How off-duty police officer and his Great Dane helped in capture of two escapers

Two violent offenders who escaped from William Head were recaptured Tuesday night in Esquimalt not because of increased police patrols or security efforts, but because they commented to a dog walker on the size of his Great Dane.

The problem was that the dog walker was an off-duty police officer, RCMP Sgt. John Ferguson from the Vancouver Island Major Crimes Unit.

article continues below

Ferguson said two men were walking toward him along the walkway in West Bay. One said: “What a big dog,” and the other said: “What a great dog,” to which he responded: “He’s a big baby.”

Ferguson had just seen a police bulletin that morning about James Lee Busch, 42, and Zachary Armitage, 30, who had escaped from William Head at about 6:45 p.m. Sunday night. Because it was local, he had paid extra attention to the bulletin. “There was no doubt it was them.”

He ducked around a corner and called 911. While doing so, he lost the men for a moment, so he asked a young couple if they had seen the men and they confirmed they had.

After locating them again, Ferguson began to follow the men at a distance — with Lewis in tow.

The dog, who was at the end of his regular walk and tired, was neither inconspicuous nor pleased at the turn of events. Ferguson said the Great Dane kept turning to his owner, as if to ask: “Why are we turning around? Why are we walking so far?”

Ferguson called 911 again to update the location but the call was disconnected.

As he made a third call, about four Victoria police cars went by, flying in the direction of the inmates. He kept an eye on them, and the arrest took place within one or two minutes, he said.

Ferguson said he was walking so close to the men, he probably would have recognized the prisoners regardless of their comments about his dog. “Who’s to say? Making that comment definitely drew attention to them — attention they didn’t want.”

Whether it was the sight of Lewis or a taste of freedom, “they seemed like happy-go-lucky guys,” said Ferguson.

Victoria police took the inmates into custody about 8 p.m., said West Shore RCMP Const. Nancy Saggar.

“I would say for two people who are clearly escaped inmates, who should be hiding, to be out in a well-lit area and pathways, it was very brazen,” said Saggar. “It suggests to me an air of almost confidence in their ability to go undetected, and that’s what ultimately led to their capture here.”

Victoria police turned the inmates over to West Shore RCMP. Busch was serving a sentence for second-degree murder and Armitage was in for aggravated assault and robbery.

The inmates’ capture is a relief for West Shore RCMP and the community, said Saggar.

West Shore RCMP brought in extra resources to search for the inmates.

Lewis the Great Dane had an honorary badge bestowed on him by West Shore RCMP on Wednesday.

The inmates’ history of violent crimes and escape had raised questions among Metchosin residents, including Mayor John Ranns, about why the pair were in a minimum-security facility surrounded only by the Pacific Ocean and an eight-foot-high fence.

The escapers were previously in maximum- and medium-security prisons, and were sent to William Head because they were found to be at low risk to reoffend or escape by the Correctional Service of Canada.

William Head is a “releasing” prison, where inmates are prepared for conditional release into the community.

The inmates’ escape will trigger a review of their security placement and they will not be returned to William Head Institution “because they have shown an inability to reside at a low-risk security institution,” said assistant warden Anthony Baldo.

In April 2009 in Sudbury, Ont., then 19-year-old Armitage beat Shaun Dupuis on the head with a blunt object, robbing him and leaving him a quadriplegic and unable to speak. Dupuis died in 2013 of a related infection. In 2011, Armitage pleaded guilty and was sentenced in a Sudbury court to 18 years in prison for his attack on Dupuis and for another violent robbery the same month.

In 2010, Busch was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 15 years for the second-degree murder of Sandra Marie Ramsay, 41, over a $20 debt.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

Read Related Topics

© Copyright Times Colonist

Find out what's happening in your community.

Most Popular