In late May, a parole officer issued an arrest warrant for an offender with a violent criminal past who had recently been released from prison in Saskatchewan and who had since disappeared.
More than 100 days later, Myles Sanderson remained unlawfully at large when he was named as a suspect in a stabbing rampage that left 11 people dead — including his brother, Damien Sanderson, who was also named as a suspect — and 18 others injured in James Smith Cree Nation and Weldon, Sask.
After a four-day manhunt, Sanderson was arrested on a rural stretch of highway and died in custody after RCMP said he went into “medical distress.”
The tragedy has prompted scrutiny over how Sanderson managed to remain free in the months leading up to the attacks, and how authorities should handle violent offenders who violate the rules of their release.
Sanderson’s case seems to reveal a gap in the system.
While the Correctional Service of Canada says it’s up to police to capture offenders who break their parole, police say that the warrants for those suspects are among countless others that land on their desks to manage.
“That’s the problem,” Scott Blandford, a former police sergeant in London, Ont. “It’s a finger-pointing exercise.”
Sanderson had been released into the community in August 2021 on what’s called statutory release, which kicks in when federal offenders have served two-thirds of their prison sentences.
While Sanderson’s case has put a spotlight on the measure, one expert says it allows offenders time to transition back into society after living in a “tightly controlled prison environment.”
“The vast majority are greatly helped when provided with a period of reintegration supports,” Toronto Metropolitan University criminology professor Jane Sprott said in an email.
She said the alternative is to “release them cold without any supervision or reintegration” following their prison sentences, which increases their chances of reoffending.
Four months into his freedom, Sanderson was found to have been lying about his living arrangements and had his release suspended.
It wasn’t the first time he had been found in breach of such rules.
Parole documents shows he had been convicted of 59 offences, 28 of them for failure to comply with release conditions or failure to appear in court. His criminal record included violent assaults, including against people who were victims in his recent attacks.
Sanderson requested that the parole board cancel the suspension, the documents show, saying that he had stayed sober and found work.
Despite his parole supervisor recommending his release be revoked based on his “deceit,” the board decided in February to cancel Sanderson’s suspension and opted to release him with a reprimand.
But by May, the Correctional Service of Canada deemed him to be unlawfully at large and a parole officer issued a warrant for his apprehension.
A copy of that warrant, obtained by The Canadian Press, shows Sanderson was listed as having no fixed address.
The Correctional Service says in cases such as his, prison officials reach out to an offender’s contacts to try and locate them, but it’s ultimately up to police to bring them in.
“(We) will work closely with the police to ensure that they have all the information necessary to execute the warrant and return the offender,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
Brian Sauvé, president of the National Police Federation, which represents RCMP members, said unless it’s a high-profile case, parole authorities don’t proactively communicate with police when an offender goes on the lam, however.
So what often happens is the offender’s name just appears in a database. “They’re not picking up the phone.”
Blandford, the former police sergeant, said apprehending parole violators usually falls to the bottom of the work pile for police services because officers are too busy responding to other calls.
There are thousands of warrants issued every day across Canada, he said, and “only so many resources that can deal with it.”
Last fall, the Saskatchewan government announced funding to create a special unit dedicated to catching fugitives.
It would include eight RCMP officers and a crime analyst focused on arresting “high profile” offenders who were at large.
RCMP Assistant Commissioner Rhonda Blackmore referred to this initiative when asked how Sanderson managed to remain a wanted fugitive up until the attacks, saying that “given the number of people on warrant status in the province, they have to risk-manage files” as they are received.
Whether the unit was actively investigating Sanderson’s case remains unclear. RCMP in Saskatchewan have not yet responded to a request for comment.
It’s also unclear whether a joint investigation by the Correctional Service and the parole board into Sanderson’s release — announced by Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino after the tragedy — will probe the reasons that Sanderson remained at large up until the attacks.
Both Sauvé and Blandford said a policy change should be made that results in the peace officers who work for parole and correctional authorities taking a more active role in tracking down offenders rather than relying only on police efforts.