July 23rd, 2024

‘Didn’t seem real’: Retired Mountie describes scene of Saskatchewan mass stabbing

By Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press on January 18, 2024.

Darryl Burns, right, whose sister Gloria Burns was killed during the the James Smith Cree Nation and Weldon, Sask., mass stabbings in 2022, and Stewart Head, whose brother was also killed, speaks to media at the public coroner's inquest in Melfort, Sask., Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards

MELFORT, Sask. – The former top officer of an RCMP detachment has told a coroner’s inquest that the mass killing on a Saskatchewan First Nation was the worst thing he’s seen in his 33-year career.

Darren Simons, now a retired staff sergeant, was detachment commander for the Melfort RCMP when 11 people were killed and 17 were injured on the James Smith Cree Nation and in the nearby village of Weldon, northeast of Saskatoon, on Sept. 4, 2022.

“I saw numerous wounded individuals lined up, stacked up against the band office,” Simons told the fourth day of the inquest Thursday.

“It just didn’t seem real.”

The killer, Myles Sanderson, died in police custody a few days later.

The inquest has heard how Sanderson, armed with a knife, went from home to home, kicking in doors and stabbing people.

The first Mounties who responded to 911 calls testified Wednesday about how they found people who were injured and dead. Const. Tanner Maynard said he was acting corporal on the scene and told responding officers where to go.

Simons said he was at his home, a 45-minute drive from Melfort, when he received a call about two stabbings on the First Nation. Simons, who had taken the helm of the detachment about a month earlier, said he’d only been on the First Nation once or twice.

While driving to the Melfort detachment, Simons said he ordered food and drinks for officers from a fast-food restaurant. When asked by a representative for the family of Bonnie and Gregory Burns, a mother and son killed in the massacre, why the senior officer would stop for food, Simons said he didn’t understand the extent of what was happening.

“I wouldn’t have done that if I’d known what we were dealing with,” Simons said.

Once he arrived, the level of death and destruction quickly became clear. In an unusual move, Simons said, Maynard kept command of the scene.

“I wanted to take over “¦ but I realized that was like jumping on a moving train,” Simons told the inquest.

Instead, Simons went to check on a home where a stabbing had been reported. He also went to check on a school bus that had been left running in a ditch. Earl Burns Sr., the killer’s father-in-law, was dead in the vehicle.

The man’s daughter, Deborah Burns, asked Simons why he had driven by the bus twice before stopping.

“I believe that fate brought me there,” Simons said getting emotional.

The Mountie said he wished he’d gone to the bus sooner, and he apologized to the daughter. He said he felt a connection to Earl Burns Sr. after the killing because they were both veterans.

“This one’s tough for me,” Simons said.

In an overview of how the massacre unfolded, the inquest was told Sanderson stabbed Burns, but Burns fought back and ended up driving the bus to chase after the killer.

Family members of those killed have said it’s difficult to hear the details.

“The heartbreaking stories that our loved ones went through, the survivors, the injured and all the trauma that all the witnesses witnessed,” Stewart Head said Wednesday.

“That’s pretty horrifying.”

The inquest and its six-person jury are to establish the events leading up to the killings, who died, and when and where each person was killed.

A second inquest focusing on Sanderson’s death is scheduled for February.

The inquest has heard how Sanderson and his brother, Damien Sanderson, were causing chaos in the community in the days before the massacre.

Text messages show the brothers communicated with community members about drug deals and debts. Damien Sanderson also texted his wife, Skye Sanderson, fatalistic messages about death.

The inquest has heard many questions about how Mounties respond to outstanding warrants.

Myles Sanderson, who had a record of violent assaults, received statutory release earlier in 2022, but was unlawfully at large at the time of the killings.

Skye Sanderson also called 911 the day before the stabbings, saying her husband had taken her vehicle without permission. Damien Sanderson was wanted on outstanding warrants in relation to domestic violence charges.

Officers told the inquest they located the vehicle outside a home on the First Nation. Maynard said he later learned a man he had talked to in the home was Damien Sanderson, but Sanderson gave a false name.

A photo police had of Sanderson was from 2014, and Maynard didn’t recognize him.

Skye Sanderson was expected to testify later Thursday.

RCMP have said Damien Sanderson was the first person killed by his brother that day.

They have also said because the killer is dead, people may never get all the answers about why the massacre happened.

“Our community is broken,” Head said. “It’s been broken for the last year and a half.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2024.

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