“Shots fired! Shots fired!”
Sgt. Barry Pitcher recalled relaying those chilling words over the RCMP radio after a gunshot was fired from inside the Crockwell house and a bullet whistled past him and a few other officers.
“We heard projectiles shooting through the air. I motioned to the team to get low,” Pitcher said Wednesday while testifying at Leo Crockwell’s trial at Newfoundland Supreme Court in St. John’s.
“It was now becoming a very dangerous gunfight with him.”
Pitcher was the leader of the emergency response team and was just outside the back door with a handful of other team members.
It was Dec. 8, 2010, five days into Crockwell’s standoff with police, and he was still refusing to come out of his family’s Bay Bulls home. All police attempts to communicate with him or force him out had failed.
The decision was made to have the emergency response team approach the house and break down the back door with a battering ram. The goal was to allow officers to get a better view of Crockwell, talk with him and take him into custody.
Pitcher recalled the tense moments that night.
At around 9:40 p.m., he and a handful of other ERT members slowly crept up to the back door “in Conga style,” all hiding behind a protective shield, carried by one of the officers.
The entire time, Pitcher said, he was yelling, “Police! Police!”
When they reached the house, he said, one of the officers wrestled to open the screen door, but ended up pulling the handle off.
The situation became even more anxious after the gun blast.
“We knew we were in a position of vulnerability,” he testified.
Pitcher said, from his experience, he could tell the shot was from a shotgun, fired at close range. The blast caused a small hole in the screen door.
He made the decision to carry on with the mission and have his team knock down the inside door.
With the glass in the screen door smashed, with a few bangs from the battering ram, the inner door dropped flat.
“It was black, dark,” Pitcher said.
Believing it was too risky to move any farther, Pitcher decided not to allow officers inside the house.
“We couldn’t control what would happen,” he said.
Instead, the robot, mounted with a video camera, was deployed to the back door.
As the robot approached, a second shot was fired, causing a second hole in the screen door.
The robot lost traction and spun out, Pitcher called.
“I used the opportunity to yell, ‘Police! Come out! We’re not going to hurt you.’ I got nothing back.”
Pitcher was then informed over the police radio that the audio devices placed inside the house detected sounds of a gun being reloaded.
“By 10:30 p.m., we lost momentum,” Pitcher said. “It was getting to be too dangerous, so I made the decision to call it off.”
That ended any other major involvement this province’s ERT had at the scene, he said.
When his shift ended that night, Pitcher said he asked for further resources from Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Members of the New Brunswick ERT had already been on the scene for the past few days.
In the days after that, officers used many methods to try and get Crockwell out, such as throwing tear gas and pepper spray grenades in the house, using noise makers — which project a sound that can be heard a kilometre away — and pumping water into the house.
But on Dec. 11, 2010, Crockwell was located on Petty Harbour Road, more than 20 kilometres outside of Bay Bulls after a couple called the RNC to report they had just dropped him off.
The RCMP officer — who showed up at the Petty Harbour Road house in an unmarked police car and took Crockwell into RCMP custody— took the stand earlier Wednesday.
He said shortly after he arrived, Crockwell’s brother showed up and said, “I think I can resolve this.”
Under questioning by lawyer Randy Piercey — who is acting as amicus or mediator in the trial — Cpl. Phonse Foley admitted that the non-threatening manner in which Crockwell was arrested proved to be more successful than the tactics used at the Bay Bulls house.
“It’s not something I thought about at the time,” Foley said, “but in hindsight, I think it was.”
Crockwell has pleaded not guilty to eight charges — assault with a weapon, using a firearm while committing an assault and uttering threats towards his sister, along with mischief by interfering with property; carelessly using a firearm, possessing a firearm without a licence and intentionally discharging a firearm.
The latter charge carries a minimum sentence of four years in prison.
Pitcher is due back on the stand today and will be cross-examined by Crockwell, who is representing himself after firing his lawyer last week.