Ricky Strongquill runs his fingers along his neck, tracing the jagged scar that serves as a permanent reminder of a darker time in his life.
It’s a past he’s not proud of. And one he can’t change.
These days, Strongquill is on a much different path in life, one that has helped heal the many invisible wounds that were leaving an even bigger mark on him.
It all began with an extraordinary gesture toward a most unlikely source — the stranger who helped send him on his downward spiral by murdering his father.
It remains one of the most shocking crimes in Manitoba history: a well-respected RCMP officer ambushed on the highway during a routine traffic stop and gunned down.
The December 2001 killing of Const. Dennis Strongquill near Russell was the culmination of a wild and dangerous spree by three heavily armed fugitives on the run from Alberta — Robert Sand, his brother Danny Sand, and Robert’s girlfriend, Laurie Bell.
Danny Sand was killed days later by a police sniper while staked out on the roof of a Saskatchewan motel, while his brother and Bell would give themselves up to face justice.
Robert Sand, who shot Dennis Strongquill, was convicted of first-degree murder after a jury trial in Brandon and given a life sentence with no chance of parole until 2026. Bell was found guilty of manslaughter for encouraging the attack and ultimately sentenced to 10 years behind bars, which she completed in 2011.
Dennis Strongquill, 52, was survived by six children, along with a network of friends and colleagues across the country who were sent into mourning. Family members agree nobody took his violent death harder than 20-year-old Ricky Strongquill, who was already teetering toward a lifestyle that had loved ones worried.
"At that age, I’d already been experimenting a lot with partying. This just kind of gave me a stepping stone to say ‘OK, it’s all right to do it now,’" Strongquill told the Free Press this week from his apartment in Osborne Village. "And so there were drugs and alcohol for years after that. There was a lot of resentment, a lot of hate."
His siblings, especially older sister Teresa Strongquill, tried to steer him toward a better place. To seek help. To talk to professionals. But he was having none of it.
"I bottled it all up. To me, I was a ticking time bomb," he says.
His father, a proud Mountie, would not have stood for this kind of behaviour, but he was no longer around to try and stop it.
There were multiple trips to the drunk tank and several overdoses, including one particularly close call with cocaine that left him hospitalized. There was also an out-of-control party that ended with him being slashed in the throat by his own cousin.
"We were the best of friends. We had done our drugs. Cocaine, weed, some drinking. I didn’t know he’d done ecstasy. He went into a crazy psychosis state," says Ricky Strongquill.
The attacker had also stabbed his wife in the same frenzy, leaving her seriously injured.
After the brush with death, Strongquill says he began to evaluate his life. He was unemployed, essentially couch-surfing with family and friends, with no real future ahead of him. It was bleak.
"I couldn’t continue like that," he says. "It was killing me. It was slowly killing me with the drugs and the alcohol. I finally had enough."
Strongquill vowed to make a concerted effort to get clean and sober but realized one of the keys to doing so was letting go of so much of the anger within him.
The first step was forgiving his cousin for what he’d done. That ended up being easier than expected, given their previous close relationship. The cousin was ultimately charged and convicted, but he stayed in touch during the process and was there when he was released from prison a few years later.
The next step on his journey was going to take a massive leap of faith. About three years ago, he sat down with a pad of paper and began writing what would prove to be a life-altering letter.
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"Nobody else knew what I wanted to do. It wasn’t for anybody but myself," Strongquill says of his decision to reach out to Robert Sand.
"I told Robert I wasn’t speaking on behalf of my family. This was for me to heal. One of us had to start this. All of us kids were going to be angry our entire life."
Sand had never once apologized for killing Dennis Strongquill, fighting the charges at trial and not uttering a single word at sentencing. That didn’t matter to Ricky Strongquill, who knew what he wanted to do.
"I just told him I was ready to forgive," he says.
There were moments of hesitation, specifically with regards to how other family members would feel, including his late father.
"I thought about whether I was doing the right thing. What would my dad think? Am I dishonouring him? Would he be disappointed?" says Strongquill.
The letter was forwarded to Sand through David Gustafson, executive director of the Community Justice Initiatives Association in British Columbia. The organization works with families of crime victims and offenders who are open to a restorative justice approach as part of the healing process.
"They said what I was doing here was setting a pretty big ball in motion. I said that was good because I wanted to let go of all that crap," says Strongquill.
Gustafson told the Free Press it was a remarkable move by Strongquill to reach out to Sand for the purpose of "unconditionally granting forgiveness to him."
"(Sand) sat quietly as he read the letter we had just handed him, slowly shaking his head in amazement at the words he was reading," said Gustafson.
Sand would write a two-page letter back in which he expressed shock at hearing from him. Gustafson said the inmate "really laboured" over his response.
"Your letter came as a surprise and impacted me deeply. I’ve read out its words over a dozen times and put pen to paper almost as many. I don’t believe I have ever been as impacted by written words, nor have I written anything as important and difficult as this letter," Sand began in his February 2014 reply.
It was the start of a truly unusual relationship.
"You and I have a couple things in common I noticed after reading your letter," Sand continued in that initial reply. "I also haven’t missed a single day without thinking of your father, my brother and everything that happened in those dark days. I’ve lived a life of many regrets, but the loss of our loved ones and the widespread trauma I caused is by far my biggest."
Strongquill had shared some details about his struggle with addiction in the years after the murder. Sand mentioned how his abuse of drugs and alcohol had contributed to his actions, and how he feels like a different person having been clean for several years behind bars.
"I still struggle to live with the things I’ve done, and I don’t imagine it will get any easier," Sand wrote. "No one should have to go through what our families have gone through. Ricky, I am wholeheartedly sorry for taking your father from you and yours. I understand that he was a good man and father, making his loss even more painful. There will never be anything I could say or do to take back or make up for what I have done."
Was it genuine? Strongquill was convinced it was. After all, he was the one who approached Sand, with the killer having nothing to gain at that point considering parole eligibility was still more than a decade away.
"You could tell he’d done some work on himself spiritually," says Strongquill, who learned through prison officials of the various programs Sand had taken to "better himself."
"I never even considered the possibility of forgiveness from a relation of your father," Sand wrote. "When I sat reading your words, it really rocked me hard. You sound like a good man, Ricky. One no doubt your father would be proud of. I am not sure I would have the strength to forgive if I were in your shoes.
Strongquill says it was those final words, near the end of Sand’s letter, that hit him the hardest.
"My dad would be proud, I think. My whole life I’d heard that, even after he passed away. It never really meant anything to me. But to hear Robert say that brought me to tears," he says.
Strongquill’s family had mixed emotions. Four of his siblings, while supportive of his move, wanted nothing to do with Sand. But Teresa eventually followed suit, seeing the value in what her brother had done and writing her own letter and even taking it a step further by flying out to B.C. in March 2016 to sit down with Sand in prison.
"I found what I was looking for when I decided to forgive. However, I will never forget," she told the Free Press this week of the four-hour meeting.
"I’m a much happier person. I’m more at peace with myself since I went out to visit him. I realize he’s a person too who did something terribly, terribly wrong," she said. "I saw with my own eyes that he was genuinely sorry, and I got an apology for what occurred."
Teresa ultimately wrote a letter to federal justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould about her meeting, which she called "history in the making."
"I would like to thank you personally for having these programs in place so that families can take these opportunities to help them in their healing process," she wrote. "I was able to witness a miracle because I was able to forgive the offender and saw with my own eyes and heart that he truly was sorry and took full responsibility for his actions."
Ricky Strongquill would receive another letter from Sand shortly after Teresa’s visit.
"I could feel that she is strong and her strength was reinforced by a pure heart. She truly is a special person and a blessing for those around her," Sand wrote of Teresa. "I’ll be honest, walking into that meeting wasn’t easy, and what followed didn’t get any easier. I could feel that she was void of hate or malice, sincere in her compassion and forgiveness. At first, I found that difficult to understand that, but over time I’m also realizing how toxic hate, resentment and shame can be."
Sand mentioned how Teresa told him Ricky had recently experienced a bit of a setback in his rehabilitation — and the killer urged his victim’s son to stay strong.
"Hearing this. I wanted to do something to help. Not knowing how I could, I decided to write. Ricky, I hope that you won’t give up on sobriety and that happy and joyous life free from drugs and alcohol. I know that you have the strength to pick yourself back up. It’s not the fall that’s important. The important thing is picking yourself back up and learning from the experience. I wish you success and happiness and will send you strength and positive energy," Sand concluded.
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After so many directionless years, Ricky Strongquill believes he has found his true calling.
Now 36, he is set to graduate later this year from the culinary arts program at Red River College. He’s an up-and-coming chef in this city, currently doing his practicum at Niakwa Country Club, and hopes to carve out a successful career in his industry.
He looks to some famous chefs in the world who have overcome plenty of obstacles to achieve their success and hopes to one day be a similar role model others, especially First Nations youth.
"You know what excites me about cooking? When it puts a smile on someone’s face. You genuinely know you did a good job," Strongquill says. "I get my inspiration from these big chefs. A lot of their stories are the same. When they were young, they had these dark years."
He doesn’t hide from his past and admits he is far from perfect, including a "slip-up" with hard drugs about a year ago, which is around the time Sand wrote his last letter.
"There’s always a fear, a constant fear. I call them reminders," he says. "I’m an optimist now. I take that and use (the past) as a reminder that’s now where I want to be."
Once he gets his diploma, Strongquill plans to take a trip out west to see Sand. He said it’s all part of the journey he’s on.
"I definitely started healing a little differently. It’s always going to be an open wound. It’s always going to hurt," he says. "But this definitely has made things easier. The next step is for me to go out there."
He says he wasted many valuable years of his life but believes his real purpose has emerged. In addition to his career, he’s in a long-term relationship and has a place of his own.
"I have no regrets. I had to go through what I had to go through to get where I am. I did a lot of work on myself to get where I am," he says, while noting the role Sand has played in the process.
"It was like a weight was lifted off, one that you didn’t know was holding you down. I said everything I wanted to say. I felt like this was the right thing I had to do."