Shooter in Sault Ste. Marie involved in intimate partner investigations in past

SAULT STE. MARIE, Ont. — A day before a man killed four people – including three children – in Sault Ste. Marie, police in the northern Ontario city got a domestic violence call from one of the homes where the gunman carried out his rampage.

Police provided few details about that call but said Wednesday that the shooter, who has not been identified, had been involved in intimate partner investigations in the past.

"We did have a call in relation to an incident at that time that could be perceived as domestic violence," Police Chief Hugh Stevenson said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

The shootings that took place Monday night were the result of intimate partner violence, police have said.

"We have a significant tragedy to this family, to this community, to this country," the police chief said.

"As we move down this road, we have to look at what are the antecedents of this behaviour. Are we doing enough as a society? ... We have to get to these situations earlier in life and teach respect for people."

Stevenson said it was also important for community members to speak up if they saw worrisome behaviour.

"We have to start to look around and say, is that behavior consistent with reasonableness?" he said. "If we avoid it, this will continue."

Police have said the shooter first broke into a home on Monday night and killed a 41-year-old woman before heading to a second home and killing three children – aged six, seven and 12 – and shooting another woman, aged 45, who survived.

The 44-year-old shooter was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot, police said.

Officers found two guns – a long gun and a handgun – at the home where the three children were found dead, police said.

The signs of those three children preparing for Halloween were still in place at that home Wednesday, with plastic skeletons and ghouls fluttering from the front porch of the bungalow, while more decorations hung in the front windows.

Yellow police tape remained up around the outside of the home as neighbours could occasionally be seen weeping nearby. One resident said the entire neighbourhood was feeling the weight of what happened.

"You can feel it in the air outside, like it's grim," said Aarika Bonin, who lives down the street.

"I stand outside to put my son on the bus and it's sad ... it's just a sad day for the whole community and the families involved. It's going to be sad for a while."

Bonin said she and her husband saw police vehicles rushing to their street on Monday night, saw officers running back and forth and paramedics arriving but didn't know what was going on at the time.

While she didn't personally know the family that lived down the street, the children seemed happy, she said, and had recently decorated their yard for Halloween.

"I've seen the kids playing outside ... they seem like a nice, normal family," she said. "It really hits close to home, not only being just down the road from us but also having kids of our own."

Bonin said she's been holding her own kids closer as she processes what happened in what is typically a quiet neighbourhood.

A heavy police presence was also visible outside the home where the first shooting took place. Yellow police tape surrounded the house, which had a basketball net outside and an RV on the property.

Ginger Gamble, who lives across the street, said she spoke in late September to the woman who lived in that home, calling her "a beautiful person."

"It’s just devastating, tragic, sick, unbelievable," an emotional Gamble said. "She was very loving and caring."

Carlo Fea, who owns an electronic store near that home, said he was still in shock.

"It's so close to home," he said. "I'm not sure what would cause something like this."

On Wednesday night, hockey fans stood in a downtown Sault Ste. Marie arena and participated in a 30-second moment of silence for the victims ahead of a game.

"Thoughts and prayers are with everyone affected by this tragedy," an announcer said before the Soo Greyhounds and Michigan's Flint Firebirds faced off.

Investigators have not released the identities of those involved but said the shootings were not a random act of violence.

The Algoma District School Board said its community was feeling the "immense impact" of the loss of three students.

"We are working to support all our students and staff, knowing that grief is unique to everyone," the board's director of education, Lucia Reece, wrote in a statement.

The board's traumatic events response team was at the schools affected to support students and teachers, Reece said.

Ontario Solicitor General Michael Kerzner said he spoke to the city’s police chief to offer his condolences.

"There are really no words one can offer a family that lost three beautiful children," he said at the legislature Wednesday. “It's a terrible tragedy.”

Kerzner declined to say if he is reconsidering Ontario’s rejection of a recommendation to declare intimate partner violence an epidemic.

He said Ontario has made millions of dollars available in grants for victims’ services and that cadets at the Ontario Police College get special training on intimate partner violence.

A declaration that intimate partner violence is an epidemic was the top recommendation from the jury at a coroner's inquest last year into the 2015 deaths of Nathalie Warmerdam, Carol Culleton and Anastasia Kuzyk in Renfrew Country in eastern Ontario. The three women were killed by their former partner.

More than 30 municipalities have made that declaration, but Ontario declined because "it is not an infectious or communicable disease."

The province also rejected recommendations to establish an intimate partner violence commission and create the role of a survivor advocate.

However, the government is working on or has accepted many of the rest of the recommendations, including one to explore ways to allow people to find out if their partner has a history of intimate partner violence, similar to Clare's Law in the United Kingdom.

NDP Leader Marit Stiles said intimate partner violence is a public health issue and the government needs to declare it an epidemic so it gets treated as the crisis it is.

"We have seen tragedy after tragedy," she said. "It's not going to end. We need to address it in a systemic way."

- with files from Allison Jones in Toronto.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 25, 2023.

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press