A bagpiper played “Amazing Grace” and flags flew at half-staff Friday as Canadians grappled with the deadliest attack on police officers in 120 years, after four Mounties were slain during a raid on a marijuana farm in a rural western hamlet.
The slayings stunned a nation that prides itself on far fewer acts of gun violence than its neighbor to the south.
“Canadians are shocked by this brutality and join me in condemning the violent acts that brought about these deaths,” Prime Minister Paul Martin said. He has called for a moment of silence before opening his Liberal Party’s annual conference later Friday.
The four Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers had been investigating a farm in Mayerthorpe, a small hamlet of some 1,300 people in western Alberta province.
Killings unprecedented in recent history
Spokesman Cpl. Wayne Oakes said the four Mounties and the suspected gunman were found in a Quonset hut on the farm late Thursday. A government source told The Canadian Press the suspect killed himself after shooting the officers.
“The loss of four police officers is unprecedented in recent history,” said Bill Sweeney, commanding officer of the Mounties in Alberta. “I’m told you have to go back to about 1885 ... during the Northwest Rebellion to have a loss of this magnitude.”
The Northwest Rebellion was an unsuccessful attempt by indigenous rebels to establish an independent nation in the northwestern frontier.
The Mounties, with their bright red tunics and broad-brimmed Stetsons, are as much a national symbol as a police force. Legend has it that the small Northwest Mounted Police, formed in 1873 to bring order to the Canadian west, wore their scarlet tunics so natives could readily distinguish them from the blue-coated U.S. cavalry.
The suspect was identified by police as 46-year-old James Roszko. Authorities said he had a long criminal record, including the use of illegal firearms and sexual assault.
Oakes said the Mounties were investigating reports of stolen property and marijuana on Roszko’s property.
Sgt. Rick Oncescu said two SWAT teams were called into the area and Mounties from surrounding jurisdictions also responded when the four officers did not respond to radio calls Thursday afternoon.
Flowers and tears
A woman played “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes as children laid flowers Friday at the flagpole in front of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police headquarters in Mayerthorpe.
Tracy Eisert, who used to serve the slain Mounties at the local Burger Baron, wept as she carried flowers. “I served these gentlemen where I work and I wanted to say thank you,” she said.
“This is something that happens in Hollywood, but it never happens here,” Albert Schalm, the town’s mayor, told CBC TV. “I think it will change the community. It will just make everybody more aware that there are drug problems, even out here in rural Canada.”
As documentary filmmaker Michael Moore pointed out in “Bowling for Columbine,” there are few reasons to lock your doors across this vast nation.
There were 152 homicides by firearms in Canada in 2002, according to federal statistics, compared with 11,829 homicides by guns in the United States for that same year.
A 1995 federal firearms law in Canada requires every firearm in the country be registered and each gun owner licensed.
But Canada is grappling with an increase in organized crime behind the multibillion-dollar marijuana industry.
Officers armed only with handguns
“It is an unprecedented and unspeakable loss,” Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli said in a statement. “We know that these are the most serious challenges, made complicated by the involvement of organized crime, the availability of weapons and the risks posed by individuals who choose the path of violence and destruction over peace and good.”
The officers were armed only with handguns. Some have asked why they did not have better backup and how all four could have been killed by a single gunman.
Police identified the four Mounties as Peter Christopher Schiemann, Anthony Fitzgerald Orion Gordon, Lionide Nicholas Johnston and Brock Warren Myrol.
Myrol, 29, had been on the job for only two weeks.
“He loved the RCMP and all it stood for,” his family said in a statement. “Our country is hurting. We have lost four dedicated citizens who were willing to do something about it.”