A man will spend more than seven months in jail after provoking a strange “hostage crisis” in Yellowknife last December.
The case of David Brownlee, 38, is unusual in that he began the hostage crisis without any actual hostages, then later acquired some.
The two men he briefly held captive at the Northern Lites Motel were able to escape, though one filed a victim impact statement in which he described fearing for his life.
Brownlee has received 19 prior convictions as an adult, though the last came almost six years ago, in late 2009. He admitted his guilt on all charges.
Threatened to kill
The events culminating in Friday’s sentencing began in the early hours of December 18, 2014.
Brownlee, then 37, found himself at the motel in a depressed and desperate state. He had been denied an apartment the previous day owing to rent outstanding and, having just bought his three daughters iPads for Christmas, discovered one of those iPads had been stolen from him.
In a rage, according to a statement of facts read to the court, Brownlee smashed the remaining iPads and picked up the phone. He called RCMP in Yellowknife shortly after 4am, claimed he had a hostage, and demanded money. He soon hung up but would call several more times in quick succession, claiming to be armed and threatening to kill his hostage.
At that time, Brownlee had no actual hostage. Nonetheless, police – unable to be sure of this – were able to work out his location and established some surveillance of the scene.
What happened next transformed proceedings into a genuine hostage situation. Two acquaintances walked into Brownlee’s motel room, at which point they were informed they were his hostages.
Neither man initially took Brownlee seriously. However, when they tried to leave, Brownlee proceeded to strike one man in the arm with a metal bar (extracted from his motel closet) and wrestled with the other.
By 7:30am, both men had been able to escape. But Judge Bernadette Schmaltz, presiding over Friday’s sentencing, said their experience had left at least one of the two with “lasting effects”. She added: “He did not think both men would survive.”
The two men were now free again. However, the hostage crisis continued – once again without hostages.
Brownlee was, by this point, on the edge. Eleven officers were now in position around his motel room, and he told them he wanted them to shoot him. A standoff ensued, punctuated by the attempts of a police negotiator to talk Brownlee out of the action he was taking.
At around 12:15pm, more than eight hours after Brownlee’s initial call, RCMP deployed first tear gas, then pepper spray. This ultimately resulted in Brownlee’s arrest.
His sentence, of seven months and 15 days, includes punishment for an essentially unrelated assault in a police drunk tank in June this year – having been released on a recognizance in February – which the judge described as “callous, cruel and heartless”.
The sentence allows credit for the 50 days Brownlee had already served in pre-trial custody, alongside credit for his guilty pleas. Brownlee admitted charges of public mischief, assault, carrying a weapon for a purpose dangerous to the public peace, and breach of undertaking.
While the circumstances of his arrest on December 18 were unusual, Judge Schmaltz made plain the tragic and serious nature of what took place.
“There are many aggravating factors,” she told Brownlee, who appeared in a grey t-shirt and blue jeans, as she sentenced him. “The duration of the incident, the significant risk to RCMP members and the community … and a huge waste of resources.”
Schmaltz said the incident had worried the entire community. Just two days earlier, a highly publicized hostage crisis had left three people dead in Sydney, Australia.
“David Brownlee brought these types of event so much closer to Yellowknife,” she said. “The fear, the apprehension, the worry, would have been intense that day.”
Schmaltz alluded to the desperation and personal circumstances behind Brownlee’s actions that day, but said the context could not excuse his actions.
“I don’t disregard the sadness of his situation,” she said, “but this behaviour has to be deterred and it has to be denounced.”
Brownlee attempted to interrupt the judge in conciliatory tone, but was not permitted to speak.
In addition to his jail sentence, Brownlee will spend two years on probation, must perform 100 hours of community service, and must pay a $500 victims of crime surcharge by the end of March 2016. The judge declined to issue him any firearms prohibition, saying she did not believe it would be “necessary or helpful”.
Note: For a period of several hours on December 18, 2014, Moose FM reported this incident as a ‘hoax’ based on the accounts of two separate witnesses closely connected to that day’s events. Those witnesses told us no hostages had been involved and we reported accordingly, unaware of the unusual sequence of events that we now know took place. Our reporting was amended within three hours of publication based on police information. We regret the error.