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Rights + Justice

Why Is a Domestic Abuser Fielding Emergency Calls?

An Edmonton 911 operator with a history of past assaults took a call from a woman under deadly attack. His lax response outrages her family.

Charles Rusnell 28 May 2024The Tyee

Charles Rusnell is an independent investigative reporter based in Edmonton.

[Editor’s note: This piece contains depictions of domestic assault and murder. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can consult the government of Canada’s list of shelter and helpline resources.]

There is so much Shannon Bruno still doesn’t understand about the murder of her daughter Lyndsay in Edmonton on Aug. 13, 2021.

But of one thing Shannon is certain: the dereliction of duty by the 911 operator who brushed off her daughter’s call for help was the inevitable result of the failure, dating back decades, of the Edmonton Police Service and Alberta’s justice system to hold that operator to account.

The 911 operator was Scott Mugford, a name with which I am familiar because I wrote about him several times when he was an EPS officer. Most of those stories were about concerns he wasn’t held fully accountable for his conduct — and so is this story.

Lyndsay’s torment

Lyndsay Bruno was 36 when she was killed by her former boyfriend, Ryan Biglow, also known by his given name, Ryan John Connell.

“We were really close before she got involved with Ryan,” said Lyndsay’s younger sister Christina.

“We spent a lot of time together with her boys. And she was kind, she was confident. I looked up to her; I wanted to be like her because she kind of had it all at one time.

“She had a nice house. She had a cool car. She had a good job. She was beautiful. She dressed really nice. She was starting her own business.”

Her mother, Shannon, said Lyndsay was just coming out of a bad relationship when she met Biglow through friends of friends in December 2019.

“She was lonely and not in a very good place in her life and he came in and wined and dined her,” she said.

Within months, however, Biglow became controlling, threatening, abusive and eventually violent. He was a drug dealer with a lengthy record who packed a handgun and was a suspect in at least one murder.

When Lyndsay tried to extricate herself from Biglow’s destructive orbit, their relationship spiralled into a series of dramas. Police would arrest Biglow for threatening or assaulting Lyndsay, but she would refuse to give a statement or testify.

A young blond woman with light skin tone and green eyes looks at the camera, holding a fluffy Australian shepherd puppy.
Lyndsay Bruno told her mother not to worry. Her criminal boyfriend was ‘going to be put away for a long time... and I am going to be really careful.’ Photo supplied.

It angered Shannon that Lyndsay wouldn’t follow through, but she said her daughter was terrified Biglow would harm her family or her children.

“She would block his texts but he would find some way to get hold of her,” Shannon said.

“He would text her messages like ‘If you don’t call me back, I’m going to stand outside your mother’s garage and blow her fucking brains out.’ And he knew where I lived.”

Lyndsay began to spiral. She was seeing a psychologist and taking prescription medication in an attempt to quell her alcohol abuse. Her two sons lived with their respective fathers as she struggled to gain control of her life and somehow escape Biglow’s oppressive clinch.

“She told me, ‘Mom, don’t worry, he is going to court in September and he is going to be put away for a long time, and I have an EPO [emergency protection order] and I’m going to be really careful.’”

Lyndsay’s last call

At 11:33:21 a.m. on Aug. 13, 2021, a 911 operator received a call. In Edmonton, the initial call taker asks if the caller needs police or an ambulance.

The operator could hear screaming in the background. They could tell the call was coming from near a cell tower located on a Jasper Avenue highrise apartment building but not the exact address.

The first operator transferred the call to a police dispatcher.

The dispatcher immediately answered the call, and at 11:34:09 a.m. — less than a minute after the initial call — he noted “no one was speaking, and it sounded like a ‘pocket dial’ with no further information to note.”

The dispatcher issued a service call to police as a “mid-level” priority, which meant it wasn’t urgent and two officers weren’t sent to investigate until 11:56 a.m.

Eleven minutes later, at 12:07 p.m., the two officers wrote off the call. They said they had searched and canvassed the area and found no issues or anyone needing help. They had also called the number twice but it went to voice mail, which was full.

At 3:35 a.m. on Aug. 14, Shannon Bruno received a text from Biglow.

“Ya [talk] to your daughter today,” Biglow wrote. “I killed her, right [when] she tried calling 911.”

Shannon woke up a few minutes later, saw the text and called Biglow.

“He answered and I asked, ‘What is going on?’ and he just laughed.”

A cell conversation. Text messages exchanged Saturday, Aug. 14, at 3:35 a.m. Sender: Oh ya... You tlk [sic] to your daughter today. Sender: I killed her, right wen [sic] she tried calling 911. Recipient: I’m calling police. Sender: Go ahead. Then a text message sent Saturday, Aug. 14, at 11:38 a.m. Sender: Lucky I didn’t get your son too.

Shannon called 911 and gave police her daughter’s exact address, and police were dispatched.

Shannon drove to her daughter’s apartment, but police had it surrounded and wouldn’t allow her to enter. They thought Biglow might still be inside and they were waiting for the tactical unit to arrive.

At 5:48 a.m. an EPS officer called Biglow’s phone and it was answered by an RCMP negotiator near Rocky Mountain House, about 2 1/2 hours by car southwest of Edmonton.

Biglow had taken a hostage during a carjacking. At 7:15 a.m. the RCMP shot and killed Biglow.

Finally, at 7:52 a.m., an Edmonton police tactical unit breached the door of Lyndsay’s apartment and found her dead.

A family’s search for answers

Christina Bruno gave me texts sent by Lyndsay to a new boyfriend in the days before she was murdered.

In one, she tells him not to come over because “Ryan has been on a terror [tear] and I’ve caught and reported him 5X [five times] this week sitting in his car outside my house and for the constant harassment.”

“The police are patrolling for him,” she added later in the same text. “And don’t tell my mom please or make a big deal of it. I am handling it accordingly with EPS.”

Shannon guesses her daughter made as many as 20 calls to 911 in the week before she was murdered.

But she said the police told her daughter, “‘He is far away and there is nothing we can do about it.’ But they would pick him up and he would be out the next day.”

About a week after Lyndsay’s murder, Shannon and Christina met the two homicide detectives assigned to Lyndsay’s case. Shannon said the detectives told them they couldn’t comment on whether Lyndsay had made 911 calls in the week before her murder.

Getting no answers from police, they eventually hired Edmonton criminal defence lawyer Tom Engel. For decades, Engel and his law firm have specialized in filing complaints against police. No lawyer in Alberta knows more about how police investigate themselves.

The Brunos believed EPS had not adequately protected Lyndsay and had not arrested Biglow because he was an informant.

Engel filed a formal Police Act complaint in early August 2022, providing several examples in which Biglow was not detained after incidents of stalking and violence.

The complaint also alleged police failed to properly respond to Lyndsay’s 911 call. The operator didn’t attempt to identify her exact address, which caused a delay that may have contributed to her death.

In a December 2023 letter to the Bruno family and copied to Engel, Edmonton police Chief Dale McFee laid out the detailed findings of the internal investigation.

It uncovered no evidence that Biglow was a police informant and it detailed the numerous times Lyndsay had failed to follow through on her complaints against her former boyfriend.

McFee found no grounds to support charges of neglect of duty against any of the officers involved in Lyndsay’s case — except for one.

The investigation found serious problems with how the 911 dispatcher had handled Lyndsay’s call for help. And McFee named the dispatcher: Emergency Communications Officer Scott Mugford.

Mugford ‘set the tone’

Chief McFee said an internal investigation found Mugford had failed to “voice challenge the caller at least twice and failed to make all reasonable attempts to determine the identity and location of the caller.”

Mugford also failed to query Lyndsay’s phone number in the EPS records management system. If he had, it would have provided her specific address for the investigating officers.

Without it, the officers spent 11 fruitless minutes searching an area blocks from where she lived before writing off the call. They could have checked the number themselves and found the address, but the internal investigation said they were “terribly short staffed and were running from call-to-call that day.”

“But the evaluator [ECO Mugford] set the tone for the call with his comments.”

Remember that Mugford had noted the call was likely a “pocket dial.” The investigation found “a careful listen to the call would have revealed this was not a standard misdialled phone call.”

“It is clear on the 911 call that screams could be heard with a crack or popping sound, followed by silence and some shuffling and/or murmuring sounds.”

Shannon told me that shortly after Lyndsay’s death, she had contacted the chief medical examiner’s office. She wanted to know how Lyndsay had died, and she wanted to know if she had suffered.

The medical examiner told her that he could not reveal the cause of death because the investigative file was still open. Later that same day, Shannon learned from TV news that Lyndsay had been shot in the back of the head.

Because Mugford had failed to perform the most basic tasks as required by emergency communications protocol, his recent calls were reviewed.

“ECO Mugford’s call audit demonstrated a pattern of similar behaviour that posed a serious risk to public safety and the EPS,” McFee’s letter states.

What penalty did the Edmonton Police Service mete out to Mugford as a result?

Mugford, who as it turned out was a civilian and not a police officer, received a “letter of expectation” for workplace misconduct.

A city lawyer told me that while the EPS is responsible for hiring, supervising, disciplining and terminating EPS emergency communications operators, the operators are technically City of Edmonton employees.

McFee provided no explanation for how the EPS concluded that a simple written reprimand was a sufficient penalty for an employee who “posed a serious risk to public safety and the EPS.”

An officer with a light skin tone wears a black hat with an EPS shield and a blue jacket festooned with medals.
‘Lyndsay’s injuries were not survivable,’ Edmonton police Chief Dale McFee wrote to the family of Lyndsay Bruno, ‘and an earlier response time by police or EMS would not have changed the outcome of her condition.’ Photo via Blue Line.

McFee wrote this to the Brunos in his letter: “Since ECO Mugford is not a sworn officer with the EPS, I have no jurisdiction to pursue other disciplinary measures with respect to him under the Police Service Regulation.”

“Lyndsay’s injuries were not survivable,” McFee noted in his letter, “and an earlier response time by police or EMS [Emergency Medical Services] would not have changed the outcome of her condition.”

McFee did not respond to several interview requests, in which I told him I would be asking about the discipline imposed on Mugford and how he came to be hired.

After this article was published, the EPS provided an emailed statement that addressed none of the issues, although it claimed Mugford's penalty was appropriate and every 911 dispatcher had passed an enhanced security clearance check.

Mugford’s history of domestic assaults

Tom Engel was shocked to learn Mugford was the officer responsible for botching Lyndsay’s plea for help. Why was he entrusted with fielding emergency calls from people in trouble?

The Bruno family’s lawyer wanted to know, and he had plenty of reason to wonder. Engel had direct knowledge of Mugford’s conduct history while he was an EPS officer, which the lawyer detailed in a Feb. 20, 2024, letter of complaint to McFee and Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi.

Engel’s 142-page letter documents how he had acted for four other individuals who had made formal complaints against Mugford dating back to 2000. The attachments included complaint letters filed by Engel to two previous chiefs of police on behalf of various clients.

He also attached transcripts from Mugford’s criminal court case for violent domestic assaults and from EPS disciplinary hearings for the assaults and for a minor fraud.

In October 2000, John and Ann Welton filed a complaint against Mugford and several other EPS officers in which they alleged excessive force. They later sued but the lawsuit went nowhere.

In October 2002, Mugford, then 38, had 14 years’ experience as an EPS officer. He pleaded guilty in court to a single charge each of assault and breaching a recognizance. Four other charges were withdrawn. All stemmed from domestic violence incidents in August of the same year involving his now former wife.

The court transcript shows Mugford admitted that while drunk he verbally abused her, spit on her, poked her hard with his finger in the chest and punched her in the chest.

When she rebuked his later attempt to apologize, “he again flew into a rage, grabbed his wife by the throat, picked her up and slammed her into the kitchen table.”

Later, he breached a no-contact recognizance and violently assaulted her again. This time “he put his hand on her neck, squeezed while poking her in the chest with his index finger and uttered a threat to kill her.”

One of the initial assault charges was withdrawn after Mugford’s now ex-wife admitted she had initiated the contact.

The judge handed Mugford, who said he was attending Alcoholics Anonymous, a two-year suspended sentence for the assault and an absolute discharge for the breach of recognizance.

The judge chose not to fine Mugford because his lawyer told the court he was in serious debt.

In the EPS disciplinary hearing that followed the criminal case, a hearing officer gave Mugford a 40-hour suspension.

Mugford’s ex-wife filed another complaint against him after she learned that, while he was on probation for assaulting her, he had forged her name on a credit card loan document.

Mugford was charged internally with two counts of discreditable conduct: one for the forgery and a second for breaching a recognizance to not contact his wife. In December 2004 he was handed a 10-hour suspension for the forgery and nothing for the no-contact breach. He was given a year to serve the 10-hour suspension.

He also was not criminally charged for the forgery.

I was an investigative journalist for the Edmonton Journal then and I hounded the Crown for three years until they finally relented and explained why Mugford had not been charged.

Assistant deputy justice minister Greg Lepp, now a provincial court judge, denied Mugford had been treated differently because he was a police officer. He said the forgery was for a two-month loan extension and the victim suffered no financial harm.

It was not in the public interest to charge Mugford and would have been a waste of resources, Lepp said.

In 2006, Mugford again made headlines. Several people associated with the Burnaby Lakers junior lacrosse team alleged he had been overly aggressive in breaking up an incident outside a downtown Edmonton hotel during the Minto Cup, the national junior lacrosse championship.

Former Ocean Fisheries Ltd. CEO and president Edward Safarik of Vancouver and former Burnaby mayor Derek Corrigan — both lawyers — said Mugford made a volatile situation worse.

Employed to safeguard lives

Sources say Mugford retired from the EPS and lived for a time in Sechelt, on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast, before returning to Edmonton. Sources say he started working part time as a police dispatcher in June 2016.

Which raises the obvious question Engel asked in his February letter to Edmonton’s police chief and mayor: How did Mugford get hired as an emergency communications officer, a job in which he would have to field numerous domestic dispute calls? In a followup letter in April, Engel asked McFee if Mugford had been security vetted for the job, but the chief failed to answer.

A recent ECO job listing states that every applicant must “complete an Enhanced Security Clearance and suitability screening.”

“Whoever hired him as an ECO knew, or should have known, about his history,” Engel wrote in his February letter.

“Whoever was responsible for not firing him as a result of his conduct in this event, either knew or should have known about his conduct history,” he said, adding that even if Mugford’s previous history wasn’t known, he still should have been fired for his conduct in the Lyndsay Bruno call.

An older woman with short curly blond hair and a light skin tone is slightly out of focus. She’s laughing and holding a cake with unlit candles. To her left, a younger blond woman with a light skin tone, also laughing, leans in towards her mother and the cake.
Shannon Bruno celebrating a birthday with daughter Lyndsay. Shannon wonders if Lyndsay would be alive if EPS had taken seriously the many 911 calls she believes her daughter made. And she can’t understand why operator Scott Mugford still has a job. Photo supplied.

University of Alberta criminologist Temitope Oriola reviewed Mugford’s history at my request.

“Overall, this is stunningly lax disciplinary architecture,” he said. “It’s a self-defeatist, protectionist ring around individuals who arguably have no business in law enforcement in any capacity.”

Oriola said the judge and prosecutor in Mugford’s case also bear responsibility for failing to hold a police officer to the same standard as they would a civilian.

The prosecutor in Mugford’s criminal assault case took no position as to his sentence. And while he insisted there was no joint sentencing submission, he agreed with the defence lawyer’s submission that Mugford should receive a significant fine and a lengthy period of probation.

Even then, the judge rejected the fine as impractical given Mugford’s precarious finances and imposed only probation.

Oriola said no civilian who breached probation and committed a second violent spousal assault “would have benefited from such court generosity.”

He added: “I would just say to members of the public, ‘Don’t try this at home. You are unlikely to receive such professional leniency from the criminal justice system.’”

Mugford declined repeated interview requests.

‘Such a runaround from the police’

Shannon Bruno accepts that her daughter died almost instantly in the midst of her 911 call. But she said she was “dumbfounded” when she heard Mugford had not been fired and had received only a letter of reprimand.

She wonders what happened in the other 911 calls where the chief said Mugford had put the safety of others at risk. And she wonders if Lyndsay would be alive if EPS had taken seriously the many 911 calls Shannon believes her daughter made.

Christina observed that McFee, the police chief, had failed to recognize that Mugford’s negligent handling of her sister’s call had contributed to their traumatization.

Had Mugford done his job, and identified the address, Lyndsay would have been found shortly after she was shot, Christina said, and she and her mother would have been spared the horrible thought of Lyndsay lying alone, in a pool of her own blood, for more than 20 hours.

Shannon would have been spared the unfathomable horror that still haunts her since the moment she read Biglow’s text, gloating about the murder of her daughter.

“It has all been just such a runaround from the police,” Shannon said.

The only response Tom Engel has so far received to his complaint letter was an email from EPS lawyer Geoff Crowe asking if Engel was in fact formally representing the Brunos for this complaint, despite extensive correspondence over two years that clearly shows he is.

“This is an example of the horseshit I have to deal with,” Engel told me in an email in which he forwarded Crowe’s disingenuous response.

“It’s a runaround,” Engel told me later, echoing Shannon Bruno.

“There is no clear path to accountability.”

If you have any information for this story, or information for another story, please contact Charles Rusnell in confidence via email.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Alberta

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