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This article was published 14/11/2017 (1403 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
RM of WEST INTERLAKE — The last time Irene Saunders saw her 18-year-old son, Bill, he was stumbling into the family home, dripping blood from a gunshot wound to his arm, wearing leg shackles.
He was only there a few minutes late Tuesday before taking off into the night.
"I asked how he got here, and he said he stole a vehicle and he grabbed a few things," she said Wednesday afternoon. "He said police had him up for manslaughter for 20 years. He said he would call me when he could.
"We didn’t hear anything more until a sergeant from Winnipeg came and said he was dead."
During those frantic minutes at her rural Interlake home, Irene didn’t know her son was already the subject of a manhunt.
Bill Saunders had attacked an RCMP officer and stole his pistol and an unmarked police van Tuesday night while Saunders was being transported to Winnipeg. Multiple sources told the Free Press Saunders overpowered the lone officer after he was allowed to go to the bathroom on the side of the road.
RCMP later tracked down the van just outside Lake Manitoba First Nation, where Saunders was later shot dead by police.
The Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba, which investigates all serious incidents involving on- and off-duty police officers in the province, has taken over the case.
IIU head Zane Tessler couldn’t say Wednesday how many officers were involved in trying to recapture Saunders or how many shots were fired.
However, Tessler confirmed there were only two people in the van at the time of the initial assault — a male RCMP officer and the 18-year-old prisoner. He wouldn’t reveal the officer’s age or how long he’s been a Mountie.
"We’re just starting the investigation and still in the early stages," Tessler said.
The IIU said in a statement later Wednesday the van was on Highway 6, south of St. Laurent, an estimated 80 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, when the lone officer became involved in a "physical altercation" with the prisoner who was being escorted from Ashern. The officer discharged his firearm while he was attacked by the prisoner, who then gained control of the gun and fled in the police van, the IIU said.
The officer suffered non-threatening injuries and has since been released from hospital, the RCMP said.
Saunders was in custody after being accused of robbing a video lottery terminal worker at the Lake Man Gaming Lounge on Lake Manitoba First Nation shortly after midnight Saturday.
Lake Manitoba Chief Cornell McLean said the VLT worker -- who is seven months pregnant -- was pepper-sprayed during the robbery. Her physical health is OK, but the violent events of the last few days in the quiet community are upsetting, he said. "I feel for my community."
At the time of the manhunt, Saunders’ mother and two sisters, Diane and Rebecca, said they thought he was still in protective custody in Lundar, after getting death threats from a member of the First Nation. They said RCMP arrested the wrong person for the robbery.
"It wasn’t him — he was home with us," said Diane, 20.
Diane was also home Tuesday night, when Saunders burst into the family home.
"He was covered in blood," she said. "He said he got shot by the cops. There was so much blood he was dripping. He couldn’t move his left arm."
Rebecca, 23, said her brother was the kindest and most helpful person.
"He would give you the shirt off his back," she said. "If you were stuck in a ditch you wouldn’t have to flag him down — he would already be stopping."
Wednesday morning, the unmarked white police van could be seen at the bottom of a large, snow-filled ditch off Highway 417, just south of the Lake Manitoba First Nation. The van was upright with its front facing the highway. It appeared to have gone off the road where a sharp curve is located and the speed limit drops to 80 km/h. Investigators were gathering evidence into the fatal shooting throughout the day.
Meanwhile, two RCMP cruisers guarded the scene where the prisoner reportedly attacked the officer. Yellow police tape blocked the road located at the north border of the RM of Woodlands on the west side of Highway 6, a few kilometres south of the turnoff to Twin Lakes Beach.
A nearby resident, who didn’t want to be named, said numerous police cruisers were at the site Tuesday night.
"We don’t know for sure what happened there, but police vehicles were there all through the night," he said. "With so many vehicles, we knew it was serious. I hope the officer is all right."
McLean said the RCMP were in touch with the First Nation Tuesday night to let representatives know the suspect, considered "armed and dangerous," was in the area. Later that night, he found out police shot Saunders near a home on the reserve.
According to the IIU, the suspect was located near the Lake Manitoba First Nation at 11:50 p.m. A lengthy pursuit ensued, ending about an hour later, when the unmarked Ford-150 Econoline entered the ditch, the IIU said.
The man was shot during the arrest, RCMP said in a news release. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
An employee at the Lake Manitoba Convenience Store and Gas Bar said when he arrived at work Tuesday at 11 p.m., the doors were locked. He learned there was a manhunt underway in the area.
"They shut down everything," said the worker, who did not give his name. "They told me someone stole a police vehicle. They said he had a gun."
Irene Saunders said if her son did what RCMP are accusing him of doing in the hours before his death, "they would have had to provoke him.
"He would never have done this. I want the investigation to find out what happened not just now, but in the last year. He has been accused of break and entering, and robberies, but he hasn’t been around when he has been accused of doing those things."
His sister, Diane, said she is also hoping the investigation will answer other questions the family has.
"We heard there were two officers transporting him, not one," she said. "How could he have got away from two officers when he had leg cuffs on? We want to know what happened.
"We want to know the truth."
— with files from Bill Redekop
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.