Giant Mine Murders: Ten Years Later

It was 8:45 a.m. on sept. 18, 1992, when the rail car transporting the replacement workers hit the trip wire, setting off an explosion so powerful that it drove bits of their flesh and bone deep into the hard rock ceiling.

Giant Mine Murders: Ten Years Later

It was 8:45 a.m. on sept. 18, 1992, when the rail car transporting the replacement workers hit the trip wire, setting off an explosion so powerful that it drove bits of their flesh and bone deep into the hard rock ceiling. Today, almost a decade has passed since the name "Giant mine" became synonymous with strife and murder. But the wounds left by the 18-month strike-lockout, the killings, and the fallout from one of the largest murder investigations in RCMP history, have yet to heal.

It's been years since anyone coaxed GOLD out of the area around the 750-drift. The rich ore veins have been depleted, the rails pulled up and left to rust in the mine's wet passageways. The handful of men who still toil underground almost never have reason to pass the spot where the nine miners met their sudden, violent end. After all, it's cold and muddy 58 storeys down inside the Canadian Shield, the air spiced with sulphur and diesel fumes - a bad place to work. No one needs a reminder that it must be a worse place to die.

It was 8:45 a.m. on Sept. 18, 1992, when the rail car transporting the replacement workers - Vern Fullowka, Norm Hourie, Chris Neill, Joe Pandev, Shane Riggs, Robert Rowsell, Arnold Russell, Malcolm Sawler and Dave Vodnoski - hit the trip wire, setting off an explosion so powerful that it drove bits of their flesh and bone deep into the hard rock ceiling. Almost a decade has passed since the name "Giant mine" became synonymous with strife and murder.

Today, the site of one of Canada's fiercest labour disputes could pass for a ghost town. Orange blankets of rust, sped along by the Arctic winters, are spreading across the machinery parked on the surface. The yellow headframe badly needs a coat of paint. The mill buildings are idle (the little ore that the skeleton staff still produces is hauled across town for processing). There is a year, maybe two, left before complete shutdown.

But the wounds left by the 18-month strike-lockout, the killings, and the fallout from one of the largest murder investigations in RCMP history, have yet to heal. There are still some people in town who cross the street to avoid each other. The families of the nine victims are suing a host of parties they hold responsible for failing to stop the bombing - union members, the mine's former owners, the security company, the government of the Northwest Territories. The man convicted of the crime, Roger Warren, continues to proclaim his innocence from his jail cell. And now, the organization that helped clear David Milgaard, Guy Paul Morin and Thomas Sophonow is thinking of taking on his case.

This week, lawyers from the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, known to supporters as AIDWYC, are in Yellowknife interviewing Warren's friends and family, looking for fresh evidence to back up his claim that he falsely confessed to the murders to bring an end to the strike. The welcome they get from locals, many of whom wish the rest of the world would just forget the darkest chapter in the city's history, might be as cold as the winter wind across Great Slave Lake.

"This kind of strike with the violence, and the pitting of family against family, neighbour against neighbour, it impacts a community for a long time," says Pat McMahon, the former mayor. "Every time something new happens it just brings back all the raw feelings." A lot of people who were involved in the strike are reluctant to talk about it anymore. McMahon, a blunt, no-nonsense woman who ran the city from 1986 through 1994, makes a point of taping our interview. There have already been two books and a TV movie of the week about the murders, she says; Yellowknifers are fed up with the bad publicity. For her, like many others, the only question that lingers is whether Warren had any help. On the way out, she stops me on the stairs to deliver a benediction of sorts: "You misquote me and I'll rip your guts out." There is no laugh that follows, but her raspy voice softens a bit. "I have to live in this town, you don't."

Nine years in jail, a lifetime to go, and he still walks like a man worried about bumping his head on a low rock ceiling - chin down, shoulders stooped, eyes scanning the ground before him. Dressed in the uniform of Manitoba's Stony Mountain penitentiary - white T-shirt, jeans with his name stencilled on the back pocket, a fabric belt with a plastic snap buckle - he slumps into a chair in an interview room that has been inexplicably decorated with a painting of a doe-eyed Mexican boy wearing a sombrero. Roger Warren, now 58, hasn't been underground since the day in October 1993 when he confessed to the killings and led RCMP investigators on the long plod down Giant's maze to the scene of the crime, but his dreams are still filled with gold. "It sort of gets in your blood," he says. "I joke with the guys - if my punishment was to drive a drift for about 6,000 feet, and get it done on a tight deadline, I would figure that was excellent. Twelve hours a day, I wouldn't care. Go for it." That's not what nine counts of second-degree murder gets you, though.

His answer to the question is unequivocal, unhesitating. "I had nothing to do with it," says Warren. But that isn't what he once told investigators, or the undercover detective the RCMP placed in his jail cell in the hours after his confession, or his lawyers, or even his wife in the weeks following his arrest. Why he should be believed now is not a subject his lawyers want him to discuss. Neither is the question of who else might be responsible.

Warren knows he's asking a lot. Milgaard, Morin and Sophonow always said they were innocent. "I'm not asking anybody to feel sorry for me," he mumbles. "I'm just hoping AIDWYC is successful. I don't need sympathy. I just need the truth."

Yellowknife owes its existence to gold. Stand atop "The Rock," the high point in Old Town, and you can see the headframes of the two mines - Giant to the North, Con to the South - that were for so long the lifeblood of the community. When Giant, just 10 minutes outside of town, opened in 1948, the owners were getting almost an ounce of gold per ton of ore they processed. By the late 1980s, they were lucky to get a quarter of that yield.

Mining executive Peggy Witte and her Vancouver-based company, Royal Oak Mines Inc., bought Giant in 1990, when the price of gold was around US$400 and falling, already below the cost of extracting an ounce at the aging facility. An ambitious, hard-nosed boss, the Nevada-born Witte set about making the failing mine profitable by slashing costs and increasing production. Relations with mine staff and their union, the Canadian Association of Smelter and Allied Workers, deteriorated. Many employees were offended by her tough, sometimes arbitrary, disciplinary measures (13 people were axed in Royal Oak's first year of ownership, including several union activists). Union reps worried that mine safety was being compromised in the pursuit of the bottom line. When the collective agreement expired in the spring of 1992, the price of gold was lower than it had been since 1985. Witte announced that she would be looking for pay cuts.

The miners planned to walk at 12 a.m. on May 23, 1992, but the owners locked them out the day before. Royal Oak had replacement workers on standby, and was helicoptering them into the mine site within hours. It was the first time in 45 years that a Canadian mining company had tried to break a strike.

Witte, who has reverted to her maiden name, Peggy Kent, and now owns a meat-packing business in Ferndale, Wash., just south of the Canadian border, says she doesn't regret the decision. Her primary responsibility was to her shareholders, to keep the mine operating, no matter what. "You sit for hours and days and soul-search for what you could have done differently. But once we had the reins, there weren't a lot of choices. It was a life and death situation in terms of economics." Witte says she still thinks of the widows and families. On her office wall there's a framed cover of The Financial Post Magazine from December 1992 - Witte, deep underground with a white hard hat and a wide grin. "Murder, Gold & One Tough Boss," reads the headline.

The use of replacement workers enraged the strikers. From the beginning, there were tense confrontations on the picket line, threats of retribution and petty acts of vandalism. The RCMP responded by flying in a riot squad from Alberta. Royal Oak replaced its security company with Pinkerton's, an American company that had built its early reputation by crushing coal mine strikes.

"When somebody scabs you it's worse than being robbed in the street," says Bill Schram, the man who led the union local through the first months of the dispute. "They rob your family, they steal the food off your table, take the roof over your head. They're thieves of the worst kind." Schram is still in Yellowknife, long gone from the mines, now working as a guard at the local correctional centre. A couple of strikebreakers are fellow employees. They don't talk any more than is absolutely necessary.

Over the course of the summer, the violence increased. The factions duked it out in downtown bars almost every night, and police and strikers skirmished on the picket line. The federal government ignored repeated pleas from local and territorial officials to step in and legislate an end to the dispute. A squad of miners, calling themselves the "Cambodian Cowboys," began to sneak onto the sprawling mine property at night, harassing the Pinkertons and engaging in acts of sabotage. Hydro poles were toppled, wires were shorted. In late June, three of the Cowboys travelled underground to paint anti-scab graffiti on the walls and machinery. They stole blasting caps, fuses and sticks of powder from one of the mine's many unlocked and unguarded explosive sheds.

The most daring members of the group, Al Shearing and Tim Bettger, stepped up their actions. In July, Bettger, a massive bearded man nicknamed "The Bear," tried to topple the mine's huge satellite dish with a stick of high explosives. At the beginning of September, he and Shearing, dubbed "The Weasel" by his foes, "The Night Crawler" by his admirers, set off a larger bomb near the equipment that pumped air underground to the miners. It was a chilling warning.

Norma Jarvis's husband David was in management at the mine. They lived with their three kids at the small company townsite near the mine's main entrance. At times, she says, the strikers became a mob, egged on by the most vocal picketers, people like Bettger and Shearing. "They were always saying that they were going to blow up the mine," says Jarvis. "That's what they talked about every day."

Schram, who proudly wears his union ball cap around town, admits the strikers were angry. There were acts of vandalism, lots of overheated rhetoric on the line, but none of the men who worked at Giant were capable of murder, he says. Maybe it was an accident - he and other Warren supporters cling to a theory that the replacement workers were cutting corners by carrying explosives in their mine car, something Warren himself says he doubts. If it was a bomb, adds Schram, someone else was responsible. "The timing was too good for the company. Nothing had happened in weeks, people were settling into their picket duty, they were getting strike pay." The RCMP made up its mind and found the evidence to fit the bill, he suggests. Detonating 38 kg of explosives by the side of the tracks was the act of a "coward," and that's not a word he would use to describe Roger Warren. "He never struck me as someone who would stab you in the back," says Schram. "If he has something to say, he'll say it to your face."

James Lockyer is accentuating the negative. Leaning back in a chair at his Toronto office, the founding director of the AIDWYC stretches out his long, blue-jeaned legs and runs a hand through his thick mop of curls. No decision has been made about Roger Warren's case, he stresses. It might be two years, or more, before he and the other lawyers finish plowing through the voluminous transcripts from the miner's trial, his failed appeal, and the 12 lengthy interviews he had with RCMP investigators before suddenly, surprisingly, confessing to the crime. AIDWYC doesn't normally talk about the cases it's probing. For good reason: when news of its interest in Warren leaked out earlier this summer, talk-radio airwaves and the letters-to-the-editor pages in Yellowknife were filled with angry exchanges. "Some naive people, who seem to care nothing for the families of the dead men or for justice, suggest Warren made a false confession for his fellow workers," thundered the Yellowknifer newspaper in an editorial. "If such were true, it would make Warren an extraordinary person, certainly a candidate for sainthood. But it wasn't true and he's only extraordinary in killing nine innocent men."

But despite the disclaimers, it is clear AIDWYC has serious misgivings about Warren's conviction. The miner's case has several of the "hallmarks" of a false confession, says the lawyer. The jury at his trial was forbidden to hear expert testimony about Warren's state of mind and why some people are motivated to take responsibility for a crimes they didn't commit, he adds. This fall, the organization will bring in an international expert on false confessions to consult on the case. The only real hurdle appears to be the nagging question of whether Warren might be covering for somebody else. "Our mandate is that we have to decide as an organization that he's innocent," says Lockyer. "It's not enough to say he was convicted through an error in law."

Roger Warren was never one of the RCMP's primary suspects. That dubious honour went to Bettger and Shearing, who both ended up serving time for their "Cowboy" raids. A family man, active in local sports, Warren was an ace miner who regularly brought in $100,000 a year in salary and bonuses. He may have been grumpy and a bit aloof, but he had no record of trouble with the company or anyone else. Warren was on the picket line in the early morning hours before the explosion. Investigators kept coming back to him because he claimed to have seen two unidentified men walking on the mine property. Police suspected he knew more than he was saying, perhaps who had committed the crime. Even when they discovered Warren owned a pair of boots that were the same make and size as the ones they believed the killer had worn in his trek through the mine, detectives simply assumed he had lent them to someone else.

Warren's confession came as a shock to the RCMP. He had steadfastly denied his involvement, taken two lie detector tests (both sets of results were deemed inconclusive) and wasn't known to have taken part in any of the Cambodian Cowboys' sorties. It was an outsider - Gregg McMartin, a polygraph expert from the Calgary detachment - who decided that Warren had been directly involved in the crime. McMartin had pored over transcripts of the miner's previous interviews with police and found them riddled with the kind of verbal ticks and overly precise recollections common to people who are lying. McMartin spent six hours alone in a room with Warren, challenging, begging, accusing, cajoling the miner until he finally admitted to planting the bomb.

Later that night, Warren took officers on a tour of the mine, retracing the long route down from an isolated shaft to the site of the explosion in the 750-drift, providing details only the killer would know, say police. Afterwards, he led investigators to a pond where they found a satchel containing parts for a triggering mechanism, and to a river where they found the burned remains of a different pair of boots.

McMartin, who now runs his own polygraph consulting business and teaches people how to catch liars, says he often thinks of the Giant investigation. How senseless the murders were, how cold-blooded the criminal. "The one striking thing about Roger Warren was that when he did confess he showed absolutely no remorse. I really found it strange. Most killers show some emotion, some regret, but to him the miners were still 'f---ing scabs,'" says McMartin. (Warren draws a sharp little breath and his face goes hard when I tell him about the comment. "That's his impression," he says icily. "I had no remorse because I never had nothing to do with the killings.")

The former RCMP officer has heard about the embryonic efforts to have the federal minister of justice review the miner's conviction. He knows most of the questions will centre on the way he conducted himself in the interview room that October day. McMartin makes no apologies for doing what it took to obtain a confession. There will always be people who are ready to believe the police are out there hatching vast "O.J. Simpson-bloody glove" conspiracies, he says. "Roger Warren murdered nine people and they're not going to sway me at all into thinking he was wrongly convicted."

There are things about Warren's confession and the evidence against him that never quite added up. The four-hour window police maintain he had to travel on foot deep underground, construct a bomb, and escape strikes many with underground experience as an awfully tight proposition, harder still for a man whose health was failing. No trace of a timing device or trip mechanism was found at the scene of the explosion, and RCMP experts had difficulty getting the bomb Warren described to them to work. Investigators were convinced the boots they seized from Warren's home were the ones the killer had worn in the mine, but why then did the miner burn and dispose of a different pair?

A jury of Warren's peers heard these arguments at trial and found him guilty, concluding whatever doubts there were, they weren't reasonable. An appeal court upheld the conviction. The Supreme Court of Canada refused to take another look at his case.

Today, on AIDWYC's advice, Warren refuses to discuss the circumstances of his confession. But at trial, he claimed he was deeply depressed the day he marched into the RCMP offices and took the rap. He had been having heart trouble, and the medication had left him listless and impotent. He had found a growth in his groin and was convinced it was cancer. Witte had publicly vowed not to negotiate until someone was charged with the murders. Warren said voices in his head were urging him to sacrifice himself so his friends could go back to work.

Vancouver psychologist Robert Ley, an authority on false confessions - a phenomenon that he says is quite rare - spent 25 hours examining Warren in the run-up to his trial. The Simon Fraser University professor says the miner displayed some of the traits common to those who try to take the blame for crimes they didn't commit - low self-esteem, passivity, compliance. "He was clinically depressed at the time of the confession," says Ley. "He was quite guilt-ridden about many things in his life. There were certainly a number of personal, psychological and situational factors that raised the possibility of a false confession." The trial judge refused to allow Ley to testify about anything other than Warren's state of mind, ruling the scientific evidence about false confessions was too scant. Even today, despite a growing number of overturned convictions, many remain dubious about the phenomenon.

Lee Selleck, a Yellowknife-based reporter for the CBC, co-authored one of the Giant mine books, Dying for Gold. He and his writing partner, Francis Thompson, spent four years working on the project and conducted more than 350 interviews. They believe someone else set the bomb. "A lot of the information that the RCMP said it was holding back was common knowledge, or had oozed out," says Selleck. Investigators ignored the inconsistencies in Warren's confession because of the pressure they were under, he says. "The police wanted this solved and they wanted it solved very badly." The challenge for AIDWYC, if it decides to take on Warren's case, will be pinning the blame on someone else.

There are a pair of worn workboots, filled with marigolds, at the bottom of the front steps to Al Shearing's house. Inside, suspect No. 1, slight and sinewy with a bristly grey moustache that overhangs his gleaming white dentures, is fielding a steady stream of phone calls from well-wishers. "Yes boy," he shouts into the receiver in his broad Newfoundland accent. "No, no, I'm with a reporter. I'll see you later at the bar." It's two days before Shearing's wedding - he married Kathy Hrynczuk, the sister of Roger Warren's wife, on July 20. Shearing came back to Yellowknife in 1996, at the end of his 2 ½-year sentence for the vent shaft bombing. Now, he's trying to ensure his friend comes home too. Shearing seems unfazed by the possibility that efforts to secure Warren's freedom could end up putting him back on the hot seat. "I can take it," he says, laughing. "I know I didn't have nothing to do with it."

For 13 months, RCMP investigators watched Al Shearing and Tim Bettger's every move. They bugged their phones, their homes, their cars, and dispatched paid informants to gain their confidence. Shearing was interrogated three times and, on the advice of his lawyer, refused to take a polygraph test. Bettger, who did not respond to an interview request, was questioned numerous times, and he too denied all involvement. "It was a hassle," Shearing recalls. "No matter where I turned around there was always a cop in my face saying, 'We know you did it' and 'We're going to get you' and all that crap."

Shearing says he knows the confession is false. The night before Warren took the blame, he and Shearing sat in the Polar Bowl bar, poring over an Edmonton Journal story that detailed the killer's route through the mine, and theorized about how a bomb might have been set up. They talked about Witte's vow that the strike wouldn't end until someone was charged. Shearing is a proponent of the accident theory. He says the company and the RCMP were in cahoots, trying to break the union. "Every one of us was capable physically, technically. But no one had the balls," he says, waving his cigarette in the air. His hands are black, permanently stained with oil and grease from his years as a heavy duty mechanic. "Even if it was scabs that was blown up, it was nine people. It would play on your mind." I ask if he has any trouble sleeping at night. He laughs. "I got no problems at all," he says. "And Roger's the same way."

Many of the strikers have moved away over the last decade, but the community of those who believe in Warren's innocence remains tight. Shearing still talks with Bettger, who now lives in Saskatchewan, and other union brothers who have scattered across the country. Ann, Warren's older daughter, and her mother Helen, continue to live in Yellowknife. Roger is still listed in the phone book. "We feel comfortable living here because we know he's innocent," says Ann. "It's a tough and tragic situation for everyone involved, but we've been hoping for a long time that someone would take a look at all of this."

The violence at Giant forged another close group - the eight widows and 27 children whose lives changed forever that September morning. They, too, are anxiously watching the news reports, waiting to see if AIDWYC will take up the case of a man convicted of one of Canada's worst mass murders, and reopen everything they've been trying to put behind them for the last 10 years. "I've had three calls from the girls this week," says Doreen Hourie, whose husband Norm defied his union and crossed the picket line. "When you think, 'I just don't know what my husband would have done in this situation,' we're there for each other. We call each other because we know what each other is going through."

At the prison, Warren pauses for about 10 seconds, shifting uncomfortably in his seat, when I ask him how he responds to the widows. "I don't know what you say that would ever be adequate," he says, finally. "Nobody wants to see anybody suffer that kind of loss." He stops again and crosses his arms. "I didn't have nothing to do with killing their husbands, that's all I can say."

Hourie, who sat through the entire trial, says she doesn't know how anyone can doubt Warren is a murderer. She's frustrated, knowing painful memories will be dredged up again. "Nobody is writing the story about these men, our husbands, who paid this ultimate price. People are so worried that Roger was wrongfully convicted. My husband was wrongfully killed!" she snaps. "Roger's in jail, his family can go visit him. He's still alive. He didn't leave us with anything." Just questions that some people refuse to believe have been answered.

See also MINING.

Maclean's August 19, 2002