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Marshalling the Manitoba manhunt

Supt. Kevin Lewis worked with many specialized RCMP units while co-ordinating the search for two suspects in rural Manitoba. Credit: Serge Gouin, RCMP

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The search for two B.C. murder suspects, spanning four provinces and capturing international attention, ended with an intense investigation in northern Manitoba. Supt. Kevin Lewis, who oversees RCMP in Manitoba's north district, acted as the initial incident commander co-ordinating police efforts. He spoke to Travis Poland about his role organizing one of the biggest suspect searches Canada's seen.

What made this search for suspects a critical incident?

The suspects were believed to be responsible for three homicides in British Columbia and a specialized police response was required to protect the public. The suspects had firearms and were last seen in the area of Sundance Creek near Gillam. This increased risks resulting in the need for tactical officers. Once we learned the suspects were in our area, we deployed significant resources to prevent any further losses of life and to locate the suspects.

Tell me about your role as incident commander

As the incident commander, I was responsible for the Emergency Response Team and Containment Team, as well as the units supporting them such as the Police Dog Services. At any given time, we had approximately 40 officers on hand in the Gillam area to assist. Managing and prioritizing search tasks and tips was the bulk of my workload.

How did this compare to other critical incidents you've overseen?

This is by far the most substantial incident I've been involved with. I became an incident commander in 2016, with the majority of calls being armed and barricaded suspects or high-risk warrants. These typical critical incidents last hours or maybe one to two days. This search was much more expansive and exhaustive. Most days in Gillam were long for all our officers and staff and it continued for weeks. The search area was massive, which was unique for a critical incident, where the suspect is usually in a known location.

What were the challenges?

You had to contend with the bugs and they were relentless. Even with insect repellent, it was hard to track through the bogs and dense forests. The search areas were remote and accessible only by helicopter or boat. In addition, there were a number of trappers' cabins where the suspects could easily have accessed food, shelter and firearms. Getting to and searching these remote locations proved to be difficult and high risk for our officers.

How did you work with other agencies like the Canadian Armed Forces?

The CAF were instrumental in helping us search swaths of northern Manitoba, including the rail lines from Gillam to Churchill, and the coast of Hudson's Bay to the Nelson River. They provided an on-site logistics person in Gillam to ensure timely and steady communication between the air and ground teams. Manitoba Conservation was an excellent partner with their knowledge of the land, hunting cabins and railway sidings and Manitoba Hydro was helpful in providing mapping and information on their facilities and remote locations.

How did you work with the local communities?

Gillam and Fox Lake were very inviting during the search. We felt welcomed by the community and some went out of their way to say thank you to our officers. Several locals helped with marine searches and their knowledge of the area was very valuable.

When did you know it was time to scale back the search?

There came a time when the threat the suspects posed began to dwindle. Based on the size and scale of the search, the lack of substantiated sightings anywhere and other factors, we decided to reduce our presence in Gillam. The terrain was harsh and the search was intense, which most likely kept the suspects isolated in the woods with little hope. I like to believe our work limited the distance they could travel. We knew we needed to comb the woods and gather evidence to find the suspects, who we believed at the time likely succumbed to nature.

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