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Officer's family welcomes verdict

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BRANDON -- A large gathering of Dennis Strongquill's tight-knit family had no trouble reaching a unanimous verdict early yesterday -- guilty as charged -- for the two young lovers accused of his murder.

Hours later, the real jury came back with its decision, convicting Robert Sand of first-degree murder, and his lover, Laurie Bell, of manslaughter -- capping two dramatic days that included a violent courtroom attack and a near-mistrial.

"We're pretty happy right now," said Theresa Strongquill, the oldest daughter of slain RCMP Const. Dennis Strongquill. "He (Sand) got what he deserved."

Sand, 24, and Bell, 21, were charged with first-degree murder for the December, 2001 fatal shooting of the veteran RCMP officer.

Theresa Strongquill called her father a "hero."

Dennis Strongquill's sister, Ruby Brass, said the decision brings closure for the family.

"I think this will be a new beginning for all of us, but Dennis will always be remembered," said Brass.

Earlier in the day, Strongquill's family -- including his ex-wife, oldest daughter, four sisters and several other relatives -- gathered on the lush lawn of a southwest Brandon home to wait for the end of the emotional trial and share their memories of a man who would have celebrated his 54th birthday this past Thursday.

Theresa Strongquill said she doesn't harbour any hatred for the pair -- "my dad taught us not to hate" -- but she wishes Canada hadn't abolished capital punishment.

"I am so angry. In situations like this, I think there should be the death penalty, for sure," she said.

"He didn't deserve what happened to him. He was such a good man. And he didn't have a chance. This is just so tragic, so awful."

Under a warm breeze and sunny skies, family members all agreed the eight-week trial had taken a devastating emotional toll.

Family members had wept openly in court when they heard Dennis Strongquill pleading for help from a police dispatcher in a dramatic audio tape played during the trial. It was the first time any of the family heard the tape, which ends with Strongquill yelling that he and his partner are being chased and fired at.

Moments later, Const. Brian Auger was heard yelling that Strongquill had been shot.

The Strongquill family embraced Auger after he had testified, telling him he did all he could to save his partner.

"Dennis was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. We've become good friend with Brian and have told him that. But I think he feels guilty. He shouldn't," said Theresa Strongquill.

"We think of Brian now as a father figure to us."

On Thursday, with Dennis Strongquill's birthday fresh in their minds, the family watched as Sand leapt out of his prisoner's box and attacked his lawyer, Jason Miller.

Sand used an overgrown, sharpened thumbnail to gouge at the throat of Miller, who was attacked without any warning during a recess while the judge and jury were out of the room.

Sand yelled, "Get off me or I will cut his throat" -- a chilling threat sheriff's officers later discovered could have been carried out with a razor blade Sand had somehow snuck into court.

Miller, who suffered some swelling around his neck, has not returned to the trial.

"This just shows what a violent man he (Sand) is," said Brass.

Strongquill's family say Bell and Sand would have been surprised if they'd only greeted the police officer with conversation instead of bullets.

"He would have given them a fair chance, because he was a fair man," said Brass.

"Any situation he was in, he would try to talk things out. That's the way he was," added another sister, Barbara Woolford.

"He always had time for people."

Dennis Strongquill was known as "bosom" to his family -- a reference to his childhood, when his now-deceased mother would rock him to sleep by holding him tightly in her chest.

"He was always a ladies' man," ex-wife Collette Aubin joked yesterday. The pair were married for 18 years and had three children before an amicable divorce more than a decade ago.

They remained good friends and spoke regularly.

Aubin was with Strongquill when he made good on his childhood dream of getting into the RCMP academy in 1980.

"That was his lifetime goal. He always loved the uniform, respected it," she said.

Theresa Strongquill said her dad had wanted to be a police officer since watching the RCMP march during a parade in his hometown of Swan River when he was eight years old.

"He saw the red uniform and he was in awe," she said.

Strongquill re-married and had two more children before divorcing several years ago. At the time of his death, he was the new father of a six-week old girl -- his sixth child -- with his girlfriend, Mandy Delorande.

Little Korie will turn two this November.

"He was so proud to be a new dad, and was looking forward to Christmas when he was killed," Brass said yesterday.

"She is really cute. She's walking, talking. She looks like her dad. You can tell she's a Strongquill," added Theresa Strongquill.

About two weeks before he was murdered, Dennis Strongquill had shared his private job fears with some close friends.

"He told his friends, who only told us later, that Dennis said he was worried he was going to be shot," said Theresa Strongquill.

Dennis Strongquill planned to retire within a couple years so he could have more time with his family, to play guitar, write songs, eat out at restaurants, play recreational sports and watch his favourite team, the Montreal Canadiens.

"He loved to eat. His favourite dish he used to cook for us was macaroni soup with wieners and tomatoes," Theresa Strongquill said yesterday with a laugh.

He also planned to spent time at the family cottage he'd just purchased in Barrows, just north of Swan River.

Now, his body is buried at the top of a hill, overlooking the lush valley below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 14, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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