ÎYÂRHE NAKODA – A public inquiry into the death of an Îyârhe Nakoda man, shot and killed during the execution of a warrant by RCMP in 2017, questioned five witnesses to help determine if similar deaths can be prevented from occurring in the future.
Justice Gord Wong and counsels representing Alberta Justice and the RCMP heard accounts of the day’s events from four officers and a civilian witness to the incident in the Alberta Court of Justice from May 2-4.
Ralph Lorne Stephens, 27, was fatally shot by an RCMP Emergency Response Team (ERT) officer Jan. 7, 2017, on a rural property in Mînî Thnî. RCMP, the agency’s Major Crimes Unit and ERT members arrived at the residence to arrest Stephens, his brother John, 35, and Deangelo Powderface, 28, as suspects in the brutal killing of Lorenzo “Billy” Bearspaw.
Two of the three suspects were arrested without incident with Powderface later turning himself in, but Stephens was killed after first shooting at police in the basement of the rural home and then exiting a window with a firearm and pointing it in the direction of an officer.
Cpl. Jesse Gawne, a police dog handler involved in the incident, testified in court that he’s thought about the call numerous times and whether it could have played out differently.
“When he came out with that firearm, all I could think is he’s already allegedly killed somebody brutally by beating them to death, he knows police are at the residence – surrounding the residence – and he chose to come out with a firearm,” he said.
“I don’t know how you change the outcome in a circumstance like this. I just don’t have any answer that would be suitable given the gravity of what happened on that day.”
Police arrived at the rural residence on Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation to execute the warrant the day after Bearspaw’s body was found. Bearspaw had been reported missing two days after he was last seen leaving a New Year’s Eve party on Jan. 1 in a vehicle with three other men.
Special Tactical Operations and Police Dog Services discovered Bearspaw’s body, which had evidence of blunt force trauma and multiple stab wounds, three days later. The vehicle Bearspaw was last seen in was also later located abandoned in a ditch.
When officers arrived to search the residence for the three suspects, risk assessment was already deemed high given the nature of Bearspaw’s death and police information that Stephens was in possession of a firearm, despite court-ordered prohibition from being in possession of a weapon. The deployment of ERT to execute the warrant also meant there was potentially a risk to the public as well as police.
RCMP were met by Stephens’ father at the door, where they arrested John from the main floor. Other occupants of the residence on the floor were advised by ERT officers to move to the living room while they secured the area.
At this point, Cpl. Michael Wallace, one of two ERT officers assigned to the role of sniper observer was radioed by team lead Sgt. Brad Malacko to move from their position in the driveway to approach and help search the residence. Wallace said he switched his rifle for a short-barrelled carbine before entering the home.
After officers cleared the main floor, they descended into the basement.
“As we’re descending the stairs, I yelled out ‘police search warrant’ loudly,” said Wallace, who took position looking left down a hallway, while another officer took right. “I heard a person from inside a room on the left yell. I couldn’t hear what was said but I just heard a voice yell and then I heard a loud boom that sounded like a gunshot to me. Then I saw a white flash in front of my face from left to right.”
Officers evacuated the basement and deployed tear gas down the stairs, evacuating all other occupants from the main floor.
Wallace then moved around the exterior of the house to try to establish a position at the rear to barricade operations.
Inquiry counsel Meagan Watts asked Wallace if he had received commands to change position. Wallace told the court that he didn’t, but that procedure didn’t require waiting for commands. He did, however, report to Sgt. Malacko that he was changing positions.
As he was approaching the back of the house, Wallace said he thought he heard another gunshot, and shortly after observed a female, later identified as Kara Twoyoungmen, exiting from a basement window. He told the court he ordered Twoyoungmen to move toward him with her hands up, to which she complied.
“And then behind her, I saw a long, black firearm come out of the same place,” said Wallace. “So, to my vision, it’s coming out from the back of the house. I saw the firearm immediately, and then immediately after that, a male climbed out of the house and then stood up with that firearm in his hands.”
Wallace said he yelled at and ordered the man, later identified as Ralph Stephens, to drop the gun.
“The gun was initially pointed in the direction of the back of the house, away from the house. Then he immediately spun towards me with both his body and the firearm.”
Wallace fired one round from his short-barrelled carbine at Stephens from about 10-15 metres away, fatally wounding him.
He told the court there was no time to radio or indicate to team members that he was about to take the shot.
“There was no time to indicate anything. If I had taken any more than a fraction of a second, he would have shot me and I’d be dead,” said Wallace, adding he had also taken responsibility for the safety of Twoyoungmen, who he had apprehended.
Gawne said after Stephens was shot, the emergency response team formed up around him to provide trauma care.
“Mr. Stephens was on the ground. After moving the firearm away, I believe they got him on a (ballistic) shield as quickly as they could and took him to get some professional medical care at the front of the house,” he said.
Twoyoungmen, who was pregnant at the time of the incident, was the only non-RCMP member to recently testify about the event before the court, though there were other witnesses called to do so.
She said she doesn’t recall seeing officers administer CPR or other immediate medical care after Stephens hit the ground, counter to the testimonies of other witnesses and that of an independent officer review.
Twoyoungmen also called the event “traumatizing,” and said she hadn’t “thought about it in a while.” As such, she did not provide any advice to the court when asked how she thought an event like this could be avoided in the future.
Insp. Blair White, who was tasked with conducting an independent review following the fatality, told the court there is video footage from the incident which supports Stephens receiving emergency first aid measures from ERT members, to then be transferred to the care of a nearby ambulance.
Stephens, however, died from significant injuries as a result of the gunshot wound to his abdomen, causing damage to his internal organs and spinal cord. The 12-gauge tactical shotgun he was carrying was later recovered loaded with three unfired shells and the pump action in the firing position, according to investigators.
The purpose of Insp. White’s review was to provide input on potential contraventions of RCMP’s code of conduct and evaluate the tactics and use of force to determine whether actions taken were appropriate under the circumstances. It also provides findings based on policy or law adherence.
White said the nature of the report is to provide administrative recommendations, not operational. To that end, he told the court his findings would not have changed the outcome of the event.
“The recommendations I provided within this investigation cannot and will not control a subject’s behaviour,” he said. “There was a subject in this event that made a decision to not be compliant, to not allow the police take him into custody and created actions which invoke reactions.”
Powderface and Stephens’ brother, John, later pleaded guilty to manslaughter for their part in killing Bearspaw and were each sentenced to nine years in prison.
An Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) investigation following the incident in 2017 cleared Wallace in the shooting death of Stephens.
“The officer was lawfully placed and acting in the lawful execution of his duty,” stated an ASIRT press release. “In the circumstances, the force used was both reasonable and authorized under the Criminal Code. There being no grounds to believe that an offence was committed by a police officer, no charges will be laid.”
Information heard in court over the course of the inquiry will be compiled into a public report, which will include findings and potential recommendations aimed at preventing similar fatalities where possible.
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.