Beauty and the bush

E. KAYE FULTON October 30 1995

Beauty and the bush

E. KAYE FULTON October 30 1995

Northern nightmare

Chronicling a mass murder and its aftermath



By David Staples and Greg Owens (Red Deer College Press, 479 pages, $19.95)

After Norman Hourie died in a September, 1992, underground explosion at Yellowknife’s Giant gold mine, his widow, Doreen, descended into her own private hell. For months, her subconscious blocked out all memory of the event. She spent day after day in her bedroom as her sister brought her tea, cigarettes and what little food she could keep down. Once she recovered her memory, she slept fitfully, dressed in her husband’s pyjamas and was plagued by dreams of him. She fell victim to seizures that left her feeling itchy and shaky, hot and then cold. She contemplated suicide. After a veteran miner, Roger Warren, was charged with setting the bomb that killed Hourie and eight other men, Doreen attended his trial in Yellowknife daily. She prayed that he would be found guilty, but comforted herself with a fallback option. If

the jury failed to convict Warren, she would buy a gun and shoot him. And she would feel no remorse.

As recounted in The Third Suspect, Doreen Hourie never had to consider executing that plan. In January, 1995, Warren was convicted on nine counts of seconddegree murder and given a life sentence with no chance of parole for 20 years. Thus ended one of the most intense manhunts and bizarre murder trials in Canadian criminal history. Covering it all were a pair of Edmonton Journal reporters, David Staples and Greg Owens, who have put together an intriguing account of how one particularly heinous act of mass murder affected and afflicted so many lives—including the police officers who investigated it, the lawyers who prosecuted it and the people like Hourie who continue to live with its tragic aftermath.

From the outset, the Yellowknife mine murders presented some unique challenges for investigators. The fatal explosion occurred against the backdrop of a four-monthold strike at Giant Mine that turned ugly after its owners, Royal Oak Mines Inc., decided to maintain operations by hiring replacement workers—including some union members who crossed the picket line. Initially, police considered all 150 remaining strikers as suspects. Most were hauled in for interviews, many were subjected to lie detector tests, and about 30 of them had their homes wiretapped. Eventually, police zeroed in on two prime suspects: Tim Bettger and AÍ Shearing, a pair of union hotheads who had been involved in earlier acts of sabotage and vandalism at the mine. For the better part of a year, Warren—who had been seen on the mine property on the morning of the explosion and who had failed miserably on the lie detector test—was considered, at best, the third suspect.

Then came a dramatic showdown in October, 1993, between Warren and Sgt. Gregg McMartin, an RCMP polygraph expert. After reviewing the numerous inconsistencies in Warren’s statements during earlier police interviews, McMartin became convinced that the 49-year-old hard-rock miner—known to his co-workers as “the Ace” because of his prickly perfectionism— had committed the murders. Under intense questioning, Warren finally confessed. He even agreed to reenact the crime in the mine on videotape. But what seemed like an open-and-shut case took another strange

turn at Warren’s trial late last year when the accused recanted his confession. Warren claimed that he had been severely depressed at the time, that he suffered from sexual impotence and feared that he was dying of testicular cancer. He had confessed, he said, to help settle the strike—a bitterly divisive dispute that Warren blamed on Royal Oak president Peggy Witte, the first

The book offers fascinating examples of how police separate truth from lies

mine owner in Canada since the 1930s to use strikebreakers.

In the end, Warren was caught in the tangled web of his own lies. He had changed the details of his alibis too many times. And he had told police information about the crime that only they and the murderer could possibly know. In fact, The Third Suspect provides some fascinating glimpses into how the police try to separate truth from lies. For example, McMartin had combed through Warren’s statements look-

ing for verbal tics. He knew that liars usually couch their recollections in qualifiers such as “I’m pretty sure,” “it might have been,” and “it seems.” They tend to leave out the pronoun “I” when describing their actions—which would put them in the middle of the story—and often speak in the present tense, likely because they are making it up as they go along. Real memories, on the other hand, are generally told in simple language, in the first person and in the past tense. That is exactly how Warren spoke when he confessed.

The Third Suspect is marred by the authors’ often clumsy attempts to write as if inside the minds of their protagonists, and a tendency to slip into pulp journalism (“this strike was packed with dynamite and ready to blow”). They also do little to answer the most nagging question of all: what drove Roger Warren, a hardworking, if obstreperous, family man with no strong union loyalties, to commit one of the biggest mass murders in Canadian history?

But perhaps that is too much to expect. In his personal dealings, police interviews and trial testimony, Warren (who did not talk to the authors) proved evasive, enigmatic and not given to introspection. In a rare exception, he once told a co-worker: “I like to bark, but I got no bite.” Tragically, Warren lied about that, as well.