Canada

Fatal rage

In a few terrifying minutes, Vijay Chahal proved just how deadly his anger could be

CHRIS WOOD April 15 1996
Canada

Fatal rage

In a few terrifying minutes, Vijay Chahal proved just how deadly his anger could be

CHRIS WOOD April 15 1996

Fatal rage

Canada

In a few terrifying minutes, Vijay Chahal proved just how deadly his anger could be

Karnail and Darshan Gakhal had high hopes for the wedding, the third for their string of five daughters and a son. The Sikh family’s last marriage, two years ago, had ended sourly: daughter Rajwar had broken up with her husband, Vijay (Mark) Chahal, after barely six months, complaining that he abused her. The Gakhals hoped things would go differently for her younger sister Balwinder, who was to be wed on Saturday to a young engineer from Toronto. And the family was doing its best to prepare for the occasion. Inside the comfortable two-storey home, with its views over Vernon Creek to

the dun-colored hills surrounding the quiet B.C. farming and tourist town of the same name, Darshan and her daughters were getting ready to receive more than 200 people at a post-wedding reception. Outside, the Friday morning air was soft and mild as Karnail set about washing the new red Mazda Precidia parked proudly in the triple driveway. Then, moments before 10:30 a.m., a dark green minivan pulled up to the curb—and the weekend’s promise turned suddenly to horror.

Stepping from the minivan, Mark Chahal, 30, levelled a .40-calibre Smith and Wesson semi-automatic—one of two pistols he was carrying—and fired. Karnail Gakhal fell, fatally wounded, near the Mazda’s right front tire, blood streaming down the inclined driveway towards the street. Chahal fired again—this time through a bay window at the front of the house—then strode up the front steps and went inside. He walked from room to room repeatedly firing both weapons, pausing twice to shove fresh 10-round clips into the semi-automatic. “I heard gunshots and screaming,” said nearby resident Chantal Beaudoin. “I woke my mom up and I told her.” Then, the resourceful youngster called police. With local RCMP already

on the way, Chahal walked out of the Gakhal house and paused to loose a few more rounds into its beige siding. Stepping into his rented van, he calmly buckled his seat-belt and departed.

When the first police officers arrived moments later, they encountered a scene of carnage rarely equalled in Canada. In addition to Karnail, 50, five more people lay dead, including Darshan, 45, Rajwar, 26, and the bride never-to-be, Balwinder, 24. Another five were bleeding heavily from multiple gunshot wounds. Three of them died later. In less than five minutes, Chahal had wiped out the entire Gakhal family, including younger daughters Kalwinder, 21, and Halvinder, 17, as well as the only son, 14-year-old Jaspai. The couple’s oldest daughter, Jasbir, 30, and her husband Balgit Saran, g 33, were also among the dead. ^ One of Jasbir’s three young g daughters, six-year-old Justine, I had a bullet wound through both I thighs. Saran’s 60-year-old mother er, Gurmail, had also been in| jured, taking a bullet in her face. § It was the second-worst shooting g rampage in Canadian history, ex-

ceeded only by Marc Lépine’s savage hunt through the halls of a Montreal engineering institute in 1989.

And like Lépine, Chahal could not live with what he had done. Police later concluded that his attack had been planned with an escape in mind. Nevertheless, after the killings he drove barely three kilometres to a second-floor room at the Globe Motel, just off Vernon’s main street, where he had checked in the previous evening as “M. Singh.” There, Chahal penned a hasty note apologizing to his family for what he done and leaving police several telephone numbers with which they could reach his next of kin. Fastidiously, he dated and signed the note, adding that police could find his identification in the pocket of his pants. Just before 11 a.m., he fired the semi-automatic one last time—into his own head. Police, responding to a call from motel staff, found Chahal dead on the floor. In his van, they found a third weapon: a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun.

For Vernon’s 40,000 residents, among them about 150 Sikh families, the morning’s events were a shattering introduction to the violence that seems increasingly to erupt from family breakdowns across Canada. “Our community is in a state of deep shock,” a sombre Vernon mayor, Wayne McGrath, told a news conference the day after the shootings. Ron Shunter, a superintendent at the Tolko Forest Products Ltd. sawmill in neighboring Lavington, where Karnail Gakhal had worked for 26 years, said the tragedy “is going to shake the whole community up.”

Gakhal, who operated a planing machine, had been “a friendly sort of fellow,” Shunter recalled. “Quiet, reliable, a good employee.”

Among the town’s close-knit Sikh community, the shock and remorse were even greater. Members of the community knew Karnail Gakhal well.

Shortly after arriving in Vernon from

DEATHS IN THE FAMILY

A partial list of murder-suicides in the past year:

• JAN. 23, 1996 — MANON MAHER, 35,

of Drummondville, Que., kills her son, her daughter and herself.

• JAN. 16, 1996 — KENNETH BARR, 45,

shoots his wife and her friend, then himself, in Lanark, Ont.

• JAN. 5, 1996 — JAMES HUANG, 40,

kills his wife, two daughters and his mother in Surrey, B.C., before killing himself.

• DEC. 26, 1995 — IAN BROWN, 26,

of Ottawa kills his wife, two children and himself.

• DEC. 9, 1995 — LYNN CLEMENTS, 38,

shoots his wife and a friend in North Ohio, N.S., before killing himself.

• NOV. 2, 1995 — ISAAC WIELER, 32,

of La Crete, Alta., shoots his wife and her mother, then himself.

• JUNE 12, 1995 — JOSEPH JEANNOT, 68,

of Gatineau, Que., kills his wife, a daughter and himself.

• APRIL 26, 1995 — CLEMENT MERCIER, 54,

of Ste-Marie-de-Beauce, Que., kills his daughter and the local police chief before hanging himself.

Punjab, India, he had helped to establish the town’s first Sikh temple. Balwinder’s wedding, like Rajwar’s, had been planned for a newer white stucco structure that in 1989 replaced the older house of worship, less than a kilometre from the family home in the community’s prosperous middle-class Mission Hill district.

In the wake of the tragedy, the temple instead became a place of mourning. As dusk fell on April 5, the traditional Sikh wailing of bereaved friends and relatives filled the building. Throughout the following day, members of the congregation held a vigil for wedding guests, some of whom did not learn about the tragedy until they arrived in Vernon. (The groom, whose name was withheld by family members, had received the shocking news while en route from Ontario.) “We are gathering together, talking, preparing hot meals so they will have some comfort,” said temple president Satwant Dhindsa. “Everybody is in shock. We don’t know what to think.” For no one was the shock greater than for the Gakhals’ immediate relatives. They had known that Chahal harbored a grudge against his estranged wife and her family. In January, 1995, Rajwar visited Vernon RCMP to file a complaint that Chahal had threatened her, but she requested that the police take no action against him. Still, Chahal’s animosity was common knowledge among relatives. “He told them he was going to make sure none of their other daughters would ever get married,” Balwinder Gakhal, the wife of Karnail’s cousin Torlok told Maclean’s. “Nobody imagined he would be capable of doing this.” In a few terrifying minutes, with just a week to go before the Sikh holiday of Vaisakhi, which celebrates the revelation of the five symbols of Sikhism, Vijay Chahal proved just how deadly his rage could be.

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CHRIS WOOD