My years from 1973 to 1982 with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were primarily devoted to uniform policing in rural Manitoba environs. As a city boy born and raised, this was a departure from my cultural and social experience. Rural folk in small Manitoba towns had history. They knew their neighbour’s potencies and foibles and for the most part chose to enter partnerships, friendships and relationships in a very pragmatic manner. Indeed, many residents were related with links locally, regionally and nationally that would fill a genealogical database. As a police officer entering this milieu, I was greeted as the newest member of the herd, albeit one with a bell already around his neck. And while community expectations were high regarding my professional entrance to the fold, I was given every personal opportunity to blend in and be accepted.
In 1973, police officers had many roles, and while chief among them was enforcement of the law, the manner of enforcement was very fluid and flexible. Locally within the region the RCMP were arbitrators, facilitating the collection of bad debts for businessmen rather than arresting and charging the transgressor. Working in the schools with the youth; playing basketball and hockey was part of and more productive than traditional enforcement patrol activity. Taking my wife Terry in her role as public health nurse to a domestic dispute added a balanced perspective to resolving family issues.
Law enforcement demanded a very human element that was balanced with the synergy of the community. Where a line was crossed and more serious sanctions were warranted, those sanctions were levied transparently; everyone knew that alternative methods had been tried and failed.
These nine years of law enforcement were fundamental to my growth as a person and instructive to the foundation of my next 25 years of policing. I’m not sure if I would have learned these lessons in any other way. I was blessed to spend the formative years of my career in a fishbowl, surrounded by people looking in who either helped or challenged me to be fair, respectful, professional and helpful.
Living and working in rural communities provided me with valuable skills that helped me in my transition to more complex areas of criminal investigations in urban centers. In 1981, Terry and I were transferred to Winnipeg where I worked in the federal Immigration and Passport Section. In a previous story I described my interaction with an “illegal” that was my first lesson with individuals less concerned with community and more concerned with their individual survival. A lesson learned that made me more aware. The innate goodness of humanity was a strong belief I held and fought hard to maintain.
My transfer into drug enforcement deflated that view somewhat, but I kept my attitude positive through interaction with strong colleagues who introduced “fun” into the policing equation. While drug enforcement had a less visible impact on helping people, the adrenaline rush of the chase and the accomplishment of the capture was compensation enough for that loss.
So this next story, while perhaps weak in a human-interest element, has me now on the outside of the fishbowl looking in.
It was a beautiful July evening. The middle of summer in Winnipeg, Manitoba is likely the best weather mother nature has to give, and on this evening in the middle of July 1986, the weather conditions were perfect for any activity, except sitting in a car waiting for the hopeful to happen.
Six of us, members of the Winnipeg Drug Section, were positioned around the entrances and exits of a nefarious and notorious hotel parking lot in the city’s central area waiting for a car to arrive. My partner on this shift, Karen, was in the passenger seat of our unmarked two-door front-wheel drive Chevrolet Cavalier when the police radio squawked.
“They’re late!” were the only two words broadcast over the radio. I knew from the impatient tone in the voice of my supervisor, Dave, that the remark was more a question than a statement and that it was my responsibility to respond.
I responded, “Squiggy said 7 PM.”
“It’s almost 7:30, how reliable is your guy?”
Now this question threw me a little, for it was Dave that had introduced me to Squiggy a week previous to this surveillance. Squiggy had been Dave’s drug informant for several years. However, as in many human give and take relationships, they had experienced personal incompatibility issues. Squiggy had begun to take more than he gave. It was time for a new handler and I was chosen as Dave’s successor. So Squiggy was now “my guy”.
Within days of our first meeting Squiggy phoned me. He wanted to meet at his house to tell me something important. Dave had come with me and had listened to the same information that led us to now surround this parking lot. His question was redundant and unanswerable. Still, Dave’s question had me reflecting Squiggy’s reliability based on the short meeting that we had a very short time ago.
Squiggy’s home was located on the third floor of an old but renovated house in Winnipeg’s north end. While the main and second floors had been separated into good size apartments, Squiggy’s area was smaller because of the multiple dormers shaping the third story roof. A narrow stairway led to his main door. As we approached and I knocked I heard Dave’s voice behind me,
“Now you’re in for a surprise.”
Before I could respond to or question that remark, Squiggy open the apartment door. On my previous meeting with Squiggy I thought him an enigma, a lost soul out of touch with the times or a wandering spirit in search of something far beyond my understanding. Standing before me now, in his environment, I realized that he was both lost and wandering. An abstract life spent fully in tune with himself, but slightly out of sync with the rest of humanity.
Measuring no taller than 5 ½ feet and thin as a rail, Squiggy was dressed in wrinkled sand coloured army fatigues. The pants were 2 inches too long for his legs and his sleeves were 2 inches too short for his arms. His heavy black boots had both laces untied and dragging down around his ankles. Cheap plastic glasses framed his curious face; he had shaved off his eyebrows. Behind him, his apartment or what I could see of it from where I was standing was dark and dank, more of a den than a home. He invited us inside.
Dave broke the ice with his first question,
“Hey, Squiggs, what’s with the new glasses and no eyebrows?”
“It’s a disguise, people have been following me.”
“Who’s been following you?”
“People. There are people who want to steal my stuff. I have many valuable things here Dave. My CD collection, my weapons, my information. People want to steal from me. They want to know what I know. You know?”
“Yes Squiggs, I know,” said Dave.
As an aside to me Dave explained, “Squiggs is into Goth, he makes replica weapons and then goes to conventions and sells them to the convention people to use as props during their mock battles.”
“Not props,” Squiggy corrected, “real weapons that were made during the time of Kings. I’m a creative artist Dave. But I can’t do swords, it takes too much heat and the neighbours complain about the banging noise. I mostly do belts, hammers and spiked clubs.”
“You wanted to see us?”
Squiggy looked around with a conspiratorial look meant to enhance the importance of what he was about to confide in us. He lowered his voice and spoke.
“On Thursday at 7, two guys, I only know their first names, Ben and Mel will be bringing in a kilo of shnay to the Empire Hotel. I’m not sure who they’re selling to or where the deal’s going down. It’ll be in Ben’s car, he drives a 1976 red Cutlass with a white roof. It’s a quick pop if you want it. I can’t get more information without burning myself.”
“Shnay” was Squiggy’s code name for cocaine and after clarifying what was already stated and digging more detail from him, I asked the final question,
“Do either Ben or Mel have access to weapons?”
“Yep,” Squiggy replied, “Mel has a 9 mil, locked and loaded.”
Processing this information on the way back to the office, we decided to use our street team to set up on the hotel, make the seizure and go forward from there. There didn’t seem to be a lot of value in spending time and resources on complicating the investigation. Our team was busy enough. A takedown plan, a quick surveillance, seizure and arrest would put a good exhibit into the vault and protect Squiggy from possible detection as our source.
I was distracted from my musings by the police radio.
“They’re here Dave.”
“Just coming into the east entrance on the north side of the hotel. Red Cutlass, Manitoba plates, two white males in the front seat.”
“Ok, let’s follow the plan. Once they park, Jim and Randy can block them in from the front. Bill and Karen block the back and act as back-up. The four of us will take them down from the front. Watch for the gun.”
As the Cutlass moved deeper into the parking lot, our three cars jockeyed for positions to affect the arrest. The Cutlass pulled into a parking space at an isolated location within the parking lot. Two cars moved in to block the Cutlass from the front. I moved the third car to the rear, but the restriction originally expected by other patron’s cars was absent, leaving many escape gaps. There was lots of wiggle room to the rear and the driver of the Cutlass was quick to react. He put the car in reverse and backed out of the space, away from the cars blocking the front. Seeing me as he backed into the travelling lane, he accelerated in reverse down the traffic aisle.
I accelerated to keep pace. Coming along side of his vehicle I passed the passenger door and steered into the rear end of the Cutlass. Hoping to stop the Cutlass I did no more than move it slightly off course. My spinning front wheel drive Chevrolet was no match for the heavier rear-wheel drive Oldsmobile. With increasing pressure on the gas peddle we rode together, tires smoking, down the entire length of the parking lot. A quick look in my side mirror confirmed our other two cars were following.
As Karen gave me updates on the activity inside the Cutlass, I continued to try and push the Cutlass off-course. This effort met an abrupt end when we both reached the northern parking lot entrance. The Cutlass zoomed out the paved entranceway while I crossed over the grass boulevard and into the steep curb of the main road. The Cutlass shifted into drive and shot past me westbound down the street. The chase was on as the two following cars passed me. Undamaged after crossing the curb onto the roadway, I followed, now third in line in a catch-up position.
I heard Dave’s voice over the radio. He started using our car call numbers as we entered into a chase situation. Dave’s number was 86, mine was 88.
“86 has the eye westbound coming up to a side street, now turning left toward Notre Dame.”
“87 has your back.”
“88 catching up.”
“86. Southbound on side street, he has to go west on Notre Dame. OK, making the turn now. Traffic light ahead, I’ve got lights and siren on.”
“88 catching up.”
As Karen and I made the turn, last in line onto Notre Dame, I could see the other cars in the distance. The parade was easy to follow. Two unmarked police cars following a smoking red Cutlass; more smoke than speed really. Speeding to the point of illegality but still within relatively safe limits. It was easy to catch up to the action.
“86. OK, coming to the lights at Erin, slowing down, left turn on Erin, a one way.”
Notre Dame Avenue is a major divided traffic route that runs northwest through the central city. It parallels Portage Avenue, another major traffic route that runs southwest through the city. Erin Street is a two lane one-way street heading south that connects Notre Dame and Portage Avenue. In between, the mixed residential and commercial area had been sectioned into alternate one-way streets. A hodgepodge example of traffic control at its best on the best of days. This best practice of orderly traffic movement was tested on that day during our chase.
“86. Ok, right turn on St. Matthews. Passenger threw a blue bag out right side window. On the curb. Someone pick it up.”
“87. Got it.”
“88. Got your back.”
“86, Left turn on Spence.”
Karen was running our radio and responded, “88, Ok, we’ll go up one street and run parallel, try and block him. Ok, we turned, we’re on your right door.”
“86, Ok, turning right on Wolever, try and block him.”
“87, Got the bag. We got the gun and the coke.”
Up ahead of us we saw the Cutlass pass on the cross street, followed closely by Dave, siren blaring, lights flashing.
Karen called, “88, Ok, we missed him, we’ll cross and parallel your left door.”
Turning, we tried to get into a position to block the Cutlass, but our travel in a residential neighbourhood caused us to slow down. I was also driving the wrong way down a one-way street, a fact that Karen mirthfully pointed out to me as we missed the Cutlass again as it crossed in front of us,
“You’re on a one-way street,” she deadpanned.
A sideways glance of rebuke was my response to her observation as she reported to the team,
“88, He’s across our bow, again”
“87 catching up.”
“86, Ok, he’s turned again, next cross street is Portage. If he gets on Portage we’re screwed. We asked dispatch to call the city police to help us, but there’s no time. Let’s see if we can end this. Approaching Portage.”
Karen reported, “88, we’ve made the turn onto Portage, where are you?”
With a little bit of luck, we arrived at the intersection in time to block the Cutlass. On the narrow street and with Dave close in behind, the two occupants decided to abandon their vehicle and run. Doors open, we all converged on foot, catching them at the corner of a building at the corner of the street. Our third car arrived just as we pounced on the retreating culprits.
Now, I’m not sure how much experience the readers of this story have had with medium speed pursuits, foot chases and ground-fighting, but I need to explain that at the point of contact at the corner of that building, the adrenaline was pumping at its highest rate into everyone’s core. Adrenaline is released by the body in response to an instinctive fight-or-flight survival response, and while police training helps to control this response, it is a stimulant that blocks all consciousness except for a focus on the imminent threat. Even in a controlled training environment, the competition to “win” fuelled by the stimulation of adrenaline sometimes causes an over-reactionary response. Learning to control that response in a training environment resulted in more than one bloody nose and the occasional broken arm. In this real-life instance, for Ben and Mel, adrenaline illicited the flight response, and they were bent on running and resisting any attempt at capture. For us, it was the fight response; we were ready to rock-and-roll baby!
Karen was the first to reach Mel. She put him on the ground. Mel resisted, tried to get up, tried to roll over. Karen held her ground and was helped by Jim’s arrival at her side. Mel strained to resist but he was overpowered and handcuffed. Karen would be sore from the struggle in the morning; Mel would be sorer. In his struggle with me, Ben turned himself over and with arms and legs flailing, we engaged in a combative dance where many swings were made but few were landed. Thankfully, Dave assisted me as I, not-to-gently, flipped Ben over and applied the handcuffs to his wrists. With my breath heaving, I knew that I would be extremely sore the next day.
The threat now passed, my consciousness started to focus on my surrounding terrain. I first noticed that the cement corner of the building had been very close to our heads. Ben and I were lucky that we did not sustain major rock-rub during our tussle. The second observation was that the foundation rose four feet from the ground and from there up to the soffits were full length and width glass picture windows. This had provided a clear view of our escapades for all the restaurant patrons on the other side. The building was an A&W restaurant full of people. And standing on a restaurant bench were the cutest little boy and girl that one could imagine, noses pressed tightly to the glass, hands flattened against the glass above their heads, a wide-eyed look of shock and awe in their features that blurred the innocence in their eyes. Behind them were their parents looking on, and behind the parents, a mismatch of other patrons taking advantage of this real life police drama. Thankfully in 1986 there were no camera phones, Vimeo or YouTube! The A&W patrons’ memories of that day would only be remembered and expressed verbally, giving proof to the adage, ‘You wouldn’t believe what we saw! I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes’!
Driving back to our office with the prisoners in tow the police radios were silent. Karen and I spoke little of our encounter. It was a safe end to unexpected circumstances which all too commonly occur in police work; circumstances that for the most part turn out OK.
While police work is inherently dangerous, proper planning and execution attempt to minimize the risks to all. Still, this story gives examples of how quickly plans can change. In this story decisions were made incrementally once the initial takedown was compromised. Principal to all outcomes is the safety and security to the public, enforcement officers and suspects.
The incident above was informally debriefed that evening sharing a few drinks with the team after work. During our next department meeting it was more formerly discussed from a variety of perspectives for future planning considerations.
Ultimately and thankfully, the incident provides good memories of that moment in time.