Sandy Hennessey believes the truth of what actually happened during one of the darkest days in Canadian history won’t be revealed at the fatality inquiry that started Monday at a courthouse in Stony Plain, but she wants to be there just the same.
“I just have to be there to see what’s going on with the situation and see how one-sided this whole process is going to be, or if someone might actually want to get to the truth of what happened that day,” said a cynical Hennessey, whose son, Shawn, remains in a federal penitentiary in Grande Cache after being given a 15-year sentence after pleading guilty to four counts of manslaughter for his role in the death of four RCMP officers on James Roszko’s farm in March of 2005.
Hennessey and his brother-in-law, Dennis Cheeseman, who received a 12-year penitentiary term after also pleading guilty to four counts of manslaughter, both asked for, but were denied standing at the fatality inquiry.
Cheeseman is serving his time at a penitentiary in Drumheller.
Both men grew up and worked in Barrhead and neither had been in any kind of trouble with the law before the infamous “Mayerthorpe Massacre” transpired as Roszko ambushed the four officers near a quonset he was using to house a marijuana grow operation. After being wounded by a police bullet, Roszko took his own life.
Barry Hennessey, who has to work and won’t be able to attend much, if any of the inquiry, is even more cynical than his wife about the inquiry, which is expected to last between two and three weeks.
“How can anyone find out what really happened that day without Shawn and Dennis being able to testify,” he asked rhetorically. “There’s been a cover up in this case from the beginning after Roszko killed himself, and I don’t expect that to change.”
The fatality inquiry is scheduled to answer only five questions, including the time of death, by what means, how and where, said Barry.
The only person who knows “why” the incident happened was Roszko, a self-proclaimed and well-known “police hater” who took his own life after ambushing RCMP officers Peter Schiemann, Anthony Gordon, Brock Myrol and Leo Johnston in the early morning hours of March 3, 2005.
As was reported in the national media over the Christmas holidays, Cheeseman is now eligible for conditional release, though officials with the Parole Board of Canada say they have yet to make any decisions in the case.
According to Parole Board of Canada documents, Cheeseman’s sentence means he is eligible for day parole, effective Dec. 26, 2010.
According to Barry Hennessey, neither Cheeseman or his lawyers have made any formal application for him to access day parole.
Shawn Hennessey will be eligible for day parole one year from now in early January of 2012.
Unlike Cheeseman, he’s “fully prepared and ready” to present the National Parole Board with a detailed life plan should he be released from custody, said his father.
Before their son is considered for parole, Barry and Sandy Hennessey continue to work hard to try and get Shawn’s case before the Supreme Court of Canada, the highest court in the land.
Both Cheeseman and Hennessey appealed their sentences to the Alberta Court of Appeal last summer. In late September, three judges ruled the sentences meted out by Justice Eric Macklin back in January of 2009 were not unreasonable and denied the appeal for both men. One of the three judges did rule Cheeseman’s 12-year sentence was excessive and should be significantly reduced, but he was overruled by the majority decision.
While 2010 was a “very difficult year” for Shawn, his wife Christine and their two children and themselves, Barry and Sandy are hopeful 2011 will bring much better news.
Shawn was allowed to spend his second Christmas behind bars with his family in private accommodations at the Grande Cache institute.
“His wife and kids were there from Christmas Eve until the following Monday ... they had a lot of private time,” Sandy said. “We asked the kids if they wanted to come back with us, but they stayed a couple extra days to be with their dad. It really boosted Shawn’s spirits.”
Shawn’s lawyer, Hersh Wolch, “is ready and willing to rock” and take Shawn’s appeal to the court’s highest land, but there have been numerous delays with funding from Legal Aid, which is extremely frustrating, Barry said.
“Shawn’s lawyer has been ready to take this case to the Supreme Court for over 100 days since the sentencing appeal was turned down,” he said. “But the people at Legal Aid just take their sweet time and nothing gets done.
“It’s so frustrating and discouraging ... Hersh has told us once the funding is approved he believes he can get the case before the Supreme Court in a matter of weeks. Meanwhile, Shawn has to sit in a jail cell week after week after week wondering what’s going on. It’s not right.”
Barry says Shawn’s biggest regret throughout the entire legal process was deciding to plead guilty to anything.
“Shawn and Dennis were terrified when threatened time and time again with four counts of first-degree murder,” he said. “The Crown was pressuring them, the government was applying pressure and eventually their own lawyers were scaring them with the prospect of life behind bars for first-degree murder of four police officers, even knowing they didn’t have anything to do with the deaths.
‘They were blackmailed into accepting the manslaughter pleas ... it has been a nightmare since.”
Sandy said both her son and Cheeseman were convinced pleading guilty to manslaughter would result in a lenient sentence, including no penitentiary time.
“They were both told and convinced the guilty pleas meant no penitentiary time,” she said. “When the judge came in and gave them life sentences, I can’t even begin to tell you what that felt like. It’s a haunting feeling that has never gone away until this day.”
Barry and Sandy say their remorse to the families of the “fallen four” is sincere and heartfelt, but will never sway from the fact their son had nothing to do with their deaths.
Roszko threatened Shawn and his family at gunpoint to hand over a rifle and ammunition and insisted Shawn and Cheeseman drive him near his farm, he said.
Roszko talked about burning down his quonset to destroy evidence relating to his marijuana grow operation, but never mentioned anything about attacking police officers, he said.
If the Canadian public knew all the details about the police investigation, lack of accountability by RCMP brass who sent four inexperienced officers to Roszko’s property that fateful day, the sinister Mr. Big sting operation used by the RCMP to gather evidence and legal advice given to his son and Cheeseman, they would shudder in horror, said Barry.
“People can’t accept the fact one depraved individual, James Roszko, was responsible for what happened that night and no one else,” he said. “My son and Dennis have been made scapegoats by an entire system of justice that has no interest in getting to the real truth of what happened.”
While Shawn remains skeptical and cynical of the justice system, he does see a slight light at the end of the tunnel with day parole less than one year away, said Sandy.
“But he’s been burned so many times before, he just doesn’t trust anyone or anything to do with the system,” she said. “None of us will see any real light until he’s out of prison and back home where he belongs.”