Mass murders stun Alberta’s experts

Broken-hearted Albertans and seasoned police officials have been left shaking their heads and acknowledging they have never seen anything like this before.

Murder after murder. Victim after victim. Six people were wounded and one killed in a house-party shooting in Southwest Calgary. It happened just five hours into 2015, mere days after a man gunned down seven family members in their Edmonton home. The shooter in the latter case, Phu Lam, who had also killed a woman at a different location, eventually turned the gun on himself, pushing the death count to nine. That made it the worst mass murder in Edmonton’s history – in Alberta’s history, too.

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And that has left both the public and law-enforcement workers wondering why – why the rash of multiple murders when Canada’s crime rate, including homicides, has been on the decline?

“It reminds me of Baltimore, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, but it’s in our backyard,” said Bill Pitt, an Edmonton-based criminologist who teaches at Grant MacEwan University.

Last April, five people, some of them University of Calgary students, were stabbed to death at a house party – the worst mass murder in the city’s history. The alleged killer, Matthew de Grood, had never been a problem at school or work. His father, Doug de Grood, is an inspector with the Calgary police.

Still reeling from those deaths, Calgarians were stunned two months later by the disappearance of eight-year-old Nathan O’Brien and his grandparents, Alvin and Kathy Liknes. All three remain missing despite Douglas Garland being charged with two counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder.

Mr. Garland’s next court appearance is set for May 19; Mr. de Grood’s will be on March 2.

The irony in all this bloodletting is that the national crime rate has been on a continuous downturn. Statistics Canada has stated the country’s homicide rate in 2013 fell to 1.44 victims for every 100,000 people, the lowest level since 1966. The overall number of homicides has gone from 610 in 2009 to 505 in 2013.

In Alberta, Edmonton’s crime rate was up slightly last year – 1.4 per cent – due mostly to auto thefts and property crime. Its homicide count for 2014 was 30. That was a sizeable reduction from the 48 murders recorded in 2011, the record highest count in the provincial capital.

Calgary’s worst total was 34 homicides in 2008, a year marked by an upsurge in gang-related attacks. The city had 30 murders in 2014, but police officials say the number of incidents is virtually the same as the year before. Police admit it is difficult for Calgarians to understand how safe their city is when they’re witness to such horrific crimes involving multiple victims.

“Gun violence is on the decline,” Calgary Duty Inspector Quinn Jacques said during his New Year’s Day media briefing. He quickly added, “I know it sounds difficult to appreciate that.”

Why Alberta’s two largest cities were hit by mass murders last year is a subject open for debate. Possible motives have ranged from mental illness to unquenchable rage to domestic violence taken to the extreme. In police profiling, the killers are most often male and 80 per cent of the time known to victims.

Prof. Pitt is convinced there are similar personality traits as well.

“It’s like there’s Act 1, 2, 3, and the finale act is suicide. I think he goes out with a smile,” Prof. Pitt said of such perpetrators. “It was, ‘I’ve lost her [the wife], the house, the kids. I’m not getting any of this.’ It is narcissism and psychopathy [a personality disorder that brings out anti-social behaviour and a lack of remorse]. They’re aggrieved and they believe they have to do something about this. They blame everything on everybody else. They feel justified in what they’re doing.”

Calgary Police Service has various programs dealing with prevention and education, early intervention and treatment and enforcement. The idea is to work with kids and keep troubled youth from making the wrong decisions. Edmonton has community action teams consisting of police officers and social workers who spend time in neighbourhoods trying to keep good kids from going bad.

“What is going on is concerning,” said Kelly Sundberg, the former chair of the Department of Justice Studies at Mount Royal University. “They may be freak occurrences, but we can’t have two mass murders in the same year. There needs to be attention brought to this.”

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