A Kick at the Door, a Knife in the Hand: The Saskatchewan Murders

A Kick at the Door, a Knife in the Hand: The Saskatchewan Murders

JAMES SMITH CREE NATION, Saskatchewan — The hunt for the killer behind the rampage that killed 10 people in Western Canada ended on Highway 11, a rural Saskatchewan roadway surrounded by dusty fields.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police had run the fugitive’s stolen white truck off the road after chasing it at speeds of more than 90 m.p.h. Then they surrounded the suspect and captured him.

It was over.


Four days after the tight-knit community was horrified by the spasm of brutality, Myles Sanderson was in police custody. On the Indigenous reserve where most of the violence played out, residents rejoiced at the news. But their celebration at the prospect of a killer facing justice was short-lived.

Hours after the arrest, the authorities issued a stunning announcement: Mr. Sanderson had died in police custody under unexplained circumstances. A knife had been found in the truck after his arrest, they said, and it appeared that he was in “medical distress.”

As the sun set Wednesday, visitors could still see skid marks from the car chase on the road where the suspect was caught, and police lights flashing on a quiet prairie night.

The reserve and the community around it in the western Canadian province of Saskatchewan are no strangers to crime, even murder, much of it tied to the crystal meth trade, residents say. But the authorities there have rarely seen anything like the events that began in the predawn hours Sunday, when Myles, 32, and his brother Damien, 31, embarked on the attacks, which also wounded 18.

Hundreds of police officers scoured 13 separate crime scenes for evidence and dozens of witnesses were interviewed. All the while, the officers were conducting a manhunt for the brothers. Damien was found stabbed to death on Monday.


As investigators proceed, the outline of what happened at the reserve, James Smith Cree Nation, has begun to fill in. More questions are being answered. The police, for example, now believe that Myles, long a community outcast, killed most of the victims, aided by his brother. Many in the community also believe they know what happened to Damien: Myles, they say, appears to have killed him for trying to end the rampage.

But with both brothers dead, many questions may never be answered, especially the biggest: Why?

“We may never have an understanding of that motivation,” said Assistant Commissioner Rhonda Blackmore, the chief officer of the mounted police in Saskatchewan.

But one thing is clear: It all began around 5:40 a.m., as many in the Indigenous reserve were still asleep.

Residents recall waking up to the news that Myles Sanderson, a parolee who was six foot one and 240 pounds, and had a well-demonstrated appetite for fighting, was kicking down doors and stabbing people. As panic and fear spread across the reserve, residents fetched their guns and barricaded their doors with tables and chairs.


Tyrel Sanderson said the day began with frantic calls from his mother and other family members. They wanted to make sure he was all right. “They told me that there was a mass murder happening,” he recalled.

Tyrel knew Myles Sanderson, a relative and old schoolmate — the whole reserve did. A high school dropout, he had 59 criminal convictions and a long history of substance abuse.

“He was the kind of person people stayed away from,” Tyrel said.

Theories have swirled around the community about what set Mr. Sanderson off that day, but Tyrel said he suspected that drugs, alcohol and gang-related violence had played a role, a refrain heard across the reserve.

“These acts of violence have to stop and they have to stop now,” the reserve’s chief, Wally Burns, said on Thursday, struggling for words. “We’re going to protect our community, fight against drugs and alcohol.” He called on the province and the federal government to establish an Indigenous police force on the reserve, to expand substance abuse programs and to set up a long-term recovery center.


Residents of the reserve said Mr. Sanderson, who was released from custody earlier this year, had fought with many people in the community. Known as a grudge holder, he appeared to be settling scores on Sunday, though some of his victims appear to have been chosen at random.

Among the people he killed was Earl Burns, 66, a veteran and bus driver whose daughter was Mr. Sanderson’s common-law wife. It was the second time Mr. Sanderson stabbed him; the first was in 2015.

On Sunday, residents say, after he was stabbed, Mr. Burns managed to board his yellow bus and head to the village for help, but did not make it. His bus veered off the road into a ditch.

Myles and his common-law wife had five children, and according to his court records, he had repeatedly abused and threatened her. The Parole Board of Canada ordered him not to contact her or the children, but he appeared determined to get back together with her after prison.

Mr. Sanderson attacked other residents of the reserve, among them Gloria Burns, 61, one of six members of the same extended family to lose their lives in the rampage. Ms. Burns, who counseled people dealing with drug and alcohol problems and had raised five adopted children as a single mother, was reported to have been killed coming to the aid of others.


Lana Head, 49, a security guard and mother of two daughters, was also among the dead.

In all, nine people were killed on the reserve, the oldest of them retirees and the youngest age 23. In the village part of the reserve, one or both brothers killed people in two homes, then forced their way into a house nearby. There they found a man with his 1-year-old son, and made him hand over the keys to his black Nissan S.U.V.

The next stop was Weldon, a sleepy village of 160 people about a 20-minute drive from the reserve. It is unclear whether Damien went to Weldon — his body was later found on the reserve dead from wounds that the police said were not self-inflicted. But however it happened, in Weldon, there was another killing.

There, in a home at the end of a quiet street, Wesley Petterson became the last victim. He was also the oldest. At age 78, he was known as an avid bird lover and an advocate for tree preservation. Anna Ballingall, a neighbor and friend who lives a few doors down, said Mr. Petterson had lost his wife to cancer and a daughter to a car accident.

Ms. Ballingall herself appears to have had a close call. When she arrived home after spending the night at the care facility where she works, she discovered that her garage door had been tampered with. When she called the police, she said, she was told it was likely that Mr. Sanderson had tried to break in. The police say that Mr. Sanderson appeared to have been injured and that he broke into a car in Weldon and stole a first aid kit.


“My biggest fear used to be running into a bobcat at night,” Ms. Ballingall said, standing outside her house, next to her large garden of squash and tomato plants. “It’s taken our innocence.”

On Thursday, at a news conference on the reserve, Darryl Burns, whose sister Gloria was among the dead, brought Damien Sanderson’s widow, Sky Cloud Sanderson, up to the microphone and asked her to accept the forgiveness of the community for her husband’s role in the killings.

“Damien was caught up in a life,” Mr. Burns said. “Damien was caught up in a moment.”

Sky Cloud Sanderson broke down in uncontrolled sobbing.

Ivor Wayne Burns, a community elder who was also a brother of Gloria Burns, said he forgave the killers.


“We forgive them,” he said, “because if we don’t, our anger will turn to hate and resentment and we will never heal. To move on, we have to forgive them boys.”

Ian Austen and Dan Bilefsky reported from James Smith Cree Nation, Saskatchewan and Vjosa Isai from Toronto.

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