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Rwanda: 1994: suspicious death and unanswered questions.

At approximately 0350 hrs on Christmas Day, 1994, Corporal Scott Smith was found dead from a single C-7 gunshot to his right temple. He was a member of the Canadian Airborne Regiment, on active United Nations service in Kigali, Rwanda.

Immediately following the tragedy, the Military Police launched an investigation and the Unit conducted its own summary investigation. Smith's death was officially concluded to be a suicide, although both probes failed to establish any motive or compelling evidence to support this theory.

SUPERFICIAL PROBE?

In reviewing the investigation reports (obtained under the Access to Information Act), it becomes readily apparent that many important questions were never asked. Given the sensitive timing of this occurance vis-a-vis the growing domestic fallout from the Somalia affair, and the key personnel who were in Kigali at that time, one could speculate that the probe into Smith's death was deliberately superficial.

What the documents do reveal is the following set of circumstances leading up to Smith's fatal gunshot.

FACTS REVEALED

Troops who stood sentry with Scott Smith on Christmas Eve remember him being in good spirits. At around 1630 hrs he was tasked to drive Captain Price in a Cougar armoured vehicle to the Ugandan border. It was a two-vehicle convoy and their mission was to pick up Colonel Serge Labbe from the secret Joint Task Force II (Canadian commando) patrol base and escort him back to Kigali. This task was completed about 1910 hrs.

Upon returning to the base at the Kigali Stadium, Smith joined his comrades at a barbecue taking place on a deck at the Junior Ranks club. At least four witnesses recall that Colonel Serge Labbe came into the Junior Ranks and spoke to the Airborne soldiers "about Somalia." Sgt Mercier, MCpl Hollohan, Cpls Turcotte and Beale all remember seeing Smith in a small group of paratroopers talking to Labbe between 1930-2000 hrs.

By every account, the standing regulation which allowed only two beers per-day perman was not being enforced that night and parties were taking place throughout the Canadian compound.

JTF II JOIN LABBE

Smith's fire team partner, Cpl Gudnason, also recalled seeing his colleague on the Junior Ranks deck, talking to Colonel Labbe, around 2000 hrs. Again, it was clear that the subject of the discussion was Somalia. Later that evening, around 0200 hrs, Cpl Turcotte noticed there were several unidentified Joint Task Force II (JTF II) guys at a barbeque and Smith was in attendance. Smith left this gathering around an hour later, at 0300 hrs. On his way back to his barrack room, Smith was hailed three times by his friend MCpl Sollazzo but to no avail. According to Sollazzo, Smith had his head down, apparently lost in thought, and did not respond.

Back in his quarters, Smith chatted with Cpls Okerlund and Evans giving neither of them any cause for alarm. At approximately 0330 hrs, Smith picked up his C-7 rifle and headed outside. Twenty minutes later, a single shot rang out and two sentries -- Cpls Howlett and Beale -- ran to investigate.

They found Smith's body with a horrendous gunshot wound to the right temple. His body was seated next to the stadium wall with the C-7 rifle between his legs.

A THOROUGH INVESTIGATION?

In a 17 May 1995 memo, Major Howell of the military police described the subsequent investigation into Smith's death as "thorough." The attached documentation would -- at a glance -- appear to substatiate that assertion. No fewer than eight military investigators were involved in the probe which questioned 21 individuals. From the cook who made Smith's eggs that previous morning to the lieutenant colonel who closed the ambulance doors on his corpse -- none of the interviewees were able to provide any possible explanation for Smith's actions.

Major Empey, the officer conducting the unit's summary investigation, stated that they had questioned everyone who had been in contact with Smith during the crucial 24-hour period leading up to his death. Their goal was to try and determine his emotional state.

However, contrary to Empey's claim, there were in fact several key witnesses who were not asked to provide any insights: namely Colonel Serge Labbe and the "JTF II guys."

The first question for Serge Labbe would have been to ask just what was he doing in Rwanda at that time? When the ill-fated Somalia mission ended in June 1993, Labbe had been posted to the Canadian Forces Land Staff College in Kingston. From that point forward, he had no operational or administrative link to the Canadian Airborne Regiment.

CHRISTMAS `CHEER'?

Nevertheless, just four weeks after then-Defence Minister David Collenette was forced to announce a public inquiry into the events which occured in Somalia, Col Labbe (a husband and father) decided to pay a Christmas visit to his former soldiers. More intriguing, perhaps, is the fact that Labbe's clandestine trek into Africa to "discuss Somalia" with the paratroopers was never disclosed to the Commission of Inquiry.

In November 1999, Esprit de Corps contacted Col Labbe through official channels and asked him to explain a) the reason for his trip to Rwanda, b) the nature of his conversations with Cpi Smith (just hours before his death), and c) why he never gave a statement to the investigating authorities. Six days after we made this detailed request, a Public Affairs officer notified us that Col Labbe had "declined to give any comment."

In the official investigation report, one of the theories floated as to Smith's possible despondancy that night stemmed from the news that the Airborne Regiment was being tasked to go into Croatia in April 1995. This would have meant that Smith (already a Gulf and Somalia veteran) would have returned to Canada from Rwanda just two months prior to heading off to Yugoslavia. The suggestion was that such a rate of active missions had caused a pyschological burnout in Smith.

ISSUES MISSED

Once again, this is where the investigators overlooked a key point. The Airborne Regiment's last minute tasking to Croatia was in fact the senior brass' response to the government's 21 November 1994 announcement of a public inquiry into Somalia. The generals felt they could redeem the Airborne's reputation with a "clean" tour in Croatia, and thereby dismiss any possible public inquiry findings as "old issues."

Given the secrecy and timings surrounding this plot, Col Labbe was the most likely source to have briefed the paratroopers on this development prior to Christmas Day 1994. In fact, the Commanding Officer of 2 R22eR, the unit originally slated for the April Croatia rotation, was not even told about the change in the unit's designation until the 1995 New Year's levy in Quebec City.

As for the JTF II members who were in Kigali that night and operating out of their forward patrol base in Uganda, it begs the questions, Where does the cloak and dagger secrecy surrounding this commando unit stop? How far will the military high command go to cover-up all traces of this force? And finally, who will ultimately be accountable if the JTF II's actions cross the line of acceptable conduct?
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Author:Taylor, Scott R.
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Nov 1, 1999
Words:1176
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