Police sergeant says slain Quebec teenager holding air pistol was perceived as threat

SHERBROOKE, Que. — Quebec provincial police officers who responded to an emergency call that left a 17-year-old dead testified on Tuesday about a quick interaction with a teenager in crisis that lasted just over a minute.

Their testimony was part of a coroner's inquest into the 2018 police shooting of Riley Fairholm, who was shot in the head by a police officer in the parking lot of an abandoned restaurant in Lac-Brome, Que., about an hour southeast of Montreal. 

Sgt. Wallace McGovern told the inquest he became increasingly uncomfortable as an armed teenager advanced toward officers in the early morning of July 25.

“He was going back and forth and each time he would come toward us, he would come closer toward us, always with his weapon pointing everywhere," McGovern said.

Provincial police at the time did not know that it was Fairholm himself who had called 911 about a man with a gun in the rural Quebec town in the province's Eastern Townships. The 911 dispatcher put Fairholm through to McGovern.

The sergeant told the inquiry he asked the caller to describe the armed assailant. McGovern said the caller described a teen dressed in dark clothing, wearing a long-sleeved shirt, with a dark cap and a backpack.

McGovern said the conversation with Fairholm took place as six officers huddled to map out a plan should they have come across the suspect. He said he didn't make a connection between the 911 caller and the Fairholm he encountered in the parking lot — a teenager dressed in black and waving his arms and screaming with a pistol in hand.

When the officers arrived on scene, McGovern started talking to Fairholm through a loudspeaker. The sergeant said he asked the teenager in English to drop a weapon, which police discovered later was an air pistol.

The sergeant said he cracked open his car door and tried to get out but his partner told him to stay inside. He said that as he was closing the car door, he heard Fairholm say he had been planning this day for five years.

"My first reaction was to get out (of the car) and make a verbal contact with him; it looked like a teenager and my partner grabbed my arm and told me not to; it was too dangerous," McGovern said.

McGovern said he used the loudspeaker to ask Fairholm to drop the weapon. The sergeant said he repeated his demand at least three times. He said he was in his patrol car and couldn't hear Fairholm respond.

“I was hoping he would drop his weapon and I knew there was only three outcomes: he would either drop his weapon, start shooting at us or the way he was acting and pointing toward us … somebody would stop the threat," McGovern said. 

McGovern said he didn't see where the shot came from, but he said he knew one of his colleagues had fired on Fairholm.

“It wasn’t very long; I said in my report it was one to two minutes and obviously it was closer to one minute," McGovern said.

Fairholm had a faint pulse, but police did not perform CPR on him, McGovern said.

Geneviève Racine, another police officer on the scene, told the inquiry that officers didn't have proper first aid equipment on hand and that she tried to stem the bleeding from the head wound.

Racine discussed encountering Fairholm's parents at the hospital. She said they had several tense exchanges, including one involving the teen's mother, who discovered that police had killed him and that he hadn't killed himself.

"I had a mother in front of me and I couldn't hide the truth from her," Racine said.

The shooting was investigated by Quebec's independent police watchdog, and the Crown decided not to lay charges.

Fairholm's family has been critical of the provincial police and Quebec's independent police oversight agency, known as the Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes, for a lack of transparency. 

For his part, McGovern offered his sympathies to Fairholm's family. He was asked by the inquiry lawyer if the result would have been different had he been able to speak with the teenager for a longer period of time.

“I have no idea it would have changed anything,” McGovern responded.

But the sergeant added that three years later, he responded to a call involving a Cree man threatening to kill himself with a rifle. McGovern said it took three hours, but he was able to bring the situation under control, adding that the man thanked him for his patience.

"Time sometimes works for you," McGovern said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 14, 2022.

— By Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal.

The Canadian Press