NEWMARKET, Ont. - A man who fired bullets into the heads of his family and torched their bodies beyond recognition was sentenced Tuesday to serve at least 22 years for what relatives called the "beast-like" slayings.

Bao Mac pleaded guilty to three counts of second-degree murder in the deaths of his wife Zu Ling He, her 22-year-old daughter Qian Jenny Zhao and his four-year-old daughter Lisa Mac.

In the days and weeks leading up to the murders, Mac's wife had been talking about leaving him and going back to China. He also had been arguing with his stepdaughter, calling her a prostitute for having a boyfriend and leaving threatening messages on the boyfriend's phone.

He later said he couldn't handle the stress anymore, and that he killed his four-year-old daughter because she was "too young to understand" and no one would be left to raise her.

"Mr. Mac, you perpetrated a heinous, callous and senseless act," Judge Elizabeth Quinlan said in sentencing Mac.

Second-degree murder carries an automatic life sentence, but parole ineligibility can be set anywhere between 10 and 25 years. Both the Crown and defence proposed 22 years.

Crown attorney Michelle Rumble told court Mac had also intended to kill himself that day in October 2007, but ultimately he did not, instead telling investigators "someone" was trying to kill his family.

"Bao Mac brutally and ruthlessly murdered the three people who should have been able to trust him most," Rumble said.

"The innocent were slaughtered and the coward spared himself."

Mac showed no emotion through the hearing and Rumble said he had not expressed remorse or apologized to surviving family members, despite his guilty plea. Later in the day, Mac stood when Quinlan asked if he had anything to say.

"I want to tell you I loved my wife and my children," Mac said through a Cantonese interpreter.

"No matter what you say, I loved my family a lot. I want to admit that I have done the wrong thing and I want to apologize."

On Oct. 14, 2007, Mac forced his wife and four-year-old daughter into their van, which was parked inside the garage at their home. Mac, who was already holding the revolver he kept in the garage, pressed the gun to the right side of his wife's head and shot her. He then shot the little girl in the head.

Mac then waited for his stepdaughter to get home. Before she had time to take off her coat or unpack the groceries her mother had asked her to pick up, Mac put his revolver to her left temple and shot her. He dragged her body by the legs down the hall, through the kitchen and out the door to the garage. He then put her body on top of her dead mother's.

He changed his clothes, then drove the van with the bodies of his family to his sister's workplace and asked her to look after their mother that night since his wife couldn't. He then drove the van to a rural area of King Township, doused the van in gasoline and lit it on fire.

The bodies were burned so badly that identification could only be made through dental records and DNA. For days, police thought there were only two bodies inside the charred vehicle.

Mac's defence lawyer, Fariborz Davoudi, disagreed with Rumble's characterization of his client as a coward. He had intended to kill himself, but the fire in the van had spread too quickly, he said.

Twenty-one of Zu Ling He's relatives described their pain in a victim impact statement translated from Cantonese to English.

"The beast-like slaying of our three family members has tortured us from the bottom of our hearts," they wrote.

"The manner of killings was so hell-like and with no consciousness that we feel nothing could ease our permanent hurt ... His cruelness is so beyond belief."

In the days and weeks leading up to the murders, Mac had threatened his family, even saying "I'm going to kill this family one day," on the day of the murders. He left angry messages on his stepdaughter's boyfriend's phone, referring to him as "you little dead kid."

Police also found a marijuana grow-op in Mac's house.

He has been in custody since a warrant for his arrest was executed on Nov. 4, 2007, following a lengthy hospital stay that included a drug-induced coma. Police said he was suffering from severe burns.

The fact that Mac was able to "coldly and methodically" shoot and kill the people who trusted him most speaks to his level of dangerousness, Rumble said.

"What more is he capable of?" she asked.