A weeklong search for a rural Manitoba man suspected in the homicide of his missing neighbour ended Friday with shots fired at police more than 2,000 kilometres away, in Ontario, during his arrest.
"When we heard that the (Ontario Provincial Police) had this residence surrounded, our entire team was holding their breath," Manitoba RCMP Supt. Michael Koppang said at a news conference.
Thirty-four-year-old Eric Wildman, who lives near Stead in the RM of St. Clements, was wanted in the disappearance of his neighbour Clifford Joseph, who was last seen June 7. Wildman and another man surrendered to police following a tense standoff Friday morning at a home in Prince Edward County, Ont., just outside of Belleville.
"The last thing we want, particularly in the last few weeks, is any more people getting hurt," Koppang said, in clear reference to the death last week of 26-year-old RCMP Const. Shelby Patton, who was killed after pulling over a suspected stolen truck in rural Saskatchewan. Alphonse Traverse, 41, and and Marlene Pagee, 42, both from Winnipeg, have been charged with manslaughter and remain in custody.
"We want to bring people in safely, allow the due process to play out," Koppang said. "It was a tremendous (relief) for myself and our team and the province as a whole that this was brought to a safe conclusion."
Mounties had been scouring Manitoba for Wildman for nearly a week. There had been credible sightings of him renting a vehicle at the Winnipeg airport and at the Lowe's store on Panet Road.
The search had expanded to the Whiteshell area, in the heart of cottage country near the Ontario boundary, after a sighting of the suspect's vehicle.
"It was a heck of a long drive in a fairly short period of time." – RCMP Supt. Michael Koppang
Then tips started to come in from east of Toronto.
"It was a heck of a long drive in a fairly short period of time," Koppang said.
RCMP had received reports of Wildman being sighted in the Whitemouth area, west of the Ontario border, on Wednesday.
"I can say that in a very timely way we had extensive communications with the OPP," Koppang said. "We activated a whole bunch of police resources, we set up roadblocks, we did everything that you would expect us to do and we have no explanation at this point how he got through that."
Local police received three tips from community residents about a vehicle matching the one Wildman was believed to be driving parked at the home Thursday evening, Ontario Provincial Police Sgt. Kerry Schmidt said in an interview with the Free Press.
After securing a search warrant, "multiple" police units, including the emergency response team, tactical unit and crisis negotiators, "descended on the property" sometime after 3 a.m., Schmidt said.
Police were attempting to enter the home "at which point we were greeted by gunfire and moved into a position of containment," he said. "Multiple shots" were fired from inside the house, none from police.
Crisis negotiators made contact with Wildman and another man inside the house and after "lengthy" negotiations the two men surrendered to police around 7 a.m.
Wildman remained in OPP custody Friday afternoon.
"(Manitoba) RCMP are on their way now," Schmidt said.
Schmidt could not say whether the second man lived at the house or if anything had been seized from the home or from Wildman’s car.
Schmidt said the OPP had launched its own investigation into the events of Friday morning. Neither Wildman nor the other man had been charged in connection to the standoff, "but I am sure there will be more information to come soon," Schmidt said.
Joseph, 40, was last seen on Road 44 East in the RM of St. Clements early on June 7. RCMP identified Wildman as a "person of interest" a few days later.
Joseph’s vehicle was found 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, RCMP said earlier this week.
Police found Wildman’s vehicle June 11 and after securing a search warrant recovered firearms, police tactical equipment, clothing patches and other items resembling police clothing.
"The obvious conclusion, that escalated the risk in this situation is that a cache of weapons and police equipment in the hands of a non-police person certainly can’t be used for anything good and productive," Koppang told reporters Friday.
The seizure of the police items brought to mind the deadly rampage of Gabriel Wortman, who, disguised as an RCMP officer, killed 22 people over the course of two days in Nova Scotia in April 2020.
"In terms of a specific threat, a specific target, we simply don’t have that and we didn’t have that throughout this investigation," Koppang said.
RCMP are treating Joseph’s disappearance as a homicide. As of Friday, RCMP had charged Wildman with unsafe transportation of a firearm and possession of a prohibited device without a licence, but not with Joseph’s death.
"It’s too early to comment on (homicide charges)," Koppang said. "We are expecting more charges… We have a lot to unpack about what happened in Ontario and over the last few days. We expect in the next few days we are going to get a lot more information. We have a lot of investigative avenues we have to pursue."
"It’s too early to comment on (homicide charges). We are expecting more charges… We have a lot to unpack about what happened in Ontario and over the last few days. We expect in the next few days we are going to get a lot more information. We have a lot of investigative avenues we have to pursue." – – RCMP Supt. Michael Koppang
Police received "confirmed and credible" sightings of Wildman or his rented 2020 Chevy Equinox in Winnipeg on June 11, Lockport on June 15 and in the Whitemouth area June 16.
In a written statement, Koppang responded to questions about why police did not activate the emergency alert system during the manhunt, saying police didn’t have enough information about the possible risk Wildman posed to the community.
"Without this, we would simply be raising fear without any possibility of mitigating the risk," Koppang said.
"There were at least three occasions this week where senior leaders were prepared to activate the alert ready system, but the tips associated to those situations turned out to be unrelated to our investigations," he said. "The most recent was (Thursday) morning in Hadashville. We are fully prepared to activate this system in appropriate situations, but these situations did not present themselves in this investigation."
On Tuesday, RCMP confirmed the previous tenant of the property Joseph was renting, 66-year-old Vernon Otto, went missing May 30, 2018 and has not been found.
"I appreciate the coincidence involved, but there is no information that (Otto’s disappearance) is involved in any way with this," Koppang said Friday.
Someone once said a journalist is just a reporter in a good suit. Dean Pritchard doesn’t own a good suit. But he knows a good lawsuit.