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Inquiry to ask: Why did Newfoundland police officer shoot Don Dunphy?

N.L. inquiry to ask: Why did Don Dunphy die?

MITCHELL’S BROOK, N.L. — Don Dunphy lived in a rundown little beige house on a pretty stretch of St. Mary’s Bay. 

“Poor old Don is gone,” said Tom Hearn, a close friend who lives two doors away in Mitchell’s Brook, N.L.

Dunphy, a sometimes cranky, reclusive man who doted on stray cats, was killed Easter Sunday 2015 at his home by a lone police officer who was a member of the then-premier’s security detail.

Dunphy was found dead in his recliner, and Hearn is at a loss as to why.

“We’ve got no answers,” he said softly.

Hearn is among many in the community of 300 and across the province who will be closely watching Monday as a public inquiry into the shooting begins.

Questions hang over people here, whether they were close neighbours or school mates who hadn’t seen Dunphy in years.

They wonder why the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officer who served on former premier Paul Davis’s protective unit went to Dunphy’s home alone, in RCMP jurisdiction, to check out a perceived threat on Twitter.

They wonder why RNC Const. Joe Smyth took about 12 minutes, according to an RCMP timeline, to call for help after firing four shots, three of them lethal, and two at close range to Dunphy’s head.

And they wonder why not a single fingerprint could be lifted from the loaded .22-calibre rifle that Smyth says Dunphy pointed at him — without firing — before Smyth started shooting. The bolt action weapon, which had belonged to Dunphy’s late father but which Hearn said he never saw during countless visits to the house, was found on the floor to the left of his body.

An RCMP report on its investigation says forensic testing could not lift a fingerprint because the “old and worn” rifle was rusted, pitted and had no glossy finishes. It also says the bolt action was open, suggesting it wasn’t set to fire.

“Everybody was devastated and in shock that day,” said Rochelle Nolan, who lives next door.

“Donny was a good man. He never hurt anybody.

“None of it makes sense.”

The independent inquiry led by Commissioner Leo Barry, a judge on the provincial Court of Appeal, will probe over the next two months what happened. He will not make findings of criminal or civil responsibility but any new evidence could be investigated by police.

Barry is to deliver a report and recommendations by July 1 on how to avoid such confrontations.

Smyth was the only witness to the shooting.

He was working that holiday weekend and headed to Mitchell’s Brook, about 80 kilometres southwest of St. John’s, to check out a Twitter post by Dunphy that the then-premier’s staff had flagged.

Dunphy, 59, was a former truck driver who battled for years with workers’ compensation after being crushed at 28 by a backhoe on a construction site. The frequent Twitter user called himself “a crucified injured worker from NL Canada where employers treat (the) injured like criminals.”

Friends say he was in chronic pain. They say he was angry, not violent, about financial struggles but looked forward to extra support when he turned 60. He loved cats, and was never known to hunt or use guns.

Dunphy was estranged from his three brothers, in part over a family land dispute. The wife of his brother Dick told police Dunphy once threatened to “beat the head off” her after she suggested he get mental help.

Hearn said Dunphy’s wife died from apparent complications of diabetes when their only child, Meghan, was just three. Dunphy was by all accounts very close to the daughter he raised alone; he had just returned from Easter brunch with her when Smyth arrived unannounced. 

Meghan Dunphy, 28, will be the first to testify Monday.

Two days before he was killed, her father had commented on the former premier’s official Twitter account and that of Sandy Collins, a former minister.

He said God would get politicians who ignored and laughed at the poor — before they could collect pensions “they didn’t deserve.”

“I won’t mention names this time,” Dunphy tweeted. “2 prick dead MHAs might have good family members I may hurt.”

The RCMP report says Smyth checked police databases and spoke with local Mounties and neighbours before assessing any risk as low.

Smyth told investigators he showed Dunphy his badge and was invited in. He said Dunphy sat in a recliner just inside the living room and was adamant that Smyth sit too. The officer declined noting, “the house was so dirty he didn’t want to sit on the furniture.”

Smyth also noticed a kind of bat to the left of the recliner which Dunphy said was there for protection.

The RCMP report says Smyth was standing by the mantel across from Dunphy in the small room as the interview quickly got heated. Dunphy was agitated, began to froth at the mouth, and repeatedly asked the officer what he was looking for before calling him “a puppet” of the government, Smyth told the RCMP.

According to Smyth’s statement, Dunphy suddenly raised the .22-calibre rifle from the right side of his chair some 15 minutes into their conversation.

The RCMP timeline says at about 2:13 p.m. Smyth yelled “No, no, no, no” and fired his pistol twice toward the “centre mass of Dunphy.” Smyth said Dunphy tracked him with the rifle as the officer fled past him from the living room, and that he shot Dunphy twice in the head as he went.

Smyth checked Dunphy at 2:15 p.m. but found no signs of breathing. Twelve minutes later, at 2:27 p.m., he called RCMP to report shots fired and request paramedics.

The RCMP found Smyth used appropriate force in the circumstances and no charges were warranted. The province has no civilian-led police oversight unit, but the independent Alberta Serious Incident Response Team reviewed the investigation.

It noted “some minor shortcomings” — such as “inadequate” notes taken by one of the first RCMP officers to see Smyth after the shooting — but none seriously undermined the probe or suggested bias.

Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Chief Bill Janes has said Smyth is a respected officer who now works in traffic operations.

Lawyer Cletus Flaherty, representing a group of supporters at the inquiry called the Don Dunphy Community Coalition, wonders why investigators didn’t interview Smyth until a day after the shooting.

“I found that rather shocking,” he said in an interview. “In a situation where someone is shot and killed, you’d want to attempt to pin down the facts as soon as possible from the only witness.

“It doesn’t appear that anyone immediately at the scene or anyone investigating the matter ever really had an inkling that this death may have been unlawful. They’ve taken it for granted that Const. Smyth shot Mr. Dunphy in self-defence.”

The RCMP report also notes that blood from one of Dunphy’s head wounds “was not flowing straight down with gravity as is expected” with the seated position in which his body was found.

Instead, “it was flowing on an angle towards the back. This appeared inconsistent with the present position of the deceased.”

Hearn wonders if he’ll ever know what happened to his friend.

In the little cemetery down the road from Dunphy’s home, his headstone is engraved with a message from his daughter.

“No farewell words were spoken, no time to say goodbye; You were gone before I knew it, and only God knows why.”

Follow @suebailey on Twitter.

Sue Bailey, The Canadian Press

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