Bang-Bang Knock-Knock – The Rock Forest Massacre Part 2
“There’s too many captains on this island”
This is part two of Bang-Bang Knock-Knock, about the 1983 Rock Forest Massacre in which two carpet layers were mistaken for armed and dangerous criminals involved in the fatal shooting of a Brinks security guard. Quebec police believed they had tracked the men down to a motel in Rock Forest, Quebec, a small community in the Eastern Townships wedged between the city of Sherbrooke and the town of Magog. Police stormed the Chatillon motel in the early hours of the morning of December 23, 1983 strafing the carpet layers’ room with bullets from an UZI submachine gun, wounding Jean-Paul Beaumont and killing Serge Beaudoin who died four hours later in a Sherbrooke hospital. We pick up after the Coroner’s Inquest, where it was determined that officers Roger Dion, André Castonguay and Michel Salvail were criminally responsible for the violent death of Serge Beaudoin, opening the door for criminal charges.
Awaiting a trial / Awaiting an inquiry
While Sherbrooke Police did their soul-searching, the accused officers hired Michel Proulx, one of the finest criminal lawyers in Canada. Proulx argued that the Quebec Police Commission should postpone an inquiry into the blundered raid – the purpose being to examine police’s actions in detail, including the planning of the raid – until after the trial of the police officers. Andre Castonguay was facing three charges of manslaughter, assault causing bodily harm, and dangerous use of a firearm. Roger Dion was accused of using his firearm with intent to wound, and of dangerous use of a firearm. Michel Salvail, who headed up the raid, was charged with the dangerous use of a firearm.
Meanwhile, there was still the matter of the Pascal’s Brinks Robbery. The killers of security guard, Yvon Charland had not been found, nor was there any trace of the $53,000 taken in the heist. When police revealed that one of the heisters may have removed glasses and a fake mustache he had been wearing, a man-of-a-thousand-faces comedy was unleashed in local papers with police releasing an ever increasingly absurd set of composite images.
The Christmas robbers could be anyone, and were said to be anywhere and everywhere – holed-up in the Paysanne Motel in Lennoxville, or hiding in Old Orchard Beach or Boston. Since December, Castonguay, Dion and Salvail had continued to pull their patrol shifts with the police force. Finally, at the end of February, the Mayor of Sherbrooke, Jean- Paul Pelletier convinced the police chief to assign the officers to desk work. Many had wanted the officers suspended without pay. At the same time, Michel Proulx convinced the Quebec Police Commission to delay the inquiry until after the trial, calling the decision, “courageous, but necessary.” Lawyer Jean-Pierre Rancourt, representing the Sherbrooke Police, and the head of the Sherbrooke Police Brotherhood concurred that it was the right thing to do, with Proulx adding that Justice Minister Bedard should call the whole thing off altogether.
The stigma of criminals
The preliminary hearing for the police detectives charged in connection with the Dec. 23 fatal shooting of Serge Beaudoin began on Monday, May 7, 1984. Lawyer Michel Proulx asked for a publication ban on behalf of his three clients and got it from Court Judge Raymond Bernier. At the end of the three-day hearing, Judge Bernier set a trial date on all charges laid against the men for September 10 in the Quebec Superior Court.
By the summer of 1984, civil suits totaling $750,000 had been launched against the city of Sherbrooke, the city of Rock Forest, the three Sherbrooke police officers, two Rock Forest policemen and the Quebec attorney general as a result of the disastrous raid at Rock Forest. Surviving carpet layer, Jean-Paul Beaumont filed for $325,000 in compensation for his injuries, partial incapacity, humiliation and damage to his reputation as well as punitive damages. The widow of Serge Beaudoin, Nicole Villemeure Beaudoin claimed $10,000 in damages for herself, $250 000 for her child, and $75,000 for Serge Beaudoin’s mother. The owners of the Motel Chàtillon claimed over $91,000 against the City of Sherbrooke, its police and the attorney general for losses incurred as a result of the raid.
The trial was a dumbshow of injustice, a repetition of the coroner’s inquest not worth repeating in detail here. In summary arguments, Crown attorney François Doyon charged that Castonguay and Dion went to Le Châtillon motel on the morning of December 23, 1983 “ready for a shootout” and claims the men failed to take the kind of precautions necessary to avoid a violent conclusion to the raid. Defence attorney Michel Proulx described his clients as “hardworking, honest and sincere” police officers of “transparent integrity” who were completely justified in believing the two carpet layers were the “extremely dangerous” criminals being sought. Proulx reminded the jury that the two detectives were dedicated, responsible officers “not prone to playing cowboy ” and said that while a “disastrous mistake” had been made, “no crime was committed.” Proulx said the shooting was the result of “human error” and that his clients should not be forced “to carry the stigma of criminals”.
Roger Dion and André Castonguay were found not guilty of criminal negligence and were back on the job on Monday, October 22, 1984. Defense attorney Michel ProuIx called the verdict a “victory for democracy” and said the two policemen would return to work immediately “because life must go on.”
But for the family of Serge Beaudoin life could not possibly go on. When the verdict was announced, after more than nine hours’ deliberation, Gilles Beaudoin rushed toward the acquitted policemen in tears, but was prevented from reaching them by half a dozen policemen. “They’ve gotten away with murder,” he said. Jean-Paul Beaumont called the verdicts “revolting”, and hoped for an appeal (no appeal was filed). Outside the court, Réné Beaudoin climbed on top of an unmarked Sherbrooke police car and furiously jumped on its roof (photographer Perry Beaton won a photography prize for capturing the moment).
Also in tears, Castonguay and Dion embraced their lawyer, and fellow Sherbrooke policeman Michel Salvail, who directed the Dec. 23 raid. Salvail had also been cited for criminal negligence, but had filed an application to have the charges against him dropped (they eventually were). During the three-week process, Serge Beaudoin’s brothers, Réjean and Gilles had maintained a vigil outside the courtroom.
“It’s like a nightmare I can’t forget… I haven’t yet succeeded in returning to a normal life. I can’t believe that Serge is gone in such an absurd way.”
Serge Beaudoin’s mother, Cecile Beaudoin
Sherbrooke Mayor Jean-Paul Pelletier called the verdicts fair:
“I am very pleased for the detectives. That does not mean we should rejoice in the loss of life that occurred. In a violent age, these things happen… I think the right decision was rendered. the results were fair. There was no criminal intent, what had happened was an unfortunate mistake…. The two detectives are good policemen; I hired them myself when I was chief there.”
Sherbrooke Mayor Jean-Paul Pelletier
Pelletier said that the Sherbrooke community had, “one of the best forces in the country”. He returned to the notion of “a violent society” needing strong enforcement:
“If you have police using firearms in order to protect the community, things are bound to happen. You have to remember, we have already lost many policemen in the last month or so. There is a lot of violence in this society. It would be ideal if there were no violence, but since that is not the case, police have to do the best they can.”
Sherbrooke Mayor Jean-Paul Pelletier
Again, Beaumont and Beaudoin were unarmed. No one was every able to provide justification as to why Castonguay was armed with an UZI submachine gun designed in the Middle East to fight violent terrorist conflicts. Quebec police in the 70s and 80s were armed, at most, with a standard issue .38 calibre service revolver and a shotgun in the front seat of a squad car.
For a year, Surete du Quebec Cpl. Roch Gaudreault had been amassing a 300-page QPF report on the incident at Rock Forest. He and QPF detective Germain Gauthier had been studying the evidence ever since the case was handed over to them by Rock Forest Police chief Richard Parenteau on December 26, 1983, and mandated by the Quebec justice minister. The two promised to hand the report over to key stakeholders in the process including police, the coroner, and the police commission. Would their report ever be day-lighted?
The Québec Police Commission Inquiry
The Quebec Police Commission inquiry – suspended since the proceeding winter in wait of the outcome of the trial – was set to resume on November 21, 1984. Judge Roger Gosselin, police commission chairman, said the process was expected to call at least 30 witnesses and look into the quality of police activities the day of the raid, specifically the chain of command and orders that led to the bungled operation.
The first signs of trouble began when the Sherbrooke Police asked the Superior Court to cancel a directive from the police commission to hand over all Sherbrooke police communications among officers prior to and after the shooting, with officers arguing they were protected against self incrimination by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Then the hearings were delayed twice; once with the sudden death of one of the attorneys, then a second time after Premier Rene Lévesque suggested to Quebec’s National Assembly that an appeal of the acquittals of Dion and Castonguay should be considered. Michel Proulx took advantage of the Premier’s legislative faux pas, and would have probably strung out the delays indefinitely, but for Justice Minister Pierre-Marc Johnson, who had replaced Marc Andre Bedard in March 1984, asking to continue the investigation “as quickly as possible.”
Christmas came and went. The one year anniversary of the death of Serge Beaudoin had past. In an editorial for The Sherbrooke Record on December 28, Mike McDevitt, who had been covering the process for The Record, wrote.
“Should the courts agree to stop the hearing, a great gap in our legal system will have been revealed. Having delayed the hearing because they feared it would prejudice their trial, the police now want to block it entirely because, they claim, the process is “abusive, illegal and tainted with partiality.”
It is difficult to imagine anything that might be more abusive, illegal and tainted with partiality than for a large contingent of frightened, angry and heavily armed men to burst into a sleeping man’s room, guns blazing, on the basis of circumstantial evidence.
Should the professional appropriateness of this action fail to be questioned by the one body competent to do it, then the tradition that justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done, will have been dealt a deadly blow. It cannot be allowed to happen. Serge Beaudoin has been dead for over a year. It’s time for him to be finally laid to rest.”
Mike McDevitt – Sherbrooke Record
In March 1985, Michel Proulx argued his point to the Superior Court that the Quebec Police Commission should not be allowed to investigate the fatal shooting of Serge Beaudoin. But Quebec Superior Court Justice Jean Provost ruled that the commission should proceed, with the reconvening of the public inquiry now set for June.
On June 18, 1985, the first of 38 witnesses were called in the Affaire Rock Forest shooting inquiry, held at the Sherbrooke courthouse before Judge Roger Gosselin and commissioners Judge Raymond Boily and lawyer Jacques Dufort. Judge Gosselin warned lawyers and witnesses before the hearing began that the police commission would “go much deeper than a coroner’s inquiry, a preliminary hearing, or even a trial, and cannot be compared with them.”
In the early days of the trial the commission heard how the Sherbrooke Police had no written policy for surprise raids. This contradicted Michel Salvail’s testimony before the Coroner’s Inquiry that the “surprise operation” was a standard procedure. André Castonguay was the only member of the force deemed competent enough to use their UZI submachine gun, though he had never fired the weapon in the course of action as he did on the morning of December 23, 1983. Testifying before the judges, former Chief of Police Maurice Houle said he personally authorized detective Roger Dion to use his own Colt .45 automatic pistol instead of his police issued .38 revolver. Houle said though the Sherbrooke force had no specific written policy, Castonguay, Dion and Michel Salvail had each participated in several similar raids without any issues.
Houle continued and said that after a debriefing, he ordered Castonguay and Dion transferred to clerical duties and restricted Salvail to the investigation of one case only — that of the robbery-murder of Brinks security guard Yvon Charland at the Pascal store. Houle said this decision was taken as an administrative decision rather than as a disciplinary one and added that it was made prior to learning that Beaudoin had died from his wounds.
The commission heard a lengthy discussion over the admissibility as evidence of tape recorded telephone and radio communications of police officers during the investigation of the Pascal’s hold-up. Lawyers representing the city of Sherbrooke, the police and the police union argued the tapes contained privileged information and could risk the exposure of certain police informants. According to a Sherbrooke police captain, virtually all phone and radio communication involving the Sherbrooke police headquarters had been recorded on a 24-hour tape recording system. The captain added that he had been told in conversation with other police officers that the tape of the December 22-23 period contained information which could expose the identity of police informers, but under questioning he admitted that he had no first-hand knowledge of such information even though he had personally edited the tapes of the period in question. Lawyers for the commission argued that since the tapes had been edited, all references which might identify informers could easily be deleted.
The Commission appeared to have recessed for the summer, as there was no further testimony heard until August 1985. By now, the questions surrounding the shooting at Rock Forest were approaching their second year. On August 8, the commission heard that all officers on the raid filed written reports about the incident except the two detectives who fired their weapons. Roger Dion and André Castonguay refused to write reports following the shooting of carpet layer Serge Beaudoin. No one had an explanation as to why the pair refused to file reports, or why they weren’t ordered to do so.
Castonguay, Dion and Salvail were never suspended, demoted, nor denied pay as officers of the Sherbrooke Police force. In fact, by now, two of them had been promoted. Castonguay and Salvail were now sergeants on the police force, and Dion’s promotion was pending. Far from being punished for their actions on December 23, the officers were rewarded.
Throughout the inquiry, police used a variety of stall and diversion tactics in an attempt to drag out the process. The door to motel room 5 with 21 bullet holes in it, which has been warehoused in the Sherbrooke police evidence room for several months after the raid, suddenly disappeared, only to reappear months later. Roch Gaudreault of the Sûreté du Québec, who was heading up the internal investigation on the Rock Forest affair, was questioned about the door, but refused to comment. Fortunately, with the inquiry moving at a glacial pace, no one seemed to notice it had gone missing. The key piece of evidence eventually took its place among the evidence exhibits.
In October, the Quebec Police Commission wrapped up its lengthy public inquiry. With mounds of testimony and documents to review, the three-member inquiry gave no indication when its final report would be completed.
Botched, improvised and devoid of all planned thought
Nearly a year later the Quebec Police Commission rendered its verdict. The report called the raid “botched, improvised and devoid of all planned thought,” and recommended that all three Sherbrooke policemen be demoted to simple patrol officers for their roles in the bungled raid in Rock Forest. The Commission said Castonguay, Salvail and Dion were “alone responsible”.
“For their motives, the police commission severely blames Michel Salvail, Roger Dion and André Castonguay, members of the Sherbrooke police force, for their conduct during a police operation in Rock Forest, December 23, 1983.”
Quebec Police Commission
Both Castonguay and Salvail had been promoted to patrol sergeants. Dion’s promotion was denied. The commission recommended the two promotions be stripped because they were made “as though the municipal council wanted to thwart the eventual recommendations of the police commission.” The report condemned the lack of planning prior to the raid. “Nobody ever stopped to consider the pros and cons of the operation, let alone its methods.”
The report also noted some of the blame must be placed on the three officers who were in charge the night of the raid. Lieutenant Jacques Testulat, Detective Sergeant Camille Vachon and Sergeant Roger Cloutier did not “exercise their given authority.” Dion, Castonguay and Salvail did not receive “appropriate directives on the raid.” The report criticized the three officers in charge for their “inaction and passivity.” The commission recommended the Sherbrooke police department review the competence of the three officers and that it review their ability to exercise their authority.
Serge Beaudoin’s brother Réné, who the previous year had jumped on the roof of a parked police cruiser in a rage of protest, now seemed to lack the energy to summon a response, saying simply that he was “relieved” the police were criticized for their actions, and, “hoped the Sherbrooke authorities act on the recommendations and don’ t just shelve the report.”
Though harsh, the police commission had no power to make any of its recommendations binding. It was the City of Sherbrooke, and its police chief Léon Paquin’s decision on whether to adopt the recommendations made in the report. Mayor Pelletier stalled, saying there were several complexities to consider, including union matters:
“There are several matters to be considered. For instance we must take into account the collective agreement, which is a legal document. What are the effects of a position taken as recommended? This is not completely clear in my mind and I would like to have advice on it prior to taking a position, rather than move as a bull in a china shop and change all kinds of things that I will have to change over again in the future…. There would be a great deal more damage if l act irresponsibly and do not take the time to correctly assess the situation and be advised by specialists in the matter.”
Mayor Jean Paul Pelletier
In September 1986, the City of Sherbrooke made its decision and rejected the commission recommendation to demote its three officers. Pelletier shirked, laying the blame on union rules. He explained, “the city can not legally pursue the matter because its collective agreement states that disciplinary actions against officers have to be launched within six months of the events.”
Asked how he planned to address the friends and family of Serge Beuadoin, Pelletier said he would express the city’s sincere regrets, explaining the city was in a Catch 22 situation, meaning it could not pursue the officers while the police inquest was going on and now it was too late under the collective agreement.
In an article released the same day as the Sherbrooke decision, Peter Scowen of CBC Radio wrote about how cities and towns in Quebec had lost control of their police forces. Jean Pelletier, president of the Union of Quebec Municipalities argued that “there are a lot of regulations and interventions from various sources that deprive municipal elected officials of the control they should have over their local police force.” Pelletier also pointed to labor relations as a chief irritant among municipalities. Authority within police forces often breaks down, he argued, because the municipalities’ representatives within the police departments — the sergeants, lieutenants. and sometimes even captains – are in the same union as their men, making the senior officers “judge and jury” in the management of a police department and in the enforcement of disciplinary measures. All these factors, he concluded, had “diluted if not completely eliminated the control municipal authorities have over their police.”
Dodge City lives on in Sherbrooke
There were mixed reactions to the final outcome of the Rock Forest fusillade. A Sherbrooke hardware store cashier said the policemen had already paid for what happened. “You can make a lot of mistakes in life without meaning to,” she said. A local accountant, disagreed. “If it had been anyone other than policemen, they would have paid for it,” she said. “ They should have given them what they deserved.” A coffee shop employee expressed outrage, “It’s disgusting. If it were you or me. we’d be punished. Why not them?”
Writing for The Gazette 100 miles away in Montreal, reporter Don MacPherson appropriately assessed the situation, suggesting that much of the conflict germinated from the three police officers being well-liked locals, and the carpet layers out-of-towners:
“Out-of-town reporters covering the coroner’s inquiry, the trial or the police commission investigation arising from the motel raid found many local people quick to defend the detectives against what they considered attacks from outsiders.
But in their zeal to protect their own, Sherbrooke civic and police officials are putting loyalty ahead of the interests of their city. By refusing so much as to slap the wrists of their trigger-happy policemen over the death of an innocent man, they are making their city look like a modern-day Dodge City – in which innocent civilians are the ones who have to do the dodging.”
Don MacPherson, Dodge City lives on in Sherbrooke, The Gazette, September 10, 1986
The following summer, early August 1987 – nearly 4 years after the botched raid at the Motel Chatillon, Sherbrooke reached a settlement with the victims of Rock Forest. Of the $630,000 in damages claimed only $50,000 in compensation was paid – to Jean-Paul Beaumont, the other carpet layer who had survived the shooting. $170,000 was paid in attorney fees – for the three policemen involved in the shooting, A clause in the police union contract required the city to pay their legal fees. The family of Serge Beaudoin didn’t receive a dime. No one from the city or police force ever even bothered to send the family flowers.
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