Depending on whom you talk to, Derek Jensen was either a great friend or an angry, violent man. But nobody – not even those who saw both sides of him – would have predicted the 21-year-old who had recently been through paramedic training to start a career saving lives would end three of them, and almost take a fourth, before killing himself last week on a darkened stretch of Alberta highway.
“It is obviously very difficult for me to sit at home and watch the news and hear people saying that he was a ‘great guy’ and ‘so nice’ and such, but to his family and friends, I'm sure that's how he was,” said Cait McFarland, who was a friend of Tabitha Stepple, one of Mr. Jensen’s victims. “To her and me, though, he was very, very different.”
Mr. Jensen was raised in the Mormon faith in southern Alberta. He played football. He got decent grades. He enjoyed hunting and target practice. He was planning to uproot from his home in Lethbridge, about 220 kilometres southeast of Calgary, to move to work in Edmonton, where he studied at Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. His family still lives in Lethbridge, but his relationship with his girlfriend, Ms. Stepple, had ended, although they still shared a basement apartment there together.
Mr. Jensen planned to move on by moving north. He was supposed to head to Edmonton last Thursday. Instead, he ran into Ms. Stepple at a local pub the night before. It was an ugly encounter – another in a series of signs of his percolating rage – that could have sparked a deadly plan.
According to police, Mr. Jensen got into his Pontiac Sunfire carrying three loaded weapons: a Heckler & Koch 9 mm handgun, a 12-gauge shotgun and Winchester rifle. He would spot Ms. Stepple’s Ford Escape, filled with passengers bound for the Calgary airport, as well as a friend who was along for the ride. Around 3 a.m., just north of Claresholm along Highway 2, Mr. Jensen rammed the SUV and shot its occupants before shooting himself.
Tanner Craswell, 22, and Mitch MacLean, 20, both baseball players with the Lethbridge Bulls who were originally from Prince Edward Island, and Ms. Stepple, 21, were killed. Mr. Craswell’s girlfriend, Shayna Conway, 21, also a PEI native, was the sole survivor. She was to undergo another surgery on Monday in Calgary. She’s expected to make a full recovery.
Mr. Jensen’s family has not responded to requests for interviews, but have issued a statement: “We extend our heartfelt condolences to the friends and families of those affected by this tragedy and thank those who have contacted us with their support. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families suffering at this time.”
Mr. Jensen’s friends have spoken glowingly of the young man they knew.
Travis Fay told the Calgary Herald it would “take something incredibly horrible to make him even get in a fistfight.” Another friend, Ryley Mitschke, told the newspaper that “you could trust him with anything.”
In an e-mail exchange, Ms. McFarland said she gained a different perspective in the past year as she watched her friend’s relationship with Mr. Jensen blossom and then sour.
“I really think I saw a side of Derek that not many people did,” she explained, “I loved him when I first met him, but after they moved in together he really changed.”
She recalled a man who would scream, swear and threaten to beat Ms. McFarland. She said he put his fist through a window and punched a dent in his car. The weekend before the shootings, Mr. Jensen “slammed [Ms. Stepple]against the wall in his room and that's when she told him to get out,” Ms. McFarland recalled.
City police said they had no encounters with the couple. No domestic violence was ever reported.
On a social networking website, Ms. Stepple once noted, “I am SICK of getting hurt by guys.” It’s unclear what she meant by it or when she wrote it.
On Wednesday night, the friends were celebrating Mr. Craswell’s 22nd birthday when they ran into Mr. Jensen at the Blarney Stone pub. He was also out with friends for his own farewell party.
That’s where Mr. Jensen shoved Ms. Stepple and followed it up with threatening phone calls.
“He was supposed to move to Edmonton Thursday morning,” Ms. McFarland said. “That's why we didn't call the police after he pushed her at the Stone. He left, and we thought Tab would be driving all night and get home either just before he left or miss him entirely.”
Ms. Stepple’s funeral will be held on Wednesday at the Evangelical Free Church in Lethbridge. An obituary lauded her as a “role model to us all, very mature for her age, dealt with life in an admirable way, wouldn’t show fear, and a mommy’s girl and daddy’s girl.”
A memorial game of catch was played outside Colonel Gray High School in Charlottetown on Monday to honour the up-and-coming baseball players.
Mr. MacLean’s funeral service is set for Thursday at Winsloe United Church, outside of Charlottetown, and Mr. Craswell’s is on Friday at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Charlottetown. According to a local media report, a private funeral is planned for Mr. Jensen.