Jon Styres’s widow wants to know if the Canadian military trains its reserves to shoot to kill, even in civilian situations similar to the one that led, in 2016, to her spouse’s death.
But the Department of National Defence won’t answer.
From the 911 call made moments after he killed Styres, to his testimony in front of the jury that ultimately found him not guilty of second-degree murder, former Hamilton-area reservist Peter Khill maintained he was just following his military training, and that shooting the man allegedly stealing his truck was an act of self-defence.
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Now, as the family of Styres, a 29-year-old from Ohsweken, Ont., on the Six Nations reserve, struggles with a verdict they call “excruciatingly heartbreaking,” the mother of his two young girls is asking Canada’s Armed Forces if what he says is true.
“Is this what the Canadian military teaches?” Lindsay Hill wrote in a recent statement. “For a person who was trained for three months that is currently in civilian life to leave a civilian [his girlfriend] and approach an unknown situation armed with a gun and shoot and kill someone… “
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Canada’s Department of National Defence told the CBC “we will not provide comment on any aspect of this trial.”
Fire at a specific target
The military might not be willing to comment, but two retired soldiers told the CBC that training for Canadian soldiers is meant to teach discipline when using weapons, and to allow them to make decisions on whether the force they’re using is appropriate.
I would expect a former military person to have more discipline and more control because of their training.– Retired colonel Michel Drapeau
Retired colonel Michel Drapeau, who served in Canada’s Armed Forces for more than three decades, said soldiers have to follow the same laws as every other Canadian. He added that Khill’s training should have kept him from pulling the trigger at all.
“Soldiers are part of a unit, a machine, and only fire when ordered to do so. They don’t just take a weapon and leave to fire at somebody. They fire at a specific target,” he said.
“I would expect a former military person to have more discipline and more control because of their training.”
Jurors in the trial of Peter Khill were shown this photo of the home where Jon Styres was shot and killed.(Ministry of the Attorney General)
Like riding a bike
Prosecutors argued the killing didn’t need to happen and the entire situation could have been avoided if someone had just called 911. But Khill told the court dialling that number wasn’t part of his training.
Psychologist Laurence Miller testified that the type of training Khill took part in can change a person’s brain structure. He said they remember it years, even decades, later — like driving a car or riding a bicycle.
Family and friends of Jon Styres hug outside court after hearing Khill was found not guilty on June 27, 2018.(Laura Clementson/CBC)
The same goes for reservists who have been trained to “neutralize” threats, Miller explained. That could explain why Khill grabbed a gun and not his phone, he said, when he heard someone outside home.
‘Not a mindless activity’
Matthew Overton spent 39 years in the Canadian Armed Forces before retiring in 2017 and becoming executive director of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute. Speaking generally, he said, comparing training to riding a bike is fair, but soldiers still have to make their own decisions about use of force.
He added it’s true the purpose of repetitive training is to make the motions of using weapons automatic. But that’s only so a soldier’s mind can be focused on evaluating what’s happening around them to ensure the way they’re acting makes sense.
“First of all, you have to decide to get on that bike. Relying on muscle memory to pedal allows you to constantly be evaluating and making decisions about where and how you’re riding,” he explained. “It’s not a mindless activity.”
I felt that I was being threatened and that I wasn’t in control of the situation. I needed to … neutralize any threat that was there.– Peter Khill
Overton said one difference that sets soldiers apart from Canadians without that type of training is “greater confidence” in using their unique skill set — including deadly force — because they’ve been drilled to be so familiar with it.
“Still, that does not mean you automatically use it,” he said.
Much of the evidence called by Khill’s defence lawyer during the trial was focused on his training.
Walter Sroka, Khill’s superior officer with the 56th Field Artillery Regiment in Brantford, testified the 28-year-old completed basic military courses that included repetitive drills focused on making reactions instinctive.
Part of those courses covered “immediate threats” where soldiers are taught to allow their training to take over so they can make quick decisions when potentially dangerous situations happed suddenly and in close quarters, he explained.
In those situations, soldiers are trained to be proactive. They’re trained to protect themselves and others. They’re trained to use deadly force if necessary, the court heard.
Police took this photo of Khill in the black T-shirt and boxers he wore when he ran outside in on the night of the shooting.(Ministry of the Attorney General)
During the trial, Khill said when he looked out his bedroom window into the pre-dawn, pitch dark on Feb 4, 2016 and saw the dashboard of his pickup truck was lit up the lessons he’d learned during his five years as a part-time reservist came rushing back.
“I felt that I was being threatened and that I wasn’t in control of the situation,” he said. “I needed to gain control of the situation and neutralize any threat that was there.”
Khill said he grabbed a 12-gauge shotgun from his bedroom closet, loaded it with two shells and headed out the back door, leaving his girlfriend inside and walking through a breezeway between the garage and house. Then he opened a door to see the figure of someone bent over the passenger seat of the truck.
He told the court he used rolling steps to muffle the sound of his approach and opened the door as silently as he could — all in line with his training.
“Hey! Hands up!” he recalled shouting.
Khill said he’d also been trained to watch people’s hands for potential threats, and as the man turned toward him, his hands swept up to about waist-height, so Khill fired twice, believing the other man had a gun.
“I thought my life was in danger and I think the right to self-defence is overlapping between military and civilian life,” he told the court.
Styres didn’t have a gun, court heard, just a folding knife found closed and in his pocket.