Like most Canadians, I had never heard of Mayerthorpe when I got an urgent phone call on the morning of March 3, 2005, to drive out there as quickly as possible. Rumours were swirling that several RCMP officers had either been shot or were being held hostage near the small Alberta farming community located about 130 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.
At the time, I had been The Globe and Mail's Edmonton correspondent for only five months, and I still needed a map to get just about anywhere. Only a few short hours later, the entire country would know exactly where Mayerthorpe was, after news broke that four young Mounties had been killed by a lone gunman, James Roszko.
The shocking crime immediately made headlines around the world and would go down in history as Canada's worst police mass killing. Constables Brock Myrol, 29, Anthony Gordon, 28, Leo Johnston, 32, and Peter Schiemann, 25 (who was out of uniform and unarmed), were shot while investigating and securing Roszko's property after a small automobile chop shop and a marijuana grow op were discovered there a day earlier. Roszko, a known cop-hater, killed himself after police wounded him.
The Mayerthorpe Story: From Ambush to Aftermath, by Robert Knuckle, meticulously weaves together dozens of interviews and extensive research to chronicle the story from the killings to the court proceedings earlier this year involving two young men convicted of helping Roszko carry out his deadly plot.
While seemingly every detail of the high-profile case has already been dissected and debated, including in the media, and even a television movie, the book - surprisingly, the first on this topic - breaks a lot of new ground by also telling one side of the story that has largely been missing: that the Mounties.
Knuckle, based in Dundas, Ont., has written about the RCMP in the past and is liked and well known in cop circles. He has earned their trust and many officers connected to the Mayerthorpe case spoke candidly and openly to him. Some had never granted interviews before. This unprecedented access helped him fill in important gaps in the story that have long gone unanswered, including an almost minute-by-minute breakdown of RCMP operations on the day of the shootings.
Not surprisingly, Knuckle is extremely sympathetic to the Mounties' long-held argument that Roszko was a madman and little could have been done differently to prevent the massacre. However, from Day 1, the public, and even some retired RCMP officers, have asked hard questions about how one man, a known cop-hater, was able to ambush four well-trained Mounties.
After the killings, former members of the Mayerthorpe RCMP detachment told reporters that Roszko was not only a constant and well-armed threat to the community but also to them. None of these troubling allegations are explored by Knuckle. Instead, he writes: "Roszko had a reputation of being nasty and threatening with everyone - everyone except the police."
Nonetheless, the officers' insider accounts are intriguing and often poignant. Many considered the slain Mounties not only colleagues but friends. They shared a lot with the author, including the fact that on March 16, 2005, one day before the RCMP turned back control of Roszko's property to his family, several officers gathered there to meet privately with the so-called Fallen Four's families. Relatives were walked through the crime and even given a tour of the Quonset hut where their loved ones had been killed days earlier.
They were shown where Roszko had been hiding before he started firing at them with his .308-calibre Heckler & Koch semi-automatic assault rifle, and also where each officer died. One senior Mountie recalled how Peter Schiemann's father, Don Schiemann, a Lutheran minister, said out loud: "Evil is residing here. This is an evil place." Before leaving the large oval-shaped storage shed, the group held a candlelight prayer service.
Knuckle also spoke extensively to the officers' families. Three of them were either married or engaged. The young women were waiting together on March 3 when officers finally came and broke the news about the killings. Each has been deeply scarred by their loss. Anjila Steeves, fiancée of Brock Myrol, even legally changed her last name to Steeves-Myrol.
The latter half of the book probes whether justice was served when two young men were later charged and convicted with helping Roszko. Both are now appealing their lengthy sentences, as well as their original guilty pleas to manslaughter.
While The Mayerthorpe Story finally puts much of the RCMP's side of the story on the record, Knuckle acknowledges a mandatory provincial inquest into the killings will be the last word on what he calls "one of the most violent, lengthy and complex tales of crime and punishment in Canadian history."
The public inquiry can't begin until all the legal proceedings against the two men convicted of assisting Roszko have been completed. That may take years.
Katherine O'Neill is a member of The Globe and Mail's Alberta bureau.