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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The OC Transpo Massacre

6 April, 1999

Of all of the events that have occurred through Ottawa’s history, one of the most tragic is the OC Transpo Massacre. For many Ottawa residents, the terrible events of 6 April 1999 are seared into their memory. They will always remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. While time heals, the scars remain both for the families directly affected, as well for Ottawa more generally. In a way, the city lost its innocence that day. We discovered that the mass shootings that we associate with places far away can happen in peaceful, law-abiding Ottawa.

Pierre Lebrun

Pierre Lebrun, Murderopedia

It began on a normal, early spring, Tuesday afternoon. At about 2.30 pm, Pierre Lebrun, a shy, 40-year old man who had left OC Transpo’s employ the previous January, pulled into the bus company’s garage at 1500 St. Laurent Boulevard in the city’s east end. He parked his 1997 Pontiac Sunfire a few yards away from a supervisor’s office. After getting out of his car, he pulled out a high-powered, Remington, pump-action rifle capable of killing a moose from a mile away. Entering the building, Lebrun shouted out a line from the movie The Terminator—It’s Judgement Day!

Lebrun quickly fired his first shot that reportedly hit a steel drum before going through a metal locker and lodging in a computer monitor. Fragments struck two men, Richard Guertin and Joe Casagrande, injuring them, fortunately not seriously. Both fled down a hall, shouting for someone to call 911. A message quickly went out over the PA system that there was a man in the garage with a loaded gun. The more than 150 occupants of the building tried to get out of the building or hid in lockers or under tables.

Walking down a hallway, Lebrun claimed his first victim, shipper Brian Guay, 46, shooting him in the chest. Stepping over Guay’s prostrate body, Lebrun continued into the interior of the garage where a group of people were taking a coffee break at the back of a bus. The workers watched in horror as Lebrun fired a third time, killing mechanic Harry Schoenmakers, 44, before entering the bus where the terrified workers were standing. With his gun across his shoulder, he swore at them and snarled You think it’s funny now. Lebrun did not shoot but instead left the garage bay, set a small fire in a chemical room, and proceeded to a store room where four men were sitting. There, Lebrun claimed his third and fourth victims, Clare Davidson, 52, and David Lemay, 35.

Leaving the store room, Lebrun walked upstairs to a loft that overlooked the engine room. A few seconds later, another shot rang out. Lebrun had killed himself. His pockets were full of ammunition. From the time, he entered the garage to the time he took his only life was only a matter of minutes.

Outside the garage, the emergency 911 system receive a call at 2.39 pm that there was a shooter at the OC Transpo garage. The first police arrived at 2.44 pm, with the heavily armed tactical unit arriving on the scene at 2.55 pm. But they didn’t know what they were dealing with. They moved cautiously. Police entered the building at 3.47 pm and began to methodically comb the rooms and buses in the garage. Meanwhile, OC Transpo workers and onlookers waited outside, fearful of the fate of their colleagues and friends. By 6 pm, the police had found Pierre Lebrun’s body in a pool of blood and could begin to stand down.

Information about Pierre Lebrun quickly surfaced. He had been born in Northern Ontario in the small town of Moonbeam located south-east of Kapuskasing. A quiet child with a stammer, he had been teased by other children throughout his childhood. His mother said he had been a “good son.” He had started working for OC Transpo in the mid-1980s, but had quit his job as an audit clerk in January 1999. He had no criminal record.

Originally hired as a bus driver, he had been transferred to jobs that did not require as much interaction with people. A quiet man, who struggled with depression, he had been at the receiving end of jabs and taunts about his speech impediment from certain co-workers. Some said that the harassment got worse after a 1996 transit strike during which Lebrun had gone on sick leave on the advice of a doctor rather than joining the picket line with his striking colleagues. In 1997, Lebrun was fired after he hit a co-worker for allegedly making fun of his stammer. After the union intervened in his support, management rehired Lebrun on the proviso that he attend anger management counselling. But problems continued. Lebrun actually approached Al Loney, the chairman of the OC Transit Commission, to complain about two colleagues. However, Lebrun did not provide details and asked Loney not to intervene. Instead, Lebrun said would go to his supervisor.

After leaving the employ of OC Transpo early in 1999, Lebrun travelled by car across Canada, spending time in British Columbia before heading south to Las Vegas. After losing his money gambling, he drove directly back to Ottawa, arriving in the capital shortly before his assault on the OC Transpo garage. He left a suicide note for his parents. In it, he said that he knew that he was “going to commit an unforgiveable act,” but that he had “no choice.” He said he feared for his life and that people from the union had followed him out west and that they had “destroyed his life.” He added that OC Transpo and the union “can’t hid from what they do to me,” that he was “not crazy, but very intelligent, too intelligent.” He also listed the names of four co-workers who he didn’t like, and three who had tried to help him. None of Lebrun’s victims’ names appeared on his “hate list;” they were simply bystanders who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Over the days that followed the tragic event, grieving families, OC Transpo employees, and the broader community tried to come to terms with what had happened. An impromptu memorial of flowers and black ribbons appeared in front of the bus company’s head office on St. Laurent Boulevard. Among the tributes was a poem by Stacey Lemay, the daughter of David Lemay, entitled “My Dad, My Friend.” The poem was also read out over the intercom at Stacey’s high school. Three days after the shootings, buses across North America pulled over at 2.45 pm to observe a minute of silence as a tribute to their fallen comrades.

Later, an official five-member Coroner’s jury sat down to hear the evidence about what happened that fateful day and what might have provoked Pierre Lebrun’s actions. On their first day on the job, members of the jury along with the general public were shocked to learn that the events of 6 April 1999 had claimed another life. A co-worker of Lebrun had hanged himself out of remorse. In a suicide note, he wrote that Lebrun had talked to him about shooting his managers but the co-worker had said nothing. He thought it had been a dark fantasy, not something Lebrun would ever do.

For eight weeks, the jury listened to testimony of OC Transpo management and workers, police, doctors, family members and other witnesses. Portions of the 911 call were played out, and jury members were taken on a tour of the crime scene. Time was spent examining how long it took for the police to respond, and how Lebrun had obtained ammunition for his rifle despite his firearm licence having expired. A detailed step-by-step analysis was made of Lebrun’s movements and actions from the moment he arrived at the OC Transpo garage until he killed himself. Much attention was also placed on the work environment at the OC Transpo garage. It was very clear that management-worker relations had been poor for some time. One witness claimed that some managers didn’t treated their employees as human beings.  Worker morale was described as being low prior to the shooting.

Witnesses also testified that Lebrun had been a “loner” who had been repeatedly teased because of his stammer. A forensic psychiatrist argued that workplace harassment and what he called “a poisoned work environment” were factors in the tragedy. The 1997 incident when Lebrun had gone “berserk” and slapped a co-worker was also scrutinized. Testimony revealed that after the incident Lebrun had not reached “set goals” in his required anger management training. As well, co-worker concerns about Lebrun’s behaviour had been behind his transfer to the audit position.

After eight weeks of testimony, the coroner’s jury came out with 77 recommendations of which 51 applied directly to OC Transpo. Sixteen recommendations addressed workplace harassment issues, including the development and implementation of workplace violence and harassment prevention policies and procedures by OC Transpo, and the delivery of a respectful workplace training program to all employees. The jury demanded zero tolerance for harassment and violence in the workplace. A further twelve recommendations were directed at workplace safety and security concerns, including such things as the establishment of emergency escape plans, the installation of emergency “pick-up” phones similar to ones in place at transit stops, and the accessibility of maps and blueprints of all buildings to police and other emergency workers.  Other recommendations were given to the police and government.

Most of the recommendations were quickly adopted. However, it took many years for the provinces to update their legislation to require employers to take preventative measures against workplace harassment and violence.  Quebec was the first, amending in 2004 its Act Respecting Labour Standards to ensure employees have the right to a working environment that is free from psychological harassment. Employers were also required to introduce measures to prevent such harassment. Manitoba and Saskatchewan followed in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Ontario’s Bill 168, which was an amendment to the province’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, came into force in 2010. Under the legislation, employers are, among other things, required to determine the risks of workplace harassment and violence, and develop policies for investigating employee complaints and incidents. In 2016, Bill 132, otherwise known as the Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act, came into force. The new legislation expanded the definition of workplace harassment to include sexual harassment. It also broadened employer responsibilities to conduct investigations into incidents and complaints of workplace harassment. The Occupational Health and Safety Act was additionally amended to empower inspectors to require an employer to commission a report made by an unbiased person into a harassment incident or complaint. As well, the Limitations Act was amended to permit the prosecution of cases that occurred prior to the introduction of the Act.

With the laws and regulations in place, implementation is now key. We can only hope that instances of workplace violence and harassment are addressed early enough that similar future tragedies are averted.

Sources:

Bawden, Sean, 2015. “Bill 132… Picking up where Bill 168 left off?”  Labour Pains, 7 November.

Branswell, Brenda, 200. “Pierre Lebrun and his bloody rampage through an OC Transpo building,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 28 April.

CBC News, 2000. “OC Transpo Inquest rocked by revelation,” 10 January.

————–, 2000. “List of recommendation after OC Transpo inquiry,” 29 February.

City of Ottawa, 2001. “Report to Transportation and Transit Committee and Council,” 18 April.

Globe and Mail (The), 2000. “Shooting rampage had deadly echo,” 7 January.

Miniken Employment Lawyers, 2010. “Bill  168 – Ontario’s Law on Workplace Violence and Harassment,” https://www.minkenemploymentlawyers.com/employment-law-issues/bill-168-ontarios-law-on-workplace-violence-and-harassment/.

Murderpedia, 2000(?) “Pierre Lebrun,” http://murderpedia.org/male.L/l/lebrun-pierre.htm.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1999. “Scene ‘frantic’ after carnage,” 7 April.

————————-, 1999. “Massacre at OC Transpo,” 7 April.

————————-, 1999. “A reminder of what really matters,” 8 April

————————-, 1999. “Impromptu memorial,” 9 April.

————————-, 1999. “Transit services to pause in continent-wide tribute.” 9 April.

————————-, 1999. “Ridicule made ‘good son’ a mass killer.” 9 April.

————————-, 2000. “Jury’s still out on OC Transpo,” 1 March.

————————-, 2000. “OC Transpo Inquest Chronology,” 1 March.

Ottawa Sun (The|), 2013. “OC Transpo driver remembers deadly 1999 shooting,” 19 September.

RH Proactive Inc. 2016. “Bill 132: Prevent Sexual Violence and Harassment in the Workplace,” http://bill132.ca/.