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Investigation into deadly Saanich, B.C., bank shooting clears officers, reveals details of attack

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British Columbia's independent police watchdog has cleared several officers of wrongdoing after twin brothers were shot and killed in a gun battle with police outside a Vancouver Island bank earlier this year.

Mathew and Isaac Auchterlonie, 22-year-old brothers from Duncan, B.C., were struck down in a hail of over 100 police bullets as the heavily armed men exited a Bank of Montreal branch in Saanich, B.C., on the morning of June 28.

Six officers from the Greater Victoria Emergency Response Team were injured in the gunfight shortly after their unmarked van careened into the bank parking lot as the brothers exited the main doors

In a 10-page report released Wednesday, the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. said it could not determine who fired first in the deadly exchange.

"We can't say whether the assailants shot first or the police shot first," Ronald MacDonald, the office's chief civilian director, told CTV News on Wednesday.

However, the agency's report cited witness statements and bank surveillance video in determining that one of the Auchterlonie brothers fired a single shot from his semi-automatic rifle into the ceiling of the bank shortly after 11 a.m.

The gunmen went on to fire approximately 10 shots at police, striking five officers, while a sixth officer was injured by a ricocheting police bullet. "They were unfortunately very effective" in targeting the police, MacDonald said.

GUNMEN SPENT 16 MINUTES IN BANK

The brothers parked their car in the parking lot next to the suburban bank on Shelbourne Street, north of Victoria, and exited the car wearing baggy windbreakers, gloves and balaclavas. 

Under their windbreakers, they were clad in olive-green body armour and wore rigid leg protection and combat boots, according to the report.

Each was armed with a 7.62-millimetre calibre SKS rifle with an extended magazine. One of the brothers had a large knife hanging on the back of his belt and carried a large black bag.

The gunmen left the car's trunk door slightly ajar. Investigators would later find "a large cache of weapons, ammunition and improvised explosive devices" inside, according to the report.

Once inside the bank, the Auchterlonie brothers corralled employees and customers into the back of the building, near the vault.

"They were able to obtain only a very limited amount of cash, and appeared to be disappointed," the IIO reported.

"They then spent several minutes pacing around and occasionally looking out through the vestibule windows into the parking lot," the report added.

"While there is no 'typical' bank robbery, usually persons in this situation would attempt to escape as quickly as possible. [The gunmen] did the opposite."

Mathew Auchterlonie had applied to join the Canadian Army but did not pass the aptitude test, a military spokesperson says. (Facebook)

'A SERIES OF DRAMATIC AND VIOLENT EVENTS'

Sixteen minutes after entering the bank, the brothers walked back out the front doors, still carrying their rifles.

They turned towards their parked car as the unmarked van carrying seven heavily armed officers from the emergency response team entered the parking lot near the front doors.

"A series of dramatic and violent events then occurred in the space of mere seconds," the report said.

One brother raised his rifle at the police van. The vehicle's side door was flung open and one officer, the team's medic, threw a flashbang grenade at the brothers before the door slid forward again as the van braked.

"The stated intention of the GVERT members was to exit the van, to challenge the suspects and to arrest them, and the [flashbang] was expected to distract or even stun them momentarily, making the arrest quicker and safer," the investigation found.

What happened instead was a near-simultaneous exchange of gunfire.

"It is not possible to determine definitively whether police or the affected persons fired first," the report found.

"The experience of the GVERT officers inside the van was that, as soon as the side slider was fully opened, officers armed with rifles who were preparing to step out were struck by incoming bullets," the IIO said.

"It may well be that one of those officers took the first shot in response to [the gunman] raising his rifle in the direction of the GVERT van. In either event, the interval between the first shot from [one of the brothers] and the first shot from an officer appears to have been very, very short."

Mathew and Isaac Auchterlonie of Duncan, B.C., were struck down in a hail of over 100 police bullets as the heavily armed pair exited a Bank of Montreal branch in Saanich, B.C., on the morning of June 28. (Instagram/@isaacauchterlonie867)

One officer in the van was wounded in both legs and one arm. The officer exiting the van in front of him briefly returned fire before he was laid out on the van floor, shot through the upper abdomen and thigh, according to the report.

"All he’s able to do is just exhale," the officer behind him later told IIO investigators. "Staring through me."

A third officer in the back of the van started shouting that he was shot in the neck.

The medic who threw the flashbang was armed only with a pistol when he stepped out of the van and took a position in front of his wounded colleagues to return fire, according to the report.

The GVERT sergeant in command of the team was behind the wheel of the van when he fired "at least 28 rounds from his pistol out through the windshield," the report said.

He exited the driver's side door and continued shooting from behind a bush in the bank parking lot. He was eventually hit in the foot by a ricochet from a police bullet.

Two GVERT members exited through the van's rear door, both of them wounded in the legs. One fastened a tourniquet on the other's "badly bleeding leg while the shooting was still continuing," the report said.

"The officer who had shouted that he had been shot in the neck (and was indeed badly wounded in the shoulder) was only able to pull himself half out of the vehicle through the rear doors," the investigation determined.

By then, Saanich police officers were running along the sidewalk from the north, toward the gun battle. Some of those officers fired their weapons while others moved to administer first aid to the wounded GVERT members.

GUNMEN DEAD AT THE SCENE

One of the brothers was moving towards their parked car when he was struck in the head by a police bullet and fell to the ground, the IIO said.

The other brother was shot several times but was still firing at police before he also fell, according to a civilian witness. Investigators determined the magazine in his rifle was damaged when he hit the ground and his gun was no longer functioning.

A Saanich police officer told the IIO he saw the suspect on the ground, crawling towards his brother, whose gun was lying beside him. "There was more firing from police at that time," the IIO said.

A surveillance camera captured the second gunman's fall "several seconds after" the flashbang was detonated. Unused bullets can be seen "spilling from the broken magazine of his rifle," the report found.

The brother then "crawls away out of the view of the camera, leaving the weapon lying on the ground behind him" and moving towards his brother and their vehicle when he is killed. 

"The bottom line is they were having a really, really hard time stopping him and that was because of the body armour," MacDonald, the IIO director, said. "They had to stop him before he got to that gun."

When the gunfire ended, some officers were still administering first aid while others moved to handcuff the two suspects and seize their weapons. "But they were both already deceased at this time," the IIO found.

Autopsies revealed that one brother had three gunshot wounds while the other brother was shot nine times. Several more police bullets were stopped or deflected by the gunmen's body armour, the IIO said.

"It is estimated that altogether, police fired just over 100 rounds, which is not surprising given the circumstances and that many officers were firing rounds during the incident," the agency said.

"Given this, the number of wounds suffered by each [gunman] was relatively low, a likely testament to the effectiveness of their body armour."

GUNMEN POSED CLEAR, IMMINENT THREAT 

The report found that, aside from the single shot into the bank's ceiling, the brothers fired all of their rounds at the police van. Two bullets from one gunman's rifle strayed across the street, with one striking the window of a bistro and the other entering a dry-cleaning business. 

"Even the exhaustive analysis conducted by IIO investigators has not been able to eliminate ambiguity about exactly who first discharged a firearm in the incident," the investigation found, adding that if the brothers "were doing no more than walking to their car, rifles pointed at the ground, it could not be said that it would be reasonable for police to immediately open fire on them, without any challenge or opportunity for surrender."

Instead, the report found that at least one of the brothers "reacted to police arrival by turning in their direction and raising his rifle."

"Whether he pulled the trigger at that exact moment, or not, he was a bank robber leaving the scene of the crime, and he was pointing a high-powered assault rifle at police," the IIO said.

In those circumstances, both gunmen "posed a clear and imminent threat of death or grievous bodily harm to officers and to the public, and the use of lethal force in response was justified," the IIO report concluded. 

The IIO is tasked with investigating all police officer-related incidents in B.C. that result in death or serious injury to a member of the public, regardless of whether there is any allegation of police wrongdoing.

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