The RCMP officer who shot Peter de Groot in a cabin near Slocan in 2014 has spoken out for the first time publicly at a B.C. Coroner’s inquest on Oct. 1.
Brian Burke, who has since retired, was called to Slocan as part of an RCMP emergency response team after de Groot disappeared into the forest following an altercation with police on Oct. 9, 2014, at his residence.
Now-retired RCMP officer Robert Courcelles, the only other officer present at de Groot’s death, also testified in a Nelson courtroom during the inquest proceedings on Oct. 4.
The inquest began on Sept. 27 and is expected to wrap up on Oct. 6. This article covers only the testimony given on Oct. 1 and the morning of Oct. 4.
Under the Coroners Act, inquests are mandatory for any deaths that occur while a person was detained by or in the custody of a police officer.
The job of a coroner’s jury is to make recommendations with the aim of preventing future loss of life in similar circumstances. They determine circumstances of a death and how it occurred, but do not assign guilt or blame. The process is not a prosecution and there is no accused.
The inquest is being live streamed at https://bit.ly/3AmEI5T.
Burke was a police dog handler and arrived in Slocan with a dog. On the day de Groot was shot, many police officers had left the area and a small emergency response team, including Burke and Courcelles, was left to look for de Groot.
On Oct. 13, Burke and Courcelles drove up a mountain road to take the police dog for a run, after which they drove further up the same road to get the lay of the land in case it could be helpful in the search for de Groot.
They saw a cabin and decided to search it, as police had been doing with many buildings in the woods in the last few days.
They approached not through the meadow in front of the cabin but from the forest, to attract less attention, Burke said. He had an M-16 assault rifle and the dog; Courcelles had a shotgun.
Asked later why he and Courcelles did not call out to the cabin or announce their police presence, Burke said, “I did not believe there was anyone in the cabin.”
Courcelles said he was not familiar with a police operations plan with regard to de Groot. Coroner’s counsel John Orr produced the plan and indicated that if encountering de Groot they were to “challenge (announce police presence), and then give appropriate commands.”
Courcelles said they made no challenge until they were standing at the door of the cabin.
There was no cell service in the area and they were out of range of police radios. Asked why he decided to enter the cabin without communication capability and no back-up, Burke said, “I joined the RCMP in 1987, and I have worked in remote places with no radio or phone and no backup. I have been in that situation countless times.”
Burke took up a standing position at the left of the cabin door. Courcelles, standing to the right of the door, reached over and opened it and called out “police.” Burke said he looked inside and saw a gun barrel, inside the door, pointed out the door, and he recognized de Groot propped on his elbows in a “prone sniper position” with a high-powered military rifle.
Burke said he saw the rifle barrel move upward to aim toward him.
“I knew there was a threat, I saw the barrel coming on to me,” he said. “I knew what he had been alleged to have done earlier on the weekend (shot at police). I thought: am I justified to do this? I knew my life was in danger. I pulled the trigger once then backed away from the door … He did not shoot back.”
Burke said he tripped and fell backwards. Courcelles said the blast from the gun deafened him and he had no idea who had fired. He saw Burke’s feet protruding around the corner of the building from his fall, and assumed Burke had been shot.
Courcelles did not walk in front of the door, thinking he might be shot, and instead walked down the side of the cabin to the back where he saw another door which was ajar, and two windows. He stayed to the side thinking he would be shot if he went in front of the door or windows. He saw the police dog push open the partly open door and go in.
Burke recovered from his fall, walked down the other side of the cabin to find Courcelles at the back, and told him what had happened.
Burke directed his dog, which had come back out, to go into the cabin and apprehend de Groot. Burke said he could hear “noise and the sound of things falling, and I could hear the dog exerting himself. My thought was that he was pulling de Groot toward us (at the back door).”
Courcelles testified that he thought the sounds might be someone barricading the cabin, but also said it could have been the dog.
Burke, meanwhile, went around the building to the front door, looked in and saw a rifle and eye glasses on the floor just inside the door but not de Groot, then went around to the back again. He could see the dog had pulled de Groot to the back door.
A photo presented to the jury shows de Groot lying in the floor just inside the back door.
Courcelles handcuffed de Groot. Burke said he believed de Groot was dead. Asked if he gave first aid to de Groot, Burke said they did not.
Burke, momentarily unable to speak, had to collect himself before telling the jury, “This is something I had not anticipated would happen in my career, and it did.”
Burke left Courcelles and went back to their vehicle to try to radio for help but found that there was no signal. He came back with a medical bag from the truck and then left to drive for medical help.
Courcelles testified that he did not give de Groot any first aid because he could not see a wound or any blood. He did a cursory check for injuries. He said he was terrified because he thought de Groot might have had an accomplice. He checked the loft in the one-room cabin and found no one, but felt he had to keep watch on both doors for his own safety.
Asked why he thought there might be an accomplice, he said there had been Facebook posts by people professing solidarity with de Groot. He said police work always involves expecting more people than may be obvious at first.
He hog-tied de Groot to keep him immobile if he regained consciousness, and put him in a recovery position. He said he found a pulse on checking once, but checked later and could not feel one. He was uncertain of the timing of these pulse checks.
Asked if he used two types of specialized bandages he had with him, he said he did not because “there was no visible wound to treat.” He said he and Burke did not discuss what they should do to treat de Groot or save his life.
Don Sorochan, the de Groot family’s lawyer, showed Courcelles photos take later in the day on Oct. 13 of what he said was blood on de Groot’s hoodie and on a piece of plywood, to which Courcelles replied that he had not seen this when he was in the cabin.
An ambulance attendant arrived and pronounced de Groot dead.
The Independent Investigations Office (IIO), which investigates cases in which someone dies or is injured in a contact with a police officer, was called in.
Burke said he received legal advice not to talk about the incident and not to give a statement to the IIO, and he had limited conversations with his RCMP superiors about it.
He told the jury this was to shield him from future legal action or criminal charges.
“I would have preferred to talk frankly to (his superiors), to the family, to the IIO, and to the media,” he said, adding that this inquest, to which he received a summons, was the first time he has spoken publicly about the incident. He offered his condolences to the de Groot family.
Courcelles gave a statement to the IIO shortly after de Groot’s death.
The B.C. Police Act states that an officer must cooperate fully with an IIO investigation, but there is complex and contested law around the details of this, Sorochan told the Nelson Star.
Courcelles told the jury that even in the hours and days immediately following the incident, Burke would not discuss it with him. He said he and Burke have never talked about their experience at the cabin to this day.
Burke and Courcelles were both asked about contusions found on de Groot’s head. Both said they had no idea of the cause. Asked if they had struck him, both said they had not.
Asked about evidence from one pathologist that de Groot had been shot in the back, Burke said he had been told this by an IIO investigator.
“I was stunned that there was medical evidence contrary to reality, that he was shot in the back,” he said.
Four pathologists examined de Groot’s body after his death. Two told the IIO that he had been shot from the front, and two said from the back. All four were set to testify starting Oct. 5.