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Trial begins for man accused of shooting at Vanderhoof RCMP detachment

Suspect's state of mind will be a key issue as Crown seeks to find Paul Nicholas Russell guilty of attempted murder
Vanderhoof shooter arrest
Police arresting the suspect in the Vanderhoof shooting incident on Nov. 25, 2021.

An RCMP sergeant saw his life flash before his eyes when someone wielding a high-powered rifle opened fire on the Vanderhoof RCMP detachment 1 1/2 years ago, the court heard Monday as a trial for a man accused of pulling the trigger began at the Prince George courthouse.

Paul Nicholas Russell pleaded not guilty to nine charges, including counts of attempted murder with a firearm and mischief endangering life from the Nov. 25, 2021 incident.

It's the Crown's theory that while on lunch break from his job at a fabricating shop in the community of 5,725 people 100 kilometres west of Prince George, Russell drove to the detachment in his pickup truck, armed with a rifle and intending to kill one or more RCMP members.

Crown prosecution alleges that Russell made his way along Church Avenue to the north end of the detachment and opened fire, shooting first at a marked RCMP vehicle, then continuing further on before opening fire again, striking the building's brick exterior then sending a shot through a window that passed through a computer monitor and office divider before lodging in a fax machine.

Russell is then alleged to have turned east onto Columbia Avenue and fired at another RCMP vehicle before leaving the scene for a short time. Crown alleges he then returned and rammed his pickup into the vehicle and then opened fire at the east side of the building with two bullets going through a window and through two metal filing cabinets.

RCMP, meanwhile, took cover and secured the civilian employees in the cell block, contacted neighbouring detachments for assistance, and armed themselves with carbine rifles. Two members exited the building and saw the pickup being driven away on Columbia Street, Crown said in an opening statement.

A bullet had already missed the head of Sgt. Kyle Ushock by a foot when shots first began, the court heard during testimony. Unsure what he would find outside and worried the attacker had not yet given up, Ushock said he "took a deep breath, opened the back door and thought to myself, 'this is going to be the day that I die.'"

He and another officer jumped into an unmarked vehicle and, with carbine rifles in hand, headed straight to the community's high school and elementary school, worried the schools' students could be the next target. They found students outside on their lunch break and added they quickly retreated back into the school when alerted by police.

By then, they had a description of the suspect vehicle, complete with a licence plate number called in by a civilian witness and soon had information on the registered owner, including his home address on the north side of the Nechako River.

As they headed toward the home, Ushock said he saw the driver heading in the opposite direction and wearing the same fedora and reflector sunglasses he saw when he looked out the detachment window when the shots were first fired.

"He just stared at us as we passed," Ushock said. 

The suspect vehicle then turned back onto Burrard Avenue, which runs through the centre of the town, and headed south, "going back the way he came."

Ushock activated his cruiser's emergency lights but the pickup did not pull over. Instead, it kept going and through the intersection at Burrard and Columbia, then ramming a marked police vehicle that had turned onto Burrard. The pickup continued to Highway 16 and then turned right and headed west.

With police in pursuit, the driver continued for less than a kilometre before turning into the parking lot of a tire shop on the edge of the town. Ushock rammed his vehicle into the back of the pickup to keep it from going any further and, with his finger on the trigger of his carbine rifle, demanded that the driver get out of the vehicle.

When another officer put his hand on his back and said, "cover, cover, cover," Ushock advanced to the pickup, opened the door and pulled the driver out. 

Employees at the tire shop, meanwhile, took video of the take down with their phones. Two clips were presented during the trial on Monday - one ending with the employee quickly closing a shop door once he realized what was going on and another taken through a small opening at the bottom of a rolldown that showed a suspect similar in appearance to Russell being dealt with by police.

(Video from a civilian witness who lived across the street from the detachment was also presented. It showed a white pickup truck passing along Church Street while a consistent thud, thud, thud of shots being fired could be heard).

Ushock said the suspect initially refused to comply with a command to show his hands as he lied on the ground and worried the suspect might be hiding a weapon beneath him, he hit him in the back of his head with the barrel of his gun to make him comply. 

"I wasn't about to put my carbine down because I had already been shot at that day, and I wasn't about to provide the suspect with access to another firearm," Ushock said.

Once the suspect was handcuffed behind his back, Ushock backed away and turned the scene over to a sergeant from the Fraser Lake RCMP, who had just shown up. 

Uschock recognized Russell as he sat in the prisoner's box as the suspect who was arrested. Asked about the suspect's composure at the scene, Ushock said he "wasn't doing anything," despite the yelling and screaming from police.

"It was very odd. It was inconsistent with what I've seen in 16 years for someone who's got a bunch of firearms pointed at them," Ushock said.

Ushock described a terrifying and chaotic scene when the shots were initially fired. He said he knew it was something more than a vehicle backfiring when he first heard the noise and noted that a co-worker commented that "it sounds like someone is duck hunting outside."

When he peaked through the blinds of his office window, Ushock said he saw someone in a pickup wearing a black fedora and aviator-style reflector sunglasses and "cycling" a rifle at it rested on the driver's side window.

As he went into the general duty area, he screamed at everyone to get down. 

Just as he breached the door of his office, Ushock said a round came in through one of the windows, went through the upper cabinet and missed his head by less than a foot.

"Basically, there was a whole bunch of explosions inside, there was shrapnel everywhere, smoke from gunpowder," Ushock said.

The occupants remained on the floor until the shooting subsided.

The trial before B.C. Supreme Court Justice Francesca Marzari continues Tuesday.