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Shotgun threat forces crew to flee fish boat

Pair jumps onto RCMP vessel to escape alleged shooter in waters off Port Hardy

Two people aboard a commercial fishing boat were forced to leap onto the bow of an RCMP boat in remote North Island waters Sunday night, a dramatic escape from the skipper, allegedly high on drugs and armed with a loaded shotgun, who had earlier threatened to kill them.

A 26-year-old female crew member used her cellphone to call 911 about 8: 30 p.m. saying the captain, a 49-year-old Courtenay man, was high on cocaine and threatened to kill her and the 21-year-old male crew member, said Island district RCMP spokesman Cpl. Darren Lagan. The man had assaulted them and was toting a shotgun and several knives.

The pair sought safety on the roof of the 10-metre gillnet fishing boat, located in Browning Passage, near Pine Island, about an hour and a half northeast of Port Hardy.

While the Mounties were mobilizing, the frightened woman reported that the man fired gunshots and that the situation was quickly becoming more dangerous.

"It was very evident that this was a very dangerous situation," Lagan said. "It was changing and it was evolving."

Port Hardy RCMP went out on a police boat to look for the vessel, but the woman couldn't provide an exact location and it was quickly becoming dark.

"It is dark by this point," Lagan said. "And trying to find a boat at the north end of the Island is like trying to find a needle in a haystack."

Staff at the RCMP's operation communication centre in Courtenay were able to identify a general area for the vessel based on the cellphone "pings" off towers in the North Island area. Lagan said typically a warrant is needed to get this information from Telus, but because individuals were at risk, it was provided immediately.

However, the boat was constantly moving through Browning Passage, making it difficult to track.

Port Hardy RCMP finally found the vessel around 11 p.m. and shadowed it, using their marine radio to repeatedly order the skipper to head for shore. He ignored them.

The officers could see the two frightened crew members on the roof of the boat and moved their boat in for a rescue. The crew members jumped from the vessel onto the bow of the officers' boat and were pulled to safety.

Lagan said the pair, from Courtenay, were shaken up but had no serious injuries.

"I think the trauma, the fear is worse," Lagan said. "You think of the situation: You are out in the dark waters and someone has threatened to kill you and a shotgun is discharged. You really have nowhere to go. They were definitely terrified."

The Mounties then managed to speak to the skipper by cellphone and convinced him to dock at Port Hardy.

The vessel was escorted in by an RCMP boat based in Port McNeill. The shotgun was recovered.

The RCMP Island district's emergency response team was waiting at the dock and arrested the 49-year-old. He remains in police custody and his name has not been released.

The man is facing charges of dangerous use of a firearm, threats and assault.

RCMP confirmed the boat involved was the Opal T, which is owned by Keith Thomas.

Several members of the Port Hardy fishing community confirmed Thomas was the man arrested, although RCMP would not confirm this.

Thomas is in his late 40s and has operated the Opal T for years, catching salmon and halibut. There was no answer at a Courtenay home listed to K. Thomas.

Thomas is the son of prominent Port Hardy businessman Karl Thomas, who owns the Quarterdeck Inn and Quarterdeck Marine Industries. Karl Thomas did not return a call for comment.

One Port Hardy fish-plant owner said Thomas sometimes fished with his three adult children. Lagan would not say whether either of the two crew members is related to the man arrested.

kderosa@timescolonist.com