Tuesday, 28 July 2009

From The Bottom: Michael Henderson's Death

One of the songs on Big Dave McLean's latest album Acoustic Blues - Got 'Em From The Bottom is Michael Hendersen. It's named, (with a slightly different spelling of the last name), for a man he knew who was killed by Winnipeg police in 1981. It's a great ballad, described in the above-noted jazzreview.com article:

McLean's eulogy is as mournful as a family's wail and goes way beyond a mere recitation of facts. It delves into the recesses of a very troubled man on a very fateful day when his heart was filled with sorrow and jealousy had destroyed his mind.

The track can be heard here (number 8).

McLean sings that he will "... never forget that day when they shot Michael Hendersen down." Here is how it played out, pieced together from newspaper reports and listening to a CBC Radio interview of McLean.

McLean describes Michael Stephen Henderson as a huge man. Strong, tall and, for the most part, a gentle giant except when he had too much to drink.

Henderson had a tough life and in early 1981 things were beginning to unravel. His father Hank was terminally ill with cancer, he had broken up with his girlfriend and, after a couple of failed jobs, had to resort to welfare to pay the bills.

Neighbours in the 382 Qu'Appelle Avenue rooming house where Michael had been living for a couple of months said that he was increasingly depressed, threatening, spoke of suicide and of wanting to 'die like a soldier'. His landlady said that he was 'a most beautiful man' who helped out by doing odd jobs but, as his father's condition worsened, he spoke of wanting to die before his father did.

QORs Landing at Juno (source)

Lawrence "Hank" Henderson was Michael's only living relative. Born in Winnipeg, he served with the Queen's Own Rifles and fought in WWII. I can't find a record of Hank's service but the Rifles did land at Juno Beach on D-Day.

In early 1981 Hank was transferred to the King Edward Memorial Hospital, (now Riverview Health Centre), a sure sign that he was not going to get better.

On March 14, 1981, an agitated Michael Henderson took out a 20-guage sawed-off shotgun, shot a hole in the floor of his suite and told a resident that he was "...going to blow somebody's head off" and stormed out. Later that evening he turned up outside the St. Charles Hotel.

At 10 pm outside the Notre Dame entrance to the hotel Henderson he confronted Unicity Cab driver Robert Vann and told him "I'll waste you.." if he didn't go back to the cab and drive him where he wanted to go, (according to McLean it was to kill his girlfriend.) Vann refused and Henderson shot him in the chest near his shoulder. Vann's wife credited th fact taht her husband pushed at the barrel right before the shot was fired for saving his life

"A" is the St Charles Hotel, the dot is the Garrick Cinema. 
Exit of back lane onto Garry Street

Henderson turned and walked across Notre Dame Avenue into the back lane between the Currie Building and the Oxford Hotel. He was headed for Garry Street.

Meanwhile, at the Garrick Cinema on Garry Street the Paul Newman film Fort Apache, The Bronx was letting out. The movie is about policing the infamous, crime-ridden South Bronx of the era and used the tagline 15 minutes from Manhattan there's a place where even the cops fear to tread.

Movie patrons, a police car and Michael Henderson all arrived at the same 20 meter stretch of Garry Street at the same time. A theatre employee told the Free Press that people didn't know if the siren sounds were coming from the cinema or the street.

Top: View from the exit of back lane to the Garrick Cinema
Bottom: View from the Garrick Cinema to the back lane

The first police officers to arrive on the scene were two detectives. When they exited their cruiser they saw Henderson standing where the lane exits onto Garry Street. Henderson shot at them. One of the detectives testified at the inquest "Had I not thrown myself on the ground I would have been killed." It was also a close call for the eight witnesses standing out front of the cinema as one of the pellets was later removed from the building's facade.

"Winnipeg Police, they laid him dead out on the ground" Dave McLean

The two detectives returned fire but Henderson used construction fencing, (the Frost Beauty Building was still under construction), for cover. Twelve shots were exchanged, two struck Henderson in the head. He fell from behind his cover and was pronounced dead at 11 pm at St. Boniface Hospital.

Later, they found that Henderson had 5 more shells on him and a blood alcohol level of .31.

March 21, 1981, Winnipeg Free Press

Henderson had a simple funeral on March 23, 1981 with Captain Guthrie of the Salvation Army presiding.

An inquest into Henderson's death was held in April 1981. Called to testify were the two detectives, his landlady, a couple of neighbours, a friend from the rooming house, a St. Charles Hotel staffer working that night and the eight people from in front of the Garrick Cinema. Michael's father Hank and the cabbie Vann were both too ill to attend.

The ugly side of Michael Henderson was revealed. His drinking, threatening behaviour, and increasing level of anger. His landlady, as well as McLean in his CBC interview, said that Henderson was out to 'commit suicide' by his actions.

Before the inquest ended, Hank Henderson died on April 12, 1981.

On May 21, 1981 Justice Winston Norton released his 2 1/2 page ruling. He concluded that police had no choice but to return fire and because of the spectators nearby to shoot to kill. He blamed Henderson's mental state for the 'senseless' shooting of Vann and what amounted to a 'death wish' that night.

In the end, Michael fulfilled both of his final wishes: to die violently and to die before his father did. Both men are buried in Brookside Cemetery.

One newspaper article talks of bullet and pellet holes that could still be seen in the walls of Currei Building and the cinema. The rear wall of the Currie Building is in rough shape so it's hard to tell if any still exist but these pockmarks would be in line with where the police would have fired at.  They might be the only reminder of Micheal Henderson and that violent night. These and Big Dave McLean's ballad.

Police Kill City Man in Alley Shootout Free Press, Mar 16, 1981
Slain Gunman wanted to die like a soldier Free Press, Apr 15, 1981When Crime Comes Close Free Press, May 11, 1981
Judge Upholds Police Conduct Free Press, May 22, 1981 
Saturday Night Blues CBC Radio Jul 26, 2009


eric said...

Fantastic work on this story. Thanks for taking the time to pull the pieces together. Haven't seen Big Dave perform in a long time but I remember going to watch him in my early 20s in Saskatoon. Hard to believe his voice is getting better with age - he had quite the voice back then!

mrchristian said...

Thanks ! It was interesting to look into. I heard the interview when driving home - somewhere around Austin - so I had a couple of hours to stew about it !