For a veteran Calgary cop, it was no ordinary call of duty

When his son was charged with mass murder, Insp. Douglas de Grood responded the only way he knows how

Lyle Aspinall/Calgary Sun/QMI Agency

Lyle Aspinall/Calgary Sun/QMI Agency

On Nov. 12, 2013—five months before the grisliest mass murder Calgary has ever seen—Matthew de Grood walked into the Coast Plaza, a hotel in the city’s northeast end. He was volunteering that Tuesday, donating his time to an event very close to his family’s heart: an annual conference hosted by the Alberta Community Crime Prevention Association (ACCPA), a group dedicated to “bettering the safety of Albertans through education and awareness.”

Matthew’s father—Insp. Douglas de Grood, a respected, 33-year veteran of the Calgary Police Service—was, as the association’s vice-president, a key conference organizer. A long-time champion of crime-prevention initiatives, the inspector did everything from research speakers to hang posters around town. “His commitment was above and beyond the call of duty,” says John Winterdyk, a criminologist at Mount Royal University who also serves as ACCPA’s president. “Doug is an exceptionally wonderful person; he gives everything he can to the community.”

The theme of the 2013 event was honour-based violence: how to spot it, how to investigate it and, of course, how to curb it. As delegates arrived at the hotel (cops, lawyers, health care workers, even judges), Matthew de Grood greeted them at the welcome table. His father was stationed beside him, as was his mother, Susan de Grood, an accountant. (Matthew’s older sister, whom Maclean’s has chosen not to identify, also volunteered.) “The whole family is wonderful,” says Lillian Jones, ACCPA’s executive director. “The registration desk was taken care of by the de Grood family. I think that speaks volumes.”

A few weeks after that crime-prevention conference, Matthew received the kind of news that would make any parent proud: The 22-year-old was accepted to law school at the University of Calgary, the same campus where his mom and dad earned their degrees, and where he recently graduated with a bachelor of science in psychology. His Facebook page lit up with congratulatory messages. “Thank you all very much for your support!” Matt responded. He was supposed to attend his first law class this coming September.

What transpired instead is still difficult to fathom. Police say Matthew—a quiet, polite, aspiring lawyer with absolutely no criminal history—flew into a violent rage in the early morning of April 15, somehow managing to stab five fellow students, again and again, at an off-campus house party. By the time emergency crews arrived, three of the victims were already dead; the other two, barely breathing, would not survive.

It was a gruesome, bloody scene that would rattle even the most experienced detective.

Tragically, all five victims were young and talented and completely innocent—“good kids,” as Rick Hanson, Calgary’s police chief, described them. Zackariah Rathwell and Josh Hunter were friends and bandmates who had released a new album at a sold-out gig just two nights before they were murdered. Kaitlin Perras was a gifted ballet dancer, beautiful and vibrant. Lawrence Hong, originally from the Philippines, was an urban studies student and—like his alleged killer—a committed volunteer. Jordan Segura was pursuing a degree in religious studies and a career, ironically enough, in the funeral business.

None of them deserved to die. Certainly, not like that. And as their grieving loved ones struggle to understand why they are gone, few can comprehend their anguish more than one man: Douglas de Grood. In a story so utterly tragic, it is the cruellest twist of all: A senior police inspector who has interacted with countless victims—and who literally spent his life working to prevent crime—is the father of a young man now accused of committing one of the worst offences imaginable.

Though heartbroken beyond words, Doug de Grood reacted as he always has: with honesty, integrity and genuine compassion. Mere hours after learning his only boy was in custody, an accused mass murderer, the seasoned officer and his beloved wife issued a statement through Chief Hanson, expressing “sorrow and condolences” to the families “impacted by their son.” Although the average Canadian may not have grasped the magnitude, it was a stunning statement. Try to remember the last time an accused killer’s parents spoke out in public, expressing their sincerest sympathy.

Two days later—their son’s name and photo plastered on websites around the world—Doug and Susan had every right to remain silent. Instead, they chose to face the news cameras in person, Susan gripping her husband’s right arm as he read from a sheet of paper. It was agonizing to watch: Doug de Grood shaking uncontrollably from the nerve damage that has ravaged his back in recent years.

“We are shocked and devastated, and we are trying to make sense of what happened,” he said, struggling not to cry. “We are deeply saddened for what the families and friends of the victims are going through. Your lives have been turned upside down. We know words cannot begin to ease your pain and suffering.” His family “would give anything,” de Grood said, to “bring the victims back.”

Gerry Borbridge, a former Calgary police chief, watched the April 17 press conference on television, like so many Canadians. “I have to admit, I ended up having a tear in my eye because I felt so badly for him, as I do for all the families,” Borbridge says. “But I wasn’t surprised at all that he gave a statement like that. That’s just the way Doug is. That’s the kind of human being he is.”

 


 

Douglas de Grood was born and raised in Calgary, the city he swore to protect. One of four children, he grew up in the northwest, not far from the Brentwood neighbourhood where, decades later, his son would be cornered by a police K-9 unit. He joined the service in the early 1980s, pledging to uphold the force’s motto: “Vigilance. Courage. Pride.”

Early in his career, while working patrol and enforcing traffic, de Grood was already pegged as a potential leader. He was intelligent, level-headed and always fair. “He was a man who I looked up to,” says Gary McDougall, now retired, who joined the force shortly before his friend. “He is an exemplary member of the police service, a guy who dedicated his life to serving the citizens of Calgary. I just couldn’t say enough about Insp. de Grood.”

In 1999, while still a sergeant, he and another officer were honoured for saving a man who tried to leap off a bridge. But de Grood has never been the type to boast about personal accolades; if anything, he is overly humble, quick to praise others when the credit clearly belongs to him. “He is a top-notch individual, a great leader, a cream of the crop kind of guy,” says Brent Refvik, a former inspector. “I could never think of a single bad thing to say about Doug.”

Few could. Allan Fay, the defence lawyer now representing Matthew, was a young prosecutor when he first met Doug. “He is just a very fair-minded individual and a very hard-working police officer,” Fay says. “He is sworn to uphold the law, but, by the same token, he always appreciated the human side of things.”

By 2003, de Grood was a staff-sergeant in charge of Calgary’s street-crime investigation section, an anti-gang unit. At the time, it was force policy not to identify specific gangs in the press, a position de Grood vigorously defended. “We will not endorse them, we will not promote them, we will not advertise them, because every time we do, it gives them power and status in the community,” he told the Calgary
Herald that December. Even back then, de Grood understood that police should be focused as much on preventing crime as investigating it. In 2005, he helped roll out the “Gateway Initiative,” a program that helps steer at-risk youths to the appropriate social agencies. “It’s all about maintaining the priorities of accountability, rehabilitation and the protection of the community,” he said at the time.

By then, his son was enrolled at Saint Francis High School, earning solid grades and playing sports. From all accounts, Matthew was anything but the type of at-risk teenager his dad encountered on the job. He had good, close friends and a strong work ethic—just like his mother and father.

After being promoted to inspector, Doug de Grood was placed in charge of Calgary’s District 3 (Nose Hill Station), his home turf. The region included the University of Calgary campus, where Matthew enrolled after high school graduation in 2009. As Nose Hill commander, de Grood also served as a liaison officer to the Calgary Community Block Watch Council, a now-defunct neighbourhood-watch program. “He was the nicest person, always had time to talk to you,” says Gayle Ritten, who served as secretary of the board. “He is somewhat soft-spoken, but because his opinions were so well thought of, as soon as he talked, he didn’t have to raise his voice to get attention.”

Insp. de Grood is currently in charge of the force’s policy development unit, overseeing everything from uniform protocol to how officers respond to particular types of calls. Over the past three years, however, he spent countless hours focused on his other “job”: vice-president of the Alberta Community Crime Prevention Association. “We were literally on death row about three years ago, and where we’ve come to in three years is largely attributable to his contributions,” says Winterdyk, the president. “I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who has ever worked with him, in any capacity, to say he’s been nothing but a truly dedicated employee.”

A dogged researcher, de Grood was famous for his early-morning emails to ACCPA colleagues, alerting them to relevant websites or potential sources of funding. “He’s moved our organization forward, very quickly, into the professional organization it has become,” says Jones, the executive director. “I have to say, I have never in my life met such a sincere, dedicated police officer.”

Last fall, a few weeks before the honour-crimes conference, fellow board member Tom Scott drove around the city with de Grood, taping up posters to promote the event. In the car, they talked about the inspector’s passion for crime prevention. “I said to Doug: ‘You know, I could never be a policeman. If I saw that kind of domestic violence, somebody’s wife bleeding on the floor, I’d be inclined to shoot the guy,’ ” says Scott, a realtor. “But he said this is the reason for this workshop: to try to stop this stuff and make people understand it’s not acceptable.”

After the conference, Scott offered to design and print ACCPA business cards for each board member. He told de Grood to collect everyone’s contact information, and when he had it, to get in touch. On April 14, a Monday, de Grood sent Scott an email, asking to meet for coffee the following day because he had all the details for the new cards.

“Needless to say,” Scott says, “that meeting didn’t transpire.”

 


 

What happened that Monday (and into the wee hours of Tuesday) is still the focus of a massive police investigation; it could be months, if not years, before the full story is told. But this much is certain: At 5:39 p.m., Matt de Grood typed a cryptic message on his Facebook page, referencing a song and album title from the heavy metal band Megadeth (“Dread and the fugitive mind—the world needs a hero”). Then, after working his shift at a grocery store, the 22-year-old arrived at the party on Butler Crescent N.W., a short walk from the University of Calgary. He was an invited guest, not a stranger.

Matthew mingled for a while, police say, before grabbing a large knife from the kitchen and unleashing his inexplicable attack. A partygoer dialled 911 at 1:22 a.m.

According to one local news report, de Grood’s parents were worried about Matt’s increasingly strange behaviour in the weeks leading up to the murders, fearing he might commit suicide. A friend and fellow officer, quoted anonymously in the Herald, said Matt actually sent his mom and dad a series of bizarre text messages that Monday, prompting Susan to call police while Doug went searching for their son. “They never feared that he was ever going to hurt anybody other than maybe himself,” the officer said. “No indication of that at all.” (A separate news report, citing another unnamed source, said Matthew was being treated for mental health problems that went as far back as high school.)

In their emotional statement to reporters, the de Groods did not delve into any details about that terrible night, or their son’s mental state. “Like any parent can tell you, a love for your child is unconditional, and we love Matthew dearly,” Doug said, leaning on a cane. “Our Matthew is a great kid, full of love, kindness and respect for others. Growing up, he received good grades in school and was active in a variety of sports. As a young adult, he got a part-time job, entered university and became more involved in the community. He raised funds for charities through his passion for running. He had a bright future ahead of him.

“Just like you,” Doug added, fighting back tears, “we struggle to understand what happened.”

Matthew is charged with five counts of first-degree murder, suggesting evidence of premeditation. He made his first court appearance on April 22 (a week to the day after the attack) and was ordered to undergo a psychiatric assessment to determine his ability to stand trial. Jailed at the Southern Alberta Forensic Psychiatric Centre, Matthew appeared via video link; at times, he held a hand over the left side of his face. His lawyer told reporters outside court that Matt was cut by a K-9 dog during his arrest, and that he is “a little self-conscious” about the damage to his face.

Fay also acknowledged, for the first time, that his client’s state of mind will be a critical factor as the case unfolds. “I’ve had a number of conversations with him,” he told reporters. “I’ve found him to be lucid, he seems to appreciate the situation he’s in, but, again, I’m not a professional psychiatrist.”

Whatever the truth, it will not turn back time. Five people are dead, their families shattered, and another young man is behind bars. That the alleged killer is the son of a high-ranking cop—a loving husband and father who was as committed to family as he was to public safety—only adds to the sting. “There is not a parent anywhere, I don’t think, whose heart would not go out to both the parents of the victims and the parents of the accused,” says Christine Silverberg, another former Calgary police chief. “It is a tragedy all around, and I can’t imagine a parent not thinking: ‘What if that were me? What would I do?’ ”

What the de Groods did surprises no one who knows them. “Doug really thinks about everybody else,” says Kathy Macdonald, a retired Calgary officer who served 25 years on the force. “He is concerned and considerate and really thoughtful, and to be able to say something to try to comfort the other families is just something he would do.”

Winterdyk, the criminologist, says he isn’t sure he would have the courage to confront the cameras the way his friends did. “Knowing Doug, his first priority is the compassion he has for victims,” Winterdyk says. “If you do know the family—not that it justifies what happened—it is just such a huge, huge tragedy on so many different levels. I can’t imagine what the parents must be going through. At the end of the day, we’re all just human beings.”

This year’s ACCPA conference, scheduled for the fall, will focus on the troubling trend of copper theft. Once again, Doug de Grood was the driving force, exploring potential guest speakers and reaching out to industry representatives. “The amount of research he could do, and the information he could put forward, you would think: ‘Where did he find that?’ ” says Jones, the executive director.

For now, de Grood has been granted a leave of absence as ACCPA’s vice-president. (He continues to be on duty with the force.) Whether he ever returns to the crime-prevention association is one of many questions that can’t yet be answered. For her part, Lillian Jones certainly hopes he comes back. “This man, everybody would be proud to have him as a friend,” she says. “I think our hearts need to go out to him and the rest of his family, Matthew included. What has happened is one of those things that could happen to any family.”




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