OPP officers cleared by SIU in 2019 shooting death of 44-year-old Exeter, Ont., man

FILE - The Special Investigations Unit headquarters in Mississauga, Ont. Nakita Krucker/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The province’s police watchdog has cleared two Huron County Ontario Provincial Police officers in the shooting death of a 44-year-old Exeter, Ont., man at his home a year ago.

Officers had responded to the scene at 65 Simcoe St. just after 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 3, 2019, to assist firefighters who had arrived at a home to extinguish a kitchen fire, but were unable to as the resident of the home was refusing to leave.

Read more: Original story: SIU investigates fatal police shooting in Exeter

The SIU said the man was having a mental health episode, and had armed himself with an axe and was refusing to open the door for fire crews or police.

When police used a battering ram on the door of the home to force entry, the man, identified in media reports at the time as Wade Vanderwal, “quickly emerged” through the door and onto the porch with the axe, the report says. Vanderwal was tased by one officer but was described in the report as being “unfazed” by it.

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The report says Vanderwal stepped off the porch and proceeded toward the three officers on scene, who were each pointing a firearm at him and demanding he drop the axe and get on the ground.

When he didn’t, and continued to approach the officers with the axe, two of the officers opened fire, the report says. One officer, subject officer #1, fired four to six times, pausing briefly midway, while the other, subject officer #2, fired four times. Both fired from a distance of about two to four metres while backing away from Vanderwal.

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The SIU says the three officers attempted to remove the axe from Vanderwal’s possession by tasing him first to incapacitate him. The report says subject officer #2 was shocked by the taser — fired by the third officer, witness officer #1 — as he was “physically engaged” with Vanderwal on the ground, adding that the taser did not cause Vanderwal to let go of the axe.

“With both (Vanderwal) and (subject officer #2) on the ground next to each other, (subject officer #1) stepped toward (Vanderwal) and fired one to three shots in his direction,” the report says.

“Following this second volley of gunfire, (Vanderwal) dropped the axe, which was retrieved by (subject officer #2).”

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CPR was performed on Vanderwal at the scene by fire crews and two of the officers prior to the arrival of an ambulance. Vanderwal was rushed to hospital and pronounced dead at 7:21 p.m., less than a hour after fire crews first arrived at his house.

A postmortem examination report showed that Vanderwal had been struck by as many as 11 bullets during both volleys of gunfire, hitting him in the neck, torso, and extremities. Two gunshot wounds to his torso, the report said, caused injuries to his left lung, heart, and liver.

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Prior to the fire, the SIU says Vanderwal, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, manic depression and bi-polar disorder, had been experiencing a mental health episode that afternoon, and had walked barefoot to a neighbour’s across the street and asked to come inside.

When the neighbour’s mother later went to Vanderwal’s home to check on him, Vanderwal opened the door and started “talking nonsensically about the military and police,” the SIU report says, noting Vanderwal’s demeanour turned when his own mother, whom he lived with, returned to the house and tried to engage with him.

(During her 911 call, the neighbour’s mother told the operator that Vanderwal’s mother had come home and had asked him to leave, which had upset him, according to the SIU. She noted that Vanderwal’s mother had told her Vanderwal was having a mental health crisis following the death of a family member.)

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“(Vanderwal) asked his mother to leave, prompting (his mother) and (his neighbour’s mother) to make their way over to (the neighbour’s) home across the road,” the report says.

When the neighbour’s mother returned to Vanderwal’s home a short time later, she noted a small fire on the stove and smoke in the kitchen when Vanderwal opened the door. He declined to extinguish the fire and step outside, at which point she returned home and contacted 911.

Firefighters arriving on scene found Vanderwal standing in front of the door on his front porch. He refused to leave when asked by the district fire chief, the report says, noting Vanderwal was “largely unresponsive and incoherent.” According to a London Free Press report at the time, Vanderwal had previously experienced a series of strokes which impacted his ability to communicate.

It was at that point that officers were called to the scene.

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The SIU says it interviewed 27 civilian witnesses as part of its investigation, including Vanderwal’s mother, the neighbour’s mother, and several firefighters, in addition to one of the two witness officers who were at the scene. The SIU said the second witness officer provided their notes, and an interview was deemed unnecessary.

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The two subject officers at the centre of the probe were interviewed, but declined to submit their notes as is their legal right, the SIU says.

In his decision, Joseph Martino, the SIU’s director, admitted that the death was tragic, “made more so by his mental health at the time,” but said there was no reasonable grounds to believe either of the two subject officers committed a criminal offence in relation to Vanderwal’s death.

Martino says he was satisfied that the first volley of gunshots fired by the officers was within the limits of justified force outlined in Section 34 of the Criminal Code, which provides a legal justification for conduct that is pursued in self-defence or defence of a third-party — conduct which might otherwise constitute an offence.

“They had good reason to believe that there was a fire in the kitchen, that (Vanderwal) was not of sound mind, and that immediate entry was imperative in light of the clear risks of an unchecked fire to public safety, not merely (Vanderwal’s) safety but also others present in the area,” Martino writes.

“(Subject officers #1 and #2) indicated in their SIU interviews that they fired their weapons believing it was necessary to protect themselves and others against an axe attack by (Vanderwal),” Martino continues.

“By all accounts, (Vanderwal) was advancing in a determined fashion, axe in hand, when the first series of shots rang out. Some of the eyewitnesses in the area described (Vanderwal’s) disposition as angry.”

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Martino said he was also satisfied that the second volley of shots fired by subject officer #1 also fell within the limits of justified force in Section 34, saying that he was unable to dismiss the assertion of subject officer #1 that “he shot (Valderwal) in order to protect (subject officer #2)” — who was lying next to Vanderwal on the ground — “from an imminent axe attack.”

Martino said Vanderwal had struggled for years with mental illness, and was in acute mental distress on the day of the shooting.

“What he needed, more than anything, was medical attention. That, however, was not going to be possible unless immediate steps were taken to reach the Complainant, who in his altered state of mind had locked himself in his home and was refusing to come out with a small fire burning in the kitchen,” Martino said.

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The full SIU report can be read here.

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