Anatomy of an ambush
In the wake of a calamity, it's instinctive to go back to the beginning, to dig over the events leading to tragedy, and agonize over whether things could have ended differently. Thousands of Canadians — police and civilian — went through this process to try to fill in the blanks after a lone gunman, James Roszko, somehow managed to overcome four RCMP officers at a northern Alberta farm in March 2005.
Read more about the RCMP officers killed on March 2, 2005: (from top left, clockwise) Const. Brock Myrol, Const. Lionide (Leo) Johnston, Const. Peter Schiemann and Const. Anthony Gordon.
The country was stunned by the killings of constables Tony Gordon, Leo Johnston, Brock Myrol and Peter Schiemann — who were following up on relatively minor allegations when they went to the farm and Quonset hut near Mayerthorpe.
How did one man manage to down four trained officers? Was it an ambush? How did the investigation escalate into such a tragedy, the force's biggest single-day loss in more than 100 years? And how did Roszko manage to get back to the farm, which he had earlier left? Did he have help?
In early 2007, two internal reports laid the blame solely on Roszko, saying there was no way the RCMP could have anticipated such an "unprecedented" and "premeditated" massacre. But the reports — one by the federal Human Resources and Social Development Canada and the other an RCMP hazardous occurrence investigation — did not put the matter to rest.
A Fifth Estate documentary, Bad Day at Barrhead which first aired in February 2008, further examines the RCMP investigations. It raised questions about whether the investigation into the Mayerthorpe killings is aimed at distracting attention away from allegations of negligence within the force. The RCMP members association also questioned the government investigation, claiming it lacked independence.
RCMP officials said the men were accused of being a "party to the offence" for aiding and abetting Roszko. This section of the Criminal Code says that a person who helps another person commit a crime can be found guilty of the same crime.
Then, in January 2009, both men pleaded guilty to lesser charges of manslaughter. Cheeseman was originally sentenced to 12 years in prison. The jail term was immediately reduced to seven years and two months when the judge took into account his guilty plea and time already served.
Hennessey was originally sentenced to 15 years in prison, but that was immediately cut to 10 years and four months when the judge took his guilty plea and time already served into account.
The men appealed their sentences, but they were upheld in a ruling in September 2010.
After their pleas were entered, an agreed statement of facts was read for the court record, revealing the events leading up to the ambush. In the statement, Cheeseman and Hennessey admitted they gave Roszko a rifle and drove him to his farm in the early hours of March 3, 2005, where RCMP were investigating a marijuana grow operation and auto parts "chop shop" in a Quonset hut on Roszko's property.
Families of the slain officers wiped away tears as the statement of facts was read. There were more tears shed in the afternoon as family members including Const. Johnston's mother, Grace Johnston, read their victim impact statements in court. But despite the prison sentences, and the investigations that have cost millions and involved as many as 200 officers and support staff, Canadians may never know exactly what happened on that day in Mayerthorpe. Here are the key events we know about the tragedy:
James Roszko leased a 2005 Ford pickup from an Edmonton company.
Wednesday, March 2, 2005
It was that truck bailiffs were out to repossess on March 2, 2005, when they arrived at the padlocked front gate of Roszko's isolated farm.
Roszko, 46, a violent, unstable man well known to police, was at home at the time, but he wasn't welcoming.
A wicked devil. That's how 80-year-old Bill Roszko described his son to reporters the day police identified 46-year-old Jim Roszko as the man responsible for Canada's deadliest police shooting in 120 years.
According to a search warrant that would be issued five hours later, the bailiff observed a male come out of the Quonset. That male was yelling at him. The male had also let out two Rottweiler-type dogs, and they were now roaming the property. After he released the dogs, the man believed to be Roszko fled across the field in his white pickup and the bailiffs called police.
"They felt that the situation was intimidating to them, and they approached the Mayerthorpe detachment for assistance," said Cpl. Wayne Oakes, a media relations officer with the RCMP.
The RCMP members arrived at the scene within minutes, but Roszko was gone.
"We can state that when the sheriff's bailiffs attended the property, he did bolt from the property," Cpl. Oakes said. "He took off. There's no question about that. Some folks in the area said that they were almost struck by him. That may, in fact, have ... may, in fact, did occur, but we were not in pursuit of Mr. Roszko."
At the farm gate, the bailiffs cut the padlock and, accompanied by the two police officers, went up the lane and into the Quonset. Some of the items they found inside include:
- A new grey Ford truck partially stripped.
- A new Chevy Sierra with its VIN numbers removed.
- A collection of fenders, dashboards, bumpers and new tires.
- An industrial generator stolen from a nearby oil patch.
- 20 mature marijuana plants in pots.
- About a hundred more pots with small shoots beginning to grow.
"From there, they went in to the process of acquiring what they needed to lawfully then gain access to the property because now it goes beyond the matter of assisting the bailiffs. It's now a criminal investigation," Cpl. Oakes said.
Police got their warrant and spent hours removing evidence from the farm. All the while, it seems, James Roszko was sliding into a desperate frame of mind.
While he hid from police on Wednesday night, Roszko made two phone calls, one to his mother and one to his sister, Joe Ruel.
"When I talked to him and he talked to my mother later, it was a total hopelessness, like, and there was fear, and he was hiding," she said.
Thursday, March 3, 2005
Throughout that same night, two young constables guarded the farm.
By 9:45 the next morning, two more young constables arrived. The four were Tony Gordon, Peter Shiemann, Brock Myrol, and Leo Johnston. They were waiting for an auto theft team to arrive from Edmonton, but they would never see them.
"Two officers from the auto theft detail arrived, and that's when the gunfire erupted. The two auto theft detail members were outside of the Quonset," Cpl. Oakes said.
"The other four operational members were inside the Quonset.
"The two officers outside hear some popping sounds, which was the gunfire, and within moments, they were also confronted with gunfire. We know that at least one of our officers that was outside was able to return fire as they were diving for cover, and Mr. Roszko quickly retreated back inside the Quonset, and from that moment on, there was likely a very eerie quiet."
Within moments, the officers outside also retreated and called for backup.
"Because there was no contact, no communication, we had no idea what the condition of our officers were at that point in time, if, in fact, they had been fatally shot or if they were in some manner taking cover inside the Quonset," Cpl. Oakes says.
"We had no idea. The two auto theft detail members knew that at least one of our officers were down. One officer was visible in the doorway, but beyond that, we had no idea."
Four hours later, tactical teams entered the Quonset and learned the scope of the tragedy. All four officers were dead, killed by bullets from Roszko's gun. Roszko had been shot by police, but in the end killed himself with his own gun.
Days after of the shootings, cruisers driven by the slain officers sat exactly where their drivers left them, and forensics teams scour the property looking for those answers.
"In the end, the investigative team, and these are highly trained professionals that have in some cases decades of experience, they will hopefully be able to come up with some answers to all of those questions," Cpl. Oakes said at the time.
That may be. But with James Roszko dead, questions about how or why he did what he did may never be answered. Not for the people of Mayerthorpe or for the families of the men he murdered.