NWT Miner Guilty of Murder

For 15 agonizing weeks, the three women sat in the Yellowknife courtroom in a row directly behind Crown prosecutor Peter Martin.

NWT Miner Guilty of Murder

For 15 agonizing weeks, the three women sat in the Yellowknife courtroom in a row directly behind Crown prosecutor Peter Martin. Two of them, Doreen Hourie and Judit Pandev, lost their husbands in the September, 1992, underground explosion at the Giant gold mine that killed nine men, while the third, Carol Riggs, lost her son. The women listened intently throughout the trial, which was to determine whether former miner Roger Warren had planted the bomb that killed their loved ones. At various points, they clasped their hands as if in prayer, wiped tears from their eyes and fled from the courtroom when the evidence became too graphic. Last week, a Northwest Territories Supreme Court jury declared Warren guilty of nine counts of second-degree murder and recommended a life sentence with no eligibility for parole for 20 years. The victims' relatives responded with tears, cheers and visible relief. "Just maybe," said Pandev, "we can now start our lives all over again."

The jury's verdict, delivered after nearly five days of deliberation, ended the longest criminal trial in the history of the Northwest Territories - and certainly one of the most bizarre. Warren, who was one of 200 striking miners at the time of the fatal explosion, was charged in October, 1993, with nine counts of first-degree murder. The charges came after he repeatedly confessed to the crime to police officers. Audio- and videotapes of those confessions were played for the jury, including one in which an ashen-faced Warren took officers to a spot 750 feet below the surface of the Giant mine and methodically re-enacted how he had placed 38 kg of explosives along a rail track. A few hours later, the bomb had been tripped by the wheel of a rail car used to transport miners through the dank tunnels. Nine men were smashed against the rocky walls, and died instantly.

But the jury also heard quite a different story when the slender, bespectacled Warren spent nearly seven days testifying on his own behalf. He recanted all his confessions, saying he had made them at a time when he was under stress, severely depressed and consumed with bitterness over the decision of Royal Oak Mines Inc., owners of the Giant mine, to keep their business running with the help of 150 replacement workers and 45 other miners who had defied their union. Warren also claimed that he was suffering from sexual impotence after taking medication for an irregular heartbeat, and feared that he might be dying from testicular cancer after feeling a lump in his scrotum. He began to hear voices, he said, that referred to him by the nickname "Meat," and that urged him to falsely confess as a means of bringing the 17-month strike to an end.

Warren's defence lawyers called psychiatric experts who testified that the former miner might indeed be the kind of man who would confess to a crime he did not commit. But judging by their verdict last week, the 11-member jury was having none of that. Nor was RCMP Sgt. Greg McMartin, the Calgary-based polygraph expert who elicited the initial confession from Warren during a six-hour interrogation on Oct. 15, 1993. In an interview shortly before the jury began deliberations, McMartin told Maclean's that, during his 25-year police career, he has often felt sympathy for people who confessed to crimes. But not this time. "Roger Warren is very cold, as far as I'm concerned, very cold and callous," said McMartin. "He's a cold-blooded killer."

In his original confessions to police, Warren had insisted that he never meant to kill anyone. He had set the bomb, he said, to be tripped by an unmanned ore car. The second-degree murder verdict demonstrated that jurors were convinced Warren intended to kill, but that he had not planned his crime extensively. By recommending no parole for 20 years, however - double the minimum requirement for second-degree murder and only five years short of the requirement for a first-degree offence - they signalled how seriously they viewed his crime. Justice Mark de Weerdt was to sentence Warren this week.

Whether he was confessing to police, recanting in court or listening to the jury's verdict, the 51-year-old Warren rarely showed even a trace of emotion. Shabeharam Lohrasbe, a Victoria-based forensic psychiatrist who was hired by the defence to examine Warren last fall, testified in early January that Warren is the kind of man who tends to internalize his feelings. "It was like pulling teeth to get a sense of this man," said Lohrasbe.

Married with two grown daughters, Warren has lived in Yellowknife for the past two decades and spent 12 years working at the Giant mine. A highly skilled mechanic and hardrock miner, he played hockey in his spare time - sometimes skating alongside one of his future victims, Norman Hourie, and competing against RCMP Sgt. Vern White, who would later lead the police investigation into the mine deaths. Warren worked on the same crew as two of the miners who died in the blast. He also knew the other four dead miners who had defied their union. A strong union man, Warren was a vocal critic of the men whom he derided as "scabs."

In fact, the depth of the strikers' hatred against those who crossed their picket line was sometimes difficult to fathom. Following the fatal explosion - but before one of his own union members was charged with murder - Harry Seeton, the then-president of Local 4 of the Canadian Association of Smelter and Allied Workers, declared that anyone who would cross a picket line was "lower than a reptile." During the trial, the jury heard that some of Warren's fellow strikers offered to give him an alibi for the time that he was missing from the picket line on the night of the explosion. And in his taped confession to police in October, 1993, Warren recalled how, shortly after the news of the miners' deaths, one of his colleagues said: "Look at it this way, Roger, if they weren't there, they wouldn't have got killed." Warren said that he was thinking to himself at the time: "That's f-g easy for you to say."

The protracted labor dispute at the Giant mine - which was finally resolved in December, 1993, two months after Warren's arrest - also had a devastating effect on Yellowknife, a community of 16,000 on the shores of Great Slave Lake, 960 km north of Edmonton. Before it occurred, the city was known as a place where the winters were long and cold but the neighbors were welcoming and friendly. Afterward, it resembled a battlefield. Riots erupted on the picket lines. Replacement workers had their tires slashed. And in the city's schoolyards, the children of striking miners traded insults and punches with the children of workers who crossed the picket line. "Kids are learning how to hate," lamented Yellowknife's then-Mayor Pat McMahon shortly before Warren's arrest.

With last week's verdict, many Yellowknifers expressed hope that the community can begin to put the tragedy behind it. Said McMahon, who has now returned to private life: "Hopefully, this will give the opportunity for fears to be set to rest and for healing to begin." But for the relatives of the dead miners, the wounds continue to fester - and Warren's decision to appeal his conviction will keep the issue alive in the courts for months to come. By September, 1992, Josef Pandev had worked at the Giant mine for 29 years and was only a few months short of retirement. Eager to finish out his career, and convinced that the strike was a mistake, the 55-year-old Pandev decided to continue working. Pandev had three children from a previous marriage, including Joe Jr., who started working at the mine just four days before his father died. Judit, whose first husband had died in a 1974 accident at the Giant mine, also had three children. They were married in 1985, after several proposals by Josef. Judit was reluctant to get involved again with a miner. Josef promised her he would be careful, that he would not be killed in the mine.

Judit says that she was determined to sit through Warren's murder trial as a representative of the men who died. "If we don't care, as wives and mothers, who else will care?" she said. She also spoke of the strain and depression that have been building since the explosion, and how she sometimes lacked the will to live. After a bad day, she explained, she lies in the bathtub and tries to soak away her sadness and loneliness. And when she pulls the plug, she hopes she will get sucked down the drain like the dirty bathwater. "I promised myself that I don't want to pass this bitterness that's in me on to my kids," she said. But she feared that, inadvertently, she may do just that.

Doreen Hourie's 53-year-old husband, Norman, was also a veteran miner. The couple had four children: two sons from Norman's first marriage and two daughters of their own. Throughout the trial, Hourie kept wondering why her husband had to die. "Why did these nine families have to pay the ultimate price for the strike or lockout? It doesn't make sense." Like Pandev, she spoke of being consumed by bitterness, of losing the ability to care what happens to herself or to others. "This has been two years of total physical and mental pain," said Hourie. "I'm tired of feeling sick. I'm tired of being tired. I can't sleep."

Carol Riggs said she lost the linchpin of her family when her son Shane, 27, died in the blast. Riggs, whose husband, Laurence, died in 1982, said that Shane helped take care of her and her other three children. "If I had any problems, I just had to pick up the phone and Shane was right there," she said. "Now, I have nobody I can go to." And while last week's verdict was satisfying, she said, her family is still dealing with the horror that Warren brought into their lives: "When something like this happens, your family and kids want to go out and kill somebody. You want to kill somebody. It's not a pretty sight. My kids' lives aren't good yet. Everyone is still hurting."

Maclean's January 30, 1995