2014’s top stories No. 3: The death of Peter de Groot

The manhunt for a West Slocan resident and its tragic outcome grabbed national headlines and generated enormous controversy.

Peter De Groot

Peter De Groot

The details remain hazy, but on October 9, West Slocan resident Peter de Groot, 45, was involved in an argument with someone, apparently over an eviction notice. RCMP went to the scene, where de Groot allegedly fired a shot at them before fleeing into the bush. The resulting manhunt and its tragic outcome grabbed national headlines and generated enormous controversy.

David Badger, who lives two doors down, arrived home that day to find a police cruiser in front of his neighbour’s place with the driver’s side window smashed. He and fellow resident Roy Burge said the property where de Groot stayed was “a mess” and did not belong to him.

“It had a shed for horses and cattle,” Burge said. “He drove his van in there and started piling up pallets around it. The place is an eyesore.” Badger said de Groot had five cows and 25 chickens and the SPCA had been called to the property on two occasions.

Although no one was injured in the initial confrontation, the police response was massive. Using Gravel Pit Road as a staging area, they set up a command post with more than 25 members, some dressed in camouflage. Plainclothed officers wore bullet proof vests and an ambulance was on standby along with more than ten marked and marked vehicles. An RCMP helicopter was also in the area.

Police prevented residents from entering the village by vehicle, although many parked north of town and walked through the woods to their homes. W.E. Graham school was locked down. Students were later evacuated to another site to be picked up by parents.

Custodian Craig Roussain said he was asked to get pre-school children ready when the bus arrived, but balked when he discovered a police officer with a gun on the front seat.

“I said ‘That is not going to happen to daycare kids.’ Meanwhile, a plainclothes officer with a shotgun burst through the gate yelling ‘Move, move, move.’ I yelled ‘Stop, they’re only kids.’ It was very scary for everyone.”

That night police set up a 10-by-10 hectare containment area on the west side of the river where they believed de Groot was and seized “a number” of guns from his home. Neighbours were evacuated, and both W.E. Graham and Winlaw schools were closed the following day.

Residents were asked to avoid the cordoned-off area and remain indoors. Additional police resources, including an emergency response team, crisis negotiator, dogs, and armored vehicle were deployed to Slocan, to the bewilderment of some residents who said the police presence caused them more anxiety than de Groot’s actions.

As the search entered its third day, residents were allowed to return home but urged to stay indoors.

On the fifth day of the search, two members of the emergency response team discovered de Groot in a cabin near Slocan. Following what they would only describe as an “interaction,” he was shot and killed. Police recovered a gun at the scene. The case was turned over to the Independent Investigations Office of BC, the civilian-led body that looks into police-related deaths.

Afterward, de Groot’s cousin Teo explained that they grew up together in Orillia, Ont. Peter was an “intelligent, friendly, loyal person. He was funny, quick to laugh, and he always saw positive things in bad situations. This is not sentimentality, I’m describing the person we wish to remember. Peter was a normal, healthy young man when we left high school.”

However, in 1997 Peter suffered an aneurysm and his mental state began to deteriorate. “Peter began verbally lashing out against specific people. When he developed a paranoid obsession with me, I began receiving threats, and disturbing communications. I reported them to police. I hoped he would get help, but heard nothing further.”

De Groot’s siblings were outraged at his death. At an emotional news conference, his sister Danna read a ten-page statement in which she said police overreacted and “executed” her brother.

She and another brother were in Slocan the day Peter was found and killed. She said her repeated requests to be brought in to talk to him were ignored.

“I went to the RCMP at their command central where I met the lead investigator and spoke at length with him. I reiterated my request to bring me to wherever they were so that if anything happened I could talk to my brother. I offered both times to walk into the bush to get him.”

Danna said her family regarded any shots Peter might have fired as self-defence. She said they may file a civil suit, but will await the findings of the Independent Investigations Office as well as a hoped-for coroner’s inquest.

At a public meeting in Slocan in early November, many residents were sharply critical of the RCMP’s actions. During the calm two-hour debriefing, three senior Mounties also heard concerns about communication during the incident and trauma it may have caused children.

Chief Supt. Frank Smart, commander of the RCMP in southeast BC, told the packed hall he recognized public frustration over the incident, but due to the IIO investigation, he couldn’t address specifics. He explained the reason for the huge police presence — 150 officers were involved at different times — was that they didn’t know where de Groot was until shortly before he was killed. He also said their intention was always to take de Groot safely into custody.

Jamie Barber, a Silverton resident and longtime local teacher, was not impressed.

“We had a disturbed man in our community who was trying to just get by. All of a sudden, we have nothing but guns around here … That to me seems like absolutely the worst way to deal with it. I think you guys way overblew this and as a result, a man is dead.”