By Ryan Kiedrowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Testimony from S/Sgt Robin Zentner continued on the second day of the inquest into the mass murder at the James Smith Cree Nation and nearby Weldon on Sept. 4, 2022. Zentner walked through the timeline minute-by-minute while under examination by Coroner Council Timothy Hawryluk.
In his testimony during the first day of the inquest in Melfort Zentner introduced a powerpoint presentation that detailed police response to the event. This presentation would essentially make up the culmination of the police investigation, concluding with the deaths of all 11 victims. The content focussed on events leading up to the mass murder including brothers Myles and Damien Sanderson distributing drugs through the JSCN, physical altercations and messages involving the two men.
The second day of Zentner’s testimony resumed from the point of the murders taking place, detailing the events leading up to each attack.
“Prior to the mass casualty events that occurred on the morning of Sept. 4, 2022, Myles Sanderson was known by community members to be in and around the James Smith Cree Nation, to be wanted by the police, to have engaged in illegal activities – specifically the sale of drugs – as well as to have committed at least three assaults on three different individuals,” Zentner said. “At no time between Sept. 1, 2022 and Sep. 4, 2022 was the RCMP contacted about the presence or activities of Myles Sanderson.”
The inquest heard that Damien was the first homicide victim as Myles stabbed his brother repeatedly while driving.
“After being stabbed, Damien fled from the Caravan, dropping his blood-stained shirt behind on the road as he ran into the grass and bushes,” Zentner said, noting that he believes Myles stabbed Damien after an event moments earlier at the Martin Moostoos residence. The brothers had entered the home with Myles attacking Moostoos, then Damien intervened in an effort to calm his brother down.
Damien’s body was not discovered until Sept. 5 as dense foliage made it difficult to see him from the road. An aerial photo of the location was displayed in the Kerry Vicar Centre Auditorium (after those in attendance were cautioned to the possibly triggering nature of the image), his location appearing quite obvious from above. However, other images from the road proved it would be impossible to find the man at that perspective. The only clue that would suggest Damien could be in the area was the discarded shirt.
Myles would go on to obtain a total of five vehicles, alternating travel between driving and on foot to perpetuate his attacks. In some cases, he returned to homes previously attacked, then ultimately left JSCN for Kinistino and then Weldon to commit his final murder. In the wake, 11 people were dead, 17 injured and a community wrecked with trauma.
“It was quite a complex set of circumstances and movements throughout the community,” Zentner said of Myles’ journey.
Drugs and gangs motivate
“In a few of the cases that you’ve talked about so far, there seems to be a common denominator of some drug trade involved,” Hawryluk commented.
“Yes, I would say that’s fair; that there’s definitely drug conversations and drug talk through a variety of the messaging from some of the people involved,” replied Zentner.
In addition, some of the attacks were also related to gang activity as Zentner noted Myles had a dislike for the Terror Squad gang with members represented in JSCN.
“There’s nothing to say that any of the attacks were specifically gang directed or gang organized or anything like that,” said Zentner. “Obviously, it is part of the investigation… but there’s definitely indicators in those reports that Myles had it out for anybody that he believed could be tied or associated to the Terror Squad.”
Police investigation confirmed that Myles acted alone in the murders and was unassisted in perpetuating the tragic event. Aside from the interaction with Moostoos when Damien was with Myles, Zentner stated “investigators found no evidence anyone else involved or provided assistance to Myles Sanderson in any way.”
As a major component of the inquest is to seek recommendations on how to prevent similar events from occurring, Hawryluk posed the question of what can be improved.
“This is one of the worst tragedies we have experienced here in the province,” Zentner said. “I have spent a lot of time thinking about it for sure.”
He pointed to the “warning signs” – dark themes in the messages especially from Damien – that were perhaps missed by recipients in the seriousness of the content.
“The key thing I want to focus on is drugs and crime,” said Zentner. “Those types of issues that plague communities in our province are not an easy issue for many of our communities to battle through.”
Communication with communities is another area Zentner identified as important.
“It’s not a situation that police can come in and solve everything,” he said, adding it takes a variety of agencies and community leaders to work together in addressing drugs and gangs.
Keith Brown, one of the lawyers representing the JSCN at the table, asked Zentner why community members may be reluctant to call police, pointing to a few incidences in the powerpoint where such actions were noted. Sometimes reporting specific individuals to police may affect access to drugs, while others fear violent retribution to themselves or others.
“In some cases, depending on community and specific individuals, some members may have distrust or dislike of police – especially if they are involved in the criminal element themselves,” Zentner explained.
Gang association is another motivation not to involve law enforcement, rather adopting a ‘taking matters into their own hands’ attitude. In other situations where many people witness an event, it’s simply a matter of thinking someone else will call.
Emergency crew response
In under an hour from the initial response of Melfort RCMP members, the first of 11 emergency alerts was issued. Given the vast amount of logistics involved, Zentner called the ability to issue and emergency alert just after 7 a.m. on Sept. 4, 2022 a “‘fairly quick timeframe, all things considered.”
Zentner praised the actions of emergency personnel who treated injured people at the band office on JSCN. A triage centre was set up at the office after the mass murder, which was a location that could be secured and a safe place for those injured to seek treatment.
“Every person who made it to band office where triage was set up survived this event,” Zentner said, adding that those who passed away never made it from the scenes where they were attacked.
Given general tensions with RCMP, Brown wondered if having a dedicated police force would be beneficial.
“Do you think a First Nation running its own police service could have benefits for something like identifying or tracking down suspects that are thought to be in the community?” he asked.
“Well, I think definitely, the community members know who lives in the community,” Zentner replied. “They recognize the vehicles of the people that live there, they know when a new or strange vehicle is in a community or not. So whether or not it’s a formal police service, I know as well that the James Smith community has security, and I know that security has been extremely helpful and beneficial to the RCMP.”
“I don’t think it necessarily has to be a formal police service, but I think having those eyes and ears in the community are extremely beneficial,” he concluded.
The public inquest is anticipated to last between 12 and 15 days.