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‘The hardest call I ever did’: ERT commander testifies at inquest

Coroner’s inquest hears a play-by-play of how events unfolded in Whalley hostage-taking deaths
Black Press Media photo

An RCMP incident that ended in the deaths of a Surrey couple in 2019 was “heart-wrenching” for all involved, the RCMP’s critical incident commander told a coroner’s inquest today (Wednesday, April 17).

Brian White, who was in charge of the Emergency Response Team at the scene, testified at the ongoing inquest into the deaths of Nona Marnie McEwan, 45, and her boyfriend Randy Crosson, 48. They were both killed by police during a hostage-taking in Whalley on March 29, 2019.

White gave a play-by-play account of police operations prior to the shooting.

“This was the hardest call I ever did,” said White, since retired. “This will be with all of us forever.”

The inquest began April 16 in Burnaby at Coroners’ Court on the 20th floor of Metrotower II with coroner Margaret Janzen presiding. It’s expected to run for two weeks, with a jury of four women and a man hearing testimony.

“It was a challenge from the onset. We had limited intelligence to go on, and we had a subject that would not even make himself available to consider alternatives. There’s nothing worse for a critical incident commander to hear what I heard that day, to go from some form of elation hearing that the dove, or the victim, had been rescued and then receiving news a short time later from hospital that that wasn’t the case, she was deceased,” White told the inquest. “It’s heart-wrenching. I feel for the family, feel for the members, feel for the neighbourhood.”

A Surrey-based police watchdog – the Independent Investigations Office – in 2020 found the ERT blameless in the shooting deaths of McEwan and Crosson, whom authorities say was holding McEwan against her will in her rented home. The standoff saw roughly two dozen police vehicles, as well as an armoured vehicle, surround a home in a cul-de-sac near 132A Street and 100A Avenue.

McEwan was killed when she was struck by two police bullets as ERT officers fired on Crosson, who held a large knife to her throat and had “what appeared to be” a gun in his hand. Forensic police later found a “realistic-looking” replica pistol between the bed and the wall. Crosson was pronounced dead at the scene and McEwan died in hospital.

Timeline: How the event unfolded

White said he was called at home and, after a briefing, assumed command at 2:32 a.m. from Surrey RCMP Cpl. Chris Payete, now a sergeant with the Surrey Police Service, who testified Tuesday.

At that point White asked the ERT to “transition in” to an inner perimeter, where nobody else could go in or out. At 2:42 a.m. it was confirmed the outer perimeter was contained and a “frozen zone” was maintained, and the loud-hailer was used on the armoured vehicle in an effort to get those in the house to come out.

At 2:45 a.m., there was a “loud bang heard” coming from the residence. “There was a potential that a bear-banger was thrown out at the police from inside the residence.”

At 2:51 a.m., White recalled, “I changed the mission.”

Initially it was to check on McEwan and arrest Crosson, but added to this was now responding to a weapons charge and “potentially” unlawful confinement.

“No longer did I feel that we were there just to make sure that the victim was OK. We were there to take custody of the victim and ensure that she was out of that residence.”

At 2:54 a.m. White confirmed a warrant was authored to apprehend Crosson, and at 3:06 a.m. a man was seen looking out a front window, pointing what one ERT member said appeared to be a pistol at the police armoured vehicle on the front lawn, and a gas plan “or chemical munitions plan” was formulated.

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At 3:11 a.m., a police negotiator went into the armoured vehicle, and at 3:22 a.m. White approved the chemical munitions plan that if any shots came out into the community these would be deployed “to try to suppress the fire, number one, and gain compliance and hopefully cooperation, number two.”

At 3:31 a.m., he requested a photo of Crosson and made sure all ERT members, including snipers, had it.

At 3:47 a.m. the “inner perimeter” confirmed they heard a female voice inside the house saying she was OK. A robot was sent to deliver a mobile or “throw phone” to the front steps by robot, and at 3:53 a.m. White called for a mental health practitioner.

At 3:57 a.m. he requested Abbotsford Police to send in a second armoured vehicle, and at 4:11 a.m. received an update from the negotiator that a gunshot had been heard at the back of the house at 10:52 p.m. and that six or seven years prior Crosson had “pulled a gun on someone.”

“That was voiced out to all the members in the inner perimeter and the outer perimeter.”

At 4:30 a.m., White was told the robot wasn’t able to climb the stairs, and the ERT was approved to have its robot take over. At 4:55 a.m. the armoured vehicle was readied to push in the front door and let the ERT robot enter the house.

At 5:02 a.m. McEwan’s family told police she would come out if she could and that she’d just broken up with Crosson. One minute later, as the armored vehicle moved to the door, ERT members believed they heard a male voice inside, and at 5:12 a.m., police saw what was thought to be hands moving at a front window.

ERT sent robot inside

At 5:21 a.m., the ERT opened the front door and pushed the robot inside to try to communicate with the occupants, and a pit bull ran out at 5:22 a.m.

Two minutes later police heard a female voice. The phone was dropped inside the residence at 5:31 a.m., and six minutes later a male and female voice were heard and again at 5:46 a.m.

At 6:17 a.m. police heard a male voice. “The words were believed to be either shooting, or shoot me.” At 6:27 a.m. White learned of a message sent at 3:15 a.m. saying “tell those pigs to leave my house or I’m come out and shoot them.”

At 6:57 a.m. the robot heard from the male voice, “You have an hour or I’m going to kill her.”

At 7:10 a.m. “explosive forced entry” was discussed, using a “calculated amount of explosions to gain entry into a crisis point.” White approved this for a window and door. “It was necessary to allow our ERT members to gain tactical advantage as quickly as possible to get into that crisis point and attempt to get compliance, number one, and address what they were faced with, number two.”

At 7:15 a.m. the mental health practitioner opined that Crosson would kill McEwan once the hour was counted down, but at 7:20 a.m. Crosson said “I’m ready for you in five minutes.”

“Having been given an hour countdown and now receiving that information,” White told the inquest, “obviously the adherence to time made me believe that this wasn’t a tactical or calculated countdown, this was an emotional countdown, and to rely on timeliness in this case was not something that I was willing to consider.”

Crosson ‘wanted to die’: mental health practitioner

At 7:23 a.m. the negotiator, still communicating with the mental health practitioner, said the latter indicated it was his opinion Crosson “wanted to die.”

“At that point, I launched the deliberate action plan. I believed it was necessary at that time in any attempt to save the victim in this case,” he said. To do an assault into that room, the ERT would have given Crosson “an opportunity to become compliant and surrender but they were faced, again, with hostile actions and they were forced to react. There was an explosive entry done on the window of that bedroom as well as the door to that bedroom.

“Again, my decision to launch the deliberate action plan on my authority, it was based on safety priorities, that being an attempt to save the victim, the protection of the police officers and the compliance of the subject and stop his actions.”

At 7:24 a.m. multiple shots were fired. White could tell it was two different calibres “just by the magnitude of the audible gunshots.” At 7:25 a.m. he was notified Crosson “was down and cold, which means he was dead, deceased, and that the hostage had been rescued and was in critical condition, and requested EHS proceed Code 3, which is as fast as they can get in.”

At 7:34 a.m. White asked for a roll call, to make sure all police officers were accounted for. At 7:44 a.m. he notified the regional duty officer and requested that a critical incident stress management team. “At 7:53 Surrey Major Crimes attended the scene and I was relieved of duty.”

McEwan died because of Crosson’s actions, IIO found

The IIO concluded McEwan died because of Crosson’s actions, as he held her against her will in her home, threatened her life, “and provoked an armed response from the police aimed at saving her.” His actions, the IIO’s chief civilian director Ron MacDonald said, “made it inevitable that officers would fire on him when they broke into the bedroom, and who held her in front of him as a shield against police bullets.”

Accordingly, he found, “I do not consider that there are reasonable grounds to believe that an officer may have committed an offence under any enactment and therefore the matter will not be referred to Crown counsel for consideration of charges.”

The IIO operates out of Bing Thom’s Central City tower in Whalley and reports to B.C.’s attorney general.

MacDonald noted his report was based, in part, on the statements of 25 “civilian” witnesses, seven paramedics and 38 witness police officers. A toxicology report indicated Crosson had methamphetamine, amphetamine, fentanyl, nor-fentanyl, heroin, ethanol, THC and naloxone in his system.

White said in some 100 similar calls he’s lost “subjects,” but added, “I can honestly say that’s their decision if they chose to take their own lives, whether it be a lone barricade or a suicide barricade, I can rationalize that in my mind because it is them making conscious decisions, maybe not sober decisions, but conscious decisions end-of-life. This was not the case. This will be with all of us forever.”

About the Author: Tom Zytaruk

I write unvarnished opinion columns and unbiased news reports for the Surrey Now-Leader.
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