ST. PAUL, Alta. – The main street of a small Alberta town erupted in bloody chaos Friday, leaving two people dead and three RCMP officers wounded in a terrifying series of events police could only describe as “horrific.”
It started around the supper hour, just as shops in the quiet town of St. Paul were closing and people were heading home or to restaurants for supper. Chief Supt. Randy McGinnis said suddenly, gunshots were heard just outside the town’s RCMP detachment. Members ran out and saw a black Dodge pickup truck leaving the parking lot and speeding eastbound toward main street.
At the same time, a call was coming in about a male in distress at another location. Mounties responded and transported an injured man to hospital, where he was pronounced dead. “We don’t know if there’s any connection between the deceased and the black Dodge pickup truck,” said McGinnis, but it is being investigated. Meanwhile, other officers looking for black Dodge found it on the east side of town but it then turned around and headed back into the core, where McGinnis said it appeared to “purposely ram one of our marked police cars.”
Within minutes, all hell broke loose. Former TV reporter Mike Vanderhoek, now an oilfield worker who lives 20 kilometres outside of town, happened to be a few blocks over when he and a friend heard what they thought sounded like two rifle shots. He said he then saw a police cruiser come speeding into the hospital’s emergency entrance, and suddenly there was a “shootout.”
“It was really surreal for a town like St. Paul,” said Vanderhoek. “Some people were ducking behind cars to take cover.” He said he initially wasn’t scared, and even started taking photographs of the scene. “While it was going on, it was just confusion,” he said. “When it was over, my guts turned inside out.”
McGinnis said when the driver of the black Dodge started shooting at the officers, they returned fire, killing the man. A young male RCMP officer with just two years service on the force was hit in the hand by a bullet, while a senior male officer with 15 years on the job was hit in the face by flying glass. The worst injured was the female officer who was in the RCMP vehicle that was rammed.
“She has extensive injuries to both legs,” said McGinnis, and not only had to be extracted from the crushed vehicle by the Jaws of Life but was then airlifted to hospital in Edmonton. McGinnis said the officer, who has four years experience, was listed in serious but stable condition. Both the male officers were treated and released Friday night.
McGinnis said it was a stroke of good luck that no civilians were hurt. “This vehicle, as it was speeding westbound back into the downtown core, was going around vehicles in the opposite lane,” he said. “It’s a movie scene, to tell you the truth. I haven’t seen a horrific movie scene like this in a while, and that’s the only way I can describe it.”
Town councillor Ken Kwiatkowski agreed. “It’s very surprising,” he said. “This is something you’d probably only see in the movies. For it to happen in St. Paul, it’s just unbelievable.” Kwiatkowski said a lot of people in the town of 5,400 would probably know the officers in the detachment, which he described as fairly large. “I think most people know everyone,” he said. “We’re a very tight-knit community.”
St. Paul is actually just 251 kilometres from Mayerthorpe, where four Mounties were gunned down in March 2005 by self-described police-hater James Roszko. They had been guarding a hut on Roszko’s farm as part of a marijuana grow-op and automobile chop-shop investigation. Roszko then killed himself.
Dennis Cheeseman and his brother-in-law, Shawn Hennessey, pleaded guilty to manslaughter for giving James Roszko a rifle and a ride the night before Roszko ambushed the RCMP officers on March 3, 2005, near the town of Mayerthorpe.
Late Friday, Alberta Justice Minister Jonathan Denis issued a statement saying the events in St. Paul “are a reminder of the very real dangers faced by law enforcement, as they put themselves at risk in the line of duty to protect and serve Albertans.”
He said the incident is being investigated by the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team, which is standard procedure in any officer-related shooting. McGinnis pointed out that officers in the region have had a couple of major traumas to deal with in recent months, including an incident where a man drove a vehicle into an elementary school, killing an 11-year-old girl, and a shootout in January in Vegreville.
“Member mental health has taken a big hit here in the last nine months,” he said, noting that two RCMP psychologists and a chaplain will be helping out in the days to come. “We had members from Cold Lake, Bonnyville, Elk Point and Lloydminister all attending, because when the call comes out on the radio `shots fired,’ you can imagine the adrenaline gets going and members want to get here to help.”
McGinnis said the driver of the black Dodge was not known to police, and they have no idea what motivated the carnage. “We are hoping that within the next couple of days we have the motive identified.”
– by Gwen Dambrofsky in Edmonton