Constable managed to shoot as he died

STONY PLAIN — RCMP Const. Leo Johnston was likely already shot, bleeding, and on his back dying — his colleagues falling all around — as James Roszko sprayed the steel shed they were in with gunfire.

STONY PLAIN — RCMP Const. Leo Johnston was likely already shot, bleeding, and on his back dying — his colleagues falling all around — as James Roszko sprayed the steel shed they were in with gunfire.

But the 32-year-old ace marksman from Lac La Biche, still managed to draw his gun, aim at Roszko and fire.

“The bullet (hitting Roszko) came up at quite an angle,” firearms expert Bruce Gunn testified Tuesday at the fatality inquiry into the Mayerthorpe Mountie shootings.

“It looked like Const. Johnston had been lying down when he took that shot.”

Outside court, RCMP Supt. Brian Simpson said regardless of the outcome, Johnston set an example.

“The warrior spirit, fighting to the end, trying to save himself, trying to save his fellow officers and doing what he could under extreme circumstances,” said Simpson, who is representing the Alberta RCMP at the hearing.

“That just speaks a lot about the character of the individuals who were there that day.”

Johnston’s mother, Grace, stood nearby listening to Simpson’s comments and had been in court to hear Gunn talk about her son’s last actions. Afterward she hugged Simpson.

She declined comment. “Not today,” she said.

The inquiry is examining the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Johnston and three of his colleagues on March 3, 2005, on Rosko’s farm near Mayerthorpe, Alta.

Gunn told the testimony that Johnston’s shot at Roszko was true — right in the centre mass of the suspect, where police are taught to aim.

But the bullet hit the one spot on Roszko where he was protected by a 9-mm Beretta semi-automatic pistol tucked in his waistband, said Gunn.

The shot damaged the butt and sent bullet fragments pinging harmlessly away.

“Fragments were lodged in (Roszko’s) jeans,” Gunn said.

“It didn’t enter his flesh,” he added, although a coroner’s report said bullet fragments did graze Roszko’s face.

Johnston didn’t get a second shot.

Gunn said the shell failed to eject properly from the officer’s 9-mm Smith and Wesson semi-automatic, so the gun jammed. That will happen, he said, if the gun is held too close to an object or a body, leaving no room for the shell to fly free.

Johnston was killed along with fellow constables Anthony Gordon, Peter Schiemann and Brock Myrol.

They were investigating and guarding a marijuana grow-op and cache of stolen auto parts found in the cavernous semi-circular metal hut on Roszko’s property.

Roszko had fled the scene a day earlier, but somehow managed to breach the RCMP perimeter overnight to re-enter and hide in the hut.

He armed himself with the Beretta, a Winchester bolt-action rifle and a .308 semi-automatic Heckler and Koch military assault rifle.

He used the .308 on the officers, shooting all four of them multiple times before calmly walking out the main front door of the Quonset and confronting another RCMP officer, auto-theft investigator Stephen Vigor, who had arrived minutes earlier.

Roszko got off two shots at Vigor, both of which missed and smashed into a nearby police cruiser.

Vigor, court has heard, dropped into a shooter’s crouch, put two hands on his 9-mm gun, and fired twice. Gunn said Vigor’s shot went right through the left wrist of the arm in which Roszko was holding the rifle, hit the grip and stopped. Vigor also blasted Roszko in the right thigh, just above the kneecap, shattering the femur.

Roszko still managed to limp back into the shed, sit down on the dirt floor and prop his back up against a Pepsi crate near the door. Court has heard evidence that he then shot himself through the heart.

Gunn said the force of that blast was so great the bullet blew out Roszko’s back and damaged the Winchester rifle still slung over his shoulder.

“The round continued its path behind him and went into the Pepsi crate.”

Gunn said all the officers except Schiemann, who was in plainclothes, were wearing their soft Kevlar-cloth body armour.

Roszko’s bullets pierced the armour easily, he said, to kill Gordon and Johnston. The fatal shot on Myrol was to the head.

“The rifle shots all penetrated the vests,” he said.

The inquiry has yet to hear about the sequence of events in the Quonset, but it’s believed that Roszko was hiding behind a white vat near the front door when the four officers entered.

It appears he waited patiently for the men to get well into the dimly lit structure before springing his ambush.

All four officers were dead within seconds, a coroner has told the inquiry.

Gunn said 19 spent shells were found from Roszko’s rifle on the scene, 11 of which a coroner said hit the officers.

Earlier Tuesday, firearms investigator Sgt. Dale Baumgartner said a trace of Roszko’s weapons revealed a man who had ignored gun laws, rules and regulations throughout his life.

Baumgartner said he examined eight weapons, the three that were on Roszko that day and another five hidden in the Quonset hut.

The murder weapon, he said, was made in Germany, sent to dealers in Virginia and Massachusetts, then sold to a man in Sangudo, Alta., near Roszko’s home. Relatives, he said, told police that Roszko bought the gun from the Sangudo man sometime in the 1980s.

The gun was later deemed prohibited in Canada, but Roszko didn’t report it or register it.

Baumgartner said the Beretta pistol tucked in Roszko’s pants was bought in Utah and smuggled to Canada by Roszko in the 1990s. The Winchester rifle was given to him hours before the shooting by Shawn Hennessey and Dennis Cheeseman.

Of the remaining five weapons found in the Quonset — four rifles and a shotgun — two were bought in Canada and three were reported stolen from a cabin in nearby Barrhead.

At the time of the murders, Roszko, 46, was under a court-ordered prohibition from owning firearms.

The inquiry has already heard that Roszko was known locally as a violent, dangerous loner.

Insp. James Hardy, the lead investigator on the case, told the hearing Monday that when Roszko learned police were dismantling his grow-op and auto parts chop shop, Roszko phoned his mother, Stephanie Fifield, in a panic.

Hardy said Fifield told him that Roszko told her “Please pray for me, and referred to funds left for her in a trailer (along) with a will.”

“The consistent theme of the conversation (from Roszko) was, ”I’m in some kind of trouble and I’m looking for a way out,“ said Hardy.

Judge Daniel Pahl is to hear testimony for the rest of the week and on Feb. 1. His recommendations on how to make officers safer in the future will come sometime after that.