ST. CLEMENTS — The manhunt for a suspected killer in the RM of St. Clements took a shocking turn Tuesday with the revelation that the victim is the suspect’s second neighbour to go missing in three years.
Mounties are combing the property owned by a "dangerous and potentially armed" suspect on the run.
Police have been on the property near the community of Stead, about 70 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, belonging to 34-year-old Eric Paul Wildman since last week, RCMP Sgt. Paul Manaigre said.
Wildman, described as six-foot-two, 170 pounds with blue eyes, is suspected of killing 40-year-old Clifford Joseph, who was last seen on Road 44 East in the RM of St. Clements early on June 7.
"The idea is to rule everything out before we release the property," Manaigre said.
The property is littered with more than a dozen abandoned vehicles, many burned out, but has no residence. A house and several smaller buildings were destroyed along with some vehicles in a fire reported May 20.
Police didn't provide any details on the cause of the fire at the time.
Neither would they comment on whether there was any relationship between Wildman and Joseph, who lived on rented property next to Wildman's, or any link to the fire.
In a stunning revelation, police confirmed the previous tenant of the property Joseph has been renting disappeared almost exactly three years ago. Vernon Otto, 66, went missing on May 30, 2018 and has not been found.
The same day he was reported missing, Selkirk RCMP located Otto’s burned pickup truck a short distance from his residence. Otto’s disappearance was deemed suspicious.
Manaigre said police aren’t currently connecting the two disappearances, but Wildman "may have been a suspect at one time" in Otto's case.
Police located Wildman's vehicle Friday and recovered firearms, police tactical equipment, clothing patches and other items resembling police clothing while executing a search warrant of the vehicle Sunday. They said he may be in possession of more police equipment.
The discovery is eerily reminiscent of the circumstances surrounding the April 2020 deadly rampage in Nova Scotia committed by a 51-year-old denturist disguised as an RCMP officer. Gabriel Wortman, who killed 22 people over two days, was obsessed with the Mounties and owned several decommisioned police cars and uniforms.
Late Tuesday, RCMP released a statement saying Wildman may be in Winnipeg and driving a charcoal 2020 Chevy Equinox with Manitoba licence plate KGE 368.
Wildman fits into studies on convicted police impersonators, said criminologist and chair of the University of Winnipeg criminal justice graduate program Michael Weinrath. A recent U.S. study found the vast majority of police impersonators are white, male and the average age is 31.
There are different reasons someone might collect police paraphernalia, including using it to commit crimes or seeking personal gratification, he said.
Some are what Weinrath called "cop wannabes" — people who seek to emulate an idea of policing for themselves without becoming an officer, and can take the façade too far.
"There’s obviously some very deep and buried anger," he said. "It’s not surprising that a lot of these folks are aggressive because they really think the authority that’s wielded by the police is something that’s impressive and to be aspired to, though they obviously want to use it in a way police would never use it."
Criminologist and U of W professor Kevin Walby said the "hyper-aggressive masculinity involved in tactical policing" is dangerous to emulate, referencing the Nova Scotia massacre.
Eric Wildman fits into studies on convicted police impersonators, said criminologist and chair of the University of Winnipeg criminal justice graduate program Michael Weinrath.
While police aren’t responsible for why someone emulating an officer might resort to violence, the way in which our society commodifies policing has a role to play, he said.
"Police foster this as well," he said. "You can buy toys for kids, you can buy all kinds of mock gear for children at various stores…. I think that police are kind of walking a fine line when they do that, when they advertise and even commodify the brand of policing that is based on this kind of masculinity, because then it does foster in some ways this obsession."
Manaigre wouldn’t elaborate on what evidence led investigators to conclude that Joseph’s disappearance was a homicide, but said Joseph’s vehicle was found by his girlfriend parked outside Wildman’s home the day he was reported missing and several of Joseph's personal items were found on the road leading into his property.
"I think he used to come to this property quite often, and (Joseph’s girlfriend) found the truck there," Manaigre said.
Manaigre said the police aren’t looking for anything specific in the search of Wildman’s property.
"Any kind of leads that may show more evidence of a crime, or could lead to where someone might be. It’s not a specific item we’re looking for, it’s anything that perhaps shouldn’t be there that might help us."
Wildman could often be seen running in the area and many in the community keep their distance from him, said one nearby resident who asked not to be identified.
A review of Wildman’s court record shows a conviction for forgery in 2018 and another for impaired driving in 2013.
Wildman admitted to providing a forged certificate of inspection to MPI and was sentenced to one year of supervised probation, plus 50 hours community-service work.
"Any kind of leads that may show more evidence of a crime, or could lead to where someone might be. It’s not a specific item we’re looking for, it’s anything that perhaps shouldn’t be there that might help us." – RCMP Sgt. Paul Manaigre
At his sentencing hearing for impaired driving, court heard Wildman suffered from a neurological disorder that affected his speech and earned money repairing and selling used cars.
"As a result (of his disability), obtaining gainful employment other than in the entrepreneurial way that he has is a little bit limited," defence lawyer Roberta Campbell told court at the time.
Wildman was prohibited from driving for one year and fined $1,800.
According to court records, Joseph worked as a roofer, fisher, and construction labourer and was, for a time at least, raising a young daughter on his own. Joseph had convictions for assault, damaging property and failing to comply with court orders that were often tied to drinking.
A tip line has been set up for any information relating to Wildman and the case at 431-489-8551.
— With files from Dean Pritchard
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.