SIXTH IN A SERIES: As news surrounding Surrey’s RCMP dominates headlines, we look at different ways residents are helping make our city safer. Click here to read part five.
There’s a dusty tombstone in Boot Hill cemetery in Arizona that bears a most unfortunate epitaph: “Lynched by mistake.”
The concept of so-called “frontier justice” is almost as old as the stones, dating way before Mary Shelly wrote about torch-wielding mobs in Frankenstein, before Robin Hood drove the Sheriff of Nottingham to distraction, and even back to the Book of Genesis in the Bible.
Pop culture is filled with freelance crime fighters: Spiderman, the Lone Ranger, Zorro…
Of course in their world, they always win. In the real world however, and sometimes right here in Surrey, things don’t always turn out well for people who try to do “the right thing.”
While there are vigilante groups, per se, most citizens who instinctively react to a crime in progress would not characterize themselves as vigilantes. The word itself is Spanish in origin and refers to one who watches or guards.
There are notorious groups who take what they believe to be justice into their own hands, such as the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade which fire-bombed a Red Hot Video store on Scott Road in 1982, along with two other adult video shops in the Lower Mainland.
The Surrey video store, at 9442 Scott Rd., was totally destroyed along with neighbouring Collins Safety Shoes and three vacant shops. The radical feminist group used gasoline bombs.
“This is an act of self-defence against hate propaganda,” read their note to the press.
There are also the heroic groups such as the Guardian Angels, a group founded in 1979 by Curtis Sliwa, a McDonald’s manager in the Bronx. Wearing red jackets and berets, groups of the angels patrol neighbourhoods but have no official policing powers other than the authority to make citizens arrests under Section 494 of the Criminal Code. They were in Whalley in 1985 and helped clean its streets which were at the time plagued by a youth gang called the Whalley Burnouts.
Also there are those who emulate comic book superheroes. One such group,the Rain City Superhero Movement, fought crime in Seattle until calling it quits on May 29, 2014. In its heyday the group, consisting of full-costumed crusaders like Phoenix Jones, Thorn, Buster Doe, Green Reaper, the Mantis, Prodigy, Gemini, No Name, Catastrophe, Thunder 88, Midnight Jack, Penelope, Red Dragon, Karma, SkyMan and El Caballero, were credited with stopping drunk drivers and carjackings, and preventing a group of thugs from robbing a blind man.
Once in a while, Surrey residents will make headlines for taking the law into their own hands.
Some run into legal problems. In 2002, three men faced kidnapping, extortion and assault charges related to what was reported as being an apparent attempt at vigilante justice after several prospective tenants of a house in Newton were allegedly scammed out of $2,000 apiece.
Police said at the time that “further investigation” revealed the victim was linked to a residential property scam in which a house had been simultaneously rented to multiple people who found out on move-in day that they’d been duped.
Meanwhile, others who take the law into their own hands say they’re just trying to do the “right thing.”
In 2008, a Surrey salesman named Fabio – who understandably didn’t want his last name published – set up a website called CrookTube.com which posted submitted video footage of people committing criminal acts, in the hope that viewers would recognize the culprits and call police. Fabio told the Now he launched the website because he was fed-up with his apartment building being broken into all the time.
“I’m not a vigilante, I’m not trying to do the work of the police,” he insisted at the time. “I’m trying to do the right thing.”
Sometimes, doing the “right thing” has a happy ending. In 2009 a young woman learned that the hard way after mugging a senior citizen for her purse in Whalley. The victim, 73, had been walking home from shopping when the 22-year-old robber pounced on her. A woman helping her son with his paper route, and a postal carrier delivering mail on his route, heard the screams, chased the mugger down and held her until police arrived.
“I was so grateful,” the mugging victim later said of her rescuers.
“I think they saved my life.”
Still, chasing criminals of course comes with its inherent risks.
Just four days into the New Year, a Surrey man chased a sedan at high speeds even as its occupants shot at his pickup truck. During the chase, from South Surrey into Delta, he called 911 telling police he’d confronted several people in a “suspicious parked vehicle” in his neighborhood. The man had apparently been doing his own proactive patrol when the car’s occupants fired several shots at his pickup and then took off.
He chased the sedan down Highway 99 into Delta where it crashed into a hydro pole on River Road near 80th Street. Police then arrested the suspects.
Surrey RCMP Sgt. Paul Hayes stressed that getting into car chases for whatever reason isn’t recommended, “let alone after they’ve shot at you. Call us – let us deal with the bad guys.
“Despite repeated requests to stop pursuing the suspect vehicle, the citizen refused to comply with our commands,” Hayes said.
“When you pursue a vehicle or suspect, not only are you putting your life and the general public’s life at risk, you risk being charged yourself and could face criminal and civil consequence. We encourage citizens who notice suspicious people or vehicles to contact the police instead of confronting people themselves.”
The Surrey resident was indeed lucky he didn’t get hurt. A Bay store employee who was stabbed multiple times last month at Guildford Town Centre shopping mall while stopping a shoplifting suspect was not so lucky. The 29-year-old was taken to hospital with stab wounds to his arms and upper body. A 34-year-old man was arrested. Charges are pending.
Sadly, some “Good Samaritans” pay the ultimate price for trying to make a citizen’s arrest. Such was the case of Sam McGowan, 42, who took his last breath on a front lawn in Fleetwood in 2009 after chasing a teenaged mugger who had stolen a cellphone from a child. The Fleetwood dad chased the 16-year-old boy over fences and through backyards. When McGowan finally caught up with him, the teen spun around and stabbed him in the heart with a buck knife.
McGowan died in his girlfriend’s arms. She told the Now that he “died a hero.”
The teen, whose name cannot be published as the Youth Criminal Justice Act shields his identity, was found guilty of manslaughter in 2012 and was sentenced to a three-year custody and supervision order, the maximum sentence under the Act.
In 2006, a Surrey gas jockey was seriously injured when a gas-and-dash motorist ran over him and took off down Scott Road. The 23-year-old attendant had grabbed a golf club from his booth and tried to chase the van down as it drove off the lot.
Corrine De Patie (pictured) told the Now that her knees started shaking when she heard about the hit-and-run.
“I just got the numbing sensation,” she said at the time. “I’m just appalled that this has happened again.”
The previous year, her son Grant, 24, was dragged more than seven kilometres to his death after trying to stop a teenaged driver who dashed away in a stolen car without paying his $12.30 gas bill. Grant had been working the graveyard shift at a gas station in Maple Ridge. A note with the licence plate number scribbled on it was found in his pocket.
Grant’s dad, Doug De Patie, by no means considers his son’s last actions to be the stuff of vigilantism. That said, he noted, “You just can’t stand by and let crime take place.”
De Patie recalled a case in Vancouver where a woman was beaten and raped on a sidewalk. People could see what was going on from their apartment windows, he said, but nobody did anything about it.
“The guy came back and beat her and raped her,” he recalled.
A syndrome was named after their lack of helping, he noted.
As for Grant?
“He did something. I think what he did was right.
“If you stand by and let something happen, you are really a part of it.”
Poignant words from a father who has lost so much.
Police generally advise citizens to call 911 for help but not to take on criminals themselves. The result of doing so, says Surrey RCMP Sgt. Alanna Dunlop, is “unpredictable.”
“We don’t recommend that.”
Still, police obviously can’t be everywhere all the time. So, if you see someone being harmed, what would you do? You might have a split-second decision to make, with potentially dire consequences either way.