Saskatoon

Experts delve into killer's psychology at James Smith Cree Nation massacre inquest

It might not have been on paper, but experts who testified Friday at the inquest into the 2022 mass stabbing on James Smith Cree Nation say Myles Sanderson went into the massacre with a plan.

Myles Sanderson 'had many psychopathic traits,' psychologist and behaviour specialist testifies

A teepee with smoke emnating from it sits in front of a building at dawn on a cold winter day.
A teepee outside of the Kerry Vickar Centre prior to the beginning of the opening day of the public coroner's inquest into the mass stabbings that happened on James Smith Cree Nation in 2022. (Liam Richards/The Canadian Press)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

It might not have been on paper, but experts say Myles Sanderson went into the tragic James Smith Cree Nation massacre with a plan. 

"It was very simple. His mission was to attack, injure, murder those with whom he had a grievance," said Staff Sgt. Carl Sesely, who is in charge of profiling and threat assessment with the national RCMP headquarters in Ottawa.

On Sept. 4, 2022, Myles Sanderson killed 11 people and injured 17 others in a brutal stabbing attack on the Saskatchewan First Nation. A coroner's inquest is being held in front of a jury in Melfort, Sask., to determine the facts around the massacre and try to prevent future tragedies.

This coroner's inquest began on Monday and is scheduled to run for three weeks. So far, multiple police officers have testified about the tragic timeline of events leading up to and during the mass casualty event. Myles Sanderson's ex-partner, Vanessa Burns, also spoke, as did Skye Sanderson, the wife of Myles Sanderson's brother, Damien. The testimony has often been difficult, emotional and shared through tears.

Sesely testified Friday that he analyzed Sanderson's background and assessed victimology, which he described as a study of each victim to determine why they were targeted — rather than victim-blaming.

Even though this was a mass casualty event, Sesely said Sanderson wasn't focused on a "body count." Sanderson interacted with several people who he didn't harm.

WATCH | Inquest looks to prevent future violence: 

Mass stabbing inquest hears about killer's psychology and violent history

3 months ago
Duration 2:18
WARNING: This story contains disturbing details | The coroner's inquest into the mass killings at James Smith Cree Nation moved from the horrific events of September 2022 to the mind and motivation of the perpetrator, Myles Sanderson, who had a history of violence and abuse.

The evidence shows he wanted to attack people he felt had wronged him, and others associated with those victims. He also hurt people who tried to stop his rampage, including his brother Damien and an elderly man who lived in Weldon.

Sesely said Sanderson went to great lengths to drive directly to his victims' homes and places where he could steal vehicles.

"There was a level of cognition to Myles Sanderson," Sesely said.

Matthew Logan, a criminal investigative psychologist and behaviour specialist, agreed that Sanderson had a plan.

Logan and Sesely co-authored a report that tries to answer why Sanderson did what he did and why he targeted his specific victims.

"People believe someone can just snap. Suddenly [they] become a different person overnight," Logan testified Friday. "That snap theory, I've never witnessed it. In my view, it doesn't exist."

WATCH | Calls for more support for domestic violence survivors comes out of inquest: 

Vanessa Burns wants to see more support for domestic violence survivors out of James Smith Cree Nation inquest

3 months ago
Duration 1:41
Vanessa Burns spent years living in fear of Myles Sanderson's brutal violence before he killed 11 people and injured 17 others in a 2022 stabbing massacre in Saskatchewan.

Elements of psychopathy 

Sanderson died shortly after being taken into custody on Sept. 7, 2022, so Logan couldn't interview or clinically diagnose him. However, Logan said he was able to analyze and hypothesize about Sanderson's behaviour based on interviews and reports from the correctional system. 

"He had many psychopathic traits," Logan said.

He said Sanderson scored 33 out of 40 on a psychopathy test that assessed lifestyle, emotion and other factors like superficial charm, pathological lying, lack of remorse and empathy, impulsivity, the tendency to breach court conditions and diversity of crime. 

Logan determined that Sanderson demonstrated an extremely high risk of committing violent crimes after his release from custody. Sanderson was in the top six per cent of the male prison population in Canada in terms of his risk to reoffend violently, based on the psychopathy checklist. 

"You've got somebody who is really not looking out for anybody but himself, doesn't have the controls that a typical person has." 

A troubled childhood 

Logan found that Sanderson had an immensely troubled childhood rife with instability, household dysfunction, abuse and substances. Logan hypothesized Sanderson had fetal alcohol syndrome, although there was no diagnosis.

Sanderson dropped out of school in Grade 10 and couldn't keep a job. He was a chronic criminal with dozens of convictions starting in 2004. Many convictions were for breaching court-imposed conditions, but many were related to violence.

He personally struggled with alcohol, cocaine and methamphetamine use, but was also unstable when sober and displayed intense anger. 

Logan said Sanderson also displayed high traits of antisocial personality disorder, defined as someone who has a hard time abiding by rules of society, a lack of remorse and impulsiveness. 

A violent trigger

Logan spoke about what might have triggered the attacks. Sanderson was wanted on a Canada-wide warrant, which meant it was only a matter of time before his freedom was taken away —  a serious problem for someone who needed total control.

He referenced Sanderson's attack on his common-law partner, Vanessa Burns, whom he beat, strangled and tried to run over just two days before the stabbings.

Sanderson's intense rage seemed to have kicked off the violence that would follow.

"We don't blame the person who was assaulted in any way for this. It's all about him," said Logan.

He said the depth of the violence Burns faced was palpable. She was stuck in a relationship with Sanderson, an admitted aggressive abuser.

In cases like Burns's, there are often elements of trauma bonding, said Logan, and Sanderson used physical violence and coercive control. Victims who try to leave are often beaten or killed, he said.

"The more psychopathic individual has a need for total control," Logan said. "They like to be the puppet master. They like to feel the ownership."

The faces of 11 people, with names and ages when they died, are all in one image.
Eleven people were killed in the Sept. 4, 2022, stabbings. Most were from James Smith Cree Nation, like Vanessa Burns's father. One man was from Weldon, Sask. (CBC)

Sesely testified that Sanderson wasn't done with his killing mission when he fled James Smith Cree Nation.

"We were of the opinion that Myles, he wasn't done yet. He wanted to get to Saskatoon, he wanted to harm Vanessa." 

Not only had Sanderson harmed Burns many times before, he also mentioned to others that he wanted to end her life.

Skye Sanderson, Damien Sanderson's wife, testified Thursday at the inquest. She said she felt Myles was evil and that Damien was, at times, also fearful of his brother. 

She said Damien and Myles had a chilling conversation about two weeks before the mass stabbings.

After that conversation, Damien crawled into bed, held Skye close and said, "I'm scared."

"I kind of think my brother's the devil or something," Damien told Skye, according to her testimony. 

"He said, I want to f--king kill Vanessa, and when I do, I'm going to kill 10 others,'" she testified.

Damien would later become Myles's first victim. 

"It is our view that Damien was pulled into this by his brother,"  Sesely said. "We believe that Damien didn't truly want to be involved and what solidified that is the fact he stopped the [first] attack."

Sesely believes Damien built up a fantasy about a "mission" with Myles, as indicated in text messages he sent to his wife about the brothers' plan and his willingness to die. However, that fantasy likely dissolved when he saw Sanderson attack the first victim, Sesely said.

Once Damien interfered, Myles killed him.

"You're not all-in, I'm going to get you out of my way," Sesely said of Myles's mentality. 

Myles fell through the gaps

Myles fell through gaps in society, Logan said.

Logan said more money and effort must be dedicated to children who don't have supportive households to prevent negative outcomes later in life. He said interventions need to happen in childhood, ideally before the age of eight. 

"The more work we do as a community and citizens, the less we will see of this kind of incident."

He said more also needs to be done to reach offenders who are released from custody and people involved in domestic violence. 

Further, parents need to model positive behaviour and relationships within their homes. If they can't, it's up to society to step in.

"We work together so we can surround the youth who need the help."

Emergency alerts discussed

On Friday, a civilian RCMP employee testified about the emergency alerts that blared on cellphones and radios across the province immediately after the stabbing massacre on James Smith Cree Nation and during the manhunt for Myles.

A total of 12 alerts were issued from Sept. 4 to 7, 2022, including a cancellation after Myles was apprehended, according to Mandy Maier, who works with the RCMP's strategic communications department.

The first 911 call from James Smith Cree Nation came at 5:40 a.m. CST on Sept. 4. RCMP arrived on scene at 6:18 a.m. The person with the authority to issue an emergency alert was called at 6:26 a.m., and the first public emergency alert was issued at 7:57 a.m., the inquest heard.

Maier noted that a photo labelled as Myles Sanderson sent as part of the first alert was in fact a photo of someone else —  another person from the same community with the same name.

"There was 40 pounds difference but the height was the same," she testified.

She said a correction was issued in an alert about two hours later, shortly before 10 a.m., and that the incorrect photo was removed from RCMP's website as soon as possible.

WATCH | Victim's daughter on what it's like to question witnesses at inquest: 

Stabbing victim's daughter shares what it is like to question witnesses at inquest

3 months ago
Duration 1:32
Deborah Burns, the daughter of Earl Burns Sr. — one of the victims of the 2022 mass stabbing on James Smith Cree Nation — and sister to Vanessa Burns shares what it has been like to mentally prepare to question witnesses at the inquest the stabbings.

Lawyer Keith Brown, who is representing James Smith Cree Nation, asked Maier if the communications team confirmed the photo with the First Nation prior to issuing the emergency alert. She said they did not, adding that the situation was fluid. 

"There was a human error made" in sending the original photo, she said.

"Would you agree that speed has to be balanced with accuracy?" Brown asked.

"Correct," Maier said.


Support is available for people affected by this tragedy. The Hope for Wellness hotline offers immediate help to Indigenous people across Canada. Mental health counselling and crisis support is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.

You can talk to a mental health professional via Wellness Together Canada by calling 1-866-585-0445 or text WELLNESS to 686868 for youth or 741741 for adults. It is free and confidential.

Talking Stick is a Saskatchewan-based free anonymous chat platform that connects people seeking emotional support to a trained Indigenous peer advocate 24/7.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kendall Latimer

Journalist

Kendall Latimer (she/her) is a journalist with CBC News in Saskatchewan. You can reach her by emailing kendall.latimer@cbc.ca.

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