With bullets flying past his head, OPP Const. Dell Mercey believed he was going to be killed in the middle of a rural road as Fred Preston fired at him “like a sniper.”
“I felt I was going to die,” Mercey said Friday (March 30) on Day 5 of the coroner’s inquest into the deaths of Preston and Const. Vu Pham as he described the March 8, 2010, shooting. “I wondered what it would be like with a bullet going through you.”
Testifying before a gallery filled with fellow OPP members, 50-year-old Mercey told the inquest in emotional detail about the shooting death of Pham, his partner of two years, and the firefight that ensued with Preston.
The morning of the shooting started off with Pham and Mercey in the OPP’s Wingham detachment where Pham received information from an OPP dispatcher about threats made against a couple living on North Line Road, near the community of Walton, east of Clinton.
Preston, a 70-year-old avid hunter from Sundridge, near North Bay, had told his estranged wife Barbara days before that he would hurt someone she cared about if she didn’t return home to him.
Barbara assumed the threat targeted her sister, Mary Lou Driscoll, and Preston’s family had confirmed through a call trace that Preston had gone to Driscoll’s home on the morning of March 8.
Despite the dispatcher’s concerns that Preston’s threats were very serious, Pham and Mercey did not consider the situation to be high risk because Preston’s son-in-law, who had called 911 to warn police about the threats, had said Preston’s weapons were accounted for.
There was confusion among the family, however, about where a rifle belonging to Barbara was in the days before the shooting.
Pham and Mercey went to Driscoll’s house but neither she nor her husband was home and Preston’s white, four-door pickup truck was nowhere to be seen.
The men agreed to check back in at the residence later in the day and departed in opposite directions.
Just after 10:10 a.m., Pham radioed Mercey to say Preston’s truck had just passed him and he was going to pull Preston over.
Mercey turned around.
Pham pulled Preston over not far from the Driscoll home and as Mercey pulled in behind him, he saw Preston get out of the truck quickly and then open the rear, driver’s-side door.
By the way Preston thrust his hands into the cab of the truck, Mercey said he knew the man was going for a gun.
When Preston pulled out a rifle, Mercey acted as he was trained and immediately reversed the police SUV he was driving, spitting up gravel as he put distance between him and the suspect.
Pham, at this time, was out of his vehicle and standing behind his driver’s side door, Mercey said.
After stopping, Mercey said he got out of his SUV, ran around the back and passenger side of it with his gun drawn, taking a position beside his passenger-side mirror.
He saw Pham on the right, rear side of his own vehicle, crouched down as Preston walked toward him.
Mercey struggled to remain composed as he told the inquest that Preston went up on his “tippy-toes” and aimed at Pham, who was holding his hands out in front of his face as if to protect himself.
He said that at the time, he could not “perceive” Pham as having his gun in his hands, but later learned Pham was able to fire off at least one shot before his weapon was damaged.
Mercey and many of his OPP colleagues in the inquest gallery broke down in tears as he described how he heard the rifle fire and then Pham fell backwards.
Immediately after shooting Pham, Preston turned on Mercey and advanced on him as Mercey began to fire his own handgun.
He said he knew Preston fired two shots at him as a bullet struck the windshield on the SUV’s passenger side just inches from where Mercey was standing.
“He was determined to kill me,” Mercey said, adding that he felt Preston was hunting him.
As Preston continued to come towards him, Mercey moved around to the back of the SUV and looked through the rear windshield to see where his attacker was.
He said he heard another shot as Preston fired through the vehicle and the back windshield exploded.
At that point, Mercey was out of ammunition and had to reload as Preston advanced towards him along the passenger side of the SUV.
Mercey said he had to move across the road away from the vehicle, trying to keep the SUV between him and Preston, and saw Preston lay down “like a sniper” near the right rear wheel.
Now fully exposed in the middle of the road and just eight metres from Preston, Mercey said he remembered “really flinching hard” as another bullet whizzed past him.
“I had no cover whatsoever.”
He said he knew that if he ran, Preston would shoot him in the back.
Mercey tried to position himself so that the SUV’s rear wheels blocked Preston’s sight of him, all the while continuing to fire so that Preston never had the chance to carefully aim at him through the sight on the rifle.
He told the inquest that he realized at the time that if he didn’t shoot Preston, he would be killed.
The next time Mercey saw the rifle come out from the cover of the tires, he decided to aim for Preston’s head.
He fired and Preston went motionless.
Altogether, Mercey said he fired roughly 19 rounds during the firefight.
Mercey said he could see Preston’s back rising and falling and knew the man was still alive, but he waited for other police to arrive before moving, just in case Preston was laying a trap.
Moments later, police backup showed up and Mercey and several other officers moved in to get the rifle away from Preston and to put the suspect in handcuffs.
One of the other officers checked on Pham and when he returned to the place where Preston was laying, he told Preston in an angry tone that he had killed a cop, Mercey said.
He added that Preston responded by saying “What do you mean? I didn’t do anything.”
When other officers took custody of Preston, Mercey went to the place where Pham was laying and saw a wound on his partner’s forehead.
He then walked away, sat in a ditch and cried.
Mercey, who is retiring from the OPP next month, said in an interview following his testimony that he wants his partner to be remembered as “a fine police officer, a great family man and a really caring human being.”
“He was No. 1. A great guy.”
The inquest continues Monday (April 2) and is expected to run until April 13.
Look to London Community News on Sunday (March 31) for responses from Const. Dell Mercey and OPP Commissioner Chris Lewis to questions about possible changes in OPP training and dispatch protocols to prevent future incidents of this nature.