Mayerthorpe's Heart of Darkness

IT'S THE STUFF OF FICTION, a Hollywood crime drama played out in the most unlikely of settings. A raid goes badly awry as a loner with a grudge opens fire on police officers who have staked out his farm.

Mayerthorpe's Heart of Darkness

IT'S THE STUFF OF FICTION, a Hollywood crime drama played out in the most unlikely of settings. A raid goes badly awry as a loner with a grudge opens fire on police officers who have staked out his farm. By the time the shooting stops, four young policemen lie dead, as does the gunman, a figure so notorious in his home community that his own father had long ago severed all ties and now denounces his son as "a wicked devil."

Alas, for the 1,600 residents of Mayerthorpe, Alta., this was no afternoon at the flicks. By the time the bullets from James Roszko's assault rifle had taken their deadly toll, Mayerthorpe, neighbouring Whitecourt and the farms and villages in between were thrust into an unwelcome spotlight. As television cameras and tape recorders clicked on, area residents poured forth their grief, outrage and bewilderment. How could such a horrific crime occur here, in the sleepy farmlands of central Alberta?

Like so many Canadian small towns, Mayerthorpe gives every appearance of being the kind of place one comes to in order to get away from the violence and drug abuse that so often plague large urban centres. At this time of year, social life in Mayerthorpe revolves around the local hockey and curling rinks, or friendly card games at your neighbour's kitchen table. Come summer, the community's collective passion is the rodeo. Brothers Rod and Denny Hay, both Canadian champion saddle bronc riders, are local icons (Denny also won gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics rodeo).

Beneath the bucolic surface, though, troubles brew. As with so many other rural communities, the Mayerthorpe area has struggled of late with an influx of crystal methamphetamine and the violent behaviour that often follows in its wake. Truth be told, the myth of rural communities as sanctuaries from the harsh world beyond is nurtured more by urbanites than by those who actually reside there. Carolyn Jensen, principal of the Mayerthorpe high school, has, by choice, spent most of her life living and teaching in smaller centres. She speaks glowingly of the casual friendliness of places like Mayerthorpe, where people watch out for one another. But there is always a darker side. "Prior to being a principal, I was a counsellor," says Jensen. "So I see things some other people don't. In every community I've worked in, there's been tragedy. Is it safer, more comfortable and more personal? You bet. But there are people with difficulties no matter where you go."

In the annals of "people with difficulties," the man at the centre of last week's massacre stands apart. The second-youngest of eight children, James Roszko, 46, had been a public menace since his teens. Former friends and members of his estranged family speak of a man with a lifelong hatred of cops and a propensity to stockpile firearms on his farm near Rochfort Bridge, a tiny hamlet just outside of Mayerthorpe. Neighbours learned long ago to steer clear of the property, where Roszko lived alone protected by attack dogs and thought nothing of firing warning shots at would-be intruders.

No one who had encountered Roszko over the years was entirely surprised when he turned out to be at the centre of the largest single-day police killing since the 1885 Riel Rebellion. But that didn't assuage the anger. Tracy Eisert was one of dozens of local residents to drop off flowers and condolence notes at the makeshift memorial outside the RCMP detachment in Mayerthorpe late last week. "You're not just Mounties," wrote Eisert, who had served the slain officers at the Burger Baron restaurant. "You're our friends and family, which will be greatly missed." For reporters, Eisert had these harsh words to describe the officers' killer: "I hope he rots in hell for what he's done to our community. He ruined our town."

In the wake of the tragic shootings, there was a lot of talk about the randomness of Roszko's crime. "How do you predict when someone will snap?" asks Mayerthorpe Mayor Albert Schalm. "This was obviously a very disturbed individual. I think all communities have their rogue people."

While that's undoubtedly true, there are those who say Roszko is not so unique. Derril Butler, reeve of Lac Ste. Anne County, which encompasses Mayerthorpe, sees the gunman as part of a cultural phenomenon. "I think there are a number of people in rural Alberta," says Butler, "who act as if they were living in a B-grade Western movie and that it's still a viable possibility to settle their conflicts with guns." Butler adds that he's seen people at county meetings "who get angry over contracts about gravel development or Ski-Doo trails coming near their places and who actually utter public threats." As for Roszko, Butler says, "He's been menacing at times, and someone we have more than once speculated about being a real threat. I hadn't realized until this happened the number of times the RCMP had run-ins with him. Which is what makes it hard to understand why they wouldn't have been more aware of the possible risks involved."

That, of course, will be a central issue in the days and weeks ahead as the RCMP investigation into the fatal raid unfolds. But while such questions are pressing, for the residents of Mayerthorpe the more immediate task is to bury and honour their fallen protectors and try to live with the burden of sudden notoriety. "I know," says the town's mayor, "that, for years from now, when people drive by Mayerthorpe, they will say, 'That's the place where all those policemen died.' But we can't dwell on that. It's part of our legacy now and we just have to go on."

See also DRUG USE, NON MEDICAL.

Maclean's March 14, 2005