The Death of John Joseph Harper

The Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission



Chapter 2

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The Activities of J.J. Harper
The Car Chase
The Arrest of the Youth
The Pursuit of Pruden
The Arrest of Pruden
The Shooting
The Aftermath


The Sequence of Events

The Activities of J.J. Harper TOP

John Joseph Harper, a member of the Wasagamack Indian Band in the Island Lake area, was executive director of the Island Lake Tribal Council and a leader in Manitoba’s Aboriginal community. He and his wife Lois had three children. At the time of his death he was 37 years old, had short black hair and wore glasses. He was six feet tall and weighed 185 pounds.

At approximately 8:00 p.m. on the evening of March 8, 1988, Harper, wearing a black cloth jacket, blue jeans and brown cowboy boots, went to the St. Regis Hotel on Smith Street in Winnipeg. At the hotel he spent time drinking with friends, including Joseph Wood, Allan Roulette and Raymond Swan. Later, they were joined by Kathy Bushie, Joyce Williams and Tanya Sinclair. Harper was drinking a mixture of brandy and coffee. At about 10:30 p.m., Harper and some of the others left the St. Regis for the Westbrook Hotel on Keewatin Street in the west end of the city. While he was there, he played pool and drank some more. The evidence is not clear as to how much he drank at the Westbrook but he had at least one beer. When the hotel bar closed, Harper and others went next door to a lounge known as DJ’s, where they spent about another hour. Harper talked with other patrons and danced with Bushie, who observed Harper consume at least one more beer. When the lounge closed at 2:00 a.m., everyone left for home.

It is clear that Harper drank to excess that evening. His blood alcohol level at the time of his death at 3:30 a.m. was .22, almost three times the level of legal impairment for drivers. Bill Pryor and Carol Sever, employees of DJ’s, testified that Harper had been acting aggressively that evening. Sever testified that Harper was "spoiling for a fight." Pryor stated that he had to escort Harper out of the bar. Sandra Harrop, another bar employee, could not recall anything unusual. Bushie and Wood, on the other hand, testified that Harper had not been in a belligerent mood and that he had left the bar on his own without assistance.

Harper did have a history of alcohol consumption. Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Peter Markesteyn concluded that Harper likely could consume quite large amounts of alcohol without appearing to be as impaired as someone who did not have a similar history of alcohol consumption.

When they left DJ’s Kathy Bushie offered Harper a ride home and he accepted. Outside the lounge, however, Harper changed his mind and asked her to accompany him in a taxi. She declined and repeated her offer of a ride, which he refused. At that point, Harper walked away in the direction of his home on Elgin Avenue. The time was shortly after 2:00 a.m. TOP


The Car Chase TOP

At around midnight on March 8, a white Dodge Aries, licence plate 244 EKS, was stolen from the parking lot of the Westbrook Hotel by a young Aboriginal male named Melvin Pruden. Pruden was wearing a dark grey, waist-length cloth jacket and light acid-washed jeans, black running shoes, a red shirt and gloves.

Pruden was 19 years of age at the time, 5'9" and weighed 155 pounds. He was a member of the Little Saskatchewan Indian Band of the Interlake region of Manitoba and had been raised there before coming to Winnipeg. He had a grade 11 education and was unemployed. On the night of March 8, he was with his friend Allan and one other individual. Allan was aged 13–a youth as defined in the Young Offenders Act (S.C. 1980—81—82—83, c.110), who should not be identified by us.

Pruden observed the Aries with its motor running. On impulse he decided to kick in the driver’s window and drive away with the car. While Pruden was breaking into the car, Allan and the other person continued walking down the street. Pruden stopped the car on Alexander Avenue near the Westbrook and asked Allan to get in. He did, and he and Pruden began to drive around. The car was reported stolen almost immediately.

Allan and Pruden went "joy riding" but did not go far in the two hours that passed before the police spotted them. At one point Pruden even returned to the Westbrook to purchase beer. They still were cruising in the vicinity of the Westbrook when they were sighted by Const. Robert Cross and Const. Kathryn Hodgins.

Constables Cross and Hodgins had been partners for about three years by March 8, 1988. Hodgins was the senior of the two, having been a member of the force for about nine years at the time, compared to Cross’ four. They were stationed at District 2 Police Station on Lyle Street. They had started their shift at 10:00 p.m. and were scheduled to complete it at 8:00 a.m. on March 9.

They were patrolling in the area of the Westbrook Hotel, having spent the early part of their shift on traffic patrol on Logan Avenue, near Keewatin Street. At around 2:00 a.m. they had issued a speeding ticket to a motorist in the vicinity of the Westbrook. Shortly thereafter, having heard earlier of the theft of the Aries on their radio, they observed the stolen vehicle and gave chase. Cross was driving and Hodgins was designated "the jumper"–the officer who would leave the vehicle should a foot chase occur. The car chase proceeded south on Keewatin to Elgin Avenue, east on Elgin to Worth Street, north on Worth to Alexander Avenue, and east on Alexander to Winks Street.

It had rained earlier in the evening, making the streets slightly icy, although they were free of snow. Possibly because the streets were icy, both vehicles proceeded at speeds of less than 60 kph. Pruden drove through several stop signs and at least one red light in his attempt to elude police. Both Cross and Hodgins testified that they could not see who was in the stolen vehicle.

While the chase was taking place, Hodgins broadcast particulars over the police radio network, including the fact that they were giving chase, the description of the vehicle, traffic violations that occurred, and their location and speed. She did not broadcast a description of the driver or any other person in the car while the chase was in progress. Several other patrol cars monitored the chase. Radio and supervisory personnel at the district stations and the Public Safety Building also heard what was happening. Pruden attempted to turn north from Alexander Avenue onto Winks Street but ran into a snowbank. He and Allan then abandoned the vehicle and fled on foot.

Cross and Hodgins were sufficiently far behind the stolen vehicle when it turned the corner at Winks that they did not actually see it hit the snowbank, but were close enough to see the driver and the passenger when they fled the vehicle. The officers followed the suspects, in the patrol car, into the lane west of Winks between Logan and Alexander until they disappeared between houses. Both officers still were unable to give a description, but they were able to discern that one suspect was shorter than the other. Hodgins broadcast a description of them as two males in dark clothing. The shorter one was seen discarding his jacket. Cross drove into the lane to a position about two houses west of the corner of Winks and Alexander, and jumped out of the police car. TOP


The Arrest of the Youth TOP

Although Cross was driving, he got out of the cruiser and gave chase as the suspects fled between houses on his side of the car. Hodgins backed the car out of the lane onto Winks Street and parked facing Alexander Avenue. She picked up the leather jacket discarded by the youth, checked the stolen car, turned off its motor and noted a case of beer in the car. She returned to the police car and waited for her partner.

Allan had run in a westerly direction down the lane between Alexander and Logan. He saw the policeman start to chase him. He ran through the yard of one of the houses. While crossing Alexander he looked over his shoulder, and saw the police officer slip on the icy street and fall. He heard him yell "stop" or "halt," and saw him reach to the back of his right hip. Allan stopped, believing that the officer was about to draw his gun. In his testimony Cross denied any such intention. Nonetheless, it was the first of several allegations concerning the use of police firearms that night.

Cross caught the youth and took him to the cruiser. Hodgins remarked at the extreme youthfulness of Allan when she first observed him. She stated, "He appeared to me at that time to be possibly nine or ten years of age, dark clothing, dark hair as I had seen."

The questioning of Allan took place with the youth in the back seat of the car, Cross standing beside the passenger side rear door, with the door open, and Hodgins in the driver’s seat.

While she and Cross questioned Allan, Hodgins made notes about what the youth said on a scratch pad rather than in her notebook. She told us that she subsequently lost those notes and had no idea where they were. This was the first of several problems involving police note-taking that occurred that night. Hodgins relayed some of the information she said she received from Allan to central dispatch over the radio and over the car’s computer system, which communicated directly with the main police computer at the Public Safety Building. Hodgins reported that the remaining suspect was "Male, native, black jacket, blue jeans," and stated, "This male is apparently approximately 22 years old." This description is important because it formed the basis for the pursuit of Pruden and ostensibly for the later confrontation with Harper.

Allan testified that he told the officers he did not know what Pruden was wearing and gave them no description of Pruden’s clothing. He gave only a nickname, "Manny," and the age of the driver as being "between 19 and 17." Hodgins broadcast the age as "22" in order, she stated, to provide a fixed figure for the description. Allan said that he did not give that age or description.

Cross moved the cruiser to face west down the lane between Logan and Alexander. There they waited and kept watch. Cross and Hodgins listened to the various radio conversations of the officers who were engaged in the search by then. TOP


The Pursuit of Pruden TOP

Const. William Isaac and his partner, Const. Randy Hampton, arrived on the scene after the search for the suspect had begun. Hampton got out of their patrol car at the intersection of Weston Street and the lane between Logan Avenue and Alexander Avenue, two blocks west of where Pruden and Allan had left the stolen car. Isaac continued to drive around the area, listening to radio transmissions.

Hampton watched the lane and saw a male cross some distance away, and assumed he was the suspect they were seeking. Constables Richard Poneira and Grant Eakin arrived, and were told of the male Hampton had spotted. The three officers agreed that Hampton would proceed on foot down the lane toward the male, while Poneira would proceed parallel to him on the south sidewalk of Logan. Cross and Hodgins’ cruiser was still at the other end of the lane with the suspect between them and Hampton. Eakin positioned his cruiser at the lane facing north towards Logan on Blaine Street and watched Hampton.

After a few minutes Eakin saw Hampton gesturing from a point three or four houses down the lane and heard his radio transmissions. Eakin then drove to Logan and Blaine, where he observed a male walking east down the north side of Logan just west of Electa Street, towards the area where Pruden was. Eakin did not think that that person could be the suspect they were pursuing but he did note what the man was wearing. Eakin testified he could not be sure if the person was Aboriginal. He did not stop to question the man because other officers were calling for assistance in the pursuit. He believed that the male being pursued by Poneira and Hampton at that time was a different person and was the real suspect.

Hampton said he came upon Pruden standing in the lane but said nothing to him. Pruden testified that when he saw Hampton, the police officer was pointing his revolver at him. He stated that he heard Hampton say, "Stop or I’ll shoot," or "Freeze or I’ll shoot." Pruden started to run, believing that Hampton would not fire. He says he then observed Hampton lower his revolver.

Hampton, seeing Pruden run toward Logan Avenue between two houses, radioed Poneira that the suspect was heading his way. Pruden ran across Logan and through Stanley Knowles Park. Poneira chased him across Logan and through the park but Pruden outdistanced him.

Knowing he couldn’t catch Pruden, Poneira broadcast details of the chase. Eakin heard Poneira’s broadcast and drove to Electa Street and Gallagher Avenue.

In the meantime, Hampton had run west down the lane to Blaine Street, then north across Logan. He ran west down Logan toward a railroad crossing just west of Weston in order to see if anyone was crossing. Constable Isaac, who had been circling the area in his patrol car, was at the corner of Electa and Gallagher when he saw Pruden run toward him across Stanley Knowles Park. He backed his patrol car toward where Pruden would cross Gallagher. Poneira broadcast a description of the suspect as a native male, 5'9", slim build, wearing a grey jacket and jeans.

After running through the park, Pruden ran across Gallagher and, upon seeing Isaac’s patrol car backing up along the street, ran between houses on the north side of Gallagher to the back lane. Isaac left the patrol car when Pruden was in the middle of Gallagher and gave chase on foot. Pruden ran up onto a rise or dike at the end of Electa and then doubled back and hid in a back yard. He was apprehended and arrested by Isaac in the back yard of 2037 Gallagher Avenue.

Poneira then arrived and shortly thereafter Eakin drove down the back lane to the point where Isaac and Poneira had Pruden in custody. TOP


The Arrest of Pruden TOP

Pruden testified that he said to the officers, "Took you a while to catch me, eh?" a statement which he felt annoyed the officers. Pruden testified that one officer then grabbed and handcuffed him, and walked him to the back lane where other officers joined them. He stated that an officer slammed him against the hood of the cruiser a couple of times, hitting his head, and called him "a fucking Indian." Pruden identified Isaac as that officer.

The officers related a different version of Pruden’s arrest. Isaac stated that he handcuffed, charged, cautioned and advised Pruden of his rights. He said that he took Pruden by the arm, stood him up, had him turn his back to him and put the handcuffs on with no other officers present. Isaac stated that Poneira helped take Pruden to the cruiser where Isaac placed him up against the front of the car with his legs resting against the vehicle, searched him and removed some cassette tapes and sunglasses. Isaac denied banging Pruden’s head against the hood of the car. Eakin and Poneira stated that they used no force at all. All denied calling him "a fucking Indian" and stated that they did not hear anyone else say those words. Eakin placed Pruden in the back of his patrol car.

The news of Pruden’s arrest was broadcast immediately and there was no suggestion of any other possible suspect. None of the officers in attendance held the slightest doubt that they had arrested the suspect they were seeking.

Constables Danny Smyth and Douglas Hooper arrived at around the time of Pruden’s arrest and observed Hampton on foot near Electa Street and Gallagher Avenue. They stopped briefly to talk with him.

While they were talking to Hampton they heard a gunshot and within a minute they heard Cross broadcast for assistance. Eakin, Poneira, Smyth, Hooper, Isaac and Hampton immediately went in search of Cross. TOP


The Shooting TOP

At approximately 2:37 a.m., Cross left his patrol car and one minute later, while he was still in the back lane, he heard that the suspect had been arrested. Heading toward the place where the suspect had been arrested, he walked from the lane and then across Logan Avenue. He encountered J.J. Harper on Logan, adjacent to Stanley Knowles Park.

Upon seeing Harper, he approached him and asked for identification. According to Cross, Harper replied that he did not have to tell Cross anything. Cross said Harper then started to walk past him. Cross reached out, placed his hand on Harper’s arm and turned him around. At that point, Cross said, Harper pushed him, causing him to fall backward onto the sidewalk. As he fell, he grabbed Harper, pulling him down on top of him. Cross testified that while he was on his back, he struggled with Harper and felt a tugging at his holster. He said that he thought Harper was trying to pull his gun from its holster and, therefore, he reached down to grab his revolver. He said the gun came out of the holster with his and Harper’s hands on it. He testified that he and Harper both were tugging at the gun when it went off. The blast hit Harper in the middle of the chest.

According to Cross, following the discharge of the firearm, Harper straightened up, staggered back a few steps and fell. Cross indicated that it took a while for him to regain his composure. At 2:40 a.m. he radioed for his partner and an ambulance. TOP


The Aftermath TOP

Smyth and Hooper each testified they heard the gunshot while they were speaking with Hampton near Electa Street and Gallagher Avenue. They then heard Cross’ call for assistance. Eakin and Poneira said they did not hear the shot but heard Cross’ radio transmission while driving down Gallagher toward Electa.

Upon hearing the shot, Hodgins, who had remained in her patrol car on Winks Street, rolled up her window, locked the car and ran into the lane where Cross had gone. She shouted for Cross over her radio and then, when she heard Cross’ radio call for assistance, she ran back to the patrol car. There is some discrepancy between her testimony and that of the youth and of other officers from this point on. Allan testified, for example, that he observed Hodgins draw her gun when she heard the shot. She denied this.

Smyth and Hooper were the first officers at the scene. Eakin and Poneira then arrived, followed closely by Hampton and Isaac. Hodgins arrived shortly thereafter. Smyth and Hooper testified to us that Cross said, "He went for my gun and I shot him." They did not have any further conversations with Cross. Smyth and Poneira attended to Harper, who was still alive.

Smyth and Poneira rolled the unconscious Harper over onto his back and loosened his clothing to see if they could find where he had been injured. Poneira found the entry wound in his chest and tried to control the bleeding with the palm of his hand. Smyth got a first aid kit and placed a bandage over the wound, maintaining pressure. Harper became semi-conscious and was moving a great deal, thrashing his arms around. Poneira held Harper’s wrists until the ambulance arrived. Smyth maintained pressure on the wound from the time he returned with the first aid kit until they arrived at the emergency ward at the Health Sciences Centre. He testified that Harper said nothing that he could understand.

The officers observed that Cross was wet and dishevelled, and had gravel and mud on his jacket, shoulders, hair and the back of his legs. He also had snow on his right pant leg and right shoulder. His jacket was partly undone and his revolver was in his right hand, pointed towards the ground. Eakin testified that Cross told him, "I approached him, asked him for I.D. and he hit me, knocked me down and went for my gun, it came out and he got shot." Eakin told Cross it would be best if he went and sat in the car, which he did. According to Hodgins’ testimony to us, she brushed Cross off and he explained to her what happened: "He jumped me, Kath. I was on my back on the ground. He went for my gun."

Allan had remained in the back seat of the cruiser, and he said he thought that when Hodgins and Cross got in, Cross’ glasses were broken. Cross was wearing glasses that night but he told us they did not come off in the scuffle and that it was Harper’s glasses which had been knocked off.

At the inquest Allan testified that he heard Cross say, "I happen to reach for my gun." The youth testified before us that he heard Cross say, "It happened so fast, I pulled the trigger."

Eakin met Isaac behind the car Pruden was in, and instructed him and Hampton to return with Pruden to the stolen vehicle. Eakin said that he and Poneira would secure the shooting scene. Both Isaac and Hampton testified they did not hear Cross say anything, nor did they overhear any conversations prior to leaving the scene. Isaac and Hampton took Pruden into their car and drove back to the stolen vehicle on Winks Street. Isaac charged and cautioned Pruden again. They questioned Pruden about the car theft but not about the shooting.

The First Responder Unit, a fire truck, arrived within minutes but the firefighters were not needed to assist Poneira and Smyth, who already were working on Harper. An ambulance arrived within eight minutes of being called. Eight minutes later, after attendants applied additional first aid and fitted Harper with trauma pants, the ambulance left for the Health Sciences Centre. They arrived at the hospital in three minutes. Smyth rode in the ambulance while Hooper followed in their patrol car.

According to police department policy, Hodgins, as senior officer at the scene, should have taken charge. However, being more concerned for her partner, she did not secure the scene or oversee the gathering of evidence. Nor did anyone else until the arrival of Const. Glen Spryszak, who was an acting sergeant that night.

Police department policy at that time also required that if a civilian were shot by a police officer, a police sergeant should be dispatched to the scene to supervise. One of the responsibilities of the street supervisor was to secure the officer’s handgun.

Spryszak said that, after hearing of the car chase, he was dispatched at 2:38 and arrived at 2:54, after Smyth, Hooper, Hampton and Isaac had left. After speaking with Cross, Spryszak seized the officer’s revolver and placed it in his own holster, and instructed Cross to return to his patrol car to sit with Hodgins. Spryszak spoke to Eakin and Poneira, who gave him a brief account of the chase and shooting. He did not record what they said in his notes. He stated that he kept everyone’s conversation to a minimum as he knew there would be an investigation.

Insp. Eric Hrycyk was in charge of all officers and divisions in Winnipeg that night. He had monitored the radio calls from the time the chase began. Because of the seriousness of what had occurred, he decided to attend the scene and arrived at 3:00 a.m. Hrycyk discussed the shooting incident with a group of officers which included Eakin, Poneira and Spryszak, as well as Constables Graeme McGinnis and Brian Barker, who also had arrived at the scene. He instructed Spryszak to retain the revolver.

Hrycyk spoke to Cross and Hodgins together just outside their cruiser and instructed them to return to the Public Safety Building. The youth was still in Cross and Hodgins’ car at the scene when Cross spoke with both Spryszak and Hrycyk.

The youth testified that he heard a police officer tell Cross, "Don’t say nothing." Allan also testified at the inquest that Hodgins told him, "It was all your fault this happened," and called him a thief, saying, "See what your stealing got you into," and "This is all your fault." The youth, who has blue eyes and light skin, testified that Hodgins then called him a "blue-eyed fucking Indian." Hodgins denied making these comments.

Hrycyk instructed Barker and McGinnis to take the youth from Cross and Hodgins’ vehicle to the Public Safety Building. Unaware that Pruden was in another cruiser, Allan assumed that it was his friend who had been shot.

Isaac and Hampton remained with the stolen car until 3:20 a.m., at which time Barker and McGinnis arrived with the youth and took charge of the stolen vehicle. Isaac and Hampton then went to the Public Safety Building with Pruden. Hrycyk gave instructions to Spryszak, Eakin and Poneira to examine and secure the scene, and instructed Spryszak to canvass the area for potential witnesses. Hrycyk then went to the Health Sciences Centre and, upon learning of Harper’s death, instructed Hooper and Smyth to gather Harper’s personal effects and to notify his family.

Sgt. Robert Parker of the Identification Unit arrived at the shooting scene at 3:30 a.m. to act as identification supervisor. He and Const. Craig Boan measured, photographed and videotaped the scene. They also searched the area and took blood samples.

Boan told us that he discussed with Parker the advisability of fingerprinting the gun but was instructed by Parker not to do so. The gun eventually was turned over to Const. William Kehler, the armaments officer. The scene was washed down by the Fire Department shortly afterward at about 6:00 a.m. Boan returned to the scene later that day at 3:00 p.m. to take photographs and search for further evidence.

While waiting in Hrycyk’s office, Hodgins discussed the shooting with Cross. Cross showed her the blood on his jacket and his boots, and the splotches of blood on his leg. They were teardrop-shaped droplets of blood pointing away from his foot, indicating his foot was elevated when the blood splashed on it.

Upon returning to the Public Safety Building, Hrycyk spoke to Cross and Hodgins together, advising them of Harper’s death. Hodgins requested the presence of Staff Sgt. Norm Wickdahl, president of the Winnipeg Police Association, and Hrycyk gave her Wickdahl’s phone number. Noting Cross’ blood-spattered clothes and boots, Hrycyk instructed Cross to remove them and to take them to the detective office.

Hrycyk notified Staff Sgt. Angus Anderson and detectives Henry Williams and Calvin Osborne. All three went directly to the Public Safety Building, as did the duty executive officer, Supt. McDougall Allen. Hrycyk also phoned Chief Herb Stephen to inform him of the shooting. Hrycyk then asked that Acting Insp. Kenneth Dowson, who was in charge of Crime Division, be called out. Superintendent Allen and Sergeants Anderson and Wickdahl all were briefed by Hrycyk when they arrived around 5:00 a.m. Anderson and Allen then went to the scene of the shooting at about 5:45. An officer from the Post Incident Trauma Unit also was notified of the shooting.

Although Pruden was interviewed by City police on the night of the shooting, the interview was limited to questions pertaining to the theft of the car. It was not until some weeks later that he was questioned about the shooting by Sgt. Wes Border of the RCMP, who was seconded to assist the Crown in preparation for the inquest.

Allan was questioned about the theft and signed a statement on March 9. However, he was not interviewed by police concerning the shooting until March 17, when he was questioned by officers Dave Shipman and Ron Morin about what officers had said at the scene. At that time he signed another statement. (Exhibit 27)

Cross was interviewed by detectives Williams and Osborne in the presence of Wickdahl. Hodgins was not present when Cross was interviewed by Williams and was not questioned by any of the investigators. None of the other officers in attendance at the scene that night was interviewed by investigators.

Hodgins left to go to the communications centre, where she went over the tapes of the radio transmissions to complete her notes. She prepared a special report to the Chief, a supplementary report and her notes that morning with the assistance of her husband, who was also a Winnipeg Police Department member. She did not see Cross again until noon, when he was leaving.

The Harper family was notified of J.J. Harper’s death at 9:30 that morning, seven hours after the shooting and six hours after his death.

At 9:00 on the morning of the shooting, the police department issued a news release which outlined the incident briefly but which did not identify any of those involved. The next day the department’s Firearms Board of Enquiry submitted its report to the Chief, clearing Cross of any wrongdoing. That afternoon, Chief Stephen issued another news release which identified Harper (but not Cross). The release referred to the Board of Enquiry’s finding that "death was precipitated by the assault of the officer by Harper and the subsequent struggle for his service revolver which accidently discharged." Stephen concurred in the board’s finding that there was "no negligence" on the part of the officer.

An inquest into the death was convened by Provincial Court Judge John Enns on April 5. On May 26 Judge Enns issued his written report exonerating Cross. TOP


A - Harper leaves DJ’s B - Pruden arrested C - Harper shot
D - Harper taken to Health Sciences Centre E - Harper’s house

1 - Pruden drives into snowbank
2 - Allan arrested by Cross
3 - Cross and Hodgins park their patrol car
4 - Witness Michael Tymchuk stops and sees officer with gun drawn
5 - Pruden arrested by Constable Isaac
6 - Harper shot

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