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Olympics' Top Cop Helped Blow up Truck at Gustafsen Stand-off

RCMP's Bud Mercer was in the thick of several famous clashes with dissenters. This story, with video of the exploding truck, is first in a series.

By Geoff Dembicki and Bob Mackin 20 Oct 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Geoff Dembicki covers the 2010 Olympics for The Tyee, and Bob Mackin covers the Games for 24 Hours Vancouver.

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RCMP Asst. Comm. Gary Russell "Bud" Mercer: Hot spot veteran

*Corrections made at 1 p.m., Oct. 20, and again at 5.30 p.m., Oct. 22.

Bud Mercer pictured rifles aimed at him as he pushed deeper into the forest. A short run behind him, past mid-sized poplars and aspens and scraggly bush, lay the smoking remains of a red pick-up truck, disabled minutes earlier by RCMP explosives. A yellow Labrador retriever was slumped close to it. Two police bullets had cut the dog down as it fled on the rutted gravel road. Mercer feared an ambush in the sparse forest. He strained the leash to keep Lukar, his German shepherd police dog, from running too fast. He was flanked by three other officers. The team squatted close to the forest floor every 12 metres, muscles tense. Within minutes, they broke through the bushes and onto the grassy shoreline of Gustafsen Lake. Mercer saw the two fugitives, stripped to their waists, wading into the water. He went to unclip Lukar, knowing the police dog would attack.

But before he could do it, buzzing, whining bullets ripped through the air above him. He hesitated.

On Sept. 11, 1995, up to 7,000 police gunshots climaxed a month-long standoff with natives in the backwoods of interior B.C. Fifteen people were convicted for their armed defence of sacred land they said was never ceded to Canadian settlers.

Mercer now commands a $491.9 million RCMP-led force, tasked with securing the 2010 Winter Olympics. He's a central figure in the biggest peace-time security operation in Canada's history. When athletes and officials arrive next February, many observers wonder if -- and how -- he'll unleash that force.*

Gustafsen Lake isn't the only high profile clash of law enforcement with dissenters where Bud Mercer played a key role. He was on the frontlines when APEC protesters were pepper-sprayed in 1997. And when tree-sitters tried to stop logging in the Elaho Valley in 2000, Mercer led a team to roust them from their perches. The Tyee and 24 Hours have researched these incidents, interviewing Mercer and many people involved, in order to provide a multi-part, in-depth portrait of the top cop of the 2010 Olympics -- his present duties and past controversies. The story starts 14 years ago, as a rebellion brewed in the Shuswap.

'Now they're gonna kill us'

On Aug. 18, 1995, Percy Rosette woke to the stamps and grunts of horses stirring in the morning mist. Normally that meant a wolf was nearby. He grabbed a hunting rifle, and went to see what was wrong.

Rosette was a Shuswap faithkeeper. That made him the caretaker of sorts for a few acres of sacred land at Gustafsen Lake, a remote piece of wilderness near 100 Mile House. Each year, Shuswap natives gathered there for a holy ceremony called the Sundance. A 70-year-old rancher named Lyle James owned the land, but an agreement with Rosette kept the peace. Yet the relationship collapsed early in the summer of 1995. The Sundancers were sick of cleaning up manure left by James' cattle, so they built a fence around the holy site. On June 14, 1995, James and 12 ranch hands served a trespass notice. They pulled up to the native encampment on horseback and 4X4's, threatening to hang a "red nigger," Gustafsen defence lawyer George Wool alleged. One cracked a bull whip. Another had a 30-30 Winchester rifle.

When they left, the natives surrounded their camp with defensive walls, made from hundreds of logs stacked about a metre and half high. More than two months passed in a standoff as native constables met with James and camp occupants to broker a deal.

Neither side would back down. Such was the state of affairs when Rosette rose early on August 18 to check on the camp horses. Rifle in hand, he scanned the forest carefully, trying to make out shapes in the low fog. He saw movement: Men dressed in camouflage, crawling on their stomachs through the woods. They were carrying big guns. "You have to sort of think that through," Wool said. "Because a few weeks earlier these redneck cowboys had been threatening the camp occupants. It appears the people in the camp interpreted this as being 'the rednecks are coming back and now they're gonna kill us.'"

Rosette aimed at the intruders, and fired.

'We see this as an act of terrorism'

The camouflaged men weren't cowboys, but an RCMP reconnaissance team, dressed in combat boots, camouflage pants and green vests. Four of them carried M-16 semi-automatics and one had a sniper rifle. The team fled, frightened, when a bullet whizzed over Constable Ray Wilby's head. Days later, 400 heavily armed RCMP officers laid siege to the native camp. Military helicopters criss-crossed the sky. Armoured personnel carriers (APCs) roughly double the height of an average person cruised the perimeter. It would become the largest paramilitary operation in B.C. history, a $5.5 million display of state-sanctioned might. "We won't just sit back and do nothing," Inspector Len Olfert of the Kamloops RCMP subdivision said at the time. "There has been an escalation; the threat is serious. We see this as an act of terrorism."

Bud Mercer arrived at Gustafsen Lake that August with almost 20 years experience on the force. He was accompanied by Lukar, a German shepherd trained to track the scent of people through city streets and forest. Mercer was a veteran dog handler on the Vancouver Emergency Response Team (ERT). He'd trained with Lukar since the dog was an 11-month-old puppy. In six years together, they'd responded to as many as 1,600 police calls. Mercer liked being a dog handler -- it put him right in the middle of the action.

On Sept. 10, 1995, he and Lukar were posted to a deeply rutted backcountry road just south of Gustafsen Lake. Mercer stood guard as his fellow ERT members sunk shovels and picks into the gravel road. His colleagues laid thin, rectangular sheets of explosives, which Mercer later compared to fruit rollups, in the hollow. The team shovelled gravel onto the ditch and stretched a wire from the buried explosives to the west side of the road. They had orders to disable a red pick-up truck -- used to shuttle firewood and water into the camp -- the next day. (Beyond identifying the truck as a "target of opportunity," it's not entirely clear why the RCMP gave the order to blow it up, though court documents suggest police knew it was used primarily to transport water.)

The ERT was expected to apprehend anyone inside the truck. Mercer and Lukar spent the night outdoors.

Police lay in wait

During the month-long standoff, the camp defendants expected the worst. They performed elaborate sweat lodge ceremonies to purify their bodies, minds and spirits. They fanned sticks of smouldering sage to rid themselves of negative energy. "The people in the camp wanted to prepare for the eventuality that something happened -- if there was an all-out shoot-out and maybe someone got killed," said Splitting the Sky (aka John Boncore), a Mohawk native who communicated often with his friends inside.

Food came from supporters on horseback, who knew how to enter the area undetected through secret backwoods trails. The natives also relied on a red pickup truck to get safe drinking water into their camp. At noon on Sept. 11, 1995, James Pitawanakwat and non-native supporter Suniva Bronson were spotted by the RCMP's "Eye in the Sky" -- a video-equipped airplane -- as they loaded water bottles into the back of the truck. They'd brought the camp dog along for the ride, a well-liked yellow Labrador retriever from the Kamloops SPCA.

When the truck-bed was full, they drove the pickup along a grassy track and turned left onto the main road. It was an older vehicle, and pretty banged up. Frequent trips in and out of the bush on bad country roads had chipped paint and left scratches across its red exterior. Mercer was crouched behind a log, about 30 paces from the buried explosives, when he got the "heads-up" over the police radio. Lukar was lying down beside him. He could hear the rumble of rubber tires on gravel as the truck approached the RCMP position.

The truck explodes

With a crushing boom that could be heard in the native encampment, the explosives went off. (Video below.) A cloud of dust, dirt and black smoke mushroomed dozens of metres above the poplars and aspens that fringed the road. On instructions from the explosives unit, Mercer lay on the ground for two seconds to let the air clear. But when he stood up, the air was so thick from dust and dirt he couldn't see. In that time, a dark-green APC the size of a tank rammed the disabled pickup, sending the terrified camp dog sprinting for safety.

RCMP officers fired two bullets into the yellow retriever's side, killing it by the side of the road. Mercer would later replay his memory of the explosion and the events that followed about a hundred times. The police radio buzzing like crazy. Two gunshots cracking somewhere in the cloud. The confusion of grey dust blending with bush and tree. After 30 seconds, the forest became visible again.

(There is some contention about what RCMP forces hoped to achieve with the roadside explosives. Respected police psychologist -- and former RCMP member -- Mike Webster characterized the explosives as an "early warning device." It was meant to provide a clear show of police force without harming the truck occupants, he argued. Gustafsen defence lawyer Wool and prominent natives such as Splitting the Sky think the RCMP acted recklessly, endangering lives in the process. They wonder why an APC rammed the truck, if police intent wasn't to harm the occupants.)

Mercer heard over the radio that the truck had been found empty, so he set off with Lukar and three ERT members into the woods. The sparse forest presented ideal tracking conditions. It was the kind of place where the RCMP would train a young dog. But wary of an ambush, Mercer didn't let Lukar run too fast, keeping a firm grip on his six-metre tracking line. The team soon stumbled upon a loaded banana clip, and then a set of gloves. Mercer felt as if they'd travelled a kilometre, but it was only a couple hundred metres. When the radio crackled that two weapons had been found in the red truck, the team went full tilt, breaking through the bushes and into a clearing on the shores of Gustafsen Lake.

Mercer hesitates

Mercer could see Pitawanakwat and Bronson wading out into the water. They had somehow survived the blast and escaped the disabled truck alive. He knew if he unclipped Lukar, the dog would attack one of them. He decided to do it. But as bullets began to land all around him, he dropped to the ground with the rest of the RCMP team. They were in swampy terrain, patched with knee-high grass and not adequate cover for the hunting rifles pointed at them from across the lake.

Mercer sensed their lives were in danger. He kept Lukar clipped to the leash while the team retreated back to the tree-line and crouched behind some logs. From there, they saw an APC pull onto the shoreline directly behind the two fugitives. The hatch opened and Corporal George Preston emerged, aiming his rifle at Pitawanakwat and Bronson, then firing two shots into the water beside them. He ordered them to put their hands up and move towards the shore. But when bullets started slamming into the APC, Preston ducked back inside.

Mercer was some 23 metres west of the shore. He carried a 9mm handgun yet stayed out of the action because he was too busy keeping a handle on Lukar.* The dog was so agitated from all the gunfire it was trying to attack fellow ERT members. During the next three hours, RCMP forces fired up to 7,000 shots, according to their own estimates.

The battle ended in stalemate. Suniva Bronson suffered the only injury, a bullet in her arm. Six days later, the camp occupants surrendered.

'A very legally volatile situation'

During the ensuing 10 month trial, the 18 defendants -- and their supporters -- invoked the 1763 Royal Proclamation, an elusive piece of legislation meant to protect native lands from settler encroachment. They claimed the Shuswap nation had never negotiated binding treaties. The rancher James said the Sundance site was his, because he'd paid for it.

The ramifications of the native position were huge. "In terms of what motivated government and RCMP action, the decision-making on those things was driven by trying to keep control of a very legally volatile situation," said Janice Switlo, a legal advisor who wrote a comprehensive account of the standoff. As the trial came to a close, 15 defendants were convicted of charges ranging from mischief to property to weapons possession, but many of the more serious accusations were dropped.

Not long after the standoff, Mercer had to retire Lukar. In 1991, the dog had suffered a severe injury while on assignment in northern Alberta. Mercer had sent Lukar after an armed man who'd just murdered his wife. The man smashed his rifle on Lukar's head so hard the gun broke in half, each piece dangling from its sling. The German Shepherd's neck cracked in several places. He survived, but would never fully recover from a damaged spinal cord.

As the wound calcified over the years, Lukar began to limp on both front paws. Mercer forced him into early retirement after Gustafsen Lake. Yet the two didn't part.

"I kept Lukar as a pet, which was a little different," the Olympics security boss told The Tyee and 24 hours. "I couldn't give him up. He stayed with the family until he was 11 or 12."  

Gustafsen Lake 'the worst case scenario'

Fourteen years after the standoff at Gustafsen Lake, the events of Sept. 11, 1995 still resonate deeply for some members of B.C.'s native community. United Native Nations president-elect David Dennis pointed fingers at Mercer last month during an Olympics and civil liberties forum in Vancouver. It's concerning, he said, that the same RCMP officer who stood by as a red truck exploded now leads Games security.

Those fears hold strong for Splitting the Sky. He hurled invectives at Mercer during a recent Tyee interview, claiming the Gustafsen Lake connection is becoming well-known in B.C.'s native community. "Word is going around, that's for sure," he said.

Defence lawyer Wool also views the events of summer 1995 as an injustice. But he doesn't think individual officers such as Mercer should be singled out. "He was a dog handler back in 1995," Wool said. "He was there because he was told to be there."

Switlo agreed. Yet Canadians must still remember the standoff as an alarming misuse of RCMP force, she said. "It's the worst case scenario: How not to handle matters that become difficult between indigenous nations and Canadians." The kind of situation that can be a learning experience for the law enforcement officials who were there. What lessons they take away aren't revealed until the next time they find themselves in similar circumstances.

Tomorrow: Bud Mercer's job description for the 2010 Olympics.  [Tyee]

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