His name was Robert Crawford. And on the morning of October 14, 1988, almost exactly 26 years ago, he terrified this city by going on a shooting rampage at the Alberta Legislature.
Crawford, then 32, was no terrorist. He had no complicated political agenda. His grievance was as personal as it was confused.
Crawford, a father of four, had gone through an unhappy divorce. His ex-wife had remarried the week before, and he was upset about the child custody arrangement. The day before the shooting, he called his ex in Calgary and told her he’d wanted to talk to her “one last time.” She didn’t take his talk of suicide seriously.
Crawford said later that he’d picked the legislature as the site for his attack – really, his attempted suicide-by-cop- because he blamed Social Services for his problems. He said he’d thought about attacking a military base instead, but worried soldiers wouldn’t be ready for him.
On Oct. 14, at 7:05 AM, Crawford arrived at the front doors of the legislature, armed with a 30-30 Winchester rifle.
He was greeted by Commissionaire Herb Bushkowsky, who was then 64, a Second World War vet and a retired pastor.
“Do you have a problem?” Bushkowsky asked, as he watched the man load shells into his gun.
“Several,” Crawford responded.
Bushkowksy later recalled that he locked the door and called 911.
For the next hour or so, Crawford prowled through the Legislature grounds, warning away bystanders, but attempting to provoke security guards and the police into a shoot-out.
Olds-Didsbury MLA Roy Brassard later testified that he hadn’t taken Crawford seriously, the first time the man asked him to “vacate the front of the building immediately.”
Instead, Brassard simply walked to his car to get his office keys. Only then, did he realize that Crawford was armed with a rifle.
“He was very much in control and in charge, as if he should be there,” Brassard later testified. “He seemed to be a person in command of what he was doing.”
Crawford shot out some Legislature windows.
Then, he realized there was another way into the building. He found the stairway into the underground pedway, beneath the reflecting pool, the one connecting to the legislature. No one had thought to secure the door.
Suddenly, Crawford had come up the spiral staircase near the front security desk and int0 the legislature’s marbled rotunda.
Police ordered him to put down his rifle. Instead, Crawford fired at one officer, Const. David Shreve, and missed.
Shreve and Constable Glen Kipping took cover. Then, they heard another officer, Constable Mark Denouden, fire his gun. Shreve and Kipping realized Crawford had his weapon aimed at Denouden.
“Put your gun down,” Denouden yelled – according to a police audio tape, played at trial. “Put it down, we don’t want to shoot you. Mr. Crawford, throw the gun down.”
He didn’t. Instead, Shreve fired four shots. Kipping fired three. Crawford fell to the floor.
While they waited for paramedics to arrive, Denouden cradled Crawford’s head in his own arms, and wept, asking Crawford why he’d done it, assuring him that police hadn’t wanted to shoot him.
A paramedic testified at trial that Crawford had taped two notes to his arms, refusing all medical treatment, and declaring his intention to die.
It didn’t work out that way.
Crawford survived, but the bullets destroyed his kidney and severed his spine, leaving him without the use of his legs and in a wheelchair.
It later emerged that one of the four rounds left in his rifle, three were blanks.
No one died that day – although one of the officer had minor fragment wounds in his leg.
At trial, Mr. Justice Edward MacCallum found Crawford not guilty of three charged of attempted murder.
“The whole business is so bizarre, I have given up trying to decide what was going on in his mind,” MacCallum said as he passed sentence. He did, however, sentence Crawford to four years, for assault, pointing a firearm, discharging a firearm, and possession of a dangerous weapon.
In light of the news from Ottawa Wednesday morning, the shooting incident at the Alberta legislature, all those years ago, seems weirdly innocent and tame – as does the sentence that Crawford received at the time.
But one one of the big heavy metal elevator doors in the Legislature lobby, you can still see the holes made by the bullets that flew that day – a reminder that Canadian legislatures have been targets of gun violence before, and a reminder, too, that angry and suicidal young men get angry and suicidal for reasons that can be hard for the rest of us to fathom.
Edited at 1:26 pm MDT to add the following:
It’s worth noting, that the 1988 incident wasn’t the first time an angry gunman had entered Alberta’s legislature, on a mission of personal vengeance. On the morning of October 27, 1977, an armed man, Guenter Hummel, 38, dressed in a green suit and carrying a long gun wrapped in a blue plastic garment bag, entered the office of cabinet minister Horst Schmid. Schmid wasn’t there: he was undergoing gall bladder surgery. But the minister wasn’t Hummel’s target. He was there to make good on past threats to kill his ex-girlfriend, 21-year-old Victoria Breitkreusz. The couple had lived together briefly, until Breitkeusz left the relationship.
Perhaps alarmed by the approach of an unarmed commissionaire, Hummel fired a shot, which went wide. Then he shot and killed Breitkreusz. Then he killed himself.
Given how little we still know about what happened in Ottawa today, or about the identity, motives or ideologies of the dead gunman, I don’t want to draw any parallels between the two Alberta incidents and what happened on Parliament Hill. But we also shouldn’t immediately assume that today’s events are utterly unprecedented, or that angry disturbed men only kill for political or religious reasons. While we wait for more news and more clarity, let’s just remember that the world is an uncertain place – and that we can do ourselves and our body politic injury by jumping to conclusions driven by prejudice or fear.