Inquest finds Mounties acted 'appropriately' in Mayerthorpe killings

Bob Weber
April 01, 2011
By Bob Weber
Mar 28 2011 EDMONTON - The judge who headed a fatality inquiry into the deaths of four Alberta Mounties has boiled the ambush down to a one-off shooting that could not have been predicted or stopped. "I conclude that this was a uniquely tragic event which could not reasonably have been foreseen or prevented," Judge Daniel Pahl wrote in his final report released Monday.

Mar 28 2011

EDMONTON - The judge who headed a fatality inquiry into the deaths of four Alberta Mounties has boiled the ambush down to a one-off shooting that could not have been predicted or stopped.

"I conclude that this was a uniquely tragic event which could not reasonably have been foreseen or prevented," Judge Daniel Pahl wrote in his final report released Monday.

The father of one of the two men convicted of helping gunman James Roszko on his murderous mission called the report a whitewash that avoided the tough questions. And a former RCMP officer who is now a professor of criminology said the Mayerthorpe massacre necessitates a new approach to rural policing.

"Although this is a one-off event, this is not a one-off individual type," said Bill Pitt of Grant MacEwan University.

"Nothing good is going to come from Mayerthorpe unless there are some changes to how we deal with people like Roszko."

Pahl, who earlier this year heard weeks of testimony about the shootings, found no fault with the training, experience or abilities of the four young officers who lost their lives on Roszko's farm near Mayerthorpe in March 2005.

Pahl did offer several suggestions relating to risk assessment, including appointment of a "threat assessment co-ordinator" in each detachment. He also recommended the RCMP consider national policy guidelines to secure potential crime scenes and an emergency medical response team with at least one paramedic to support high-risk operations.

But ultimately, he said, no one could have accounted for the deranged actions of a calculating madman.

"I am satisfied that the RCMP acted appropriately in all circumstances as they then knew them."

Constables Anthony Gordon, Leo Johnston, Brock Myrol and Peter Schiemann were gunned down on Roszko's farm while they were guarding a marijuana grow-op and auto parts chop-shop in a Quonset hut.

The inquiry heard how Roszko, who had fled bailiffs on his farm the previous day, snuck back and ambushed the officers.

A key point at the inquiry was whether the RCMP took the threat of Roszko returning seriously enough, given his long criminal history and previous run-ins with the law. Pahl found that there was nothing to suggest that Roszko was likely to engage in a premeditated attack against the Mounties.

"They were aware of Roszko's history but he had for some years been under the radar. He had fled from the bailiffs only a few hours earlier, just as he had done in the only other contact he had had with authority in recent years," Pahl wrote.

"While a return was always to be considered a possibility, it was not seen as a probability. Nonetheless, appropriate measures were taken to alert the officers involved, adequately arm them and to secure the property in order to maintain continuity of the evidence."

Gordon's mother, Dorothy Jewell Duffy, agreed.

"I think that is correct," she said in a telephone interview. "They didn't know what was going on."

But Barry Hennessey, father of Shawn, who is now serving 15 years for manslaughter in the deaths, said information wasn't the problem. Shawn Hennessey and Dennis Cheeseman both pleaded guilty to giving Roszko a rifle and a ride back to his farm the evening before the shootings.

"They had lots of warning that Roszko was around there," said the elder Hennessey.

"They knew that Roszko had a scanner. They knew that Roszko had weapons. They knew that Roszko was a nutcake. They knew he was a police-hater.

"All the information was at their fingertips."

He said his son and Cheeseman are paying for police mistakes.

Pitt agreed it's hard to see how any amount of training could have saved the officers from Roszko's stealthy, carefully planned ambush.

But he warned there may be other people like Roszko out there.

"Most of these towns are sleepy little hollows with not a whole lot going on, but in every one of them there's one to five people that are potential risks," said Pitt. "Hopefully, with bringing modern science to law enforcement, they'll be able to identify, track and put a proper program in place to minimize these people's effects."

The RCMP is already trying to do that, said RCMP Senior Deputy Commissioner Rod Knecht. The force is testing a way to evaluate and assess such risks, he said.

"While nothing can change the events at Mayerthorpe, I can only hope that the fatality inquiry, and all that was done before it, will provide a better understanding of what transpired and finally bring some peace and closure to the families, RCMP members and Canadians."

Pitt said the real question is how Roszko, who had a string of previous convictions and had other charges against him dropped for lack of evidence, was at large in the first place. He said police and the courts should have done more to keep him behind bars, including working harder to convince people intimidated into silence to testify against him.

"There is a partial indictment of the citizens of Mayerthorpe, that they could have done more. (But) there's an indictment of law enforcement - you don't let people make a mockery of the system like that, getting to witnesses.

That's right, said Duffy.

"Roszko should have been put in jail a long time ago. When the public knows that's something going on, they have to say something."

Pahl heard evidence about how the justice system dealt with Roszko's previous criminal record, but ruled those issues were beyond the scope of his report.

Duffy has read the report, but it isn't helping.

"It's just repetitious. You're just living the same thing all over again. I just can't wrap my head around it.

"I will never get over this."


Report recommendations and observations

Threat Assessments:

Incident commanders need better and more information to plan operations that may include threats to officers. Detachments should avoid an "ad hoc" approach to gathering such information.

Each detachment should designate a member to co-ordinate threat assessment files. This person should talk to officers on a regular basis and brief new members. The co-ordinator should also liaise with RCMP's new behavioural sciences unit as appropriate.

Threat assessment, however, should still remain a collective responsibility and "all members should be charged with the responsibility to provide ongoing intelligence ... both formal and informal."

General Scene Security:

The RCMP should consider establishment of national policy guidelines for securing of potential crime scenes. Questions that could be addressed include:

  • Is an individual at the scene a known criminal?

  • What is the environment like?

  • How many members should be deployed?

  • What armaments, vehicles or armour may be required?

  • What are the responsibilities of each shift and how are they handed over?

A checklist might "give comfort to a commander leaving a scene that not only has he done everything he could think of, but, as well, everything his superiors could think of."

Equipment:

Officers should be appropriately armed. Pahl points out that the RCMP is examining how to improve access to long-barrelled weapons and patrol carbines and that funds have been made available for armaments, binoculars and night-vision goggles. He makes no recommendation, but strongly endorses continuing research, development and deployment of effective body protection.

Emergency Callouts:

Pahl recognizes that communications between command posts and individual officers increasingly rely on new technology such as Blackberrys. He is satisfied that the RCMP has a full appreciation of its needs in this area.

Risk Assessment:

The force should develop a standardized risk assessment for high-risk, pre-planned operations, but field actions should remain flexible and avoid bureaucracy as much as possible.

Emergency Medical Response:

High-risk operations should be supported by an emergency medical response team with at least one trained paramedic.

Unintentional Discharges of Weapons:

The RCMP should develop a national policy directive on unintentional discharges of firearms by officers on an emergency response team. Pahl notes a rifle was accidentally fired by a member at Mayerthorpe and it turned out to be "a benign incident." But he suggests that even a harmless accidental discharge can "create a cascade of misunderstanding, miscommunication and potentially, great harm."

Information Sharing:

Justice officials should examine whether there is enough information on threat assessments shared between justice departments, correctional services and police services. If not, can a formal system be practically established?

MARKHAM ON - Sergeant John Harris, a 38-year veteran of the Hamilton Police Service, has been selected as this year’s recipient of the Blue Line Police Leadership Award.

“The award recognizes and encourages a standard of excellence exemplifying ‘Leadership as an Activity, not a Position,’ and pride in service to the public,” said Blue Line Magazine Publisher Morley Lymburner.

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