KEVIN LIBIN | NATIONAL POST · APRIL 5, 2011
You could see a blood trail. [The horse] was upside down with his head wedged between two trees.
Chuck Kollin had come to courtroom 1405 in Calgary on Monday morning just looking, he says, to finish what he’d started. He had planted himself quietly, anonymously — he thought — among the spectators for a trial of three men accused of being heartless killers whose alleged crime had shocked the province. Mr. Kollin figured he’d just be a fly on the wall. Mr. Kollin was wrong.
He was spotted from the start. The RCMP officer investigating the case saw him. The defence lawyer wanted to talk to him. The trial was stopped before it began. This changed everything, the attorneys told Judge Cheryl Daniel.This was the man who had first tipped police to the information that had led to the arrest of these three men, along with a 13 year-old boy.
Mr. Kollin says he was told, through hearsay that hasn’t been proven in court, that the boy cried after the killings, and was told to shrug it off. This was, the boy was reportedly told, no different than killing gophers.
But this was different. These were Alberta’s iconic wild horses.
A lot of Albertans are proud of their wild horse herds; romantic about them, even if no one’s certain where they came from. The Wild Horses of Alberta Society (WHOAS) suspects they’re the descendants of mustangs sailed to the new world by Spanish conquistadors and brought north by Blackfoot Indians. The government’s position is that they likely just escaped from ranches and farms over generations. Either way, when they started turning up shot, left to die brutal, agonizing deaths near the side of the highway, a lot of Albertans were as outraged as they were heartbroken.
It didn’t matter that, legally, the province considers wild horses no more valuable than cattle. They can be captured, legally, with permission, and sold to slaughter. Alberta grants about 20 such permits a year, one reason why WHOAS estimates that the number of feral horses has fallen from 1,000 in the mid1980s to an estimated 200 or 300 today.
The other is that someone has been shooting them, illegally. About 30 were picked off between 2001 and 2009. They likely weren’t all connected, says Bob Henderson, president of WHOAS.
The horses aren’t universally popular: The odd shooting may be some farmer or rancher cranky over them eating up grazing land meant for cattle.
“I still get emails from individuals saying the horses should be shot like Norway rats,” Mr. Henderson says. “We still run into that attitude.”
But as a retired police officer, he thinks the 13 killed near Sundre, Alta., between 2007 and 2009 are linked.
In 2009, Crime Stoppers reenacted the shootings hoping to generate leads. The wild horses society also put out a reward, which, with the help of private donors, grew to nearly $29,000.
Last January, RCMP announced a break in the case, charging three men, along with the boy. One of the accused was Jason Nixon.
This ramped up the story’s local shock value. Jason is the son of Pat Nixon, the founder of Calgary’s Mustard Seed ministry, one of the city’s most celebrated homeless outreach programs.
The Mustard Seed runs the Mountain-Aire lodge near Sundre, a retreat for people battling addictions, where recovery involves pitching in at the local businesses run by the lodge, including a restaurant and campground, and providing security and firewood to some of the other neighbouring resorts and ranches, set in the picturesque shadow of the Rockies.
Jason Nixon was the lodge’s general manager. He’s also been charged with assault, uttering threats and obstruction of a peace officer. One of the other men accused is his employee.
His father, Pat Nixon, meanwhile, is a member of the Order of Canada who, when he announced his retirement in January, earned an editorial in the Calgary Herald calling him “a living saint.”
And yet the horse deaths, including the one his son is charged with, along with Earl Anderson, Gary Cape and the boy, were gruesome.
Some of the mares were pregnant. One mustang, paralyzed by a bullet through the neck, took so long to die it left a silhouette of its body heat melted in the snow.
Another had been “gut shot,” reported the local outfitter who found a trio of carcasses in April 2009. “You could see a blood trail and he had flopped around,” he said. “He was upside down with his head wedged between two trees.”
One shooter dragged the body of a foal and laid it next to the body of its mother.
A group of ladies sporting shirts demanding better laws protecting Alberta’s wild horses showed up at court Monday to watch these men tried for killing a single pregnant mare in 2009 — a crime carrying a maximum sentence of five years.
Mr. Henderson was there too, as were a few dapper rancher types, in blue jeans, bolo ties and blazers, doffing cowboy hats as they entered the courtroom.
None of them would be here, Chuck Kollin believes, if not for him.
He’d worked at the Mountain-Aire Lodge in 2008, from the B.C. coast, hired to do some construction and maintenance work.
He left after less than two weeks, disappointed that the place wasn’t the spiritual haven he’d expected. His first day, he alleges, one of the residents offered to sell him crack. “I didn’t want any part of it.”
But the following year, visiting Calgary, using the casual labour office at a local dropin shelter, he ran into Dave Goertz, whom he recognized from the Mountain-Aire.
Mr. Goertz told him he’d been there one day in 2009 when some guys had gone out shooting horses. He had seen them do it, he told Mr. Kollin. He told him about the crying boy. Mr. Kollin checked the Internet.
He read, for the first time, about the shooting investigation. He learned of the reward. He urged Mr. Goertz to go to the police. Then he called them up himself.
Mr. Kollin says part of his motivation was money: He planned, he says, to use the reward for a mission to Albania, to help deliver clothes and crop seeds there. But he also wanted justice done.
He spent “weeks,” he says, helping RCMP track down Mr. Goertz, who had no fixed address. He spent plenty of his own funds in the process. “It became my full-time job,” he says.
He thinks he deserves the reward, but hasn’t seen a dime yet. Mr. Henderson insists that it’s payable only upon a conviction.
When Mr. Kollin showed up on Monday, he suddenly found himself the centre of attention at a trial full enough already with interesting characters and twists.
Defence lawyers halted the proceedings and asked to add him as a witness. Mr. Kollin is stunned. He’s still waiting for a reward he believes he deserves.
He didn’t plan to be part of this trial. He’s not eager to testify — his doctors told him to avoid stress while he awaits heart surgery next month — and definitely not for the accused.
“Why would I want to support the defence?” he says. He had thought he had bused in from the coast to quietly witness the end of “something I started” — to see the mystery of the wild horse shootings unravelled; to see justice served; to finally collect his reward. Now, he’s not sure what will happen. Now, he says, he wishes he’d stayed home.