FAILED MISSION: Police failed in their mission to peacefully arrest John & Shanna Buehler in a remote area south of Valemount Sept 17th 2014. Court documents now reveal what happened that day.

September 17th 2014 was the day police ambushed the Buehlers at a trapper’s cabin south of Valemount, leading to John’s fatal shooting. In addition to interviews, reporter Laura Keil has pored over nearly 1000 pages of court transcripts and police reports to bring you this story, the second of two installments about John Buehler.

We reached out to Shanna Buehler for her account of what happened on Sept 17th 2014. She has not responded yet. The extent of this story, is therefore limited to the perspective of the police as revealed in court documents and reports.

By Laura Keil


Some hunters visited the trapper’s cabin some weeks after the shooting and took this photo. By that time, the clearing was no longer cluttered with Buehler’s belongings – his fridges, dog food, batteries, ammunition and ATVs. Police worried Buehler, an expert marksman, would use the cabin as a fortress in a stand-off with police. See our feature story P7 / JOHN JENSEN

Staff Sergeant Charles Daniel Holt was in his Lower Mainland office when he got the call about a wanted man called John Buehler.

John was a self-proclaimed old-testament prophet with a history of violence who believed the end of the world was coming. He had moved himself and his survival supplies into a trapper’s cabin on Kinbasket Reservoir some 60km south of the Village of Valemount, the community where he’d been living for a few years. He had missed court appearances for an episode earlier that summer and was now under arrest.

The remote location and John’s past violent and threatening actions meant police considered the arrest high-risk and the RCMP’s North District Emergency Response team was called in.

Holt knew this case would challenge a part-time team with few deployments in remote areas.

Decades in the military had taught Holt about challenging terrain. He had served 44 years in the British and Canadian Forces on every continent save Antarctica and Australia. In his role with the Organized Crime Agency of BC, Holt now supported police by gathering intelligence in remote areas.

Holt called up maps and analyzed the geography, looked at the forecast, sunset and sunrise times and elevations. He read about Kinbasket Reservoir, a man-made lake not far from the cabin. He wanted to understand the environment, and know what they might confront on the ground.

The road to the cabin was sketchy, he learned, but was used by hunters at that time of year. No one knew how many people were hunting in the area. Given John’s history of violence and recent threats, Holt shared the local detachment’s concern about public safety.

 

HIGH-RISK ARREST

Police had been warned by family members that John – anti-authority by nature – may want to stage another Mayerthorpe, a reference to the 2005 incident in Alberta where James Roszko ambushed and killed four officers on his farm as they tried to arrest him.

Holt’s concern, and the Incident Commander’s, was that the log trapper’s cabin could be used as a fortress and, with a good hunting rifle and scope, John could pick off the officers one by one; he was known to be an expert marksman.

John had been arrested and charged earlier that summer after he blocked a public trail at a rec area about 10km south of Valemount called Camp Creek. At the time, he and his daughter Shanna were living in their trailer at the rec site.

John was tall – likely over 6 feet – with a stocky build and clear, blue eyes.

“He had these riveting light blue eyes that made you feel like you were staring into a soul,” said one local, Rene Nunweiler, who sold Buehler internet services when he lived in town.

Though he held some extreme religious views, John didn’t strike Nunweiler as aggressive; he was always polite with her.

“I think something snapped,” she said.

In June 2014, John bought a camper and towed it to Camp Creek, roughly 10km south of Valemount, a site used mostly for cross-country skiing and horseback riding.

Nunweiler and another local saw John’s RV parked in front of the picnic shelter and they saw items strewn around the clearing. John was using the rec club’s storage shed and log cabin. They saw chickens, food, dog food and tools. The dogs were running loose.

Nunweiler knew the situation had to be approached carefully.

“What I would be worried about is if he felt persecuted or backed into a corner,” she wrote to a fellow rec club member Patricia Thoni in an email.

Thoni went to talk to John to let him know he couldn’t live there. After John had restrained the dogs, she opened her car door. She told him Camp Creek was a rec area and he needed to move along. She described having a nice conversation with him. She got onto the topic of the 2008 recession, and John said, “Oh you haven’t seen anything yet,” and added, “The worst is about to come.”


Despite his civility, John made no promises to leave. He told Thoni it was difficult to find a place to rent with all the dogs.

In his dealings with locals, John often had a non-compliant but peaceful approach.

“I think God was his only law,” said one local who had met him. “The laws of the land meant nothing to him.”

On June 19th local horseback riders arrived to use the trails. The German Shepherds ran loose and barked at them, blocking the trails.

After words were exchanged, John threatened them, saying he had four intact male dogs.

“This is my campsite,” he said, according to a court document. “The dogs will kill you and anyone and any animal you have if you come back here again.”

Until then, local police had had no contact with John, who had kept to himself during the previous couple years.

But despite this period of calm, John had a criminal record from previous violent behaviour, including shooting another family member according to court documents.

Police arrested John at Camp Creek after a four-hour standoff. They found guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition in his camper. He was not licensed to own guns and police seized his guns and dogs. The dogs were released to Shanna who was living with him. John was released on bail.

On July 23rd Valemount RCMP learned that John had re-armed himself. They also learned he was anti-authority and would likely not accept any restrictions on his behavior.

John told one local person that his German Shepherds were attack dogs trained to protect him from desperate people who might try to rob his supplies during the economic collapse of end times.

After John failed to report to police on Aug. 18th and didn’t show up to court Sept. 4th, another arrest warrant was issued.

On Sept. 7th, a local trapper found the Buehlers living in his cabin roughly 60km south of Valemount along Kinbasket Reservoir. The trapper told John to leave and reported the incident to police (For more on this, see the Goat’s December story “Who was John Buehler?”)

John Jensen and his friends were escorted out of the area by police in Sept 2014 but returned a few weeks later and explored the beautiful and wild country that is the west side of Kinbasket Reservoir / JOHN JENSEN

John’s 21-year-old daughter Shanna – a thin young woman with fine features and straight light brown hair – was living with him at this remote outpost on the west side of Kinbasket Lake.

Police knew little about her – whether she was being abused, a co-conspirator or something else. She had no criminal record but police said she had lied to police earlier that summer about having guns and ammunition in their RV. Based on reports from family, police gathered she was brainwashed by her father into believing he was a prophet and the end of the world was coming.

Police could not be sure she was not a threat.

During police surveillance, she was spotted with her dad on the beach, always packing a rifle. “In the country’s army, it has been my great privilege to serve alongside a lot of women, young women, in the combat arms, who are extraordinary soldiers and get my utmost respect,” Holt told a courtroom in 2017.

“To infer, perhaps, that women are soft, delicate little creatures … I would suggest that they would have at least been as tough as the rest of the men or we would have been extinct as a species a long time ago.”

Holt was not going to underestimate her.

 

HUNTERS

John Jensen was hunting on the West Canoe FSR with some friends when they realized something was wrong. He and two friends had been searching for a bull moose at Saddle Lakes, about 44 km south of Valemount on the West Canoe FSR. They decided to scout terrain further south, but were forced to stop at Windfall Creek bridge which was still smoking from a fire.

The bridge had been chainsawed and was now impassable. After Jensen reported what they had seen at the Valemount detachment, police told them they would have to leave.

The Windfall Creek Bridge was impassable after John Buehler cut it up with a chainsaw and lit it on fire in an attempt to prevent anyone from crossing it / JOHN JENSEN

Four police cruisers escorted them back down the lake so they could pick up their hunting buddy and pack up.

As they fastened their canoe to the top of their pick-up truck, Jensen saw a convoy of police vehicles headed south towards the bridge.

He said there must have been 50 police officers “armed to the teeth” – some dressed in camouflage, sporting semi-automatic weapons – and at least 20 vehicles including an armoured vehicle that went in convoy down the rutted West Canoe FSR.

 

UNCERTAIN TERRAIN

Police hoped to ambush the Buehlers in order to make an arrest, but satellite imagery and a fly-over still had not given them a perfect picture of the densely-wooded terrain.

Holt’s team set up an observation point across Windfall Bay. Officers couldn’t see the cabin due to a headland and trees, but they saw the Buehlers on the beach.

Using binoculars and a 50x scope, the officers identified Shanna and John. Shanna fished while John filled up water cans. Shanna’s rifle was strapped to her back. John didn’t have a gun in his hand at that point. They played fetch with their dogs. The following day, officers saw both John and Shanna carrying rifles down to the beach, though what calibre, whether single-shot or semi-automatic, the officers couldn’t tell.

Officers patched the bridge to cross on foot. On the south side of the bridge, the cabin driveway was connected to the forest service road by a 1.5 km access road. Two hunters trapped on the far side of the bridge had to abandon their truck and trailer on the far side of the bridge, meaning police had access to a pick-up truck.

Police set up an ambush at the burned bridge, hoping John would come to the crossing. Night fell but John didn’t show. The following day, Sept 17th, they decided to move closer. They would contain an area closer to the cabin so the Buehlers wouldn’t have access to the forestry road.

Police crossed the bridge on foot and traveled down the road until they reached the access road to the cabin. Here police set up their next ambush point; later that day, they created a second ambush point further up the access road (see map).

Another group, led by Holt, decided to get closer to the cabin. Holt was the senior officer, both in experience and rank. He led six officers through the woods down an overgrown forestry road. An area that had looked partially cleared on a 2005 Google Map had since grown in. Deadfall from massive trees hindered passage through the forest.

A map with approximate locations of some important parts of the police operation. This map is based on court records and exhibits. / RMG ILLUSTRATION

They started around midday and it took three hours to go 2-3km to their stopping point. The officers moved as stealthily as possible, despite their guns and packs, stopping roughly 200m west of the cabin. They could hear the dogs barking, but couldn’t see the cabin or clearing.

As nightfall approached, they set up camp; the weather was deteriorating. Holt didn’t want to maneuver in the trees in the dark and the terrain was broken up and full of undergrowth.

As they held the line near the cabin, the sun dropped under the mountains and light faded.

Around 7pm, the dogs started barking and officers heard ATVs rev on and drive away.

With the ATVs gone, Holt saw an opportunity. He told his team to follow him to the cabin.

“The goal of that opportunity was, first of all to deny them access to what we considered would be a defendable position. And secondly, of course, to effect an arrest,” Holt said during a preliminary inquiry in 2017.

Holt was asked if Inspector Haring, the Incident Commander, was consulted.

“He was aware that there was a vehicle moving,” Holt said. “He knew what was going on. We had an opportunity, and I took it, sir.”

 

TACTICAL KNOWLEDGE

Holt found the Buehlers remarkable. His time in war had given him tactical experience, knowledge which helped him assess the enemy.

Tactically, the Buehlers impressed him.

The Buehlers had been living in the cabin for several weeks, a cabin with thick log walls that could be set up as a fortress. The Buehlers were seen with guns and dogs. They had burned the bridge. Now, they were headed towards police at dusk.

Holt said a patrol seeks its perimeter at nightfall because it’s the best time to hit the opponent.

“And as a tactician myself, we’ve gone up against a few people in the world,” Holt told a courtroom two years later. “Their behaviour is remarkable because it is consistent with people who have a form of tactical knowledge.”

“Before you shut down for the night, before you activate your security systems, you go out to your perimeter and you patrol it to see if there’s any sign of the enemy.”

 

FAILED EXIT

Matthew Reddeman and Niall McCulloch had spent the day on the cabin’s access road with their team, preparing two ambush points, and waiting for the Buehlers to come down the road.

Just before 7pm, after the rest of their team had left, they were waiting at the junction of the access road and the forest service road. Their team was using a hunters’ pick-up for a lift as far as the bridge, but the truck was full and the road full of potholes so Reddeman and McCulloch agreed to wait for a second pick-up.

Now, they were about to make contact with the Buehlers on their own.

At the sound of the ATVs, the two officers grabbed their rucksacks and ducked into the bush about 10m from the treeline.

The end of the access road was the site of what they called their first ambush point. The officers used a tree on the road as an obstruction if the Buehlers came down the road so police could challenge the Buehlers and hopefully arrest them.

Kneeling in the bush, Reddeman radioed to the incident commander about the ATVs coming down the road.

Over the radio, the incident commander told the two officers to observe the Buehlers.

McCulloch lay on his stomach among the leaves and moss. The officers heard one ATV come down the access road – it stopped, likely at the second ambush point. Officers heard the ATV recede back up the road. Then he heard two ATVs fire up and come their way.

The two officers watched the Buehlers stop their ATVs at the tree, which was blocking the road.

The officers saw Shanna unsling her gun from her back and shoulder the rifle. She looked into the bush where the officers were hiding but didn’t appear to see them.


John got off his ATV to move the tree.

In court two years later, police testimony revealed some of John’s last words.

“Look. They set up an ambush,” John is reported to have said.

“We should tell them to stop,” police heard Shanna say.

Shanna then got down from her ATV and turned it off.

Reddeman said there was now a “deafening silence.”

“Anything, any movement, would give us away,” said Reddeman.

John dragged the tree off the road. Gun in hand, he walked through the foliage on the opposite side of the road – where the officers had waited earlier.

The Buehlers moved down the road looking into the bush with their flashlights. Police had left an ATV on the road and the pair appeared to inspect it and talk about it, though officers couldn’t make out what they were saying. Light was beginning to fade.

The Buehlers came back to their ATVs and John said “I bet you they fixed the bridge.”

The pair started up their ATVs and drove down the access road turning towards the bridge.

Reddeman radioed dispatch and the police set up an impromptu ambush at the bridge.

When McCulloch lost sight of the ATVs he worried the Buehlers would be able to flee back to the cabin unopposed if they returned, so he left his hiding spot and dragged the tree back into the middle of the road, before returning to the bush.

On his radio earpiece, he learned the Buehlers never made it to the bridge; the ambush had failed, and now they were returning.

McCulloch realized how bizarre it would be if the tree had moved itself back onto the road – it would give them away.

He ran back to the road. The ATVs were approaching fast; he dragged the tree into the same spot where John had left it. He couldn’t see the ATVs coming down the road in the increasing darkness. He leaped back into the bush. About five seconds later, the ATVs sped by, headlights off, back towards the cabin.

 

FACE-TO-FACE

Constable Armond Pinnegar, a 37-year-old general duty RCMP member in Quesnel, was about to come face-to-face with Shanna Buehler. Then he would help save her life.

Pinnegar spent between two and five days a month training with the North District Emergency Response team based in Prince George. It was time spent away from his wife and three young kids. Quesnel was his first posting and he had been part of the RCMP six and a half years. His blond hair was trim and tidy. In court he had straight posture and a poker face.

He was deployed to Valemount with the ERT team; their job was the same as always: to arrest a person or people who are considered high risk.

Pinnegar learned background about the Buehlers, mostly about John, before setting out down the lake.

The forestry road to the police staging area was rough and it took them three hours to travel roughly 50km.

Pinnegar’s first job was to patch the bridge. He and another officer placed laminated 2x10s down to span the gaps.

The following day he joined Holt’s team in the woods.

In addition to his Carbine semi-automatic, Pinnegar was armed with a beanbag shotgun, a “less lethal option” as police refer to it. Moving through the dense undergrowth with stealth was challenging. As they got closer to the cabin, they could hear the dogs barking.

To Pinnegar, the dogs sounded like “the hounds of hell.”

As they got into position near the cabin it was close to nightfall. They set up tarps to sleep. Pinnegar was the security man for the camp but his radio wasn’t working, so he heard from another officer that an ATV had started. The dogs barked like crazy.

Pinnegar was one of six officers, led by Holt, who ran up the road to the cabin. It was dusk and they were losing light fast.

 

THE STAND-OFF

As the police made their way up the driveway, past the gate, Holt threw the gate’s padlock into the trees. He wanted to ensure police could bring in a vehicle if needed, and the hunters’ truck was still on that side of the bridge.

The clearing was full of the Buehlers’ supplies – fridges, dog food, batteries and ammunition.

Pinnegar switched to his bean bag shotgun and they set up in a clearing around the cabin in an L formation.

Pinnegar was closest to the gate. He could see the dogs lunging at the end of their tethers, trying to get loose. Luckily all the dogs were on leash, except for one. All barked wildly.

Holt tried to get onto the veranda, but the two dogs tethered there snapped at him so he backed down.

They heard on the radio that the vehicles were coming back.

Holt and two other officers hid behind a pallet near the veranda, close enough to prevent the Buehlers from getting into the cabin where the Buehlers would have a fortified defensive position.

The plan was to deploy a stun grenade, known as a flashbang, in front of the Buehlers when they returned. The purpose of the flashbang is to disorient a person by temporarily blinding them with light.

“It shakes your teeth when it goes off in front of you,” Pinnegar told the courtroom at a preliminary hearing in 2017.

It was Pinnegar’s job to shoot John in the upper arm with a beanbag to hamper his ability to grab his gun and prevent him from driving.

By this time it was twilight; Pinnegar knew the low light would limit his perception of colour and depth.

The first quad flew into the clearing at high speed. The flashbang went off in front of John and he came almost to a stop. Officers shone the lights fastened to their guns on John to help Pinnegar aim.

Suddenly John’s face was visible to police. His face was emotionless – calm, even.

Pinnegar fired at his arm, but missed, as John started accelerating. Pinnegar didn’t recall anyone saying “police” but explained later that he had auditory occlusion – a situation where background noise is muted during high-stress situations.

This bolt-action single-shot rifle is very similar to the ones carried by Shanna and John Buehler during the stand-off with police Sept 17th. / STOCK PHOTO

Pinnegar fired again. The second beanbag went just in front of John. Pinnegar noted later that the beanbag is not very accurate because it’s so slow – you can actually watch the round fly through the air. He had also seen someone hit by a beanbag round, flinch and keep on running.

John sped up past the first three officers and towards the base of the L, near the cabin.

Pinnegar lost sight of John.

John came into the clearing on his ATV, then drove behind the woodshed. Holt and three other officers followed him behind the woodshed. John had gotten off the ATV, rifle in hand. As the officers came around the corner, John turned and raised the rifle towards them. The officers were now three to five meters from him.

Two officers fired. John fell to the ground, but the officers reported they saw him still trying to use his rifle. Another officer fired three more times and John let go of the rifle.

He died from gunshot wounds to his chest.

 

SHANNA

After losing sight of John, Pinnegar heard someone near him say “girl.”

Shanna.

He couldn’t see her. He realized then she might know his location from the light on his gun so he moved into the trees across the road; he leaned out and saw her ATV at the end of the driveway.

She was gone.

He crept down the road and moved back into the trees near her ATV which was idling. He scanned the forest with his firearm light and saw a blond woman squatted down roughly 10m from him. When he shone his light on her, she turned her head and looked at him.

In the dark forest, Pinnegar was no doubt hard to make out behind the bright light on his gun. “Police,” he said. “Show me your hands.” Const. Meier and Atkinson were close and they yelled “Police.”

Pinnegar heard the pop pop of gunfire further up the drive where John had gone.

His stress level was high.

Pinnegar had his bean bag shotgun pointed at her; some deadfall concealed her lower body.

She followed his commands, and brought her hands up to shoulder height.

Unlike John’s static face, Shanna looked scared, Pinnegar later recalled.

Then Pinnegar said he saw a shift in her expression – her hands went back down where he could no longer see them. He worried she had a handgun in her waistband. He fired the beanbag which hit her in the thigh/pelvis area. She dropped down then sprung back up.

Between the blowdown he saw the glint of what looked like a gun.

She stood up. The three officers watched her pivot her body and gun towards them.

Pinnegar saw a flash from the muzzle just then, and heard something whizz by his head. He recoiled, scared to death. His beanbag gun was no match if she had a semi-automatic and it would take time to switch to his Carbine.

He had no doubt Shanna had fired the gun but despite Pinnegar’s certainty at the time, ballistics later showed that Shanna never fired her single-shot .22.

The Prosecution Service’s report was matter-of-fact:

“The officer who fired the non-lethal bean bag shotgun mistakenly believed the female suspect fired her weapon in his direction.”


Pinnegar then heard pops to the left and Shanna dropped and disappeared behind the blowdown.

Pinnegar drew his pistol and walked closer. Shanna was face-down, hands underneath her.

He reached down and rolled her over.

Her pupils were completely dilated.

“I remember thinking ‘Oh crap, she’s dead.’”

He saw air bubbles in her blood on the ground – from his experience hunting, he knew a bullet had passed through her lungs.

Const. Meier shot her three times in less than one second with his semi-automatic carbine .223 rifle. Const. Atkinson had also tried to fire, but his safety latch was still on.

Const. Meier didn’t think Shanna had fired her gun; he had fired when she swung her rifle towards them.

Pinnegar, Meier and Atkinson dragged Shanna to the road to begin first aid.

They opened her clothing and found a bullet wound in her chest and out her back, another in her upper pelvis and out her buttocks, and a third through her bicep and out her tricep.

While the officers gave Shanna first aid, other officers brought the hunters’ truck to the cabin in order to evacuate her. By now it was nearly total darkness and a helicopter wasn’t an option. A light rain was falling.

Shanna regained consciousness, evidently in a lot of pain.

“Leave me here to die,” she said, according to court records. She kept trying to roll onto her side, likely in order to breathe easier, Pinnegar thought. The officers knew it was important to keep her conscious because she was losing a lot of blood. They loaded her onto the truck on a stretcher. At the bridge, two officers carried her across by hand to the advanced life support critical care paramedic members. They loaded her into the back of another pick-up and Pinnegar climbed in near her head and gave her oxygen. It was his job to keep her alert and conscious.

Due to the severity of her injuries, paramedics put in an IO, an intraosseous infusion which goes into the bone (instead of IV, or intravenous). Shanna screamed when they inserted the IO, which is known to be extremely painful.

One of the hunters, who did not wish to be identified, who found Shanna Buehler’s cat a few weeks after the shooting. The cat was later reunited with Shanna / SUBMITTED

 

LETHAL FORCE

In a courtroom in 2017, Shanna’s lawyer questioned the officers about the use of lethal force.

“We are never told to use lethal force – only up to lethal if lives are in danger. The purpose is never to kill but to ensure they are no longer a threat,” Pinnegar explained.

Holt said deciding to use lethal force is based on the behaviour of the individual.

“We did not go in there to kill Mr. Buehler or attempt to murder Ms. Buehler. We went in there to arrest them for crimes that they had committed, to bring them forward so they could go to a court.”

“Was this a successful operation? No. We failed. And for that, I’ll have to live like that for the rest of my life.”

 

Shanna recovered from her wounds and police charged her with numerous firearms-related charges. She ultimately received a conditional discharge, meaning that if she follows certain conditions she will not end up with a criminal record. An investigation of the police’s actions led to no criminal charges.

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