Coming under fire

Rosie Mullaley
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RCMP officer describes shocking experience when gunfire comes from Crockwell house

Leo Crockwell (right) chats with lawyer Randy Piercey prior to the start of proceedings in Crockwell's trial at Newfoundland Supreme Court in St. John's. Crockwell is representing himself, while Piercey is the trial's amicus, or mediator. - File photo by Rosie Gillingham/The Telegram

The moment he heard the gunshot and felt debris flying past his face, RCMP Const. Will McGinnis knew he was stepping into new territory.

"I had never been shot at before. I don't know how to describe it," he said, recalling the frightening experience on Dec. 8, 2010, at Leo Crockwell's house.

"But at the same time, you're so focused. Your training kicks in.

"Your initial thought is to dive and get out of the way, but you've got people counting on you."

Testifying in Crockwell's trial Friday at Newfoundland Supreme Court in St. John's, McGinnis recounted what happened that day, when he and other members of the RCMP emergency response team approached the back door of the Bay Bulls house.

Their aim was to try to end a standoff between Crockwell and police, which, at that point, was already five days old.

McGinnis said the group moved slowly towards the house behind the safety of a ballistic shield, which was carried by another officer.

He was responsible for covering the unarmed dog services officer and his dog, who would enter the house.

When they reached the door, McGinnis was called on to open the screen door, but it was locked.

"I ended up breaking the handle off the door," he said.

He then used his flashlight to smash the glass window in the door to allow another officer access to the steel door, he said. The goal was to break it down with a battering ram to reach Crockwell.

But after a few bangs on the door, McGinnis said, a shot rang out.

"Everyone was startled," he said.

He said he heard "something being struck" and felt debris, "something like glass," whiz by his head.

He then realized what a dangerous position he was in.

"We were in a really exposed area," said McGinnis, who was directly in front of the door, with the dog services officer and dog behind him.

He quickly moved to the left side of the door. He said he then heard what he thought was the sound of a shotgun being reloaded inside the house.

He, the dog services officer and the dog then moved for cover behind the corner of a nearby shed.

When a police robot was deployed to the door, he said, another shot was fired from the house, causing the robot to fall over.

The entire team then pulled back.

McGinnis, who is a firearms instructor, said he recognized both shots to have come from a shotgun.

In cross-examination, Crockwell - who is representing himself after firing his lawyer last week - questioned McGinnis about the statement he gave to investigators soon after the incident.

"You didn't return fire. You said, 'We're trained to shoot at the target,' right?" Crockwell asked.

"Right," McGinnis replied. "We couldn't see if you had a gun in your hand."

Crockwell was arrested Dec. 11, 2010, on Petty Harbour Road after slipping out undetected from a side window of the house. A couple who dropped him off in their car contacted the RNC.

The 57-year-old 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.

There was one light moment during proceedings Friday.

While McGinnis was on the stand, the courtroom phone on the clerk's desk rang, startling everyone.

The clerk quickly picked up the phone and whispered, "Sorry, wrong number."

It made members of the jury chuckle.

However, the courtroom erupted into laughter at Justice Richard LeBlanc's response to the unexpected call.

"It wouldn't surprise me what happens here," he said, smiling.

The trial will take a three-day break next week, as Crown prosecutor Elizabeth Ivany deals with another case in Labrador.

Proceedings will continue Thursday, with more police testimony. Twitter: @TelyCourt

Organizations: RCMP, Crockwell house, Newfoundland Supreme Court Bay Bulls house

Geographic location: St. John's, Petty Harbour Road, Labrador

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