Serving, protecting, paying the price
By CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD
Saturday, March 5, 2005 - Page A1
MAYERTHORPE, ALTA. -- On the airwaves here yesterday -- and this was probably mirrored, with the political twists unique to each part of Canada, across the land -- the raging debate encompassed marijuana grow houses, guns, the federal firearms registry, lawless youth and the lenient justice system, with a cry for the return of the strap in schools thrown in for good measure.
But the Mountie massacre is, or ought to be, about the four Mounties who were killed, and all who loved them.
If there are legitimate procedural questions about how a man as demonstrably violent and dangerous as James Roszko was able to ambush the four officers -- Were the police properly prepared? Adequately briefed? Suitably equipped? -- they appear to inform few of the hot-button issues that have sprung up from ashes barely cool.
As one caller to a local radio show said yesterday, "I just want the politicians to leave this community, to leave these police officers, alone. People on either side of all those issues can use these guys as pawns. But this had nothing to do with any of that. This [Mr. Roszko] was a bad guy doing bad things."
The young fellow Brock Myrol came to this little town on Valentine's Day, brand-new fiancée in tow, the pair of them expecting this was the start of the rest of their lives. Tony Gordon, with his pregnant wife, was awaiting the arrival
of a new life. Leo Johnston left, among many, a twin brother, Lee; they had joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police the same day. Peter Schiemann, at 25 the baby of the slaughtered group, was, just four nights ago, curling at the Mayerthorpe club.
As deputy mayor Kim Connell put it fiercely, voice thick with sorrow and pride as he remembered Constable Schiemann as he was at the curling rink on Tuesday night, "Those boys belong to us, and no one else."
Mr. Connell is a former career RCMP officer whose last assignment brought him and his wife to this small, unremarkable-seeming little town of about 1,600 just off Highway 43 northwest of Edmonton.
They never expected to stay, but got hooked. "It's a good community," Mr. Connell said yesterday. "That's why we settled here. We had no intentions of doing so when we came."
The RCMP provides what's called "district coverage" for Mayerthorpe, as it does in those provinces, like Alberta, where it functions as the provincial force. The town has a bylaw enforcement officer too, but for all practical purposes, the RCMP is the local police force.
Here, and in other towns like it, the force is probably closer to its roots -- in its earlier days, the Mounties not only did the policing, but also handled the mail, customs and census tasks, acted as Indian agents and even, for a time, kept the meteorological records -- than the high-tech modern force it is considered in much of the rest of the country.
Now, the Mounties' involvement in the towns where they are assigned isn't proscribed, bur rather voluntary and natural: The members of the local detachment coach sports teams, are involved in charity work (a number of them raised $10,000 last fall for a local nine-year-old boy with bone cancer, for instance, and regularly visited him in hospital during his treatment) and go about their lives as regular citizens, even as they are somewhat set apart from their fellows by dint of their work.
"The people are pretty protective of the police force," Mr. Connell, 52, said yesterday. "Especially at times like this."
On an unseasonably warm day, the Alberta skies blue and fresh enough for a tourist brochure, the townspeople were plainly desperate to do something, anything, to show the four surviving members of the formerly seven-officer detachment (Constable Gordon was stationed at nearby Whitecourt) how stricken they are.
By midmorning, a ribbon campaign spontaneously sprung up at the Crockett Street office of Hendrickson, Black Accounting, and by noon, one of the firm's staffers, Charlotte Arthur, and Colette McKillop, the president of the chamber of commerce, were walking up and down the street with a big cardboard box of red-and-white ribbons, big ones for the car and little ones for the lapel.
"It is," Mrs. McKillop said, "the very least we can do."
By 1 p.m., virtually every store on Crockett Street bore a big red-and-white bow.
Within the ribbon campaign itself, people starting throwing money at the two women. There was no fundraising plan, but a few phone calls gave them a worthy recipient, the Highway 43 RCMP Victims' Services, and soon they were also carrying a big clear plastic bag for the $20 bills people were tossing at them.
At the detachment office across from the Legion, the now-normal fixture of the modern mass murder, the makeshift memorial, was growing by the minute. But here, the messages on the cards were deeply personal -- in a place this small, everyone knows everyone else -- and patently genuine.
One little girl, all of 7, instructed her mother to leave her four favourite stuffed animals, one for each of the fallen officers, and there, with a note to explain the gift, they were -- the beloved, worn black-and-white zebra, the grey elephant, the two wee bears with red bows.
By the roadside, Pastor Wendell Wiebe of the local Baptist Church corralled his wife and two toddlers and set up a stand offering free food. Mr. Connell, meantime, who was in Vancouver on business, was heading home, home to Mayerthorpe, home to the low brick building where he worked as a Mountie, home to those he once policed and liked well enough to befriend and join.
He retired from the force only three years ago, a year after Constable Schiemann had joined. And yet Mr. Connell was doing something yesterday he thought that, as a former police officer, he would never do: second-guessing himself.
He had arrested Mr. Roszko -- both as a traffic officer and as backup -- and found him a profoundly violent, unpredictable man. Constable Schiemann and the other young men, he said, would have known of the man's reputation and dangerousness.
"But I don't know that they knew him the way I do," Mr. Connell said. "I find myself thinking, 'If I was still working, would it have made any difference? Would they have been more careful?' I don't think it would have made a difference, but maybe I would have done things differently, I don't know.
"I'm just wishing we could backtrack in time."
Fair questions. But not all of them are.