An RCMP major crime investigator was the first to testify on Monday in the coroner’s inquest into the 2022 mass murders committed by Myles Sanderson on James Smith Cree Nation.
RCMP investigator Robin Zentner shared a series of text messages obtained by police that show Damien Sanderson become increasingly fatalistic in the days leading up to his death at the hands of his brother.
Vanessa Burns, Sanderson’s partner, told police she drove Sanderson back and forth between Saskatoon and JSCN several times in August 2022 to sell cocaine.
On Sept. 1, 2022, they returned to JSCN with their four children in Burns’ Jeep.
The following day, the two got into an argument after driving around and selling cocaine.
Burns told police that Sanderson was bringing up issues from their past and that the argument became physical. She said he hit her in the head with a scale and tried to strangle her while she was driving the Jeep.
Messages obtained from Damien’s partner Skye Sanderson’s cell phone confirm that Skye and some of the children saw the altercation between Burns and Sanderson.
She told Burns she tried calling the police on Sanderson and Damien, and described a break-in the two had committed in the community.
“Holy … just a bad batch of coke then,” Burns replied.
Around 4 a.m. on Sept. 3, Skye called the Melfort detachment of the RCMP to report that Damien had stolen her vehicle. The inquest heard a recording of the call.
Skye said he had an outstanding warrant for his arrest and that he may be impaired. She asked that her name not be mentioned.
‘I’M WILLING TO DIE’
Skye continued to text Damien as police searched the community to recover her vehicle from him.
“Wish you just come back to sleep more instead of saving the fucken day for other people,” she wrote.
“I’m down to die me and my brother,” Damien replied, followed by, “so wish me luck.”
Zentner was asked what they made of Damien’s statement that he’s not afraid to die, which he repeated several times in their exchanges that morning.
Zentner said it wasn’t clear from the messages police recovered why Damien would say that.
Whatever Sanderson and Damien may have had planned, Zentner said the text exchanges between Damien and Skye that day reveal that he was becoming emotional and there was a fatalistic tone.
Around 6:30 a.m. on Sept. 3, after an extended argument over text, Damien told her “we ain’t going down alive.”
In the early morning hours of Sept. 4, Zentner says Damien reached out to a friend for support, saying he was feeling “lost.”
Just after 5 a.m., shortly before the mass murders began, Damien messaged his friend again, saying “love ya brother, last time you’re gonna hear from me.”
He also messaged Skye to tell her he loves her, saying “we going out.”
Despite Sanderson’s considerable rap sheet prior to the incident, including 10 convictions for assault and five for assault with a weapon, Zentner says at no point was the RCMP “contacted about the presence or activities of Myles Sanderson in or around JSCN” in the days leading up to the murders.
He gave a sense of the sheer quantity of evidence collected by investigators. Zentner said 548 RCMP employees took part, plus multiple municipal police departments and those from other agencies.
“It was the largest homicide investigation that was undertaken by the RCMP in the province of Saskatchewan,” she said.
‘THE ONLY WAY TO GET CLOSURE’
James Smith Cree Nation Chief Wally Burns (Rory MacLean / CTV News)
James Smith Chief Wally Burns says his community has turned to ceremony to find healing.
“We had a variety of ceremonies with our people,” Burns told CTV News on Monday.
“I sacrifice myself through Sundance and through ceremony. I just wanted to feel their pains,” he said.
Burns said he hopes members of his community can find closure through the inquest.
“I do believe in the creator has intentions on how this thing would grab a lot of emotions. And for me, I think dealing with the situation, I think this is the right way and the only way to get closure,” he said.
“But the hurt is still there.”
The inquest continues for the next two weeks in Melfort.
A second inquest into the circumstances of Sanderson’s death after being taken into police custody is scheduled from Feb. 26 to March 1 in Saskatoon.
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