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'We were in danger': Timmins, Ont., manhunt prompts questions from cottagers near shootout

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More than a week after the capture of first-degree murder suspect Lucas MacDonald in a shootout that wounded a police officer, CTV has an exclusive, first-hand account from a cottager who helped police capture the man in a waterborne pursuit.

“I saw him right there,” said Karl Krcel at his Nighthawk Lake cottage, pointing past his dock.

Just before noon on June 12, Krcel and his wife found it odd when they spotted a man canoeing on a dreary Wednesday, fighting against harsh waves.

Binoculars confirmed his suspicions. It was Lucas MacDonald.

Krcel found a strong enough phone signal to call Ontario Provincial Police and then lost sight of him. Soon after, a neighbour told him MacDonald beached the canoe near his cottage.

“At that point, I knew when we were potentially all in danger, here,” said Krcel.

“Told the OPP, at the time, I’m going to go back to my cottage and grab my rifle.”

He lost his cellphone signal but a helicopter soon circled overhead. Krcel said two officers then arrived asking for directions to the nearest river.

“I offered up my vessel, and the officer asked me to drive,” he said.

With the officers armed and ready, Krcel put away his gun and took his post.

Neighbours passed word that they spotted MacDonald heading to a small unnamed island – the elements still thrashing.

Neighbours passed word that day that they spotted Lucas MacDonald heading to a small, unnamed island, the harsh waves still thrashing. (Sergio Arangio/CTV News)

Could hear gunfire

“We approached from the north. Other officers were coming in, two separate boats coming in,” Krcel said.

They spotted his canoe tethered to the island. The officers joined their team and ordered him to leave. Then he heard gunfire. But Krcel said he wasn’t afraid.

“The adrenaline to … it’s undescribable (sic), when you’re put into a … you’re put into a situation, you have to react.”

Upon reflecting later, Krcel realized he was completely unaware of the level of danger he was in; prior to the gunshots, he didn’t know MacDonald would be charged with murder.

‘Simple as a knock on the door’

Krcel has no internet or cable at his cottage and poor cellphone service. Previously, he had only heard police wanted MacDonald for questioning.

He had encountered police once prior when boating into town. Krcel said officers asked him then if he had seen MacDonald and that they did not know where he could be.

He noticed helicopters surveying the area but received no communication as to why.

A neighbour shared security footage of MacDonald passing by in the early morning on the day of the capture, and later discovered he had broken into an old ice fishing hut for shelter.

It contained a map of the lake that Krcel suspects MacDonald took advantage of.

“He could have, very much, planned his route to get back to the White Fish River.”

That left Krcel wondering just how long MacDonald was in the area.

“We were in danger all the time and had no idea,” Krcel said.

“It would have been as simple as a knock on the door to someone to tell us, ‘Listen, he’s been sighted on the lake.’ Had that been told to us, I don’t think we would have been out here.”

Karl Krcel says Ontario Provincial Police asked him to drive his boat to the nearest river to aid in the manhunt for Lucas MacDonald. (Sergio Arangio/CTV News)

Complicated policing decisions

OPP North East Region officials told CTV that they made every effort to inform the public of their investigation and of MacDonald, but that they don't have the resources nor are required to directly communicate with people in remote areas.

In a statement, acting sergeant Phil Young said, “There are people who live or cottage in remote areas who choose to not have radio, TV, cellphones or internet services. That is not up to the OPP to determine or ensure these people have communication services.”

“Police must act in a timely fashion,” the statement continued, “meaning if they just received information that the suspect was in the area, it’s not practical for officers to go door-to-door advising the remote cottagers prior to acting.”

Speaking on the phone, Young seemed baffled by the question.

He could not say when OPP suspected MacDonald was travelling on Nighthawk Lake, since the case is now being handled by the Special Investigations Unit. The SIU could not speak on the matter.

Retired police officer and criminal justice professor Gregory Brown told CTV that these sorts of situations are complicated to handle.

“Whoever was making the ultimate decision was faced with the situation of, ‘Well, how do I notify people that are dispersed over a wide area, where we don’t have technology as our friend?” Brown explained.

“Do we start making loud hailer announcements, you know, broadcasting it out to as wide a radius as we possibly can? There’s an officer safety component there, in terms of alerting the person at large as to where the police are located.”

Brown explained that alarming the public can put their lives at risk if they choose to flee while in a dangerous suspect’s path. Using a personal announcement system could ruin the element of surprise, he said, potentially giving the suspect the advantage and leaving officers vulnerable.

That said, Brown is not sure whether OPP made the right decision, in this instance, given his policing experience was mainly in Ottawa and not northern Ontario.

Lucas MacDonald, 43, was arrested June 12 following a shootout with Ontario Provincial Police. One officer was shot and wounded during the operation. (OPP photo)

Could more have been done?

A Manitoba sociology professor who publishes on policing issues said he believes more could have been done and that cottagers in the area were fortunate to not have been harmed.

Chris Schneider of Brandon University draws a comparison to the 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia, where the RCMP was criticized for its lack of communication with the public, which left people unaware and in harm’s way.

Schneider said a similar scenario could have happened in this case.

“It’s always a concern when the public are not informed of a dangerous person, especially somebody who has a firearm and can, you know, wield mass casualties,” he said.

Schneider cited a Mass Casualty Commission report that arose from the Nova Scotia massacre, highlighting the public as true first responders to disaster scenarios that should be protected at all costs.

Valid concerns

He added that claiming a lack of resources isn’t a good excuse for not informing people that they’re in danger.

“These concerns are valid, I think they’re warranted and I think they should be taken seriously, not only by police administrators, but also local politicians,” Schneider said, calling this an opportunity for police services to review their protocols.

“To notify individuals so that they can, in fact, tell other people. Maybe somebody in a remote cottage had seen something.”

For Krcel, he’s relieved no civilians were injured and is grateful to the police officers who risked their lives to apprehend MacDonald.

But wishes his family and neighbours had not been so close to the action. The lesson, for him, is clear.

“All people (who) had access to this waterway, to the system, should have been advised that there was a potential killer on the lake.”

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