Giant Mine Murders
The 1992 killing of nine underground miners in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, was one of Canada's worst mass murders.
The killing of nine underground miners in 1992 was one of Canada's worst mass murders. During an already violent strike-lockout at the Giant gold mine in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, nine replacement workers died when their rail car hit a deliberately set bomb. After a lengthy police investigation, striking miner Roger Warren confessed to the crime, then recanted, but was convicted anyway in 1995. He was paroled from prison in 2014, having re-admitted his guilt.
Yellowknife, the capital city of the Northwest Territories, was literally built on gold. In the 1930s and 1940s, gold mines began opening around Yellowknife Bay on Great Slave Lake, and the town sprang up among them. Giant Mine opened in 1948 and was still producing gold more than four decades later. In 1990, the mine was a mainstay of Yellowknife's economy, employing 230 unionized employees, who made an average of $77,000 a year.
That same year, the mine was purchased by Royal Oak Mines Inc., a company co-founded and led by Peggy Witte, a hard-nosed mining executive. In 1991, the Canadian trade journal Northern Miner named Witte "Mining Man of the Year" for having built Royal Oak from scratch into Canada's sixth largest gold producer.
By 1992, according to Royal Oak, Giant Mine had become unprofitable. The richest ore seams had already been taken out, and gold prices had fallen to less than $350 (US) from more than $600 (US) in 1980. Determined to restore the mine to profitability, Royal Oak cut perks for unionized miners, toughened up workplace discipline and demanded a six per cent wage cut.
Workers at Giant were represented by Local 4 of the Canadian Association of Smelter and Allied Workers (CASAW), a small, militant union deeply suspicious of the mine's new owner and its female chief executive. Despite the deteriorating union-management relations since Royal Oak's takeover, the two sides negotiated a new contract agreement in April 1992 that tied miners' pay to fluctuations in the price of gold. The CASAW bargaining committee recommended that union members accept the new contract. However, 72 per cent of the membership voted it down in favour of a strike.
The labour dispute was ugly from the beginning, as attitudes hardened on both sides. Although the union planned to go on strike on 23 May, the company locked out CASAW members the previous day and made preparations to keep the mine operating with replacement workers, something that hadn't been done at a Canadian mine in more than half a century. Although the tactic was illegal in a handful of provinces, strikebreakers were allowed under the federal labour laws that governed the Northwest Territories.
Union members set up picket lines at entrances to the mine site, along with union signs that called Peggy Witte "Miss Piggy" and mocked other mine managers. The company recruited replacement workers from across Canada, bringing them to Yellowknife and sometimes airlifting them via helicopter over picket lines onto the site, where they were housed and fed in temporary shelters. These tactics undercut the strike and enraged union members, who hurled insults at replacement workers from the entrance gates, and harassed them with air horns at night to keep the crews awake.
On the first night of the strike, union members hurled rocks at mine buildings, assaulted a security guard, burned down a shack, and knocked down a power pole delivering electricity to the mine. The tension never let up, prompting Royal Oak to hire teams of Pinkerton guards, who in turn tried to intimidate the strikers. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) responded by bringing in a riot squad from Edmonton. In June, a mob of strikers wearing balaclavas stormed the mine property, breaking windows and assaulting Pinkerton guards – until police fired warning gun shots. Royal Oak dismissed 38 striking miners it said had participated in the riot.
Despite pleas from the territorial government for Ottawa to quell the violence by forcing binding arbitration on the two parties, the federal government refused to intervene in what it called a "private" dispute.
Striking miners Al Shearing and Tim Bettger were part of a small group of the most radical CASAW members who called themselves the "Cambodian Cowboys." On several occasions they broke into the mine – once spray-painting threatening warnings on an underground tunnel and a second time setting off a small bomb on the mine's satellite dish. During a third break-in, they exploded a bomb inside the compressed-air building that ventilates the mine tunnels. The bomb was intended as a warning to Royal Oak that the strikers could shut down the mine if they wanted to.
As the summer wore on, the dispute raised anxieties in the community and divided Yellowknifers against each other. Even mining families that had once been friends and expressed solidarity were now at odds, thanks to a handful of CASAW members who had crossed the picket line and gone back to work, joining the teams of replacement workers underground. Residents wrote letters in local newspapers urging an end to the violence before "someone (gets) killed."
At 8:45 a.m. on 18 September 1992, a man-car carrying nine miners along the 750-foot level of the mine triggered a bomb set beside the rail line. A large explosion sent shock waves throughout the mine and instantly killed all nine men, spreading their remains in a ghastly scene around the tunnel.
Six of the dead were CASAW members who had crossed the picket line to go back to work: Chris Neill, 29, Joe Pandev, 55, Norm Hourie, 53, David Vodnoski, 25, Shane Riggs, 27, and Vern Fullowka, 36. The other three victims were replacement workers: Robert Rowsell, 37, Malcolm Sawler, 38, and Arnold Russell, 41.
As news of the explosion reached the picket line and then the community, tension in Yellowknife reached an all-time high. Fights broke out on the street. CASAW strikers were accused – via threatening phone calls, and with paint sprayed on the union hall – of murder. Many union members, however, believed the explosion had been an accident, the result of lax safety practices by Royal Oak.
RCMP officers found a blasting cap and other equipment at the scene that suggested a deliberately set bomb, not routine mining explosives that were accidentally set off. With additional teams of detectives brought north from southern Canada, the RCMP opened a murder investigation and began the painstaking process of interviewing hundreds of striking miners, Royal Oak managers and replacement workers.
After a brief shutdown, Giant Mine re-opened for operations only a week after the explosion. The tragedy hardened Royal Oak's position, with the company eventually refusing to negotiate an end to the labour dispute until the murderer or murderers had been arrested.
The hunt for the Giant Mine killer was one of the most labour-intensive in RCMP history, involving more than 300 police and lasting 13 months. CASAW members Al Shearing and Tim Bettger, two militant strikers who had set earlier, small explosions in the mine were the prime suspects, although police found little hard evidence pointing to any individual. One of the few pieces of useful evidence was a set of fresh footprints from size-11 Kamik boots, leading from an abandoned shaft into the mine – the route believed to have been taken by the murderer.
Police believed the owner of the boots was striker Roger Warren, one of a handful of union members on picket duty the night before the murders. Warren did own size-11 Kamiks, and the pair he showed to police had soles that had been defaced.
Warren was a 49-year-old husband and father of two girls. A seasoned miner, he was known at Giant as the "Ace" for his skill in blasting and breaking rock. Like all the CASAW members, he had been questioned several times by the RCMP, including during polygraph (lie detector) tests, which proved inconclusive. Although Warren wasn't considered a prime suspect by most investigators, they did believe he might have information that could lead them to the killer.
One Mountie, interrogation expert Sergeant Gregg McMartin, was convinced of Warren's guilt and arranged a lengthy interview with him in October 1993. During that session – in which Warren expressed his disgust for the rule that made it legal for replacement workers, or "scabs" as he called them, to take the strikers' jobs – Warren confessed to setting the bomb that killed the nine men. He then took investigators into the mine and showed them how he had fixed the bomb: setting up sticks of explosives connected to a trip-wire for a passing rail car. He said he'd never intended to kill anyone, just set off a big enough blast that would scare the replacement workers and embarrass Royal Oak.
Warren was arrested. In November, while he was awaiting trial, the Canada Labour Relations Board held hearings in Yellowknife into the dispute and soon ordered an end to the strike-lockout. Eighteen months after it had started, 96 per cent of CASAW members voted to accept virtually the same contract they had rejected in 1992. Royal Oak laid off about a third of its replacement workers, and in December 130 strikers went back to work at the mine.
Strikers Al Shearing and Tim Bettger were not among them. They were arrested and later convicted for their roles in breaking into the mine site and setting smaller bombs in 1992. Shearing was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison, and Bettger to three years.
Trial and Aftermath
Roger Warren was put on trial for murder in September 1994, with the widows and family of several of the murdered miners sitting in the courtroom. Warren surprised many by recanting his confession, saying he had been depressed at the time of his final interrogation by police, and that he had felt browbeaten by the RCMP into confessing. Despite his denials, the jury was shown a police video of Warren escorting investigators through the bomb site and explaining in detail how he had set the bomb. Four months after the trial began, Warren was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
In 1994, the Northwest Territories Workers' Compensation Board filed a civil lawsuit against various parties, including the territorial government, the CASAW union and Royal Oak Mines, seeking compensation to support the nine victims' families, among whom were 17 children. A $10.7-million judgment was awarded to the families in 2004. However, four years later the judgment was overturned by an appeal decision, on the grounds that none of the parties being sued was responsible for Roger Warren's actions in the murders.
Warren appealed his criminal case in 1997, but his conviction was upheld. From prison, he maintained his innocence for nearly a decade. Lawyers with the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted even examined his case, but ultimately never took up the cause of trying to exonerate him.
In 2003, Warren again confessed to the crime, saying he had recanted at his trial because he "couldn't bear to have my family think I could do such a stupid thing." In 2014, after 18 years in jail, despite the objections of some of the victims' families, he was granted day parole and eventually released, aged 70. "I'm sorry for all the pain I've caused," he told his parole hearing.
David Staples and Greg Owens; The Third Suspect. The inside story of the hunt for the Yellowknife mass murderer (1995).