Like many of his colleagues at Ottawa-Carleton’s public transit company, Grant Harrison wore his grief openly. His red-rimmed eyes welled with tears during a coffee break as Harrison – pale, unable to sleep for more than a few hours a night – recalled Pierre Lebrun and his bloody rampage through an OC Transpo building.
Lebrun, a former employee and hunting enthusiast whom Harrison remembered as “very clever, very nice,” pulled into a garage at the sprawling complex with a high-powered rifle at 2:30 p.m. on April 6, 1999. Soon after, Harrison heard an announcement over the public-address system that someone had been shot. “I thought it was a joke, everybody did,” said Harrison, an auto-body repairman. Another urgent message dispelled that notion. Harrison huddled with terrified co-workers in a garage while Lebrun gunned down employees in the nearby building. Within a half hour, he killed four employees and wounded another man before killing himself. “I still don’t believe it happened,” said Harrison. “You just don’t think that you’d see this in your lifetime.”
That sense of disbelief swept over OC Transpo employees and Ottawa-area residents alike. Transit users filed onto buses last week and offered drivers their condolences. Others left flowers outside OC Transpo’s headquarters. And police sifted through information to figure out what prompted Lebrun, a tall, lanky 40-year-old bachelor with a stutter, to show up at his former workplace with a Remington 760 .30-06 rifle – a slightly modified version of the weapon that James Earl Ray used to kill civil rights crusader Martin Luther King in 1968 – and his pockets stuffed with ammunition. “It’s Judgment Day!” he shouted when he arrived. “You think it’s bad now – just wait.” But judgment for what? Lebrun’s mother offered one disturbing explanation: taunts by co-workers prompted, among other things, by her son’s stutter drove him to seek revenge.
Lebrun’s victims, all long-serving OC Transpo employees, were; shipper Brian Guay, 56; stores clerk Clare Davidson, 52; and mechanics Harry Schoenmakers, 44, and David Lemay, 45. (Another employee who was shot in the side was released from hospital on Wednesday.) But why those well-liked employees were singled out remains a mystery. “These guys were the salt of the earth,” said Ozzie Morin, a veteran employee on disability leave. “Nobody hated those guys. That’s why I can’t understand why this happened.” In his suicide note, discovered by his parents in their home in Orleans, an eastern suburb of Ottawa, just as police called to tell them of the tragedy, Lebrun mentioned four co-workers he had problems with and three that he liked. But none of his victims’ names were on the list. And as he strode through the building during his rampage, Lebrun, who quit his job as an audit clerk in January after 13 years with the company, encountered more than a dozen people – but opted to shoot only some. “It’s very curious as to why he selected certain individuals to kill and permitted certain people to live,” said Ottawa-Carleton regional police Insp. Ian Davidson. “He could easily have killed many more people.”
Police came across further proof of that chilling fact when they discovered Lebrun’s body above a shop area – and found 36 more rounds of ammunition in his pockets. They believe Lebrun simply ran out of targets as a quick-thinking employee used the public-address system to warn people to leave the building. Apparently, Lebrun also tried to burn down the building, but the sprinkler system doused the two fires he set.
Lebrun’s mother believes that taunts by co-workers about her son’s speech impediment sent him over the edge. “He said a group of people were harassing him – not only one person but a group of people,” Jeannette Lebrun told The Ottawa Citizen. “That’s why he went there – to kill the people who harassed him.” But Lebrun had a history of problems with co-workers. The trouble may have started in 1996, when Ottawa endured a tense transit strike and Lebrun, at the advice of doctors, took sick leave rather than join his colleagues on the picket line. After the strike, sources say, Lebrun’s fellow employees started to harass him.
In 1997, Lebrun came to blows with one who teased him about his stutter. Subsequently fired because of the fight, he was rehired in a month after his union went to bat for him (as one of the conditions for getting his job back, Lebrun had to agree to take anger management counselling). Lebrun also complained about the way two colleagues were treating him to Al Loney, chairman of Ottawa-Carleton’s transit commission, during a brief encounter last year. Loney says Lebrun didn’t provide details. He seemed calm, didn’t want him to intervene and planned to complain to a supervisor, added Loney. The past few years have been tumultuous ones at OC Transpo. A consultants’ review of operations last year painted an unflattering picture of the company with rock-bottom morale and poor management. “Quite apart from what’s alleged or otherwise with Mr. Lebrun’s situation, we know we’ve had a very unhappy work environment for a long time,” Loney told Maclean’s. (The company has recently undertaken changes, such as management shuffles.) In the mechanics department, for example, where Lebrun got into a fight, Loney says minor altercations “were not at all unusual” in the past.
Whatever his problems with co-workers, Lebrun was described by former colleagues as quiet and shy. He drove a bus for part of his 13-year career at OC Transpo but then shifted to three other jobs – each involving less contact with people – as his union tried to accommodate his complaints about harassment. He quit in January, even though management was pleased with his performance as an audit clerk. After a trip to British Columbia in March, apparently to look for work, Lebrun began heading back towards Ottawa, making a side trip to Las Vegas, Nev., before driving home last week with seemingly one motive – revenge – in mind.
Police now intend to obtain a psychological profile of Lebrun and investigate the allegations that he was mistreated by some co-workers. At OC Transpo, meanwhile, counsellors met with many of the company’s 2,100 grieving employees and transit officials planned an April 18 memorial service for Lebrun’s four victims. In another show of solidarity, many buses across the continent pulled over on their routes last Friday to observe a moment of silence. And in a moving tribute, Stacey Lemay, a Grade 13 student, wrote a poem in memory of her slain father, David, entitled “My Dad, My Friend, My Hero.” The poem was read over the intercom at her high school. The last verse said: So as my dad, my friend, my hero/please remember us/And some day we’ll meet you in a better place/but until that time/I’ll live and breathe for you/and accomplish all of your dreams/I love you, now and always.
Many traumatized employees who hid during Lebrun’s rampage counted themselves lucky last week amid their grief. “There was no reason for it,” Harrison said. “I really wish he would have talked to somebody. He should have realized that nobody is against anybody.”
In the end, one man’s anger left children without fathers, wives without husbands – and a community and company grappling with a senseless tragedy.
Maclean’s April 19, 1999, Author BRENDA BRANSWELL
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