Ambushed

Murder in cattle country
An original podcast by CBC Calgary

On the night of December 13th, 1997, Lorraine McNab and Peter Sopow were driving home after dinner out with family.

The kindergarten teacher and RCMP sergeant were headed back to Lorraine's mobile home on a rural property just outside the prairie town of Pincher Creek, Alberta.

It was late, but there was a full moon that night, so it's possible they saw their killer before he shot them.

The double murder of McNab and Sopow shook southern Alberta and remains unsolved 20 years later. It continues to haunt their friends and family and sows doubt in this tight-knit community.

Police said the perpetrator was someone known to the victims, someone familiar with the rural property where the murders happened. But who could have wanted them dead? And why have the murders never been solved?

Ambushed is a six-part podcast series that tries to answer those questions.

Episode One:

December 13, 1997

Lorraine McNab's family has deep roots in southern Alberta. A true cowgirl who competed in rodeo events, she grew up on a ranch that's been in her family since 1884.

Peter Sopow's roots didn't run as deeply in Alberta; he grew up in B.C. in a family that moved a lot. Sopow was a 52-year-old sergeant with 32 years of service in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, nearing the end of his career and looking forward to retirement.

Everyone says what a good guy Pete was; easy to get along with, he played hockey and baseball with the local beer leagues.

Peter and Lorraine weren't the kind of people who had enemies. They were both divorced and Lorraine, in particular, was starting a new chapter in her life, after some hard years and a bad relationship. She finally had what she had always wanted: her own piece of land.

It was on that land where Pete and Lorraine's bodies were found, in a horse trailer, 36 hours after their murders. But the killer wasn't the only one on the property that night.

Listen to Episode 1 here:

Episode Two:

The fire, the wind, the bodies.

Twenty years ago, Lesley Marsh was 18 and still living with her mom, Lorraine McNab, in their mobile home out in the country.

She was one of the last people to see Lorraine alive. The afternoon of December 13th, she was napping at home and was woken up by her mom before Lorraine headed out to that family dinner with Pete.

"She always woke me up by grabbing my toes," said Marsh. "And she told me that she loved me, and I told her that I loved her back. And then she left, her and Peter left in his truck."

It wasn't until Pete didn't show up for work on Monday morning that the police were dispatched to Lorraine's property.

During that day and a half, the wind blew relentlessly, scrubbing the crime scene. That made the RCMP investigation very difficult.

Listen to Episode 2 here:

Episode Three:

Who wanted them dead?

Peter Sopow was the head of the Fort Macleod RCMP detachment. With his decades on the force working cases and dealing with criminals, the police turned their attention to possible motives.

Did someone have a grudge against Sopow? His fellow RCMP officers were unsettled.

"For the first little while, I didn't get a whole lot of sleep," said Jay Wiebe, a friend and RCMP colleague of Sopow. "I had all my doors locked and I was prepared if somebody came around ... I had my gun with me all the time."

Sopow may have seemed a more likely target than a beloved local kindergarten teacher, but McNab had bad relationships in her past.

And it wasn't long before the RCMP looked to her ex-husband.

Listen to Episode 3 here:

Episode Four:

The Red Car

The police got a tip that a red sports car was parked at the end of the dead-end country road to Lorraine McNab's acreage the night before the murders.

They also learned that in the months before she was killed, Lorraine McNab was getting a lot of unwanted phone calls — as many as 20 a day.

Twenty years after the murders, her friends and family talk a lot about hindsight. After something terrible happens — like your best friend or sister being murdered — you look at everything that happened before it in a different light.

At the time, the police were suspicious about those phone calls and began to look at a former co-worker of Lorraine's.

Listen to Episode 4 here:

Episode Five:

The Prime Suspect

The police began to investigate a man who became the prime suspect. A local widower, he was seen washing his red sports car the morning after the murders.

The police searched the car wash, looked for the murder weapon, and combed his property, even cutting down trees on his shooting range to examine the bullets embedded in them.

As the investigation moved into the summer, a dive team searched for the murder weapon at the base of Lundbreck Falls, a local tourist attraction.

Meanwhile, area residents debate whether the suspect was capable of the murders, specifically if he was big or strong enough to drag the bodies into the horse trailer.

Listen to Episode 5 here:

Episode Six:

Another killing, a final suspect

The deaths of Lorraine and Pete were the beginning of a succession of strange, violent deaths that shook the town’s security and their faith in the police. Before this, there had only been one murder in the area in 30 years.

Over the next 18 months, a man was discovered beaten to death on the town’s main street. A woman vanished and her body was found months later in a creek. An RCMP officer died in a light plane crash.

Then, after a local man was killed in police custody, questions were raised about whether the RCMP itself played a role in Peter and Lorraine’s murders.

Listen to Episode 6 here:

Timeline of events

December 1997

Dec. 12, 1997, evening, before 8 p.m.
• Randy Donohue, a family friend of the McNabs, spots a red, two-door sports car on the dead-end gravel road to Lorraine McNab’s house.
• When he approaches the vehicle to offer assistance, the driver turns his face away and speeds off in a southward direction, away from Pincher Creek.
• RCMP later say a witness sighting on this date has the car being “similar to a red or maroon 1973 Mercury Cougar.”

Dec. 13, 1997, around 10 p.m.
• Lorraine McNab and Peter Sopow are last seen alive, leaving her father and stepmother’s home in Twin Butte after a family dinner.

Dec. 13, 1997, between 10:30 p.m. and midnight
• Peter Sopow, then Lorraine McNab, are shot with a .22-calibre weapon.

Dec. 13, 1997, around midnight
• Lorraine McNab’s daughter, Lesley Marsh, arrives at Lorraine’s place.
• She goes inside the mobile home to gather some belongings, and assumes Lorraine and Peter are home sleeping because both their trucks are parked in the driveway.
• Except for Lorraine’s bedroom being open, Lesley does not notice anything unusual.
• She leaves the property when her boyfriend arrives to pick her up.

Dec. 14, 1997, 11:35 a.m.
• A grass fire in the area, later called the Granum Fire, is declared an emergency.
• Fire crews come from all over the region to contain the flames and evacuate the area of people and livestock.
• Ranchers in the area rush to assist neighbours in the fire zone northeast of Pincher Creek, which stretches to 32 kilometres in length. (See map below.)

Dec. 15, 1997
• McNab family members wonder about Lorraine’s whereabouts when she does not pick up her teenaged son from his dad’s place, but they are not alarmed yet because they assume she is helping neighbours or family members affected by the Granum fire.
• Peter Sopow’s co worker Jay Wiebe repeatedly calls Peter to arrange a ride to Edmonton for an RCMP meeting they have on Monday. After failing to reach him, Wiebe drives to Edmonton without Sopow.

Dec. 15, 1997, around 9 a.m.
• Coworkers of Lorraine McNab’s at Canyon Elementary School and Peter Sopow’s RCMP co-workers become concerned when they do not show up for work.

Dec. 15, 1997, mid-morning
• RCMP Supt. Lloyd Hickman, in the area investigating the Granum fire, dispatches Jim Semeschuk, a forensic unit RCMP member from Lethbridge, and Terry Angstadt, an officer from Pincher Creek, to check Lorraine McNab’s property.

Dec. 15, 1997, around 11:30 a.m.
• Jim Semeschuk discovers the bodies of Lorraine McNab and Peter Sopow inside the horse trailer on the property.
• Semeschuk tells Angstadt and Lorraine’s son Dave Marsh of his discovery.
• The property is now a crime scene.
• An RCMP canine unit arrives on the scene and the road to the property is barricaded to all but RCMP investigators.

Dec. 15, 1997, early afternoon
• Word spreads about the murders.
• Canyon School principal Jean Murray informs the students about Lorraine’s death.
• Lorraine’s kindergarten students are sent home from school and will not return until after Christmas.

Dec. 15, 1997 around 2 p.m.
• Two Calgary Major Crimes homicide investigation teams of four people each arrive in Pincher Creek.
• For the next week, investigators scour the property for evidence in gale-force winds, at times on their hands and knees.

Dec. 15 1997, late afternoon
• The horse trailer is enclosed in a tarp and transported, with the bodies in it, to an indoor location at a tow yard in Pincher Creek for further investigation.

Dec. 15, 1997
• The Granum fire is contained except for a forest fire still burning in the Porcupine Hills.
• The fire has burned five homes, killed over 200 head of cattle and displaced another 5,000.
• Large amounts of livestock feed and almost 1,000 kilometres of fencing are destroyed.

Between Dec. 16 and Dec. 19, 1997
• A suspect's rural acreage near the Crowsnest Pass, his car, and his home in Cowley are searched.

Dec. 17, 1997, afternoon and evening
• RCMP arrest and question the suspect.
• He is initially cooperative answering questions but RCMP Corporal Walter Coles tells the media: “Later in the evening the situation changed and became a suspect situation.”

Dec. 18, 1997, evening
• The suspect commits himself to the psychiatric unit at Lethbridge Hospital.
• The suspect is now in the custody of psychiatric professionals and police do not attempt to question him while he is a patient there.

The week of December 15, 1997
• RCMP investigators search the school in Lundbreck, where the suspect taught. Soon afterwards, school board officials remove him from his classroom. He never returns.
• RCMP investigators search the traps at the car wash in Lundbreck after receiving a tip that a red, two-door sports car was seen there on Sunday the 14th, the day after the murders and the day before the bodies were discovered.

Dec. 19, 1997
• The students at Canyon School dedicate their two public Christmas concerts to Lorraine McNab.

Dec. 20, 1997
• A regimental funeral is held for Sgt. Peter Sopow in Edmonton. More than 700 officers attend.

Dec. 22, 1997
• Lorraine McNab’s funeral takes place in Pincher Creek’s community hall. About 1,000 people attend.
• It's the largest funeral in the town’s history.

Dec. 29, 1997
• RCMP issue a press release saying they have received tips from the public about a red or maroon, two-door, older model car.

1998

Jan. 28, 1998
• The body of 67-year-old Pincher Creek resident Albert Schultz is found in a park in front of the Pincher Creek museum. The cause of death is blunt force trauma.
• Two young local men plead guilty to manslaughter a few months later.

Jan. 30, 1998
• A Winnipeg RCMP soil geologist joins the Sopow-McNab case.

Early February 1998
• The suspect leaves the hospital psychiatric unit in Lethbridge.

Feb. 18, 1998
• The McNab family holds a press conference asking the public to come forward with information on the case.

March 6, 1998
• In a press briefing, the RCMP reveals the murder weapon was a .22 and that they are looking for a .22-calibre gun that went missing from the Cowley area.
• At this point investigators have received over 1,000 tips from the public.

March 19, 1998
• Pincher Creek RCMP hold a town meeting to alleviate public concern and answer questions about the Sopow-McNab murders and the murder of Pincher Creek senior Albert Schultz.

March 19, 1998
• A $10,000 reward is announced for anyone coming forward with information on the Sopow-McNab murders.

March 20, 1998
• Lead RCMP investigator Sgt. Perry Kuzma reveals in a press briefing that RCMP have asked multiple people to take polygraph tests related to the Sopow-McNab case, and some have declined.

April 12, 1998
• The Calgary Herald publishes its finding that the teacher owns, or owned, a red 1972 Mercury Cougar.
• The newspaper names him as the person of interest arrested and questioned by police in the early days of the investigation and states that the suspect declined to give the newspaper reporter any comment.

May 4 and 5, 1998
• RCMP divers check under the Cowley bridge looking for the murder weapon.

June 1998
• The investigation team on the Sopow-McNab homicide investigation is trimmed to six members, down from 30.

Aug. 12, 1998
• A dive team of the RCMP searches six hours for the .22 in a 30-by-50-metre area below Lundbreck Falls.
• They do not find the murder weapon.

Sept. 2, 1998
• Ordnance detection experts from Canadian Forces Base Suffield join the investigation team to assist the RCMP on the case.

April 18, 1999
• The body of Pincher Creek resident Melinda White, missing for about three months, is found in the Castle River about 14 kilometres from Pincher Creek. Her death is deemed suspicious but no one is ever charged.

Oct. 3, 1999
• Pincher Creek resident Darren Varley, 26, is shot dead in a holding cell in the Pincher Creek RCMP detachment by Const. Michael Ferguson.

March to May, 2000
• The RCMP’s Unsolved Homicides unit, based in Surrey, B.C., reviews the Sopow-McNab murder investigation.

April 10, 2000
• Const. Michael Ferguson is charged with second-degree murder.

July 19, 2001
• RCMP say a .22-calibre rifle was found in the Chin Reservoir, just over 100 kilometres east of Lethbridge, Alta.
• They rule it out as the murder weapon in the Sopow-McNab case.

August 2001
• RCMP investigator Perry Kuzma receives the first of two anonymous handwritten letters containing information about the case.
• The letter is delivered to his office and he does not disclose to the media the location of the postmark.

September 2001
• Kuzma receives a second handwritten anonymous letter at his office.

Nov. 9, 2001
• Michael Ferguson’s trial ends with a hung jury.

March 11, 2002
• Peter Sopow’s father, Peter Sopow, Sr. dies.

Sept. 30, 2004
• The charge against Michael Ferguson is downgraded to manslaughter.

Dec. 10, 2004
• Ferguson is given a two-year conditional sentence. Some residents of Pincher Creek think he is responsible for the town's unsolved homicides.

Feb. 13, 2013
• Lorraine McNab’s father, Jim McNab, dies.

June 9, 2013
• Lorraine McNab’s mother, Lauretta Thompson, dies.

2017

• The RCMP say the Sopow-McNab homicide case remains "open and active."

• Dec. 13, 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of the murders.

Map

Lundbreck Falls, searched by an RCMP dive team looking for the .22-calibre murder weapon in August 1998. (Video by Jenn Blair/CBC)

1. The murder scene: Lorraine McNab’s property.

2. RCMP dive team searches: Lundbreck Falls.

3. A .22 rifle is revealed by low water in the Chin Reservoir, fueling speculation that it's connected to the Sopow-McNab homicides, but is ruled out by RCMP as evidence.

4. Cowley, home of the suspect.

5. Lundbreck, where the suspect taught school.

6. Pincher Creek, where Lorraine McNab taught school.

7. Fort Mcleod, where Peter Sopow lived and worked.

8. Calgary, base of the RCMP's Major Crimes unit.

9. Twin Butte, where Lorraine and Peter were last seen alive.

Outlined area: approximate fire zone of the Granum fire, including the fire start point south of the Porcupine Hills.