Clyde Smith in a Lindsay courtroom March 20. He will be eligible for parole in 12 years.

Adeilah said Dylan’s death and subsequent five years of court proceedings had taken a considerable toll on her life.

“It’s been devastating – how do you move on and try to rebuild your life after something like this,” Adeilah said. “I still play over the phone call from my mom, when she told me Dylan had been killed… it was like my heart broke, and I’ve been working to fix it ever since.”

The siblings grew up in Haliburton – first in a house along Glamorgan Road and, later, a cottage overlooking Portage Lake. With only 18 months between them, Adeilah said she and Dylan did everything together during their formative years.

“We were best friends – as a kid, he was so funny. He loved playing pranks on people, dressing up in costumes even when it wasn’t Halloween. He was never afraid to put himself out there, and he made friends very easily,” she remembers.

Adeilah said the pair used to pretend they were secret agents and would spend hours concocting elaborate storylines that usually involved friends and neighbours. There were often disagreements – Adeilah recalls a time when Dylan, after giving her a piggyback, suddenly let her go as a prank, causing her to fall against a door.

“I remember chasing him around the house with a broom and eventually smacking him– I drew blood, but we decided we were even and wouldn’t tell our parents. We always had each other’s backs,” Adeilah said.

They attended the old Victoria Street school, with Adeilah spending two years at Stuart Baker once it was built, with Dylan going to J.D. Hodgson elementary. They were one grade apart at Haliburton Highlands Secondary School.

“He was one of the cool kids, and I definitely wasn’t, so I was always almost honoured when he came up to me in the halls,” she said.

While Adeilah moved from Haliburton after high school, Dylan stuck around. He worked odd jobs but found his niche in the construction industry. He had apprenticeships in roofing and drywalling and assisted with the building of condos on Lake Avenue and Park Street.

While the siblings drifted apart in their later years, Adeilah said they spoke on the phone and texted. She last saw her brother in November 2018, when he visited Waterloo.

“It was such a great visit – we stayed up until 2 a.m. talking about life and really catching up. That was special, because we hadn’t had the chance to do that in such a long time,” Adeilah said. “He talked about doing big things – he wanted to go on a trip to the east coast. He set out in April 2019, but only got as far as Tory Hill.”

Adeilah said the hardest part is not knowing why Ferguson killed her brother. The court heard the pair had gotten into a disagreement over cigarettes and alcohol, though Ferguson has never discussed his motive.

She’s still learning to cope with the grief, the same for mom, Tobey Champ, who said her entire family has had difficulty moving on.

“There is such a hole in the community – it feels like we all were stabbed in the heart,” Tobey said. “Dylan’s fun-loving spirit and helpful nature made an impact in this area. I’ve been approached by so many people whose lives he touched – he’s missed for his kindness and ingenuity.”

Dylan’s aunt, Penny Champ, said he “had a smile that lit up every room.” She remembers her nephew as a music enthusiast, who was never afraid to break out into song. Adeilah said she still watches an old video, from when Dylan was about four, of their grandmother singing a lullaby. “Dylan just said, ‘but what about the rock and roll?’ and he started immediately rocking out… he was such a goof,” she said, smiling.

Shortly after Dylan’s passing, Adeilah got a commemorative tattoo – an etching of a drawing her brother had done of cherry blossom branches. It’s inscribed with Dylan’s signature – a pair of Ds facing one another.

“Now, it feels like I have a little piece of him with me every day,” she said.

Ferguson sentenced

In delivering his judgement, Justice Smith rejected Ferguson’s claim the killing was carried out “in the heat of passion” after an argument, saying the man’s actions involved planning and deliberation. While he expressed remorse to police, Smith said Ferguson made no attempt to assist Dahlke after stabbing him.

“Instead, he simply retired to his bedroom to await other developments,” Smith said.

The judge concluded the incident was rooted in excessive alcohol consumption and use of other intoxicants, with the court hearing Ferguson and Dahlke had been smoking marijuana. A psychological assessment revealed there were no concerns surrounding paranoid/delusional thinking, psychosis, anxiety, depression, mania, or elevated mood states playing any role.

“This suggests there may in fact be good reason to worry about the risk of Ferguson reoffending and about his prospects for successful rehabilitation,” Smith said.

He landed on 12 years of parole ineligibility, instead of the 15 years sought by the Crown, after acknowledging Ferguson’s tough upbringing, lack of any other criminal history, cooperation throughout court proceedings, and time already served in custody.

“Mr. Ferguson’s time in custody to date has not been easy,” Smith said. “Twelve years takes you to 75, at that point you will be eligible for parole. I have every reason to believe, if you conduct yourself in an appropriate manner between now and then, you have every reason to be optimistic of obtaining parole – that is entirely up to you.”