By Doug Whitlow – reprinted with the permission of “The Other Press”, Douglas College. BC.
Gustafsen Lake trial, 1997-98
The jury heard more evidence of police aggression when witnesses described the following day’s attempted murder of a camp occupant who had gone to the lake to bathe.
On the morning of Sept.September 12th, Wescam spotted a male walking away from the camp towards the water. RCMP sniper Cst. O’Gorman, positioned across the lake, asked permission from “Zulu”, RCMP field headquarters, “to make the guy’s day unpleasant.” O’Gorman testified that his partner, Cpl. Wyton, told him that Inspector Kembel, the field commander at Zulu, had given the green light to shoot the camp occupant. However, the RCMP commander had failed to inform Kembel that a safe zone had been created days before and, as far as the camp knew, this included the wash area that the male was walking to. Regardless, the sniper team across the lake attempted the shot.
The jury watched more Wescam footage showing the man from the camp walking towards the water. He suddenly runs and dives for the ground, rolling into a deep rut on the dirt road. O’Gorman testified that he had taken the 1100 meter shot and the bullet had fallen ten feet short. He said that Wyton then grabbed the .308 sniper rifle off him and took two more shots, despite not being able to see the man anymore. The man in the “safe zone” lived and made it back to the camp.
Kembel described the incident as unfortunate in that he wasn’t told about the safe zone. It was only hours after the attempted shooting that the coordinates of the safe zone were broadcast to the rest of the ERT members in the field. It was the first time they had heard about the save zone which the camp had known about for two days as an area where their safety was guaranteed. The public was never told about the shooting.
Despite the incredible events of September 11 and 12, the public was only given a sanitized and twisted version of what happened. Media relations officer, Sgt. Peter Montague, agreed on the stand that what he told the public on September. 11 wasn’t entirely correct, particularly the statement that the occupant of the disabled truck fled with weapons and fired at police. Montague said he learned on the morning of September 12, from police dog handler Cpl. Mercer, that this was not true.
When asked by defense lawyers if any official retraction was made to the public, Montague said he thought he had mentioned it to some media, but could not recall for sure. He agreed that he never saw a retraction published or aired.
Defense lawyer Don Campbell found 18 more errors in Montague’s Sept.September 11th press statement, but Montague clarified this. He said there were 18 “minor inconsistencies” and “two serious errors.”
Defense lawyers argued that the RCMP press statement inaccuracies were not accidental, but were part of a strategy to discredit and smear the camp occupants. Key evidence of this strategy included video taken by an RCMP civilian cameraman, Norm Torp. Torp’s 46 hours of video taken during the standoff was the focus of much deliberation and in the end only a dozen minutes were admitted as evidence. A portion of this was of an RCMP meeting discussion discussing media strategies. RCMP negotiator Dennis Ryan is seen asking Sgt. Doug Hartl, “Have you found anyone to help us with our disinformation or smear campaign?” Ryan told the jury that he was just using earthy language and apologized for the inappropriate comment. The video also shows Peter Montague wryly stating, “smear campaigns are our specialty.” Montague claimed he was being ironic and was making a joke. He said there was no smear campaign, but defense lawyers had another point of view.
They cited the fact that on Sept.September 11, 1995, Montague released criminal records of people suspected to be in the encampment, but which also included records of people not in the camp. Don Campbell suggested that these people’s records were included because they were longer than the few camp members’ records were.
Wool brought it to the jury’s attention that a youth record was even released. Montague claimed he never knew he released a youth record, but admitted that he never verified any of the information that was given by other officers.
A press release of Sept.September 5th was also under scrutiny by defense council. On that morning, media liaison officer Cpl. John Ward told the media and public that RCMP members had been shot at and stalked throughout the previous night by natives from the encampment. He explained that the APC’sAPCs supplied by the army were being used to rescue the Victoria ERT team. The ERT team claimed that a bullet had hit the side mirror of their Suburban and they believed they were being shot at, so they fired their weapons into the surrounding bushes as the Suburban raced out of the area.
The jury heard that the forensics expert Brian McConaghy that when he examined the “shot” mirror, he found no evidence that it had been hit by a bullet. He thought it more likely the mirror was hit by a tree branch. Head investigator, Insp. Gary Bass admitted that he had no evidence of any officers being stalked through the bush by natives, but claimed that the Victoria ERT team still believed they were being fired on.
Montague testified that he never corrected Ward’s press statement claiming he was away at the time. He claimed he was never asked to correct it, so he didn’t.
Montague’s sidestepping and polished excuses reflected most of the RCMP witnesses who took the stand. They had trouble recalling events, pointed fingers at superiors, feigned ignorance and generally came off as armed civic servants trying to protect their pensions and reputation of a crumbling institution called the RCMP.
The only officer who did take responsibility was Subt. Len Olfert, but he seemed to have no knowledge of the details of his officer’s actions.
Eight months ago, the jury, like most of the public, thought they had a pretty good idea of what the Gustafsen Lake “standoff” was about. It was the RCMP’s largest and costliest operation in Canadian history and the Mounties came off looking like heroes who, once again, got their man. Now after hearing the Crown’s case in what is turning into BC’s longest jury trial, the jury and the public may have to reevaluate not only their thoughts on what happened in the summer of 1995, but also their thoughts on the national police force they depend on to protect them.
See next week for more on the truth about the Gustafsen Lake from Doug Whitlow.