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The 3rd of March 2015 marked the tenth anniversary of the killing of four Alberta RCMP officers — the deadliest day in the history of Canada’s national police force. 

The carnage took place at a farm near the town of Mayerthorpe, northwest of Edmonton.

The fifth and final man to die that day was the gunman. In pain and bleeding from an RCMP bullet — and with no hope in hell of escaping — James Roszko decided to check out on a positive note by giving taxpayers a break. He pointed his assault rifle at his heart and, for a final time, slowly squeezed the trigger …

In March 2005, I was reporting for Edmonton radio station 630 CHED — numero uno in the ratings and branded as ‘Alberta’s Information Superstation.’ I was, as they say, on the ground for the Mayerthorpe story.

CHED was the first media outlet to report the stunning news that four Mounties had been murdered.

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 9.02.16 AM On Monday, 16 March 2015 I got a phone call from my boss, Bob Layton, CHED’s News Director. The veteran journalist wanted to know if I’d share my recollections of the blockbuster story that became known as the Mayerthorpe shootings. It was for a book on his reporting career. [See book cover and other info at the end of this post]

I fired off an email to Bob with my impressions of what happened at Mayerthorpe … which I’ll share with you in this post. 

From my perspective, here’s the story behind that terrible story … with some key questions that remain unanswered.


EARLY ON – FIRST WORD

It was late in the morning on Thursday, 3 March 2005. I was at my desk in the CHED bureau at the Law Courts Building in downtown Edmonton — putting together an item for our noon newscast — when a call came in from our newsroom. Something big was coming down. I was told to return immediately to our shop in South Edmonton, grab the keys to our cruiser and head out of town.

“What’s up?” I asked. The explanation was that a Mountie — perhaps more than one — had been shot near Mayerthorpe, a farming community 90 minutes’ drive away.

Map courtesy of Google

Click to enlarge. The red dot indicates the area where the shooting happened. The Town of Mayerthorpe is southwest of there. [Courtesy of Google]

Off I went to the station where I grabbed the keys to our flashy cruiser — a Ford F150 pick-up truck — then drove like a bat out of hell towards Mayerthorpe. I exceeded the speed limit, passing every car and truck on the way, arriving in two-thirds the time. If I’m not mistaken, some dolt called the station to complain about my driving. That’s the trouble with speeding in a truck that’s decked out like a billboard.

I spotted no media vehicles on Highway 43, a good sign we were ahead of the pack. You don’t want to arrive and discover you’re reporter #22. While on the road, I maintained cell phone contact with our newsroom to get the very latest. Distracted driving? You bet.

Ed Mason, our veteran police reporter, was doing his best to get more information from the RCMP — and he was doing all this from his residence in Sherwood Park, east of Edmonton. His shift had ended more than an hour earlier and here he was at home, on the phone working his contacts, trying to get more exclusive stuff.

However, details about what had gone down at a farm near Mayerthorpe were still sketchy. Ed’s intel was that there’d been a shooting, some officers were shot and that a marijuana grow-up was involved. As I recall, that was the gist of it.


ARRIVING IN AREA 

I tried to get to the farm but was turned away by a Mountie who parked his cruiser across the highway, about a kilometre or so from where the shooting happened. The officer claimed he didn’t know what was going on. Join the club.

Aerial One - QH

I turned around and made a beeline to Mayerthorpe, 12 kilometres distant, pulling up right in front of the small, one-story RCMP Detachment. Prime real estate, if you will. I chose that spot not just for convenience, but for the exposure: There was a chance that our news cruiser — like a gigantic mike flash — would end up in television and newspaper shots. Free publicity. Those are two words media outlets love: ‘Free’ and ‘publicity.’

At that point, CHED was pretty well the only news outlet on scene. In two hours or so, that would change dramatically; everyone and their dog would be there. Mayerthorpe was about to become the News Epicentre of North America.

The main entrance to the RCMP Detachment at Mayerthorpe was a windowless, steel door, the kind you might expect at a high school in the Bronx. I pulled opened the heavy door and immediately stood in a secure reception area, as in no direct contact with the person on the other side.

Receptionists are usually warm and relaxed, but not this one. The woman looked worried. In shock. She had little information, except the standard line: “An-investigation-is-underway …”

I was not able to confirm that a Mountie had been shot. But as we all know, the eyes shout what the lips fear to say. It was clear from seeing the receptionist — plus staff milling about the office like zombies — that something terrible had just happened.

It was also obvious the Mounties were trying to keep things under wraps until the arrival of a communications officer, someone designated to speak with reporters. That was Corporal Wayne Oakes, based at RCMP K Division, just south of the Municipal Airport in Edmonton. I was assured that Wayne was on his way.

I knew Oakes somewhat as I’d dealt with him a number of times. He was down-to-earth and easy going; you could joke with the guy. Wayne was originally from Nova Scotia. I am from New Brunswick, right next door.


REPORTERS ARRIVE – FRUSTRATION

As the minutes ticked by, media cars and large trucks [with satellite dishes] began to line the street — for more than half a block. Reporters scurried here and there, trying desperately to get information. I’m sure some people would have described us as “vultures.” Or, as news site developer Ed Hooper of Louisiana would put it, “news hawks.”

We tried to talk to anyone going in and out of the Detachment. But everyone was tight-lipped. I swear, if a Jehovah Witness had been peddling the Watchtower, they could have easily been welcomed by a dozen reporters.

It was frustrating, sensing/knowing in our hearts that something Big had happened but not being able to nail anything down. We were operating in a fog. Not just police were on edge, so were we. Reporters were waiting for RCMP spokesman Oakes to arrive.

One reporter called Oakes as he was driving “to the scene.” Oakes had nothing to tell him, except he’d arrive a lot sooner than normal.

Officers continued to shuffle in and out of the Detachment, heads down, deliberately avoiding eye contact with us. I sprinted to the back of the building where employees parked their cars, in the hope I could snag someone leaving or arriving. Perhaps they’d talk. But no one was there. I scampered back to the front of the building, worried I might have missed something.

A good number of police cruisers were also parked directly across the street, outside a Royal Canadian Legion building, and more were arriving all the time. The Mounties had turned the Legion into a command centre. I went inside but everyone was silent. “No comments” all around. People had the look of being under siege. It was clear I was wasting my time trying to talk to anyone there. I dropped off my business card and scooted back across the street.


BREAKTHROUGH COMING

I returned to the Detachment but instead of opening the door, this time I stood beside it — and listened. For a minute or so. Wow. What’s going on? I could hear people crying. A LOT of sobbing. I thought, Whoa! A Mountie has died. Gotta be.

Wayne Oakes finally arrived … but he was of little help to us reporters. He was as stunned as the rest. Put it this way, Wayne babysat us but didn’t feed us. At least he talked, if only to say “No comment right now, wait until something is ready …” So we waited.

Everything pointed to a major event. The Mounties don’t call in their communications officer to comment on something minor.

I now realize that the RCMP were also buying time … sombre officers were working the phones trying to reach next of kin. That has to be one very tough job.

Corporal Oakes being peppered by questions from reporters outside the RCMP building in Mayerthorpe.

Corporal Wayne Oakes being peppered by questions from reporters outside the RCMP detachment in Mayerthorpe. At times, Oakes became angry with certain reporters.

I was hungry for information, and just hungry period. I got back in my truck and took off down the road to a burger joint, grabbed some take-out [“fast food”] and returned to the Detachment. However, my prime parking space was gone and I had to park down the street, now jam-packed with media vehicles.

It was late in the afternoon, I was writing yet another dispatch and munching on a burger at the same time.

It wasn’t especially cold and my driver’s side window was all the way down. I was in a fairly quiet spot, although cars were coming and going, passing by my open window.


“FOUR COPS ARE DEAD!”

Travelling in the direction of the police station, passing on my left, was a sedan, likely a civilian vehicle. It could have been a ghost car, I don’t know. The vehicle was being driven by a woman, dark hair, average build, in her 30’s, not sure.

The woman immediately stopped when flagged down by a Mountie — a man in his 30’s who was behind the wheel of a marked cruiser going in the opposite direction. The two cars came to a complete stop. The windows went down and the drivers began to talk.

I could hear everything.

The officer immediately blurted, “Four cops are dead!” It was as simple as that. No small talk about the weather, nice hairdo or anything. The woman looked at the officer and without saying a word, turned her head and let it drop on the padded steering wheel. She began to sob. She didn’t hold back; her cries were gut-wrenching. Clearly, the lady was in considerable anguish.

I don’t remember what else was said because I was so stunned at what I’d just overheard. I now understood why staff at the police station were crying so much. My God. This wasn’t a case of a single Mountie being shot. Or even one killed. FOUR policemen were dead. Amazing …

As the woman wept, the officer said nothing but kept looking at her with concern. Neither noticed me in the cab of the CHED truck. What I saw was not a scripted, staged event for the benefit of a news reporter. It was real.

Screen Shot 2015-03-21 at 2.30.54 PM

The dead officers, all constables: Anthony Gordon [28]; Lionide [Leo] Johnston [34]; Brock Myrol [29] and Peter Schiemann [25]. [Photo credit: RCMP]

The police cruiser pulled away, headed in the direction of town. The other vehicle turned left, into the parking lot of the Legion, the command centre. I never did learn who the woman was, but I’ve often wondered about it. Can’t tell you if she was a secretary or an officer, or if her spouse worked for the RCMP. No clue.


An aerial media shot shows police putting tarps over the dead officers.

An aerial media shot shows police covering the bodies with plastic tarps. [Edmonton Journal] Click to enlarge. Mounties allege that all four officers were shot and killed at the same time — inside the Quonset hut. The corrugated metal building, noted for its semicircular cross section, gets its name from Quonset Point, Rhode Island, USA where the huts were first made during World War Two.

Notice the tags indicating where bullets strike the door [on the side] and near the mirror ... plus the blown-out window.

Click to enlarge. Notice the white stickers [with black squiggly lines] indicating where bullets from Roszko’s semi-automatic rifle struck the police cruiser door: on the side [just above the door handle], in the sideview mirror — plus the blown-out passenger window. NO WAY did Roszko fire these bullets from inside the Quonset Hut. Note 1: the mike for the 2-way radio is resting in its cradle. That may indicate that if anyone was in the vehicle when the slugs hit, they were caught by surprise. Note 2: an officer testified at an inquiry that after Roszko killed four officers “in the Quonset hut,” he began shooting at him from the open door of the Quonset hut, his bullets striking the police cruiser. Impossible. [Photo credit: RCMP]

Reporters kept arriving. They either headed straight into the police station or looked for ‘buddies’ who could bring them up to speed on what was happening. Reporters who arrive late for a major event soon find out who their friends are.

I sought out Corporal Oakes again and, privately, said to him, “Four Mounties are dead, right?” Wayne, who had been crying, said, “Byron, I can’t tell you that, I’m sorry …” I said, “Well, Wayne, you just did — with your eyes.”

I suspected the officer knew a lot more but that he wasn’t authorized to say anything — not at this point anyway. I pressed further, to get something off the record — or to use Wayne’s information without him being identified as the source. But he just wouldn’t budge. Slowly shaking his head, Wayne walked away, fighting back the tears.

Another reporter [Global TV, female] saw me talking with Wayne. She ran over and asked what I knew. I did not tell her what I’d just overheard out on the street. That was information I’d share with our audience, not the competition.

I went back inside the police station, looked around the office and I could see that everyone was either crying, or had been crying. Their faces were wet and puffy. You can’t hide grief.

I could also feel their pain. How could I not? One would have to be a complete moron not to realize something very terrible had happened. It was just awful seeing all those people hurting.

This was no longer just another news story; this was a bloody nightmare.


STARS AIR AMBULANCE

News reporters weren’t the only ones scrambling.

In Sherwood Park, just east of Edmonton, a helicopter pilot with the Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society — better known by its acronym STARS — rushed into the RCMP Detachment looking for a hurry-up ride to the municipal airport where his chopper was waiting on the tarmac.

The Mounties put the pilot in one of their cruisers and with the overheads flashing, swiftly cut through traffic so he could get to the airport in record time.

His medical helicopter was soon airborne — but it only got as far as the west end of Edmonton before word came over his radio to turn around and return to base.

There was a second air ambulance involved. The first was already on the ground, about a mile or so from the shooting … waiting for word that it was safe to touch down outside the Quonset hut.

Turns out, there would be no need for a STARS helicopters to land at the farm. Pulling up instead would be unmarked vans from the Medical Examiner’s Office.


FILING THE BREAKING NEWS

I ran back to the CHED cruiser, called in the fresh information to the newsroom, doing a live debrief with sports legend Bryan Hall about what I’d seen and heard while parked on the road by the police station, the exact words spoken, the woman’s anguish, the crying inside the Detachment, all that.

The man known as “Hallsy” cautioned our audience we had no official confirmation that any officers had died. He was very professional. I mean, the public teases on-air sports people as being entertainers and salespeople for the leagues … but Bryan was right on the money. A touchdown pass, if you will.

This was all live, mind you, with no rehearsal. No chit-chat beforehand. Just something along the lines of, “Our reporter Byron Christopher is on the line and Byron what can you tell us? …” Real radio.

I then spoke with afternoon editor Eileen Bell, who wanted to wait for official word from the RCMP.

I immediately spoke with veteran news reporter Thomm Bokor who was working in our newsroom that day. I said, “Get on the blower and confirm this.” Thomm did, reaching a Member of Parliament — a friend of us — who confirmed that four Mounties were indeed dead.

Bokor was a seasoned radio journalist who had a reputation for nailing scoops and getting the job done. As Wayne Land of Fort Saskatchewan — Alberta’s best-known lay pastor — put it, “Thomm Bokor is passionate about his calling.” Thank God.

The tarped-over bodies of the four dead Mounties. One is to the rear of the police cruiser [note passenger side window shot out]; two appear to be under the blue tarp and the fourth under a yellow tarp just inside the quonset hut. Photo by Rick MacWilliam of the Edmonton Journal.

The tarped-over bodies of the four dead Mounties. One is to the rear of the police cruiser under a yellow tarp [note passenger side window shot out]; two appear to be under the blue tarp … and the fourth body under a yellow tarp just inside the Quonset hut. If all officers died in the Quonset hut, why is one body so far away from the others — on bloodied ground — behind a cruiser? Is that where he died? If not, why were the bodies moved before forensic investigators arrived? [Photo by Rick MacWilliam of the Edmonton Journal.] Click to enlarge.

While we were broadcast this new information, my mind raced back to my days at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC]. They’d be gathering in a boardroom, nursing their lattes, having a group discussion on how to cover this. I kid you not. It felt good to kick their butts in. Same with the other media outlets.

CHED broke the story of the four Mountie deaths.

Shortly after, came an RCMP news release with confirmation that four Mounties had been shot and killed and that the shooter had taken his own life. The officer who read the news release was standing in front of the Mayerthorpe Detachment with a pile of microphones in his face.


OFFICIAL ANNOUNCEMENT

It was either this news conference or another one, can’t remember … but CHED went live with the news. That’s the beauty of a local station compared to one in a bureaucrat-laden, taxpayer-funded network. The brass at CHED decided this was important to our audience … so let’s go live.

I held up my cell phone at the newser and that’s how we got the ‘real-time’ audio. A TV cameraman was ticked because the cell had interfered with his cordless mike, leaving his audio with an annoying buzzing sound. I said, “That’s an act of God because God listens to CHED.”

Around that time, I said to an officer inside the Detachment, wouldn’t it be a good idea to lower your flag out front to half-mast? He went, ‘oops.’ I tipped off the TV guys they’d be lowering the flag and suggested they might want the footage. So they got ready. A few minutes later someone came out with keys and tried to open the box, located at the bottom of the flag pole so the flag could be lowered. Oops again. Wrong keys. The man had to go back inside and get the right ones. Eventually, the flag was lowered to half-mast. TV cameras caught all the action.


THE EVENING A BLUR

The rest of my evening was spent filing reports non-stop, doing debriefs with whoever [I forget where now, but I recall talking to media outlets in Eastern Canada and in Saskatchewan] — and doing a live hit with whoever was doing the open-line show on CHED that night. It may have been Al Stafford, not sure.

I also got a phone call from a female reporter at the Toronto Star who wanted information on a chase prior to the shootings, which I gave her. We traded information, actually. More on that later. The Star story ran next morning with full credit to CHED.

The one telephone interview I turned down was with CBC Radio National News in Toronto. I knew some of the guys in National, they were excellent reporters, but I just was not in the mood for sharing intel or doing a live hit with them. About a year or so later I turned down a request for an interview by CBC-TV’s documentary program The Fifth Estate. 

At this point, of course, reporters learned the identity of the shooter — James Roszko  and we scrambled to get intel on the guy. “Was known to police” is code for “The guy has been in trouble with the law … and likely eaten prison food.”

Photo Credit: CBC

James Roszko [Photo Credit: The Edmonton Journal]

I talked to a number of people on the street in Mayerthorpe about James Roszko. And because the guy was flat out at the Medical Examiner’s Office [the morgue], people opened up.

The impression I got was that Roszko was a dick who intimidated a lot of people — including police. The man, who had a long criminal record, generally did what he wanted to do. He was a bully and an asshole.

Have you ever had a vehicle stolen, never to be found again? People like James Roszko stripped stolen vehicles for parts. He was running what’s known as a chop shop. These are not nice people.

No one had anything good thing to say about the guy. Wait. Strike that. One man indicated he was pleased to hear that Roszko was now [roasting marshmallows in Hell]. There was a sense of relief that James Roszko would never walk the streets of Mayerthorpe again.

Not even Roszko’s dad had a good thing to say about him. I got his father’s name [William Roszko] and phone number from the Star reporter, and so I called him. He wanted me to get out to see him that evening.

William lived out of town. Somewhere. But his directions, however, were terrible and I got lost in the dark trying to find his place. I continued to talk to him on the phone as I drove. The man was quite frank about his son. He said when he heard that four Mounties were dead, he immediately knew that his boy was the killer.

William Roszko was also quick to say he didn’t condone what his son did, that he didn’t raise his son to kill policemen.

The old guy was clearly in shock. He was unfocused and he rambled, often going around in circles, just like me out in the dark trying to find his damn place. Trying to get directions from him as I drove in pitch darkness, I passed a ‘landmark’. I told him, “I just went by a graveyard, am I heading in the right direction?” I then heard him crying. They don’t pay us enough to cover these stories.

William Roszko died in 2006, the year following the shootings at his son’s farm. I have often wondered if James Roszko’s mad rampage didn’t contribute to his father’s death. I think we all know the answer.

The staff at the Chinese restaurant in Mayerthorpe, where I had my meals, revealed that two of the Mounties often ate there and that they were very personable. According to a waitress, one of the officers — and I can’t remember his name now —  talked about his family and his future plans.


DAVE RUTHERFORD ARRIVES

Corus’ star broadcaster Dave Rutherford and his female assistant had driven up from Calgary in a motorhome. I got them a room at the local hotel; the rooms in Mayerthorpe and nearby Whitecourt went pretty fast that night. But Dave and I were looked after. We each had rooms.

I woke up in the morning not only wondering where I was [Mayerthorpe] but wondering if the murder of four police officers had been a bad dream. It wasn’t however. And here it was, March 4th — the only day of the year that’s a command [“march forth”] — and I wasn’t sure how anyone could move forward from this disaster.

The Mayerthorpe shooting was the top news story in not just Alberta but across North America. Four officers murdered — the worst one-day loss of life for the RCMP. An incredible story.

Dave set up shop inside the same Chinese restaurant, on the main drag. He did his open-line show right from one of the tables. Good, old-fashioned radio.

Dave was thorough with the information, which surprised me because we’re talking private radio here. I handed Dave an RCMP release and he phoned the Mounties to make sure their info was up to date. Even a professor of journalism at Columbia University wouldn’t have done that.

CHED and Corus were on site doing live, interactive programming with its audience and remember, Dave had driven up from Calgary, 430 kilometers away. Dave Rutherford not only beat the media in Calgary but most of the media in Edmonton. Kudos to him.


INTEL AND SCOOPS

It was reporter Ed Mason who came up with some great intel: James Roszko had snuck back onto his property with socks over his boots to help muffle the sound and hide his footprints. I recall the reporters at the scene buzzing over that one. Scoops are so cool.

The only intel I had on Roszko came later from a con at the Remand Centre, whom I won’t identify. He’d spent time with Roszko at the Bowden Penitentiary, [near Red Deer, Alberta] and described him as an angry man who vowed to kill the next cop who arrested him. I wasn’t able to confirm this, and the info never made it to air. He also said Roszko was a true cop-hater. Bowden is where a lot of sexual offenders are held.

I couldn’t tell you why Roszko was serving time.


UNANSWERED QUESTIONS 

Did the Mounties have a legal right to be on James Roszko’s property after he fled?

In an email, retired defence lawyer David Willson points out, “The Mounties were ostensibly at Roszko’s property to assist a bailiff in a truck seizure.” “Upon their arrival,” he writes, “they noted the truck being driven away, presumably by Roszko. They proceeded to search the property and located the grow-op.”

“Question is, once they realized the truck was no longer on the property, what authority did they have to search the property?” – David Willson

Also, was there anything to earlier media reports that Roszko’s dogs had either been sedated or killed after police arrived? The dogs, described by police as vicious, were in a kennel of sorts. Let’s see … Roszko lived alone with only some faithful dogs for company, he arrives home, his best friends are ‘out’ … I mean, if the RCMP didn’t have a death sentence before then, they sure did when the whacko snuck home in the middle of the night, pissed off and armed to the teeth.

Roszko was outnumbered, but he had three advantages: superior firepower [high-powered rifle versus handguns], he was on his home turf and he had the element of surprise.

I learn something new every day. I didn’t realize that police carried sedating-drugs to knock out animals; thought only veterinarians had meds like that. Another thing: good luck in trying to sedate attack dogs. Hmmm … Roszko’s dogs weren’t shot, were they … ?

An important point: one of the four slain RCMP officers was not armed. Peter Schiemann arrived in plain clothes. He did not have a weapon, not even a sling-shot.


ROSZKO’S REMAINS

Roszko’s body was at a funeral home in Mayerthorpe, right next to the RCMP station, strange enough. I tried to get in to view his remains, but the place was closed.

I wanted to know if he shot himself in the head, perhaps get some information from the undertaker as to how many shots he took before he did himself in. I later found out Roszko shot himself in the chest.

The gunman was quietly cremated. I couldn’t tell you whatever happened to his ashes, or if he has a tombstone somewhere. Just never followed up on that.

I did talk to a sister of James Roszko, a nurse at the Misericordia Hospital in Edmonton’s west end. She was professional and answered my questions, though she seemed to be in shock; subdued. I got her name from her father.

I talked to another sibling. He was also professional, well-spoken.

Their comments could be framed this way: they weren’t surprised by their brother’s actions, but very disappointed — and ashamed. Their sympathies went out to the families of the dead officers. Talk about a diverse family. From well-spoken, thoughtful and polite kids … to the other end of the spectrum. How does that happen?

I think I know what they were feeling. My nephew who went down for manslaughter in the brutal murder of a woman near Campbellton, New Brunswick in the 1990s. He was an asshole too.


MEMORIAL SERVICE

I covered the memorial service for the four officers at the Butterdome in Edmonton’s university area.

The staging area was a large park, about a kilometre away. I recall chatting with one of the officers. I said, “How’s a skinny guy like you get to be a Mountie?” He replied he’d been an accountant and that the RCMP had changed its hiring procedures. He went into detail about the hiring process and his training in Regina, Saskatchewan. He did not know any of the four dead officers. Just two guys chatting.

The call came for the men and women to line up and start their march up a steep hill. I walked alongside the officers — running at times to keep up — and being out of breath as I filed a live report. Huffing and puffing, I was. That was embarrassing, actually.

Not an assignment for then-CTV reporter Mike Duffy, later to become a Canadian Senator … then a suspended senator.

Mounties on their way to the Butterdome, in the University area, where the funeral service was held.

Hundreds of Mounties on their way to the Butterdome, where the funeral service was held.

The service was very ceremonial, yet touching. A lot of planning went into it. There was a huge turn-out.

Edmonton seemed to come to a stop while the service was on, not unlike the 11th hour on Remembrance Day.


THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES

Like a dust storm on the prairies, rumours began to swirl about how the four officers were killed. You can imagine.

A report I got from a reliable, private detective — who had talked with an RCMP officer — was that James Roszko initally shot two officers who were sitting/sleeping in their cruiser, firing through the car’s window and killing them.

He claimed the other two officers were shot later as they entered the Quonset hut. According to his information, the four Mounties were NOT gunned down at the same time.

I don’t know how accurate this was but to try to get to the bottom of it, I asked the RCMP if I could check out the cruiser — the one that had its window shot out by Roszko. I understood the cruiser was in an RCMP lab in the west end of Edmonton, just off 178 Street.

I wanted to see for myself if there was blood on the front and back seats. The request was denied. I said, well no camera then. No. Promise not to touch anything. No. Will keep my distance … just want to check the seats for blood. No.

Aerial photographs taken from a plane hired by the Journal showed one body on the ground behind that cruiser. How did the officer’s body get to that spot if he died inside the Quonset hut? Scroll back to the chapter called ‘Filing the Breaking News’ and take another look at the aerial photo by Rick MacWilliam. 


ROSZKO’S MOTHER NO HELP

Not long after the shootings, I scooted around to the home of James Roszko’s mother, Stephanie Fifield. She lived in a small house very close to the farm where the shootings took place.

Stephanie was one angry individual, ticked off at reporters, in any case. I wanted to ask her if she’d driven her son back to the area that night, just hours before he killed the policemen. Fair question, I figured. If the woman was above reproach, how could she not answer that question? These were the thoughts going through my head as I knocked on her front door.

I never got my questions out before the door was closed in my face. At least she didn’t come after me with a gun, so that was a blessing. You know, like mother, like son.

I backed out of the driveway, waved good-bye and never returned. Roszko’s mother had to be hurting as well. I don’t think any woman knowingly raises a child to be a bully and a killer.

Turns out, she hadn’t driven her son back to the farm. That was the work of two local men who had befriended Roszko, provided him with a weapon, etc. and, in the past, bought dope from him. The pair was sent to prison for fairly long terms for their part in the tragedy.

Satellite shot showing Roszko's mother's house, lower left, and a trail leading straight to her son's property, top right. [image courtesy of Google] Click to enlarge.

Satellite shot showing Roszko’s mother’s house, lower left, and a trail leading straight to her son’s property, top right. [image courtesy of Google and C. Rousselle.] Click to enlarge.

Warren and Stephanie Fifield. Photo courtesy of the Edmonton Sun.

Warren and Stephanie Fifield. Photo courtesy of the Edmonton Sun.

Warren Fifield [76] and Stephanie Fifield [81] were killed on 15 December 2014 when their car was hit by a pick-up truck — where Range Road 80 meets Highway 43. Police say the Fifield’s blew through a yield sign. According to the Edmonton Sun, the driver of the pick-up was hurt, but not badly.

Stephanie was described in the Sun story as a “staunch defender” of her son, James.


ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER STORY ANGLE

In the days following the shooting, the RCMP kept the story alive by either holding a news conference or issuing a news release. Reporters dug up new information on their own. It seems that CTV landed a few good scoops.

News Conference at RCMP K-Division in Edmonton with Constable Wayne Oakes.

News Conference at RCMP K-Division in Edmonton with Constable Wayne Oakes. I’m the tall, handsome dude with the hat, standing next to Wayne. This cool photo by Darryl Dyck of the Edmonton Sun.


A QUIET RETURN TO THE SCENE

A year after the shooting I returned to James Roszko’s farm, but I couldn’t drive in. The bugger had erected several high gates that blocked vehicular traffic to his property. Roszko didn’t just have a farm. He had a fortress. Guess people live like that if they grow dope or take apart stolen vehicles.

The man’s home was a simple trailer. Nearby was the Quonset hut where five lives were snuffed out on 3 March 2005.

I parked my car and climbed over the gates [which were well over my head]. I recall jumping and trying to keep my balance as I hit the ground.

I walked up to the trailer home and either rang the door bell or knocked on the door, can’t remember. In any case, nobody was home. There was a small wooden deck by the west-facing side door. I shaded my eyes and peered in a kitchen window, which showed things to be very orderly and spotless, as if a neat-freak nun lived there.

If Roszko was a dope-head, I would have thought his place would have been real messy. I realized of course the Mounties would have gone through his place and possessions with a fine tooth comb.

I walked over to the metal Quonset hut. It was somewhat eerie, actually. Early evening. Quiet. I searched the gravel and grass for spent shells, in the hope I’d find some. Notta.

I tried to open the large, overhead heavy door to the quonset hut, but couldn’t … on the door was a big padlock. A small man-door was locked as well.

What I wouldn’t have given to be a “fly on the wall” … to have been there a year earlier with a tape recorder running. What a story that would have been … yelling, shots fired … then James Roszko’s final shot.

Perhaps I take this news stuff too seriously.


TWO LOCALS CHARGED, SENT TO PRISON

In an undercover RCMP investigation known as a “Mr. Big” operation, two men were charged with first-degree murder — four years after the RCMP deaths — for helping gunman James Roszko.

Shawn Hennessey and his brother-in-law, Dennis Cheeseman, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter. The men admitted giving Roszko a rifle [not the one used to shoot the Mounties] and a lift back to the farm the night of the killings. Cheeseman received 7 years and 2 months; Hennessey got 10 years and 4 months. They’re now both out on parole.

Business card of Shawn Hennessey, who worked at a tire shop in Barrhead, Alberta.

Shawn Hennessey’s business card from the Kal Tire in nearby Barrhead.

‘Mr. Big’ is a covert, undercover investigation used by law enforcement in Canada and Australia. They’re controversial, to say the least. And expensive, costing taxpayers millions of dollars. One lawyer described them as fundamentally a “deceitful exercise.”

In 2014 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that confessions made in Mr. Big operations are “presumptively inadmissible” as evidence in a criminal trial.

Giving a whole new meaning to “under cover” and “Mr. Big,” it was revealed that a female undercover Mountie gained Cheeseman’s confidence by pretending to be his girlfriend. And no, I don’t know if anything happened between the two.


MONUMENTS TO THE SLAIN OFFICERS

Monument to the Fallen Four at Mayerthorpe, Alberta.

Monument to the ‘Fallen Four’ at Mayerthorpe, Alberta. [Image courtesy of Wikipedia]

Outside the RCMP Detachment in Whitecourt, Alberta. Constable Anthony Gordon was stationed at Whitecourt.

Outside the RCMP Detachment in Whitecourt, Alberta. Constable Anthony Gordon was stationed at Whitecourt. [Thanks again to Wikipedia]

Screen Shot 2015-03-21 at 2.30.26 PM

Photo credit: RCMP


FROM HOSTILE TO HAUNTING

James Roszko’s property today is a peaceful, somnolent place where more than a decade ago, five human lives — three still in their 20s — were snuffed out by gunfire.

Roszko’s home is no longer a fortress, but just another farm — indistinguishable from the tens thousands of farms that dot Canada’s landscape.

I don’t know who lives there now, haven’t been around to talk to them. I wonder though, if when they walk out of the open doors of probably the world’s most infamous Quonset hut, they have a ‘whoa’ moment and catch themselves saying, “This is where it all happened …”

These photos — taken during the summer of 2014 — are courtesy of C. Rousselle

Sign reads:

Red sign reads: “No Trespassing. Private Property.” The blue sign underneath it reads: “58222 – RR 75.” Click to enlarge.

Quonset Hut

Roszko’s former Quonset hut today — now with a security camera. Click to enlarge.


Bob Layton885 (1).jpg

Bob Layton’s book was released at a luncheon meeting of the Edmonton Broadcasters on 12 April 2017. Bob was the guest speaker. His book also contains an exclusive behind-the-scenes account by retired CHED newsman Ed Mason.

Here’s where to pick up a copy of Bob Layton’s book … http://bit.ly/2pSXCgM


9 thoughts on “Four Dead; a Nation Wounded

  1. One observation that people shy away from making …

    Two cops to assist a bailiff in a truck seizure? They either anticipated possible problems or were just off on a jaunt “fucking the dog”.

    Given the guy’s record they should have anticipated possible problems. However they clearly didn’t take the kind of precautionary measures one would expect when dealing with a guy who had a known history of violence, was considered potentially violent and had been quoted as saying he would kill the next cop who tried to arrest him.

    In fact they didn’t seem to take any reasonable precautionary measures at all.

    Two of them sitting in their car, maybe sleeping. What’s that, Mr. Christopher? Using the occasion to take a little nap? That goes beyond sleeping on company time to in effect falling asleep while on guard duty. They should not have assumed he wasn’t there. All they knew was that they didn’t know where he was and that should have made them doubly cautious.

    Other two apparently trying to take on a man with a semi-auto rifle with handguns. That’s not what a handgun is for. If the other guy has a rifle you need to hunker down and call in similarly equipped back up. Nobody with any sense tries to take on a man with a semi-auto rifle with a handgun. History makes clear that’s a good way to get killed.

    I’ll tell you one thing. Cops where I grew up sure didn’t approach a potentially violent situation so casually and wouldn’t have lasted any longer than these four Mounties if they did. It’s frankly hard for me to believe anybody with any street sense at all approaching a potentially violent situation so casually.

    It’s hard to imagine four properly-equipped and trained law enforcement officers being surprised and shot to pieces by a guy who was known to be dangerous while they were in effect conducting a raid on his home. They should have known the guy might be there, might be hiding there, and might shoot them if they took a little siesta in the middle of their raid on his home.

    One can easily imagine the incident being used for training purposes to illustrate what not to do.

    The other stereotype of the Mounties. Instead of Sergeant Preston, Duddley-Do-Right.

    Maybe not a nice patriotic observation but the story to me is not about how terrible it is that four wonderful Mounties were murdered by this evil wrong-doer whose own father didn’t even try to defend. The story to me is how the hell could this have possibly happened and how can it be prevented from happening again.

    Where are the adult Mounties in this story? The ones responsible for these ill-equipped, ill-trained babes in uniform. Roszko administered his own punishment so that’s taken care of. Who is holding responsible the superiors of these four bumbling keystone cops for something that by any reasonable measure should never have happened.

    Roszko should not have been able to kill four Mounties when they were in effect conducting a raid on his home and should have had every advantage — numbers, surprise, planning, equipment, intelligence, training … you name it.

    Roszko may have been crafty in a street or even bush sense but he really didn’t do anything all that superhuman. Probably shot two cops sleeping in their car and then shot two more from behind cover with a rifle more powerful and more accurate to shoot than their pistols.

    Something is definitely way out of whack here … and it’s not on the Roszko side of the equation. It’s not what he did that’s so hard to understand — but what the cops did and didn’t do. And subsequently how the incident has been treated publicly by the Mounties and the media.

    Canadians have got to get over the idea the Mounties are somehow sancrosant and raising questions about what they do somehow unpatriotic. Lack of negative public reaction to what they do underpins and supports their problems and inadequacies. They have no need to do better as long as they’re perceived as not doing anything wrong.

    I don’t know what happened at the Roszko farm other than Roszko and 4 cops ended up dead. Cops were there. Cops know what happened. Only cops know what happened. And whatever happened, the RCMP seems to be fudging it and one has to assume they have a reason for doing so.

    With the RCMP being the only witnesses to what happened, and being in control of the information, it’s not likely we’ll ever know what really happened. Other than to have strong, uneasy suspicions that whatever it was, it shouldn’t have.

    I’m reminded of a great Lenny Bruce line about Hitler. Bruce said Hitler got into trouble because he was “bullshitted by his friends” who kept telling him, “You’re doing fine”. Admittedly an exaggeration and oversimplification — satire always is — but with more than a nugget of truth. Unquestioned power sooner or later always ends badly.

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  2. Pingback: Puget Sound Radio | 10 years ago CHED's Byron Christopher was in Meyerthorpe - Puget Sound Radio

  3. The dude above (Gerald) makes excellent comments about this tragedy.

    This excellent 10th anniversary retrospective by Byron Christopher shows that the Mayerthorpe tragedy was a comedy of errors from the very beginning, from the undue supression of the news story by the RCMP, to why Mounties were hanging around Roszko’s property at all, to [what happened to] Roszko’s dogs, which likely agitated Roszko and contributed to the killings, to the hiding of the fact that two Mounties in their marked car were likely shot to death while sleeping, even though Roszko was a dangerous, convicted felon with a hate-on for cops.

    It was always presumed that the four Mounties all got killed in Roszko’s Quonset Hut. But now, we learn that two young cops may have been shot while sleeping in their marked car!

    If true, what the hell were they doing sleeping on the job!

    Why wasn’t the SWAT team called in? How indeed can pistols defeat a hunting rifle!

    Meanwhile, no RCMP supervisor ever got questioned or reprimanded criminally, or publicly, for those four deaths. Why was that?

    In a classic case of overkill, the two young men who aided Roszko with a rifle and a ride got unduly harsh jail sentences.

    What good did that do?

    Same thing with the killer of the New Brunswick shootings. Why 75 years in prison? Why not just bring back the death penalty?

    Maybe they already have? Like the poor s.o.b. who died in Slocan, B.C. while hiding from the law. Two ERT members just shot the dude in a cabin, while media were told the man died after a confrontation with police. Friends of the man say he was simply assassinated!

    It just goes to show you that the RCMP are very good at covering their asses while hiding their own mistakes and incompetence. Perhaps the media glib Commissioner Paulson (who apparently likes to take over press conferences) can explain why the chain of events at Mayerthorpe and Slocan, B.C. went so terribly wrong.

    But, don’t stop there. Please explain to us the Richmond Airport killing of that Polish man, too, the cooking of evidence between four cops, the perjuries and lying by RCMP up to the PR office, as well as the retired First Nations corporal who likes to leave accident scenes to “take a drink,” after running over and killing a young motorcyclist.

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  4. So darn intriguing … so many unanswered questions, especially the ones from these two gentlemen … where does the responsibility lie?

    It sounds like overkill (pardon the pun) to send four RCMP to get a truck then to search a property without a search warrant. Am I way off base and not understanding this situation?

    Cannot wait to see it on “Investigation Discovery”!

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  5. Roszko was underestimated.

    Four mounties dead and ten years later, still speculation of a cover up. Must be terrible for the families of the officers, no closure.

    The two men who went to jail took the fall for the fallen four. Many people stood up for them; granted they weren’t angels, however, they didn’t deserve the sentences they got.

    A lot of mistakes made, lives ruined and no closure for the families, sounds like another botched job by the RCMP.

    Who sent the four rookie officers — one unarmed — into a potentially dangerous situation?

    As usual, the general public that pays the bills is left in the dark.

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  6. Lots of memories in this post, Byron; – many very sad … as we were faced with a decision to tell families of those involved of an outcome that everyone in our radio network suspected and later confirmed … but it was so difficult to report.

    It is hard to believe that 10 years have already passed since that horrible event … although it remains very fresh in our minds.

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  7. As a now retired former crime reporter for the Red Deer Advocate, the first indication to me that something was amiss with the RCMP’s story of events was the Edmonton Journal’s aerial photograph showing the tarp-covered bodies of three officers outside the Quonset.

    A murder of this nature demands the crime scene be left untouched until all evidence is gathered meticulously by crime identification experts. It must be protected so nothing soils the evidence. Nothing, absolutely nothing can be disturbed. That is protocol with the RCMP in any murder case — stay back from the scene until the identification experts have arrived.

    The Journal photo shows three bodies outside the Quonset and officers milling around the scene in the mud. Only after identification experts have completed their investigation, can the bodies be moved. The Journal photo proves, if the RCMP followed protocol, all four officers were not ambushed in the Quonset because their bodies would not have been moved from the very spot they died.

    The public inquiry that followed was laughable. While it is normally made clear at the start of such an inquiry by the presiding judge, the aim is NOT to point fingers or blame, but to determine how such incidents can be prevented in the future.

    But at the outset of the inquiry, the first Mountie to take the stand said there was no doubt in his mind had Shawn Hennessey and his brother-in-law, Dennis Cheeseman not given James Roszko a ride back to his farm, this carnage would not have occurred. By virtue of that statement, the inquiry was tainted from the start, and the RCMP version of events soon began putting the puzzle together.

    That statement was also intended to redirect any blame from the RCMP as to what really unfolded. While not permitted at a public inquiry of this nature, that statement had to be put on the record by the Mounties to absolve themselves of all sins.

    A subsequent made-for-TV movie/documentary on the tragedy, showed the Journal’s aerial photo of the shooting scene with the bodies of the officers outside the Quonset conveniently airbrushed out to coincide with the version to cops were all gunned down in the building. It also showed RCMP steering a robot into the building to survey the scene before entering, and pictures of Roszko slouched over dead. There was never any mention of a robot being used in the investigation. But, that’s the way it is with these movie/documentaries.

    Evidence at the public inquiry was cooked from day one — anything to absolve the RCMP of wrong-doing. Evidence presented claimed three of the officers where shot dead in their tracks. (It’s claimed one officer apparently fired his sidearm once, striking Roszko in the belt buckle, then the handgun apparently seized.) Evidence also suggested a fourth officer was shot in the back in the Quonset when he tried to flee through a locked door near the back of the building.

    The most telling piece of evidence as to what really happened prior to the inquiry, other than the Journal photo, was the marked police cruiser with its windows shot out – and an officer’s body covered by a tarp near the cruiser in the blood-spattered snow. Why would Roszko open fire on an empty police cruiser?

    Then there’s the much hay made over the grow-op. RCMP initially said it called in its “green team” from Edmonton, a specially trained unit to deal with large-scale drug operations, the night prior to the shootings. Reports indicated there was only around 25 plants. Is that worth a trip from Edmonton? And if the green team was in fact there, why were the plants not seized?

    There’s also the question why did the bailiff call in the RCMP to assist in the seizure of Roszco’s truck when he had already left the farm in the vehicle? No truck, no need for Mountie assistance. Yet the officers responding took this an opportunity to snoop around the killer’s property, a blatant violation under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms called “an illegal search”. It was after that a search warrant was obtained. But by virtue of the fact illegal activities on the part of the police were used to obtained the warrant, any court in this land would have punted the warrant.

    There has always been this nagging thought in the back of my mind that perhaps the RCMP were out for a joy ride to prod Roszko, a known cop-hater, but sadly underestimated his potentials. Under a false sense of invulnerability, they were there to piss him off. Four cops keeping a chop-shop operation, and a minor grow-op under intense surveillance speaks of pure stupidity — and especially in plain view on his property.

    Whatever happened to backing up a bit down the road out of sight and observing Roszko’s activities before moving in? These officers didn’t die as heroes. They died at the hands of stupidity and a police organization that is accountable only to itself.

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  8. I find Mr. Christopher’s blogs extremely interesting and informative (trying to ignore his MANY boastful inserts about the radio station that he worked for and the pats on the back and awards he’s received that he continually tosses in to remind us about), but am curious as to how he missed interviewing or even mentioning Sgt. Jim Martin, who knew that Roszko had a violent history and access to many firearms. Martin was in charge of sending his young Mounties out to investigate James Roszko, and apparently believed that Roszko would avoid confrontation.

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