An inner-city domestic dispute turned into an arson that nearly led to multiple deaths Tuesday night after a police officer was assaulted and another family was forced to escape fire by jumping from a second-storey bedroom window.
"We don’t normally speak about domestics, for the sake of the victim and for privacy issues, but this one is a little different.... It’s crazy, but it’s not that unusual for our officers. Crazy has almost become the new norm," Winnipeg Police Service spokesman Const. Rob Carver said Thursday.
Officers were called to a home on McDermot Avenue at 9:45 p.m. When they arrived, they spoke to a woman and her three young children. Soon after, a man appeared and struck one of the officers before fleeing to a nearby yard, where he smashed out the window of a parked vehicle.
The woman shepherded her children into her own vehicle, but the suspect returned and began smashing out the windows. One of the officers used a Taser but it failed to subdue the man.
The woman then ran back inside with a male relative and attempted to barricade the door. The suspect followed them and smashed the door open, striking both of them in the process.
One of the officers then ran inside the suite and was able to exit with the victims. The suspect barricaded himself inside and began to destroy items in the home before starting a fire.
In a separate, upstairs suite at the building, Shanae Harper was preparing for bed with her three-year-old daughter and two of her sisters (one of whom is six months pregnant). Earlier in the night they had heard police activity outside, but believed the situation was being resolved.
Then she began to smell smoke.
"It was getting worse and worse. He started smashing all the glass downstairs. We couldn’t get out. There was only one way to get out of the building, so we barricaded ourselves in the room. I started noticing the smell of smoke. Then the smoke was coming up. It escalated very quickly," Harper said.
As the smoke thickened, Harper said police started shouting at them, urging them to get out the bedroom through a window, onto the roof.
First out was her sister, who was clutching Harper’s terrified child, followed by her other sister, then Harper herself.
"They started telling us to jump from the roof. My daughter was terrified. She wouldn’t let go of my sister, so she had to toss her off," Harper said.
One by one, the sisters followed Harper’s child off the roof — which was estimated at about three metres from the ground — by jumping into the arms of officers waiting to catch them.
"I was pretty scared, but I was more afraid for my daughter and my (pregnant) sister than myself. Basically, I was just thinking, ‘Get them out. Get them out.’ (The smoke) started billowing out from the windows and we did see the flames from downstairs," Harper said.
"I got pretty confused. I was in shock, basically. We had no shoes on. None of us had any shoes on. We were in two inches of snow. We were in our shorts and tank tops."
The family was transported to hospital where they were treated for smoke inhalation and then released.
One of the family's cats died in the fire, Harper said. She and her sisters also lost the majority of their belongings. The two siblings who lived at the property now have to find a new home.
The WPS tactical support team and a canine unit eventually arrived and were able to arrest the suspect.
At a press conference Thursday, Carver said the situation easily could have turned deadly — either for Harper and her family or for the man, who has now been charged with a long list of offences.
"There’s no question (it could have been a quadruple homicide). I think the injuries were less than they could have been because we had officers standing below a window catching a child and adults. I think you can safely say those officers are heroes," Carver said.
"We do everything we can not to use higher levels of force and to keep everybody safe. I think this is a really good indication of the balancing act officers have to work through. Some of our people were assaulted, some people were assaulted in the building, but ultimately he was taken into custody with minimal levels of force."
The accused, a 26-year-old man who is known to police, is not being identified so as to protect the identities of the others involved in the initial domestic dispute. Police do not believe drugs were a factor in the incident.
The man has been charged with four counts of arson with disregard for human life and assaulting a police officer, in addition to eight other criminal offences and is being held in custody.
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.