The Christmas Massacre

22 December 1963

Warning: this story may be disturbing to some readers.

Christmas is a holy time, a time for people to come together, a time for families to share their love and celebrate the blessings of the Christ child whose birth is being remembered. But Christmas 1963 for the parish of Christ-Le Roi (Christ the King) in downtown Ottawa was a bleak, sorrowful time. Instead of experiencing the joys of the season, parishioners mourned the sudden loss of friends and neighbours who died three days earlier in a hail of bullets in the church’s rectory located beside the church at 252 Argyle Street, just east of Bank Street.

Sunday, 22 December 1963 started as a normal pre-Christmas Sunday. Reverend Guillaume Chevrier greeted more than three hundred parishioners, including his distant cousin Lionel Chevrier, the Minster of Justice, to the service which celebrated the fourth Sunday in Advent. The mass started as usual at noon. At about 12:45pm, Agathe Jensen, who lived in a third-floor apartment in the neighbouring rectory building, pounded on the side door of the church. Frantic, she ran to Father Chevrier, saying that somebody had been shot. Chevrier stopped the service and asked for help from his parishioners. Four persons answered the call: Paul Mercier, John Horner, Roger Lecroix and Léo Binette.

Roger Binette (age 22) and Réginald Binette (age 17), Ottawa Citizen, 23 December 1963.

Horner and Mercier got to the rectory first and began to climb the staircase. About five steps up, Horner came face to face with a youth pointing a revolver at him. A voice higher up shouted out in French “We have no choice.” Shoot them.” The young man fired two shots. Both Horner and Mercier fell backwards. Unhurt, Horner slumped to the ground, feigning death. Mercier, the parish’s young, 22-year-old scoutmaster, was not so fortunate. He was shot in the chest and died almost instantly. A few minutes later, when everything in the stairwell had gone quiet, Horner got up and fled the rectory. Meanwhile, Léo Binette hearing the shots, ducked, scampered from the front porch of the rectory, and sprinted down Argyle Street in a zig-zag pattern. When he cautiously returned, Roger Lecroix had organized a number of parishioners, mostly teenagers, to surround the rectory building to prevent the perpetrators from escaping. Later, Lecroix was shocked when he recalled his actions which put many young people at risk.

The police arrived at the scene roughly five minutes after receiving word that there was a shooter in the rectory. They entered the blood-splatted vestibule. After donning a bullet-proof vest, Detective Tom Flanigan slowly made his way up the stairs. The first body he discovered was that of Paul Mercier. On the second-floor landing, he came across the bodies of Alberte Guindon, age 45, the rectory’s housekeeper, and that of a young man, apparently an assailant who had shot himself in the temple. The revolver, a German 9mm Mauser, was still clutched in his hand. Word was passed to Flanigan that another person had been spotted in a window above. Flanigan shouted up “Come down or we’ll shoot.” A few seconds later, a slight, dark-haired youth, scarcely more than a boy, surrendered. When police led the young man out of the building, Léo Binette froze. The suspect was his younger son, Réginald, age 17. “What have you done? My God, what have you done?” he asked. Later, he heard that the other assailant found dead on the scene was none other than his older son, Roger, age 22.

Murder victim, Paul Mercier (age 22), scoutmaster at Christ-Le-Roi Church, Le Droit, 23 December 1963.

Also found on the second floor was Doralice Béchard, age 65, who was gravely injured with gunshot wounds to her abdomen and chest, and her sister Henédine, age 61, who had suffered a flesh wound to her hand. The two sisters shared an apartment on the second storey. Doralice was to die on the operating table at the General Hospital later that day.

The police also recovered a small arsenal of weapons, as well as bullets, knives, handcuffs, lengths of chains and padlocks, along with tape, blindfolds, fishing line and first aid kits. Each of the two young men had been armed with two revolvers which they had carried in home-made western-style leather belts and holsters. Two rabbit’s feet were sewn onto Roger’s belt. In addition to the Mauser found in his dead hand, Roger packed a .45 calibre Colt-style revolver. Réginald’s .45 calibre revolver was found on the kitchen table of apartment number five, the home of Agathe Jansen. His .38 calibre revolver was found on the fourth step of the stairway leading to the third floor where he had dropped it after being told to surrender.

In total, the two brothers fired twelve shots of which at least seven hit people. Slugs were found in the walls of the stairwell. A bullet had also shattered a second-storey window. The death toll could have been much higher. Roger’s homemade ammunition pouch, found in a cardboard box wrapped in Christmas paper, contained six spent cartridge cases and 38 fresh ones; Réginald’s held 42 live bullets.

Initially, police believed that the Binette brothers had intended to rob the church of its Sunday collection offerings, but their plans had been foiled when they were discovered by Alberte Guindon. The police reasoned that when she began screaming, the boys panicked and began firing. Later, following interviews with the police, psychiatrists and psychologists, Réginald revealed their intentions had been far more elaborate and bizarre. 

The pair had intended to kidnap Father Chevrier and force him to bring them to the homes of wealth Ottawa businessmen from whom they would extort money. Their aim was to steal $1 million. They would then force neurosurgeons to implant electronic equipment in the brains of people thereby turning them into robots. The Binette brothers would use the robotized individuals to commit crimes. They also wanted to build rocket ships and develop a longevity serum so they could live for 200-300 years. Needless to say, there were serious questions about Réginald’s sanity.

The Monday following the murders and suicide, young Réginald Binette was charged with the murder of Paul Mercier. It was his eighteenth birthday. Since the crime had been committed before he had turned eighteen, his sentence, if convicted, would be life imprisonment. Had he been eighteen, just one day older, when he shot Paul Mercier, he would have faced the death penalty. Binette looked on impassively as he was sent for psychiatric tests to see if he was sane enough to stand trial. His parents sat in the front row of the court room until his sobbing mother had to leave, escorted by her grieving husband and a police constable.

Léo and Valeda Binette had no idea that either of their sons were in Ottawa. The previous summer, they had sent young Réginald to stay with his older brother Robert who lived in British Columbia. The parents had been worried that Réginald was too much under the sway of Roger who seemed to control his every action. Réginald was their adopted son. They had started looking after him when he was five months old on behalf of the Children’s Aid Society. When he was five, they officially adopted him.

Roger Binette had left home on December 8th, two weeks before the shootings. His parents had thought he had gone to the United States. Instead, unbeknownst to their parents, Roger and Réginald had got in touch with each other and had moved in together in Room 9 in a boarding house at 170 Metcalfe Street.

Réginald was sent first to the hospital at Brockville and then to a secure government facility in Penetanguishene for psychiatric tests. Government doctors questioned him using hypnosis and drugs—sodium amytal, a drug sometimes used in psychiatric interviews at the time. The Ottawa Journal described it as a “truth serum.” Réginald was also given methadrine, also known as methamphetamine, or speed. (The use by investigators of truth serums, which were unreliable at best, was later discontinued or banned.)

The psychiatrists and psychologists concluded that Réginald was mentally ill with schizophrenia and lived in a fantasy world. He also suffered from paranoia and had delusions of grandeur and persecution. However, he was able to understand the charges against him and was capable of directing counsel. Consequently, they contended that he was fit to stand trial.

While his competency was being assessed, police tracked down the guns used by the brothers in the rectory attack. They had been stolen in a vicious home invasion and robbery staged by the two men the previous June at the house of Kenneth Mayhew, a gun collector, of 68 Pineglen Crescent in Nepean. The men, armed with brass knuckles, bounded and gagged Mayhew and his family, before making off with four revolvers. Mayhew’s daughter was wounded in the leg in the assault when one of the stolen revolvers went off. Réginald was charged with assaulting Kenneth Mayhew’s wife, discharging a firearm causing bodily harm to Mayhew’s daughter, and robbing Mayhew of his weapons.

Following a preliminary hearing held in March 1964, Réginald Binette’s trial began in late April in front of Justice Sam Hughes of Ontario’s Supreme Court. Witnesses described the horror of events on that tragic Sunday before Christmas. Henédine Béchard, who was in hospital at the time suffering from sciatica, was brought into the courtroom on a stretcher.

Agathe Jensen, who was also called to testify, was ordered from the witness box by Justice Hughes when she insisted on speaking in French even though she understood English. After conferring with both the defence and Crown counsels, the judge said she could speak in French and have an interpreter but warned her against turning his courtroom into a “demonstration.” He added that there was “nothing objectionable” about her testifying in her native tongue. In her testimony, Jensen said that the accused had twice put his gun to his head but couldn’t pull the trigger.

Louis Assaly, Réginald’s lawyer, asked for a not-guilty verdict on grounds that his client was insane. He noted that this would not mean that Binette would be free to walk Ottawa’s streets. Instead, Binette would be committed to the Penetanguishene maximum security mental hospital under a Lieutenant General’s warrant where he would stay until cured. In support of his plea, four defence psychiatrists testified that Binette was “certifiably insane.”

The Crown would have none of it, arguing that the shooting spree plan was carefully thought-out and logical. As well, schizophrenia was not enough to justify acquittal. The judge informed the jury that with an insanity plea, the burden of proof laid with the defence counsel. As well, he said that insanity was legally defined to be a state of natural imbecility or a disease of mind which rendered a person incapable of appreciating that an act was wrong.

After a ten-day trial, Réginald Binette was found guilty of killing Paul Mercier, and sentenced to life imprisonment. The jury deliberated for only four hours.

While defence counsel launched an appeal, it was subsequently withdrawn. Three months after his trial for murder Binette was tried for robbing Kenneth Mayhew. The other two charges were dropped. Binette received a sentence of five years to be service concurrently with his murder sentence of life imprisonment.

Sources:

American Addiction Centers, 2019. Methadrine, https://www.projectknow.com/prescription-drugs/methamphetamine-addiction-treatment/methadrine/.

Le Droit, 1963. “Un drame dans un presbytère : 4 morts,” 23 décembre.

Ottawa Citizen, 1963. “Black Sunday –official police story of killings,” 23 December.

——————, 1963. “Four killed at rectory,” 23 December.

——————, 1963. “Defence says boy ‘not responsible,’” 30 December.

——————, 1964. “Rectory murder suspect facing 3 more charges,” 3 January.

——————, 1964. “Mental Exam for Binette,” 4 January.

——————, 1964. “Mental test ordered for Binette,” 9 January.

——————, 1964. “Detective describes ‘arsenal,’” 12 March.

——————, 1964. “Rectory slaying trial underway,” 21 April.

——————, 1964. “My sister fell at my feet – witness sobs,” 23 April.

——————, 1964. “Twice put gun to his head,” 24 April.

——————, 1964. “‘I went wild,’ Binette said in statement,” 27 April.

——————, 1964. “Accused obeyed brother,” 28 April.

——————, 1964. “Shooting-spree plan logical – attorney,” 1 May.

——————, 1964. “Binette given life term for slaying scoutmaster,” 2 May.

——————, 1964. “Binette spared gallows by age,” 2 May.

——————, 1964. “Gun theft costs Binette 5 years,” 23 September.

Ottawa Journal, 1963. “It Was My Son, My Baby…. He’s Only 17…!” 23 December.

——————-, 1963. “This Is What Happened In 30 Minutes of Madness,” 23 December.

——————-, 1963. “Detectives Astonished By Weapons,” 23 December.

——————-, 1963. “Standing at Back of Church When…”, 23 December.

——————-, 1963. “He Lived…Died As a Volunteer,” 23 December.

——————-, 1963. “Arraigned on 18th Birthday,” 23 December.

——————-, 1964. “Accused Killed Victim – Witness,” 13 March.

——————-, 1964. “Woman Refuses To Speak English,” 22 April.

——————-, 1964. “Says Murder Accused Living ‘Fantasy Life,’” 23 April.

——————-, 1964. “Witnesses Recall Horror Of Four Rectory Killings,” 24 April.

——————-, 1964. “‘Fantastic’ Plot Told In Court,” 28 April.

——————-, 1964. “Says Youth Under Orders To Kill,” 29 April.

——————-, 1964. “Asks Not Guilty Verdict for Binette,” 30 April.

——————-, 1964. “Binette Admits Robbery,” 16 September.

Rinde Meir, 2015. “Stranger than Fiction,” Distillations, Science History Institute, https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/magazine/stranger-than-fiction.

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