James Smith Cree Nation inquest: What we did — and didn’t — learn in Week 1

This combination of photos provided by Royal Canadian Mounted Police shows stabbing victims, from top left, Bonnie Burns, Carol Burns, Christian Head, Lydia Gloria Burns, and Lana Head. From bottom left, Wesley Petterson, Thomas Burns, Gregory Burns, Robert Sanderson, and Earl Burns. Myles Sanderson, 32, and his brother Damien, are accused of killing 10 people and wounding 18 others in the attacks that spread across the rural reserve and into the nearby town of Weldon, Saskatchewan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Royal Canadian Mounted Police via AP.
Click to play video: 'Emotional day at inquest into Saskatchewan massacre'
Emotional day at inquest into Saskatchewan massacre
WARNING: This video contains disturbing content. Viewer discretion is advised. RCMP have released new details about the Saskatchewan stabbing rampage that took place in September 2022, when Myles Sanderson killed 17 people and injured 11 others in James Smith Cree Nation and the nearby town of Weldon. Heather Yourex-West reports on what the victims' families learned, and on the RCMP's timeline of what happened in the days leading up to the mass killings. – Jan 16, 2024

The RCMP response to one of Canada’s worst mass murders has been scrutinized during the first week of the inquest into the event — with a number of failings put under the microscope.

Myles Sanderson killed 11 people and injured 17 at James Smith Cree Nation (JSCN) on Sept 4. 2022. His brother, Damien Sanderson, was killed in the massacre and was initially thought to have assisted in the murders, but was later absolved of his role. Sanderson later died in police custody.

In the wake of the murders, questions have been raised about the RCMP response, Sanderson’s release from prison just months prior to the massacre, his lengthy criminal file and more.

The coroner’s inquest into the James Smith Cree Nation murders is being held at the Kerry Vickar Centre in Melfort, Sask. Slavo Kutas

Over five days of gruelling testimony, the inquest has heard from first responders, the widows of Myles and Damien Sanderson, a forensic psychologist and RCMP members, in order to determine how the events of Sept 4. played out and how the RCMP responded to them.

Much of the first week was consumed with examining the police response to the murders — with questions being raised about the wrong photo of Sanderson being used in an RCMP emergency alert, an RCMP member stopping at a fast food outlet on his way to the massacre scene and members passing by a school bus several times, in which a man’s body was later discovered.

Click to play video: 'Ex-partner of Saskatchewan mass murderer shares story of abuse, survival, and hope'
Ex-partner of Saskatchewan mass murderer shares story of abuse, survival, and hope

Emotional family members were also given the opportunity to question those who attended scenes in which their loved ones had died. Many of those family members questioned if things may have turned out differently had the RCMP response been different.


Several new details have emerged from the first week of the inquest, while many questions remain unanswered. Below are several of the most notable.

Melfort RCMP detachment was short-staffed at time of murders

The Melfort RCMP detachment was operating with 12 members on Sept. 4, instead of the 16 it would usually have. Staff Sgt. Darren Lee Simons, who was the Melfort detachment commander at the time of the murders, said that was due to staff vacancies and staff leave and training.

After Sept. 4, that number dropped by four, with one member going on paternity leave and three going on medical leave due to their experience of the massacre.

Disagreement between RCMP members and widow on call-out before massacre

The day before the stabbing rampage at James Smith Cree Nation, Damien Sanderson’s wife, Skye, called 911 to report her husband. He had taken her car and was high and drunk, driving around the tiny Saskatchewan community with his brother, Myles, lurking around her father’s house and trying to intimidate him. At the time, Damien had an outstanding arrest warrant for domestic violence.

RCMP members tried to locate Damien, and ultimately did at a residence in the community where he was drinking with a group of other people, but when confronted, Damien gave members a different name. The photo members had used to identify Damien was out of date.

Click to play video: 'Damien Sanderson’s widow’s 911 call before James Smith Cree Nation murders'
Damien Sanderson’s widow’s 911 call before James Smith Cree Nation murders

In her testimony, Skye insisted that she told officers that Damien was definitely inside and to go back and check the house again. She also said that members showed her the dated photograph of Damien they were using as a reference after they exited the house he was in, and she told them it was an old photo and he had put on weight since then.

Const. Tanner Maynard, who attended the call-out, told the inquest Skye was “using a loud voice with us, (saying) that we’re not doing anything, that sort of thing” but said “I cannot recall” when asked if Skye insisted Damien was inside the residence.

However, Const. David Miller, who accompanied Maynard on the call-out, said Skye “never mentioned anything like that.”

Detachment commander stopped at a fast food outlet on his way to the scene

Staff Sgt. Darren Lee Simons, who was the Melfort detachment commander at the time of the murders, told the inquest he received the first call about the stabbings at 6:15 a.m. He arrived at the scene at 7:38 a.m., after stopping at a fast food restaurant to get food for officers already at the scene. Simons said he called ahead to order the food.

Chelsey Stonestand, who has standing to ask questions of witnesses during the inquiry on behalf of the family of murder victims Bonnie and Gregory Burns, asked Simons about this decision, stating that there was a convenience store at James Smith Cree Nation.

Simons said he “didn’t realize the gravity of the situation” when he stopped for food.


“If I had known that I wouldn’t have stopped,” he said.

Officers passed the school bus in which Earl Burns lay dying several times

Sanderson attacked his in-laws in their home early on Sept. 4, grievously wounding Earl and Joyce Burns. Earl, who was the community’s school bus driver, fought off Sanderson and then jumped in his bus to lure him away from his family and his grandchildren, who were in the basement downstairs. Earl’s body was later found in his school bus, which had rolled into a ditch.

The inquest was shown dashcam footage of officers passing the school bus, sitting in a ditch with its lights on, several times. Both Maynard and Simons passed by the bus, and Simons was the member who eventually went back to the bus and discovered Earl’s body inside.

Deborah Burns, Earl’s daughter, asked Simons why he passed by the bus, when she recalled that her mother had called RCMP to report the bus leaving the house at about 6:20 a.m.

The Burns family: Earl Jr., Vanessa, Deborah, Joyce and Earl. Supplied.

Simons said he personally passed the bus twice, but his focus was “going on to scenes where I knew we had deceased or injured.”

“I didn’t have time to get to it because I thought there was other priorities,” Simons said.

Simons spoke through tears as he recounted eventually returning to the bus.

“I never imagined I would find what I found when I opened that bus door.”

Simons said he believed “fate” brought him to the bus because both he and Earl were veterans. He had also earlier stopped and disarmed a JSCN member who was attempting to hunt down Sanderson. The man later turned out to be Earl’s son, and earlier cleared the home where Earl was attacked.

A cross erected for Earl Burns at James Smith Cree Nation has become a shrine in the weeks since the murders. Ashleigh Stewart

When Deborah told Simons she was Earl’s daughter, Simons broke down, saying he had planned to be at the funeral but couldn’t attend because he got COVID-19.

“I can’t imagine your loss but just know this one’s tough on me personally. And I apologize that your father did not get my attention earlier.”

Const. Tanner Maynard also drove past the bus twice. He shared a similar sentiment to Simons when asked by family members why he did not stop to investigate the bus.

“We didn’t have a call about the bus.… I thought it was something that could wait a moment,” he said.

Incorrect suspect photo of Myles Sanderson released due to ‘human error’

The first photo released of Sanderson on Sept. 4 by RCMP, alongside an emergency alert, was incorrect.

During her testimony on Friday, Mandy Maier, of RCMP strategic communications, explained this was due to “human error.” She said the information was taken from the police record system and the photo that was used was of an individual with the same name, the same spelling of the name and the same community name.


She said the RCMP was notified that the photo was incorrect about an hour after the alert was issued. An updated photo was issued within about two hours.

The incorrect photo provided of Myles Sanderson in the early hours of Sept. 4. RCMP

Damien Sanderson told loved ones he was ‘ready to die’

Staff Sgt. Robin Zentner presented evidence from Damien Sanderson’s phone in the days leading up to the murders. On several occasions, Sanderson told loved ones, including his wife, that he was prepared to die.

He texted his niece, Aaliyah Sanderson, on Sept. 3, 2022, saying, “last time you are gonna hear (from) me.”

Fifteen minutes before the first assault on Sept. 4, Damien messaged Kelly Shane Burns, saying he wasn’t OK, that he loved him and that it was the “last time you gonna hear from me.”

Skye Sanderson and her husband Damien. Supplied

On several occasions, Damien texted his wife, Skye, to say he was “willing to die” or “ready to die.”

Cora Sanderson, Skye and Damien’s eldest daughter, told RCMP in an interview that her father had barged into the house early in the hours of Sept. 4 and told his daughter “this is the last time you’re ever going to see me.”

Damien ‘didn’t really want to be involved’ in the attacks

RCMP Staff Sgt. Carl Sesely, co-author of Sanderson’s postmortem behavioural analysis report, said Damien Sanderson had likely “developed a fantasy” about the attacks in the days leading up to them, but he “was pulled into (the attacks) by his brother” and that “Damien didn’t really want to be involved.”

That fantasy “crashed and burned” when Damien saw Myles attack Martin Moostoos — his first attack on Sept. 4. Damien then attempted to stop the assault on Moostoos, and was murdered by his brother in a car leaving the residence as a result.

Damien became a “reactive target” and was killed for “interfering with Myles’s mission,” Sesely said.

Sanderson was targeting people with Terror Squad connections, but investigators don’t know why

During Sanderson’s assaults on JSCN community members in the days leading up to Sept. 4, and on the day of the murders, he targeted several people he accused of being part of the Terror Squad, a Saskatoon street gang.

In his testimony, forensic psychologist Matt Logan said revenge is often a “strong motivator” in mass casualty events, and Sanderson “seemed to be motivated by Terror Squad members.” However, investigators “couldn’t figure out why.”


Sanderson threatened to kill his own son

When Sanderson attacked his in-laws in their home, his oldest son, Dallon, 13, was in the basement.

Dallon told RCMP that he heard his father say to Earl, his father-in-law: “I’m going to kill you and my son.”

Sanderson then attempted to go downstairs, but Earl jumped on him and the two fell to the floor. Shortly after, Earl got in his school bus to chase the “monsters” away, the inquest heard.

Assault on Vanessa Burns two days before murders may have been ‘trigger’

Two days before the murders, Sanderson committed an assault on his common-law partner, Vanessa Burns, while they were at James Smith Cree Nation selling cocaine. Global News reported this in an exclusive interview with Burns weeks after the murders.

During his testimony, forensic psychologist and retired RCMP member Matt Logan said this assault could have been an “acute trigger” for Sanderson that could have “brought up a lot of other issues that may have taken him further down the anger road.”

Why did Sanderson go to Weldon?

Sanderson’s final murder was in Weldon, 35 kilometres southwest of James Smith Cree Nation, where he killed 78-year-old pensioner Wesley Petterson on his front porch. It is not known why Sanderson approached Petterson’s house, nor why he killed him.

An almost 200-page-long PowerPoint presentation on the murders, presented by Staff Sgt. Robin Zentner on the first day of the inquest, gave little further information as to why Petterson was targeted. At the time of the murder, Zentner said, Petterson’s grandson, Ashton Stitt, was in the basement and was unaware of what was taking place upstairs, telling members he “heard someone walking around upstairs” but thought it was his grandfather. An hour later, he went upstairs and found his grandfather lying on his side on the porch.

A map showing the key locations of the manhunt for Myles Sanderson. Global News

Petterson’s car keys were found on his key rack and his wallet, which had money still inside it, was found on the table after Sanderson left, Zentner said. No further information was given.

Later in the inquest, in response to a question from a community member on the matter, Simons, the detachment commander, said he understood Petterson’s house was targeted at random.

“My understanding is that that was a total random residence with no link to any illegal activity,” Simons said.

Sesely later said he believed Sanderson had been driving around Weldon trying to find a vehicle, and approached Petterson’s house to steal his car. However, Petterson was not the kind of person to readily give his car up, Sesely said, so he was likely murdered for not handing over his keys.

What happened after Sanderson left Weldon?

The PowerPoint presentation of the RCMP investigation into the murders ended after the events of the morning of Sept. 4, after Sanderson committed his final murder in Weldon. He would go on to lead police on a three-day manhunt before eventually being apprehended near Rosthern, in a car stolen from a resident of Wakaw. The Nissan Rogue he used to flee James Smith Cree Nation was found in the Crystal Springs area, 40 kilometres northeast of Wakaw.


It’s still unclear how Myles managed to evade authorities between Sept 4. and Sept. 7. A second inquest focusing on Sanderson’s death in police custody is scheduled for February, so it may be contained in that.

Sanderson had ‘psychopathic traits’ and possibly suffered from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder

Forensic psychologist and retired RCMP member Matt Logan co-authored a postmortem behavioural analysis on Sanderson following his death in police custody. Logan told the inquest about a number of “psychological hypotheses” he has about Sanderson, but stressed that this was not an official diagnosis because he did not conduct a face-to-face interview.

Logan said Sanderson had traits of anti-social personality disorder, intermittent explosive disorder traits and psychopathy. Using a widely accepted instrument in the psychiatric assessment of psychopaths, the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, Logan said Sanderson scored a 33 out of 40. This meant he had a high likelihood of violent recidivism.

Logan had also “heard of a diagnosis of an alcohol-related neurological disorder” but couldn’t confirm this. However, during an interview with Sanderson’s mother, Beverly Burns, Beverly admitted she used alcohol during her pregnancy. Logan concluded that it was a “definite possibility” that Sanderson suffered from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.