Forty years ago this coming Tuesday, everyone in the Virden – Oak Lake area stopped what they were doing and held their breath in disbelief. Something that never happens in small-town Manitoba was happening.
A shootout at the Countryside Inn on Jan. 23, 1978 between a couple of car thieves and RCMP officers had left one officer, Constable Dennis Onofrey, dead and two seriously injured.
But that wasn’t the end of it.
The perpetrators (a man from BC and his common law wife) stole a police car at the motel and headed east. Along the way, they took a Routledge man hostage and forced him to take them to a doctor’s home in Oak Lake so the doctor could treat the gunman’s wife who had been shot in the abdomen.
That’s where three people - the Routledge man, the doctor and his wife - were held hostage four days before it ended peacefully with the surrender of Cliff Archer to the Mounties. He and his wife got 25 years in jail, where Archer eventually died.
Robert Forster remembers it well. His mother Mollie provided room and board to many of the new RCMP members stationed in Virden, including Onofrey and Constable Candy Smith who was also shot in the melee.
The following is his recollection.
A Personal Remembrance
January 23, 1978 was a Monday, a cold morning as I recall.
Living in Regina at that time, I was preparing for work. I was a member of the RCMP stationed in our HQ Staffing and Personnel Branch then.
Listening to the radio on my way into work I was grabbed by the hourly news - there had been a shooting the night previous in Virden involving the RCMP. Virden was my hometown.
Once at work I immediately called our staffing office in Winnipeg. Little had been released at that time but this was doubly close for me - my mum, Mollie, had boarded RCMP members for years and Virden’s newest member, Candy (Candice) Smith, lived with her at the time.
Winnipeg gave me the grave news: Const. Dennis Onofrey killed, Cpl. Russ Hornseth and Const. Candy Smith grievously wounded... stunning!
I then called my mum. The phone rang several times before she answered. She’d been asleep. Not sure what to say, I asked about Candy. She thought she was upstairs in her bed asleep. It was a heartbreaking call.
As well, Onofrey and his wife had earlier stayed with Mum for a time while their new home was being built in Virden.
I vividly recall that sad journey later in the week, picking up my mum and heading to Winnipeg through an awful storm for a large police funeral - one of the most emotional times I had known to that point as a police officer.
Mum spent most of the rest of that winter staying with my sister in Brandon and visiting Candy regularly at the hospital.
I was to experience another loss that year. My Mum died six months later.
Amongst others attending her funeral was Candy Smith, still very much suffering the effects of her horrible injuries. I was so deeply touched. It was also the last time I saw Candy.
The RCMP provided traffic control for my mother’s funeral procession that day - a most considerate gesture for Mollie, a ‘mother’ over the years to so many RCMP members stationed far from home.
Forty years have passed. I have long since retired from the RCMP, but memories of the events of January 1978 still resonate so very fresh in my mind.