Greg Ftoma locked his doors and took the key out of the console of his truck Wednesday night for the first time, and for good reason.
Ftoma owns Brereton Lake Resort, 40 kilometres east of Whitemouth, where a suspected killer, deemed armed and dangerous, was spotted Wednesday driving eastbound on Highway 44 in a grey Chevy Equinox he had rented at the airport on June 11.
Mounties descended in droves on the rural area that includes the popular Whiteshell Provincial Park — normally quiet cottage country.
"Until they catch him, I’ll keep my doors locked," Ftoma said of alleged killer Eric Paul Wildman.
Wednesday night, Ftoma's daughter saw 10 or 12 RCMP vehicles between the resort and the nearby town of Elma, some positioned at road intersections.
Officers from across southern Manitoba and special units including major crimes investigators, emergency response tactical officers and senior critical incident commanders are on the scene, RCMP said. The force's air services, which includes planes and helicopters, are part of the manhunt, as are police dogs. The Ontario Provincial Police are working closely with RCMP — Whitemouth, where Wildman was last seen, is about 75 kilometres northwest of the provincial border.
Wildman, 34, is wanted in the disappearance of Clifford Joseph, 40, who rented a property next to Wildman’s in the RM of St. Clements near Stead, about 70 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. Officers recovered guns, ammunition, police tactical equipment, clothing patches and other items resembling police clothing while executing a search warrant of the vehicle last Sunday. They said he may have more police equipment.
Wildman, described as 6-2, 170 pounds with blue eyes, is suspected of killing Joseph, who was last seen on Road 44 East in the RM of St. Clements early June 7. His body has yet to be found and no motive for the crime has been released.
An old friend who grew up with Joseph on Lake Winnipeg described him as a kind, family man.
"I want Cliff to be remembered as a person who mattered. As a father," the friend said. She asked that her name not be used because the suspect remained at large.
Joseph worked for much of his life as a commercial fisherman, having learned the trade from his father, and he raised his daughter on his own. He smoked goldeye and had a good sense of humour.
"He was a good-hearted Métis man who learned the traditional ways of fishing and being on the land," the friend said. "He had a good heart, he was very caring and very giving."
While Joseph's alleged killer is still at large, RCMP have been fairly tight-lipped about their investigation.
Royal Military College professor Christian Leuprecht shed light on police tactics in the search for an armed and dangerous suspect, in an interview with the Free Press Thursday.
"You’re going to go to his bank and get production orders on his credit card, on his bank card. He’s going to get a wiretap warrant on his phone. You’re probably also going to apprise areas where he might be sighted, especially gas stations and the like," said Leuprecht, a policing and security expert who has long studied the RCMP.
"Eventually, people leave an electronic footprint somewhere. That tends to… tip off authorities."
Leuprecht said if it's suspected Wildman has ditched the vehicle and is travelling on foot, RCMP would likely conduct infrared searches over the area by plane.
The expert added RCMP are at an advantage as a national police force, with strict training standards, including on the use of long guns, and significant resources. However, a search for an armed and dangerous suspect has inherent risks.
"Whenever you’re chasing someone who is a murder suspect, it becomes a problem in the sense that — if he’s killed once, there’s a risk he’ll kill again," Leuprecht said.
"It becomes a different type of search in that sense. Any time that person is sighted somewhere, let alone is sighted by a Mountie or another police officer, there’s a risk that if they engage, that person might kill again. It means that the search has to take extra precautions. That means the proper body armour, C7 rifles."
The prairie director of the National Police Federation, which represents RCMP officers, said the force's cops are particularly fit for rural and remote searches based on their training and experience.
But, director Bobby Baker, a nearly 25-year RCMP veteran with experience in front-line policing and major crimes investigations, said there are concerns over officer safety in serious armed events.
"Ensuring that they have other officers nearby with backup at hand. That they would have the equipment available, that they have leadership for decision making," he said, adding investigations like the search for Wildman are staffed and resourced differently than day-to-day operations.
— with files from Malak Abas
Erik Pindera is a multimedia producer at the Winnipeg Free Press.