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'I assumed': Alberta Mountie on trial says he trusted information about man he shot

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Cpl. Randy Stegner, front, and Const. Jessica Brown leave court after another day of their jury trial on charges of manslaughter with a firearm, aggravated assault and discharging a firearm with intent to cause bodily harm, in Edmonton on Nov. 25, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Amber Bracken

EDMONTON — An Alberta Mountie charged in the fatal shooting of a man who had been sleeping in a pickup truck at a rest stop says he trusted information from a fellow officer that the man was wanted as a suspect.

Cpl. Randy Stenger, 45, and Const. Jessica Brown, 31, have pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter and aggravated assault of 31-year-old Clayton Crawford near Whitecourt, Alta., on July 3, 2018.

A jury has heard that Stenger and Brown shot Crawford 10 times, and the officers have testified that they acted in self-defence.

Stenger said Brown told him the man in the truck was a suspect in a shooting a day earlier in the hamlet of Valhalla Centre and that the information was given to her by a clerk at the Grande Prairie RCMP detachment.

Crawford's girlfriend had been shot in the leg and his purple 1992 Dodge Dakota and other vehicles were seen leaving the area. But the jury has heard the truck's driver may have been the intended target in that shooting, not a suspect.

Stenger, under cross-examination by the Crown on Friday, said he believed the information Brown gave him about the driver of the truck being a suspect and that it was the only information available at the time.

"I assumed, I trusted the information," said Stenger, adding it was Brown's responsibility to collect as much information as possible about the man in the truck.

Stenger testified Thursday that he had more questions for Brown about the person as they approached the vehicle at the Chickadee Creek rest stop.

He said, "(Brown) sounded pretty confident that it could have been the target or potential shooter in the vehicle."

Prosecutor Peter Scrutton said there's a difference between a suspect and a target.

"When you learn this contradictory information from Const. Brown — either shooter or victim — you’ve got an obligation to clarify before you act," Scrutton told Stenger.

Stenger said he did not conduct any inquiries of his own and that it was Brown's responsibility to acquire all pertinent information, as she was the lead investigator.

Court heard that Stenger approached the truck with Brown and another officer, Const. Ian Paddick. They were all wearing body armour.

Stenger said the plan was to first determine if someone was in the vehicle, but there was no clear plan on what to do if there was a person in the truck.

It appeared there was a man reclined in the seat and sleeping. It was also raining, there were drops on the window and it was slightly fogged.

Court heard Paddick, armed with a stun gun, knocked on the driver's window. Brown testified she saw the man in the truck reach in between his legs. Paddick then broke the driver's window with a baton and tried to pull the man's hands up. Brown also became involved in the struggle.

The man started the truck and began driving backward. Brown testified that she thought the man was using the vehicle as a weapon and she feared for her life and the lives of her colleagues.

Stenger said he believed the man likely had a gun.

Stenger fired four shots with a semi-automatic pistol and Brown fired eight shots with a carbine rifle. 

The trial was told there were warrants out for Crawford at the time, but the officers did not know what the warrants were for.

The prosecutor told the jury there's a big difference between someone having a warrant for a murder and having one for neglecting to appear in court for a traffic violation.

"You didn’t take any steps to ascertain what the warrants were for or who they were in relation to?" Scrutton asked.

Stenger said he didn't know Crawford's name at the time, and couldn't check for warrants. He said it was the Grande Prairie detachment that told Brown the man in the truck had warrants.

Stenger repeated that he believed the information given to him by Brown was complete and accurate.

Scrutton showed photos from video footage of the shooting taken from dashcams in RCMP cruisers at the rest stop. Going frame by frame, he said no officers at any time were in the path of the truck.

"That was not my perception at the time," Stenger told the jury. "Before he fled, I believed that he was trying to run us over."

Scrutton asked Stenger if he had reason to believe the driver was hit by a bullet when the officers fired their guns.

"It's possible," replied Stenger.

Scrutton suggested if Crawford was dead or unconscious, he wouldn't have been able to stop the truck and that could have posed a higher risk.

"I agree that there could be a risk, but that it could not be completely eliminated," Stenger said.

"At the time it was an automatic reaction to discharge my firearm."

Scrutton said the two accused went from knowing next to nothing about the driver of the truck to believing that they were going to be shot at. Police later found a machete and a butcher knife in Crawford's truck.

The jury is to hear closing arguments on Wednesday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2, 2022.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Angela Amato, The Canadian Press