‘We’re in a war against crime’: Northern Alberta hamlet pleads for help

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Conklin business owners say an inadequate response to property crime is forcing them to take the law into their own hands. (David Bajer/CBC)

Terry Mills’s truck sped into the yard at 3:45 a.m. MT on Nov. 8, 2018, confronting the thieves who had smashed their vehicles through the chained gate. They were there to steal gas again.

Mills nudged one of the cars with his hood then ducked when he noticed the rifle poking through a window aimed at his head.

The robbers sped off, but Mills and a security guard were soon speeding after a black car on the snowy highway. 

“That’s when he started popping shots,” Mills recalled. “We’re on the phone with the RCMP from Lac La Biche. And I told them, they’re heading their way. They should intercept him. And then I said the guy was shooting at us. The officer said ‘If you shoot at him, I’m going to charge you with manslaughter. I said I’m not shooting at him. He’s shooting at us.'” 

It could easily be a scene from a movie, but the incident unfolded in the compound of Renegade Gas & Oilfield Services Ltd. in Conklin, a hamlet of about 200 in Alberta’s oilpatch, about 350 kilometres northeast of Edmonton.

It’s one of many unsolved incidents piling up as Conklin, like many rural communities across the Prairies, grapples with drug-fuelled property crime.

Terry Mills recalls the night he was shot at after confronting thieves. 1:22

Many of those crimes remain unsolved. In 2017, 24 per cent of property crimes in the hamlet were solved by police, compared with just eight per cent so far in 2019.

With the nearest RCMP detachment 140 kilometres away, some Conklin business owners and operators say they’re often left to fend for themselves. They have confronted criminals and invested in security guards, dogs, cameras and tire-puncturing spike belts.  

Doug Mills, Terry’s brother and the owner of Renegade, predicts it will end in tragedy.

“We’re going to get somebody that is innocent in a lot of trouble. Someone is going to try to defend themselves. Someone’s going to call 911, and it will be delayed and someone’s going to take the law into their own hands,” said Mills, who has been operating in Conklin for almost two decades. 

“We’re in a war against crime. And we have been for a long time up here. We shouldn’t have to put our own people at risk. I mean, we need help.”

Several business owners and operators who spoke to CBC News declined to be interviewed on the record for safety reasons. 

Doug Mills has reported 19 crimes to RCMP since January 2016, all of which remain unsolved. (David Bajer/CBC)

Sporting a company ballcap, glasses and a handlebar moustache, Doug Mills recently steered his four-by-four along a bumpy dirt road, taking CBC on a tour. He pointed out location after location that had been targeted by thieves: an empty lot where his residence was burned down, a burglary at a staff residence and the repeated theft of vehicles, guns and equipment from yards and work camps.

Mills said it takes hours for RCMP officers to respond, if at all, often bringing business to a standstill. To speed up the process, the brothers bag the evidence themselves.

I’m tired of looking over my shoulder. I mean when is enough enough?– Doug Mills

Between business interruptions, replacing equipment and rising insurance costs, crime has been costly. 

An email from the RCMP lists Mills’s criminal cases dating back to 2016 — 19 separate incidents including seven stolen trucks and nine break-ins — all unsolved. 

“Do you know how hard it is to get broken into month after month after year after year after year and never have nobody come to you and explain to you a goddamn thing about that file number?” asked Mills, who says his complaints have long been ignored. 

Crime in Conklin, Alta., has become so bad, residents fear something terrible may happen. 0:57

Mills said the problem is twofold. The Wood Buffalo RCMP detachment responsible for Conklin is based 140 kilometres away, and it’s often staffed by officers with little experience.

“These kids shouldn’t be up here on the front lines,” he said, emphasizing that it isn’t the officers’ fault. “They need senior guys up here, guys who know what they’re doing.”

At his bungalow, Mills described peering out his window eight years ago and seeing two quads taking off down his driveway. He called police as he chased after them. Mills ran one quad off the road and the driver scurried off. He found the other quad tipped upside down in flames.

The next evening Mills received a phone call from an anonymous number.

“They had told me they’re going to burn my house down with me in it,” he recalled. “[The police] said they couldn’t do nothing about it. So I sat up in my garage for the next two weeks from 10 at night until five in the morning with a shotgun, waiting for someone to come, to burn me out. What else am I supposed to do?” 

It’s a question on the minds of many Canadians since the high-profile case of Colten Boushie. In February 2018, a Saskatchewan jury found Gerald Stanley not guilty of killing Boushie, who had driven onto his farm with friends from Red Pheasant Cree Nation.

Rural crime crisis

The release of the parliamentary public safety committee’s report on rural crime last month was supposed to provide some of those answers. Without any formal recommendations, it drew the ire of Alberta Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs who vowed to do better.

“Conservatives will crack down on the criminal gangs that profit from rural crime, revoke parole for criminals who are committing crimes on behalf of a gang and crack down on the criminal enterprises that are fuelling the drug epidemic, one of the factors driving this spike in rural crime,” she pledged.

During his election campaign earlier this year, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney pledged $30 million to crack down on rural and urban crime

Les Tremblay says it’s no longer safe to take his 14-year-old son fishing. (David Bajer/CBC)

For lifelong Conklin resident Les Tremblay, those promises can’t be fulfilled soon enough. Earlier this month, RCMP confirmed the death of his uncle. The remains of William Tremblay were discovered in a smouldering trailer two months earlier. No charges have been laid. 

Les Tremblay said a tougher response is needed from the justice system where repeat offenders are too easily released.

“I’m scared to go out in the evening,” said Tremblay.” You know, I used to take my son fishing and stuff. Now I can’t even do that …. I’ve got a 14-year-old son. He loves fishing. Now he’s scared to go to the lake.”

The closest RCMP detachments in Fort McMurray and Lac a Biche are at least 140 kilometres away.

According to RCMP, between January and mid-June of this year, officers conducted 736 patrols. Junior members are guided by experienced supervisors. Over the past 1½ years, nearly half of the suspects arrested for crimes in Conklin don’t live in the community.

“This trend is observed throughout rural communities across Alberta,” RCMP said in an email. “The Alberta RCMP has developed and implemented a crime reduction strategy to address this problem, amongst many others.”

Management is talking to groups in Conklin to develop strategies to best combat crime, the email added.

One of those discussions will be with Mills, who was looking forward to his meeting with RCMP Tuesday — a meeting scheduled following inquiries from CBC.

“I’m tired of looking over my shoulder,” he said. “I mean when is enough enough?”

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