Ranchers vow to support landowner charged in shooting, but rural crime watch group warns against using guns
Sympathies and concerns are both being expressed in rural Alberta following charges laid against a rural Okotoks-area man alleged to have shot and injured a person whom he believed to be stealing his property.
Edouard Maurice, who lives just outside Okotoks, is scheduled to appear in court March 9 on charges of aggravated assault, pointing a firearm and careless use of a firearm. Those charges arise from a Feb. 24 incident that occurred shortly before 5:30 a.m.
Arising from the same incident, Ryan Watson has been charged with trespassing by night, mischief, theft under $5,000, possession of methamphetamine and failure to comply with probation.
Phil Rowland, a rancher in the Blackie area, said he and others who live in rural areas plan to help Maurice fight the charges.
“I certainly plan on supporting him financially,” said Rowland. “We will buck up and we’ll make sure that he has enough financial wherewithal to fight this thing.
“There’s going to be one real expensive lawyer that he’s going to require and I think the rest of us need to rally behind him and help him out. Let’s face it, he was protecting his family and I don’t think there’s any higher cause for us people out in the hinterlands than to look after our families.”
Statistics support the view of farmers and ranchers that rural crime rates are on the rise. Police response to remote areas can be lengthy and may come too late to catch thieves and vandals. That puts rural dwellers in a precarious position.
“I know there isn’t any of us that wouldn’t protect our family with whatever means necessary,” said Rowland. “What that is, I have no idea. I don’t know what I would do if it happened to me but I’m pretty sure I would come up with a plan really quickly.”
It’s the use of a firearm in the incident that concerns members of the Alberta Rural Crime Watch Association. In mid-February, the group signed a memorandum of understanding with the RCMP to define their respective roles, among them to be the eyes and ears, not the guns, for the RCMP.
That MOU was a direct response to the increase in rural crime and the need to combat it.
“When a weapon is pulled out, someone could get seriously injured and it could go the other way,” said rural crime watch past-president Trevor Tychkowsky.
“We never encourage our members to do stuff like that. We do not encourage people to do vigilante or taking strong stances…. We do educate people to lock up their belongings as best that they can and report crimes.”
Tychkowsky said many incidents of rural theft are crimes of opportunity because houses, outbuildings and vehicles are left unlocked. That was the situation on the farm where he grew up.
“Those days are gone, as well as the days of knowing our neighbours. A lot of people don’t know their neighbours anymore. They don’t know the person down the road.
“We really need to get back to those roots of where we actually know our neighbours and know when they’re going to be gone, and watch out for them.”
Tychkowsky added that rural crime watch advises farmers and ranchers to report every incident of theft, vandalism or other crime to the RCMP.
That’s advice echoed by Conrad Van Hierden, a Fort Macleod, Alta., area dairy farmer and president of the local crime watch group. He said more reporting of crime might lead to higher staffing levels in RCMP detachments.
“You don’t have to always go through insurance but you still need to report all thefts and all vandalism. Our police detachments don’t get more members if things aren’t reported,” said Van Hierden.
He has had fuel, batteries and truck wiring stolen from his farm. As a member of crime watch, he also speaks against the use of guns.
“I don’t condone it at all but I know where it’s coming from,” he said about the Maurice case.
Landowners can be frustrated by repeated thefts and repeat offenders. Van Hierden said the courts should do a better job when cases come to court and he supports RCMP initiatives to better track and monitor repeat offenders.
“Our court system is not upholding the good work the RCMP do and what the good work rural crime watch organizations do,” he said.
“I think if we tighten up our policing and then push the judges to make mandatory no bail for certain offences, it will help us as farmers and land owners and citizens.”
Rowland said he also supports tighter control of convicted criminals.
“Truthfully, when they catch these guys, they need to deal with them,” he said.
“I don’t know if locking them up is the correct response but if they’re not going to keep them out of our society, then guys like Eddy over there at Okotoks (are) compelled to deal with them. You’re worried about your property and your family, I sure don’t blame him.”
Lindsye Dunbar, manager of the Western Stock Growers Association, said rural crime and home invasion is a growing concern for members and the Okotoks case has raised the temperature on that concern.
“Increasingly, we have become concerned over this type of theft and the possibility of home invasion for our guys who live out in the rural areas. It’s obvious that they’re becoming more of a target than they have in the past,” she said.
Rowland echoed the concern about police response times.
“The police, unless their car is pointed in the right direction and they’re in it and it’s warmed up, a timely response (is unlikely). A lot can happen in five minutes. So, if they’re 10 minutes away, that’s really great but the incident is done.”
Dunbar lives in Okotoks and said rumours are swirling in the community about the shooting. Speaking personally rather than for the stock growers, Dunbar said the use of guns as defence depends to some degree on the type of threat.
“I think there is a difference between shooting to protect property and shooting to protect your family, and they are completely different things. At the end of the day, it’s just a truck.”