Authors Note: The names of individuals in this story have been changed to protect their privacy. While the events detailed did occur in a small northern community during my posting to Thompson Manitoba, Deer Creek is a fictitious name.
Thompson, circa 1988. Recently transferred from the Winnipeg Drug Section to Thompson, Manitoba and newly promoted to the rank of Corporal, my duties were focused on drug enforcement for all areas of the Province of Manitoba north of the 53th parallel. While most of this geographic area was comprised of wilderness interspersed with mining concessions, small towns and First Nations and Metis communities, it accounted for 60% of the landmass of the province and was the patrol area for myself and two other constables.
Transportation connections within this region are sparse. The major north/south paved highway brings goods and services from the south, while another secondary highway links the mining communities and populations to the west. A rail line connects Thompson to Churchill on the Hudson Bay coast with numerous whistle stops in between. Small chartered or scheduled aircraft are used for alternate travel to small communities within the region. During the winter months, roads are built over frozen lakes and rivers to service these isolated locations. It was during this period of time that many used the winter access to “stock up” on provisions that would be too costly to ship by air in warmer months. (Hence the television program “Ice Road Truckers”). The RCMP has a Pilatus aircraft stationed at Thompson, moving personnel and goods as required; maintaining the business needs of the Force.
Shortly after my arrival in Thompson, the Officer Commanding of the subdivision felt the need to establish an emergency response team. The time had come he felt to emulate a practice that had been implemented by most modern law enforcement departments in recent years. While the RCMP had established a Division ERT that was housed at the headquarters in Winnipeg, their response to a critical threat to the public or law enforcement officers in northern Manitoba could be greater than 6 hours. As this response was considered unacceptable, volunteers from the sub-division were recruited to provide a more speedy response that would either resolve the threat or contain it until the dedicated headquarters’ team arrived. I volunteered for this duty.
The phone rang at 6:30 and stirred me from that semi-conscious state that, for me, precedes the ringing of the morning alarm. The phone was by the bed, on my side of the bed, situated there as a consequence of my duty, a condition of my marriage and my pledge to “be available” should the emergency response team, or any other “duty-related” call-out be required. So it was on that October morning.
“Good morning Bill, there’s been a call-out in Deer Creek, some guy with a gun is running amuck. The O.C. wants us to attend.”
The caller was Garry Hines, the sub-division Staff-Sergeant and leader of the emergency response team. While I felt obliged to ask a few questions regarding the incident, Garry was in fact calling me out. There was no decision to be made, no excuse short of physical illness and no equipment to bring with me. All call-outs followed a set protocol; therefore I already knew the answers to the two questions that I posed.
“Are we meeting at the hanger?“
“Yes, ASAP, wheels up in an hour.”
“Is there anything special to bring?”
“No, everything will be there. Just get dressed, were you still sleeping?”
“Haha, I’ll see you at the airport Staff.”
I was the last to arrive at the airport. The team gear had been loaded aboard the RCMP plane and the pilot was in the process of doing his walk-around, checking his systems and hooking up the tow-bar that would be used to bring the aircraft out from the hanger and onto the apron of the Thompson airport. Six of us would be making the one-hour flight into the Deer Creek. After receiving the go-ahead to board, we quickly did so and took our seats. I knew that we would be further briefed once in the air.
As the plane rolled down the runway, gaining speed, it was difficult to see out the side windows. Fog had settled into the low lying airport field overnight and the rising sun did not yet have enough heat to burn it off. But sitting there looking at the fog while rolling down the runway, even with nothing to see, seemed like the normal thing to do. We lifted into the air and within seconds we had escaped the ground fog and I was staring into the rising sun.
Once in the air Staff Hines briefed us in the noisy cabin. The increased volume of his
voice added effect to the seriousness of the information being relayed.
“David Thorassie is 22 years old, 5’8 in height and about 150 pounds. I’ve got a couple of mug shots that I pulled from the computer, but don’t trust them for identification; they are a couple of years old. Thorassie is living with his parents on the west side of town, but he could be anywhere in or around town. The community constable is keeping in touch with the father and up to half hour ago, Mr. Thorassie has told him that he would call if David came home. The community constable trusts Mr. Thorassie to call him if that happens. “
Hines paused to sort his notes and then continued.
“Ok, so last night about 10 o’clock, Thorassie was drinking at a party in a local home with a bunch of people. His girlfriend Jennifer was with him throughout the evening. By 10, Thorassie was drunk and started hitting on another woman. Jennifer got mad and started a fight. It went downhill from there. People tried to intervene. Thorassie stormed out from the party. He came back about 20 minutes later with a shotgun looking to shoot a Brandon Rutherford, a teacher at the local school, because Thorassie thought it was him that contributed to Thorassie’s argument with his girlfriend. Fortunately, Rutherford had already left. Thorassie went looking for him. Thorassie has broken into two houses during the night and threatened the occupants in his efforts to find Rutherford. The community constables suspect that Rutherford knew Thorassie was coming for him and has gone to ground. The community’s not that big, it’ll be basically a game of hide and seek to find Thorassie. Hopefully he will be sober and hung over by then and easy to arrest. But remember, he knows Deer Creek like the back of his hand and he’s a hunter; he knows how to shoot. Don’t take any chances with this guy and always have someone with you; watch each other’s backs. If he’s still on the move after this length of time, he’s probably more pissed off than drunk. We have to consider that he has a mission here, and if you get in his way he’ll want to fight.”
Looking around Hines made eye contact with each team member. Satisfied that he saw no doubts or questions he continued.
“Thorassie has a criminal record for property crimes, break and enter of a residence and assault. He’s done pen time for aggravated assault. He’s still on parole so that means that he’s in breach of his probation. He’s facing multiple charges as a result of his rampage last night. When we arrive we’ll be briefed on the current status by the local constables, they will provide rough maps of the community. I’ll assign a search pattern and we’ll follow that. Our local radio channel will be 4, set the channel now and let’s do a radio test. You all have service weapons but I want your shotguns and rifles locked and loaded as we land. Be alert, he’ll see the plane coming in, I don’t want to be vulnerable if he decides to make an aggressive move.”
Descending into the community I looked out my side window. Deer Creek was not a big town. With a population of just over 300, most residents had settled in a small core area surrounded by the natural stunted bush of the region. I could see one main road that intersected the town and a few small dirt roads that branched off into community pods. Throughout the community, narrow trails had been formed, shortcuts made to connect relatives, friends, the school and shopping, trails that were likely made through the use of motorbikes, trikes and snowmobiles. From the air the place looked small and simply structured. I knew that once our team was on the ground however, we would loose the aerial perspective and get easily turned around.
As we descended lower and individual buildings were more evident, the reality of Staff-Sergeant Hines words sunk in. His message had raised the possibility of a “worst-case” scenario; that one of our team may have to shoot David Thorassie. Accepting that responsibility, I also understood that this level of force would only be justified if David was intent on using his firearm toward us or members of the public. Our training had well taught us the rules of engagement and the decision making process to escalate the use of force to any level, in any situation. Staff Hine’s focus on firearms and our safety was not advocating the use of deadly force or showing disregard for David’s well-being. His concern reminded me and the rest of the team that we needed to engage our critical incident thinking, else our safety, the safety of the community and indeed the well-being of David Thorassie could be compromised.
As our aircraft committed itself on a final approach to land, we checked our gear and counter-checked each other’s. Our pilot completed his final descent in a very steep glide half way down the runway, and braked sharply to bring us into the taxi and apron area. The doors were opened from the inside before the propellers stopped.
We emerged en-mass and headed directly for the small airport building. Waiting were two community constables. After quick introductions, we were briefed with the use of a community map and within minutes we were off on our search, divided into three teams of two officers. The community constables remained at the airport to guard the plane and pilot. I was paired with Joe, a colleague from the municipal detachment whose normal duties were spent on general investigation. We had worked together before; there was little need to define our roles in this situation. We were in harmony from the start.
Joe and I were assigned the west area of the community. Furthest from the airport, we had the greatest distance to walk and the largest area to search. David Thorassie’s parents also had their house in this area, and while we were confident that they would call if their son returned home, we felt it unlikely that he would. The greatest threat was judged to be where Rutherford the teacher and Jennifer the girlfriend were hiding. Staff Hines and another senior member were assigned to that location. Both were skilled marksmen and seemed better suited for both search and personal protection duties.
The weather was a cold -8 degree Celsius and there was a slight breeze at our backs as we walked the main road to the west end of town. The sun was fully up and shining in a clear blue sky. On any other day, it would have been a pleasant stroll. The community was still, no one ventured out from their homes; all had been warned of the threat by doing so. Separated by several meters, Joe and I followed a separate side of the dirt road and bantered as we walked and watched for signs of David Thorassie. We approached the Thorassie home and stopped about 100 meters short of moving on when we saw movement from just beyond the home. A young male with a gun.
Joe quietly spoke across the space between us.
“Do you think that’s him?”
“In jeans and a t-shirt, at 8 below?”
“What are we going to do now?”
“A gun fight?”
“Funny! His gun looks bigger than ours.”
Considering options I spoke
“Well we can move toward him, confront him and see what happens. Or, we can let him go into the house; he’s almost there now. I’m not sure he saw us, did you get an indication?”
“Ok,” I said. “Let him go, call the rest of the team and we’ll contain him. Then go from there. The Staff needs to be involved here. He gets the big bucks, let him make a plan once we get buddy isolated.”
After calling in our observations and location to the rest of the team, Joe and I approached the house. We were safer close in rather than standing on the open trail. Each side of the single story wood frame building had a window roughly centered on the wall, but all windows that we could see were covered with a blind. The front and side window covering looked like old bath towels. We were sure that no one was watching us as we crept closer to the house.
“Are we in shotgun range yet?” Joe asked.
“I think a long time ago. It’s a rural community, there’s probably a rifle in the house anyway.”
“So what’s the plan?”
“Well we have no cover if we retreat from here. There doesn’t seem to be a phone line into the house. I’m not sure how Mr. Thorassie was going to call us. So at some point, someone’s gonna have to approach the house. So here we are already.
What would you suggest we do now?”
“Call the Emergency Response Team?
“We are the Emergency Response Team!”
Wait for Staff Hines?”
The question hung in the air while we both thought of our options. I finally answered my own question.
“I’m not sure we have the time. Our guy’s inside with his parents. I think we need to make contact now. But we got to agree. He hasn’t been in there but a couple of minutes. He’s still unorganized. I think we have the upper hand right now.”
“So how do you want to play this?”
“Knock on the door!”
From our location by the side of the house we needed to maintain radio silence. What we were planning, we would implement on our own. We both agreed that our plan was the right move to make and we quickly reviewed a standard approach to such a situation. Joe and I moved from the side of the house to the front. The front door had a small stairway leading up onto a narrow entry porch. Joe stood on the ground beside the stairway, his escape plan in place. I stood approximately 2 meters in front of him at the corner of the porch. The door opened to the inside of the house; hinged on the right, opening to the left. This would provide some advance knowledge should a gun come out from the doorway. Shotgun raised, Joe reached over the porch and knocked on the door. It slowly opened. An older woman appeared at the door and I lowered my shotgun away from her as Joe whispered.
“Are you Mrs. Thorassie?”
“In the back bedroom.”
“Is the bedroom door closed?”
“Where is your husband?”
“He’s on the couch, he can’t walk well.”
“What did David say when he came home.”
“He’s angry, he wanted my husband to give him more shells. He said he only had one
in the gun.”
“Did David get more shells?”
“No, not yet.”
“We need to stop David from hurting someone. Can we come in?”
“Yes, I’m afraid of him.”
Joe and I moved to step 2 of our plan. I climbed the steps and entered the house with my shotgun raised and trained down the narrow hallway toward the back of the house. Joe followed behind me. We reached the end, the door was on the right, and the hinge of the door was against the wall. The door opened into the room to the left.
We knew from the house plan that the room was square. It was then that I realized that Joe and I had not discussed step 3. Now what do we do? Our eyes met. He motioned toward the doorknob. I nodded back. Decision made, we were going in.
Turning the knob and pushing the door inward I led with my shotgun into the room. My finger was aligned with the stock, not near the trigger. I didn’t want an accidental discharge and the gun felt unwieldy and heavy in my hands. The door barely skimmed the bed, which was centered along the outside wall of the house.
There was a dresser along the wall to the right of the bed. A shotgun was lying on the dresser and Thorassie was lying on the bed. I followed his eyes to the shotgun; we both moved at the same time.
They say that in critical times, everything moves in slow motion. In my experience, everything moves quite quickly. It’s just that all the minutia of events become very clear. I’ve often seen videos of high-risk police arrests, and when debriefed afterwards, the officers fail to describe details other than those critical to protecting life. A fallen lamp, an elbow to the jaw, even a discharged weapon become minutia to the outcome; we won or we lost. In playing back my mental video of the event and helped by my partner at the scene, the following reenactment is proffered.
“Don’t David!!” I yelled. Too late, he was going for the gun.
My mind started silently processing. I could shoot him, but I could miss, I thought. Very tight quarters. He was half-way to the gun, but I was closer and moving in the same direction, toward the gun. If I shoot him I’ll probably be in a lot of shit. We should have waited, maybe. I dropped my shotgun to the floor; I think I put the safety on. I can take this guy I thought. Joe’s got my back. Shit, the little bugger touched the gun first, I focused on the trigger, grabbed my hand around it, closed it tight, protected. I didn’t need two hands to secure it, he needed two hands to take it away. Ahha! I grabbed his hair with my left hand and pulled his head back, he stumbled back, lost his footing, dragging me and the shotgun to the floor. We landed on top of the gun. I had somehow got underneath him but still had the gun protected in my hand. I felt Joe at my back.
“Let it go, let it go,” Joe yelled, “I got it,” he yelled, “I got it,” he yelled louder.
I barely heard Joe’s voice. Minutiae! But I pushed the shotgun back toward Joe and felt it being pulled from my hand. I let go to work on David. My mind started coming back into focus. Now all I had to worry about was a lean and mean wiry young man with a bad attitude, 10 years my junior. Up to that point, I’d never been seriously hit by anyone in my career. I didn’t want to break that streak. I could tell that David was stronger than me, I had to end this now and I didn’t want Joe to save the day. That would have added insult to injury.
I choked Thorassie until he passed out, lifted him off the floor and brought him back gently to his bed. Then I flipped him over on his front and put the handcuffs on him behind his back before he awoke. He was starting to stir and I knew that he would be really pissed off. My breath heaving I sat back on the edge of the dresser and leaned over with my hands on my knees. In my gaze across the floor and beneath my feet were firearms aplenty. It looked like an armoury after an earthquake, but in reality it was only three guns. I glanced up at Joe as I sensed him about to speak.
“Well, that was professional.”
I smiled at his sarcastic understatement as I continued to fight for my breath. At that
moment, Hines came through the door and the others crowded behind him straining
to get a look.
“Batman and Robin! I guess next time we can just send you two on a smaller plane.”
Not sure whether he was being serious or sarcastic and without the time to offer an apology or invent an excuse I replied,
“Shit happens boss.”
“Ok, good work, let’s wrap this up and go home. We’ll debrief back in Thompson this
Later that afternoon we did debrief and shortcomings were identified. It was determined that while nothing we did was wrong, we should have erred on the side of caution and waited for the team.
While both Joe and I both concurred with the review of our response, our service experience had seen us both exposed to similar incidents where the luxury of support was absent and the response to an event was rough and raw.
For the first eight years of my career, I worked extensively alone. On patrol alone, in some fairly isolated locations with weak to non-existent radio contact. Responding to potentially violent situations where often my only advocate in the room was the person who hated the police the least. Pushing though doors to search for or arrest violent individuals where knives that were put into the doorframe as a lock came shooting back past my head.
Recognizing that in some cases that where ‘discretion is the better part of valour’, it
was better to walk away, and ‘catch again another day’ where the only person in danger of getting hurt was me!
Or those many cases where I was the only barrier to prevent crime, serious or otherwise, and to not intervene was not a choice that could be made, and that diplomacy was a tool sometimes far more effective than a gun.
David Thorassie went back to jail for six months for breaching his parole. While he was supposed to keep the peace and be of good behavior his parole did not restrict him from owning or using firearms. After all, he was a resident of a hunting community. For his rampage he received 6 months concurrent, meaning that he served it at the same time as his breach time.
Upon his release he returned to Deer Creek where Jennifer was waiting for him. Brandon Rutherford was not. He had finished his school year and returned to his home south of the 53rd parallel. His contract was not renewed.