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Gunman entered Texas school unimpeded, police say as questions swirl about response

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WASHINGTON — Law enforcement officials described in chilling detail Thursday the time it took for tactical officers to finally gun down an 18-year-old attacker after he shot and killed 19 students and two teachers inside a fourth-grade classroom in small-town Texas.

Victor Escalon, the south Texas regional director for the state’s Department of Public Safety, stood before a backdrop of stone-faced police officers, investigators and officials — a news conference that appeared aimed at deflecting mounting concerns about what took so long.

The gunman entered the school at about 11:40 a.m. local time through an apparently unlocked door, and contrary to initial reports, encountered no resistance, Escalon said — the armed school safety officer, normally a fixture at educational facilities around the U.S., was not there.

“He was not confronted by anybody,” he said. “Four minutes later, law enforcement are coming in to solve this problem step by step.”

Those officers who initially arrived on the scene pursued the gunman into the school, but soon after had to take cover when the shooter began opening fire on them, he continued. It would be a full hour before Border Patrol officers wearing tactical gear found their target.

“They don’t make entry initially because of the gunfire they’re receiving,” Escalon said of the officers who arrived on the scene first.

“But we have officers calling for additional resources — everybody that’s in the area, tactical teams. We need equipment — we need specialty equipment. We need body armour; we need precision riflemen; negotiators.”

Students and teachers were also being evacuated from the building at the same time, he added.

Escalon also suggested that even if tactical officers had been able to breach the classroom sooner, it might have already been too late for the children and teachers inside.

“According to the information we have, the majority of the gunfire was in the beginning — in the beginning,” he said. “I say numerous, more than 25 (rounds) — I repeat, it was a lot of gunfire in the beginning.”

Media reports Thursday, coupled with cellphone video of the civilian pandemonium outside, detailed how parents and bystanders, well aware of the imminent threat inside the building, were frantically trying to get officers to go into the school to confront the gunman.

A Wall Street Journal report detailed how one of the parents on the scene was handcuffed by federal marshals who accused her of interfering with a police investigation. After local officers convinced their colleagues to set her free, she ran into the school and emerged with her two kids, the paper reported.

Escalon did not directly answer questions about why it took so long for tactical officers to get into the classroom, but promised more details would be forthcoming.

U.S. President Joe Biden will travel to Uvalde on Sunday to “offer comfort” to the families of the victims and meet with community leaders, said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre as she urged Congress to take meaningful steps toward tougher gun restrictions.

“We need the help of Congress … we cannot do this alone,” she said. “We need them to step in and to deal with this gun violence that we’re seeing, that’s tearing up not just families but communities across the country.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday he’s asked Texas Sen. John Cornyn to meet with Democrats to talk about legislation, but offered no details about what he hopes to see, beyond “an outcome that can actually pass and become law.”

That’s a tall order: Congress remains in a state of gridlock, in part because the Senate is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, but also because so many U.S. lawmakers support the rights of gun owners and enjoy the generous financial backing of the National Rifle Association.

The NRA, easily one of the most powerful political groups in the U.S., is meanwhile pressing ahead with its annual meeting in Houston despite the tragedy that unfolded Tuesday just a four-hour drive away.

“Our deepest sympathies are with the families and victims involved in this horrific and evil crime,” the association said in a statement that described the gunman as a “lone, deranged criminal.”

“As we gather in Houston, we will reflect on these events, pray for the victims, recognize our patriotic members, and pledge to redouble our commitment to making our schools secure.”

Texas Republicans Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. Ted Cruz have come under withering criticism for their planned appearances at the convention, which begins Friday. Former president Donald Trump has already confirmed he’ll be there to deliver a speech.

“They are contributing to the problem of gun violence, not trying to solve it,” Jean-Pierre said of the NRA.

“They don’t represent gun owners who know that we need to take action. And it’s shameful that the NRA and their allies have stood in the way of every attempt to advance measures that we all know will save lives.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2022.

 

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

 

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version contained an incorrect spelling of Uvalde, Tex.

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Memorial service held for RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson, killed in N.S. mass shooting

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HALIFAX — An RCMP officer who was among 22 people killed in the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting was remembered Wednesday during a regimental service in Halifax for her “fierce” character and brave actions.

People lined a street leading to the service for Const. Heidi Stevenson, watching as Mounties and municipal police marched, bagpipers and drummers played, and a hearse brought the officer’s urn to the ceremony at the Cole Harbour hockey arena.

COVID-19 restrictions had delayed the official ceremony, though a family funeral took place five days after Stevenson was killed.

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said during the service that Stevenson would be remembered for “her courage and strength of character.”

She said the force will remember Stevenson’s “heroism that day and the bravery she demonstrated and the actions she took to protect the community she cared so deeply about.”

A public inquiry into the mass shooting has indicated that the veteran officer was racing to support an injured colleague on April 19, 2020, when the fatal encounter occurred on a highway interchange about 60 kilometres north of Halifax.

The 48-year-old officer died in a gunfight with the killer, who had jumped a lane of traffic in his replica police vehicle in order to drive the wrong way down a ramp and slam into Stevenson’s cruiser.

Public inquiry documents say bullet fragments from Stevenson’s pistol “likely” struck the killer’s head, and — about 35 minutes later — blood on his forehead tipped off an officer who shot and killed the gunman at a gas station.

The inquiry has also noted that Stevenson had at 8:44 a.m. that morning called for the public to be notified about the killer driving a replica RCMP vehicle. Her request never received a response.

During the service, four friends noted her strong personality and sense of justice.

Her longtime friend Angela McKnight described Stevenson as a “fierce woman” who chose the RCMP over kinesiology and developed physical strength through playing rugby at university.

She said Stevenson had to undergo laser eye surgery and overcome a torn knee ligament in order to make it into the RCMP following her graduation.

“Heidi surrounded herself with strong women focused on supporting each other,” she said. “I know no better … no tougher, more determined woman than her.”

Childhood friend Nona Heinbecker recalled Stevenson’s sense of loyalty to her female friends, telling those gathered how the officer had happily found a spot to sleep on a hospital floor when Heinbecker was in labour.

People watching the procession to the service also described their admiration for Stevenson, who is survived by her husband and two children.

Randy Stevenson, a military veteran, and Jan Hill, whose husband had worked with the constable, were among those waiting on the sidewalk for the procession.

The veteran, who is not related to the fallen Mountie, described her as exemplifying “what the police and the military are about,” while Hill praised the officer’s deep involvement in her community of Dartmouth, N.S.

Heidi Stevenson grew up in Antigonish, N.S., and attended university in Nova Scotia. She was with the Mounties for 23 years, developing expertise in drug recognition, general duty policing and communications. She also spent time in Ottawa as part of the RCMP musical ride, even though she had no previous experience with horses.

In a statement provided to the inquiry, the Stevenson family said community support was helpful following her killing. “There were months of meals provided and seeing the Nova Scotia Strong stickers on everyone’s car meant so much. The phone call from the Prime Minister was very personal,” the family said in their statement.

Police estimated about 1,300 people attended the ceremony, which was broadcast live.

The Anglican minister presiding at the service noted Stevenson’s Christian faith, and quoted from a New Testament text emphasizing that hope, faith and love “abide,” and that love is the greatest of the three due to its eternal nature.

Rev. Katherine Bourbonniere said during her homily that even in death, “she (Stevenson) will constantly be trying to touch you in different ways.”

She recalled accompanying Stevenson when she drove to homes to notify next of kin of a death. “I saw her love in her job and in her position many a time. She would show compassion for every person she met, and it was … beautiful,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2022.

 

Lyndsay Armstrong and Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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Explosive devices found in a vehicle connected to B.C. bank robbers killed

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SAANICH, B.C. — Multiple explosive devices were found in a vehicle related to the two suspects who were gunned down outside a bank in Saanich, B.C.

Saanich Chief Const. Dean Duthie said Wednesday an RCMP explosive disposal unit was able to transfer the devices from the vehicle to a local landfill and destroy them.

Police had evacuated the area shortly after the shooting on Tuesday as the RCMP’s explosives disposal unit was called in.

Six officers were shot and two suspects were killed in the shootout with police on Tuesday.

Duthie said three of the officers remain in hospital, including one who is in intensive care, while another officer will require more surgeries.

He said he spoke with one of the officers in hospital and said the police department will be there to support him.

“We’re here for his family … to let him know that the policing community is behind him 100 per cent.”

The chief said police are still investigating the possibility of a third suspect, although they don’t believe there’s a risk to the public.

He said police were acting on vague information.

“Our goal was to keep the public safe,” he said of police ordering residents near the bank to stay inside on Tuesday.

Police said in a statement that they aren’t able to confirm identities, background or motive of the suspects.

Duthie said work is underway to try to confirm the suspects’ names.

Duthie has looked at much of the video footage of the incident and said it’s a miracle that no one else died.

“It’s astonishing that there was no other citizen or member of the public injured,” he said, crediting the quick actions of officers who responded.

“Both patrol officers and Greater Victoria emergency response officers (put) themselves in harm’s way to bring it to a successful and safe conclusion as quickly as possible.”

A woman trapped inside the bank during the robbery told CFAX radio she was in a meeting with the manager when she heard a loud explosion and then silence.

Shelli Fryer, 59, of Langford said she looked from the doorway and a few feet from her was “a man in full assault gear, holding an assault rifle.”

Fryer said the masked man was wearing all black, had an armoured vest over his jacket and was holding a black rifle that was shorter and stockier than what she was used to seeing in the media.

“The energy from them was completely calm,” she said.

She heard one gunman quietly say to the manager, “vault,” and the manager handed him the keys and they both walked out of the office, she said.

Fryer said the other suspect was pacing the floor, just walking back and forth past the office, “like he was going for a walk in the park, just pacing as if he was waiting for something.”

The robbers put all 22 people who were in the bank against a wall in a back hallway and they waited for what felt like an eternity, she said. “We heard nothing at all of what was transpiring outside, we couldn’t hear sirens.”

She heard in a loud voice, “Police!” and then a hail of gunfire, and everybody ran to hide.

Fryer said every one of the police officers involved in the “absolutely insane incident” handled themselves professionally, and then later treated those who were in the bank with kindness and concern.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2022.

 

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

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Montreal police announce second arrest in drive-by shooting that killed 15-year-old

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Montreal police announced Wednesday they have arrested a second person in the drive-by shooting death of a 15-year-old girl last year.

Cmdr. Paul Verreault, head of the Montreal police service’s major crimes division, said a 27-year-old man was arrested Wednesday morning in connection with the February 2021 killing of Meriem Boundaoui.

Police believe the suspect arrested Wednesday and Salim Touaibi, who was arrested Monday, were “directly involved” in the shooting, Verreault told reporters Wednesday.

“These two people were in the vehicle at the time of the event,” he said, but he declined to comment further on what role each of them is alleged to have played in the crime.

“We’re still very early in the investigation,” he said. “This is an investigation that is still ongoing.”

Touaibi, 26, faces one charge of first-degree murder and four charges of attempted murder.

Verreault said he couldn’t say when the man arrested Wednesday, whose name was not released, would appear in court. He said police arrested four other people Wednesday morning who are allegedly part of a criminal group linked to the two men.

He said the shooting came after the escalation of a conflict between that group and another criminal group, but he did not provide more details. The four other people arrested will face charges of drug trafficking, uttering threats and assault, he said.

Boundaoui was sitting in a car with another person when a second car drove up and someone opened fire. Boundaoui and a 21-year-old man who was on the sidewalk were hit by bullets. Boundaoui had no link to the conflict, Verreault said.

Montreal’s interim police chief, Sophie Roy, said she hopes the arrests will give Boundaoui’s family some comfort.

“Like the rest of the public, we were shocked by the murder of young Meriem and other young people,” she told reporters. “We may be police officers, but we’re also humans with families and children.”

Boundaoui was the first of several young people to die violently in the past year and a half in Montreal, prompting widespread concern and calls to do more to reduce gun violence in the city.

Montreal has had one of the lowest homicide rates of major cities in Canada. In 2020, the most recent year for which data was available, the homicide rate in Montreal was less than half the Canadian average, according to Statistics Canada.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2022.

 

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

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