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'Hero' Abbotsford police officer dead after strip-mall shootout

Cheryl Chan, Postmedia Network

Police and officers from the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) on scene at an officer-involved shooting on Mt Lehman Road near the Fraser Highway in Abbotsford, BC., November 6, 2017. (NICK PROCAYLO/PostMedia)

Police and officers from the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) on scene at an officer-involved shooting on Mt Lehman Road near the Fraser Highway in Abbotsford, BC., November 6, 2017. (NICK PROCAYLO/PostMedia)

An Abbotsford family, a police department and a community are in mourning after an officer was killed during a shootout at an Abbotsford strip mall Monday.

The slain officer, who hasn't been identified, was hailed as a hero among heroes by Abbotsford Police Chief Bob Rich.

“The officer who gave his life today is a hero," said Rich. "He was protecting this community."

The shooting started innocuously enough with a call to police at 11:35 a.m. about a possible stolen vehicle spotted in the parking lot in the 3200-block Mount Lehman Road.

George MacDonald, fleet manager for the MSA Ford dealership in the Abbotsford Auto Mall across the street, said the fatal shooting was connected with a car allegedly stolen off the dealership lot Saturday. A man had come in wanting to test drive a black Ford Mustang, he said. The salesperson gave him the key and installed plates on the vehicle. But before the salesperson could get into the car, the man took off with the vehicle.

On Monday, an employee was gassing up another vehicle when she saw what appeared to be the stolen Mustang in the parking lot. It had Alberta licence plates.

"We brought the key over, and it worked," said MacDonald. One of his employees had blocked the car in while waiting for police to arrive, but before officers could get there, "the guy came back with a rifle and decided he wanted the car back."

MacDonald had gone back to the dealership before the shooting began, but some of his employees stayed behind and witnessed the gunfire.

"It's shocking," he said. "An officer got shot. We got three of our people literally 10 feet away from the guy when he drew the rifle out."

Less than 20 minutes after the first call to police, several 911 calls poured in reporting shots fired. A male suspect had started shooting at the caller and others with a shotgun, police said.

“There was an exchange of gunfire,” said Rich, and one officer was taken to hospital with “very serious injuries.” He was pronounced dead at the hospital shortly after arrival.

Rich met with the officer's family to deliver the terrible news: "It's something I never wanted to have to do in my life."

The suspect, a man in his 60s from Alberta, fled in the vehicle and was pursued by police to Mount Lehman Road and Fraser Highway, where he was apprehended by cops. He was taken to hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.

Rich commended his officers' actions Monday, calling them all "absolutely heroic."

“There were officers heroically trying to save the life of our member," he said. “When they responded to this, they responded in a way that was designed to protect the public."

Derrik Middleton was eating lunch at a sushi restaurant in the strip mall when he heard two loud pops. He saw the restaurant owner look outside into the parking lot, and turn back with a horrified look on her face.

"I ran to the door and looked outside," he said. "The officer was down and bleeding." Another officer was with the fallen cop within seconds.

But even before police officially confirmed the officer's death, Middleton already feared the worst.

"An officer ... lost his life today," he said. "He did not move at all. They didn't try to resuscitate him until the ambulance came."

Bar Por, sales manager at MSA Ford, described a scene of chaos.

“The cops went speeding by me on my way in. My lot manager’s truck windows were shot out,” he said. “I heard a lot of gunshots going on.”

Por said both the police and the driver of the stolen car were firing.

Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun had been in council meetings all afternoon. At around 12:40 p.m. his cellphone rang. Rich told him an officer had been shot and taken to hospital.

“This is kind of my worst nightmare as a mayor,” said Braun.

He said his thoughts and prayers are with the officer and his family, as well as the other officers who were involved in the incident.

“I am, and everyone in Abbotsford is, in shock over this incident,” Braun said. “I don’t think anyone feels that this level of violence is OK in our community or in any other. This is a tragedy.”

Premier John Horgan extended his condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of the officer.

"As British Columbians, we are filled with grief at this tragic loss and give gratitude to all those who put their lives on the line for us every day."

Between 1961 and 2015, 10 police officers in B.C. were killed in the line of duty, according to Statistics Canada.

Rob Gordon, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University, said it was extremely rare to see an officer shot and killed on the job.

“I cannot remember the last time that a police officer was killed on duty,” he said.

The last time police officers were shot and killed in Canada was in 2014, when three Mounties in Moncton, N.B., were murdered by gunman Justin Bourque, Gordon noted.

Before that, four RCMP members were shot to death in Mayerthorpe, Alta., in 2005 and two Mounties were shot on the job in 2007 — one in the Northwest Territories and one in Nunavut.

The only other Abbotsford police officer to die in the line of duty was Const. John Goyer, who was 40 when he died in 2006 from ALS disease, which was triggered by severe injuries sustained in a 2001 arrest.

There have been 16 Vancouver Police Department members killed in the line of duty, according to the department. The last VPD member shot and killed on duty was Sgt. Larry Young in 1987.

“In B.C. this will stand out as a most unfortunate statistic in that this will be the first killing as a result of shooting in a long time," Gordon said.

The Integrated Homicide Investigation Team has taken over the probe; the Independent Investigations Office has also been deployed.