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Classification: Mass murderer
Characteristics: Revenge - Pre-wedding gathering
Number of victims: 9
Date of murders: April 6, 1996
Date of birth: 1966
Victims profile: His estranged wife, her sister (the bride-to-be) and seven of her relatives
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Vernon, British Columbia, Canada
Status: Committed suicide by shooting himself the same day

Straight from the wedding-guest-from-hell-file. Mark walked into a pre-wedding gathering of his estranged wife's family in Vernon, British Columbia, and killed his wife, her sister-- the bride-to-be-- and seven of her relatives. Two others were wounded, an elderly woman and a 6-year-old girl.

After the massacre the chagrined husband drove a rental van back to the motel where he was staying, scribbled a short apology and killed himself. The stunned groom heard of the rampage en route to the wedding.


Gunman kills 9 on eve of family wedding

Canada rampage ends with assailant's suicide

The Boston Globe

April 6, 1996

VERNON, British Columbia -- An estranged husband opened fire as his wife's family prepared for a wedding yesterday, killing her and eight others before fleeing to a motel and killing himself, police said.

The victims included the bride, who was to have been married today. Police say the gunman left a suicide note apologizing for the rampage, the second-deadliest in Canada's history.


Police say Canada mass killer had plan to flee

The Boston Globe

April 7, 1996

VERNON, British Columbia -- A man who shot and killed his estranged wife and eight in-laws had planned the murders deliberately, but apparently killed himself only when he realized he could not escape undetected, police said yesterday.

Mark Chahal walked up to the home of his wife's family Friday as relatives gathered for a wedding yesterday and opened fire -- killing the bride-to-be, his wife and seven others.


Gunman had planned massacre carefully, police said

April 6, 1996

VERNON, British Columbia -- A man who shot and killed his estranged wife and eight in-laws had planned the murders deliberately, but apparently killed himself only when he realized he could not escape undetected, police said Saturday.

Mark Chahal walked up to the home of his wife's family Friday as relatives gathered for a wedding Saturday, and opened fire -- killing the bride-to-be, his wife, and seven others. Witnesses described how Chahal opened fire with a .40-calibre semi-automatic handgun and a .30-calibre revolver. "He had two guns," said neighbor Rick Young, who was playing outside with his two children. "One in each hand, just like the old western-style shooters, blasting away. He was only a few yards away. He turned and looked me in the eye. I thought I was going to die. He had a full opportunity to plug me full of holes. But he just turned away from me and went around again to the back of the house and then fired some shots at the back."

It was the second-worst massacre in Canada's history, behind only the 1989 killing of 14 female engineering students at a Montreal university, by a gunman who then killed himself.

Chahal, who had threatened his wife since their separation last year, returned to his motel room and shot and killed himself, after writing a short apology for the killings, police said.

Chahal had exchanged his own vehicle for a rental van before driving to Vernon, a quiet city of 30,000 about 185 miles northeast of Vancouver. To police, that suggested he intended to flee after the killings. "In a murder-suicide, it really is irrelevant whether or not you're using your own car," said Sgt. Doug Hartl of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. "We think his decision to commit suicide is a result of what occurred in the house, maybe because he felt his identity would be known."

A 60-year-old woman and a 6-year-old girl were shot but survived. Two children were the only ones to escape the gunman entirely. Police believed he had spared them intentionally.

Although Chahal had no criminal record, wife Rajwar Kaur Gakhal had complained about his violent behavior to police at their home in the Vancouver area, and then to police in Vernon when she returned to her family after separating from Chahal in January 1995.

The gunman first shot her, then her parents, their son, a son-in-law, and four other daughters, including the intended bride. All were members of a close-knit community of Sikh immigrants from India.

Friends and relatives continued to arrive Saturday for what was to have been a wedding celebration. Police managed to contact the groom Friday, as he traveled from Toronto.

Police believe Chahal was only in the home for three to four minutes, although all the dead had multiple gunshot wounds from a .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun and a .38-caliber revolver. Police found 28 spent revolver casings and two empty semiautomatic gun clips, which had each contained 10 shots. A 12-gauge shotgun, not used, was found loaded in his rented van.

People trooped past the house Saturday, where blood had dried on the driveway. Some gawked. Others cried, and left flowers.


In a few terrifying minutes, Vijay Chahal proved just how deadly his anger could be

Karnail and Darshan Gakhal had high hopes for the wedding, the third for their string of five daughters and a son. The Sikh family's last marriage, two years ago, had ended sourly: daughter Rajwar had broken up with her husband, Vijay (Mark) Chahal, after barely six months, complaining that he abused her.

The Gakhals hoped things would go differently for her younger sister Balwinder, who was to be wed on Saturday to a young engineer from Toronto. And the family was doing its best to prepare for the occasion. Inside the comfortable two- storey home, with its views over Vernon Creek to the dun-colored hills surrounding the quiet B.C. farming and tourist town of the same name, Darshan and her daughters were getting ready to receive more than 200 people at a post-wedding reception. Outside, the Friday morning air was soft and mild as Karnail set about washing the new red Mazda Precidia parked proudly in the triple driveway. Then, moments before 10:30 a.m., a dark green minivan pulled up to the curb-and the wee kend's promise turned suddenly to horror.

Stepping from the minivan, Mark Chahal, 30, levelled a .40-calibre Smith and Wesson semi-automatic - one of two pistols he was carrying - and fired. Karnail Gakhal fell, fatally wounded, near the Mazda's right front tire, blood streaming down the inclined driveway towards the street. Chahal fired again-this time through a bay window at the front of the house-then strode up the front steps and went inside. He walked from room to room repeatedly firing both weapons, pausing twice to shove fresh 10-round clips into the semi-automatic. "I heard gunshots and screaming," said nearby resident Chantal Beaudoin. "I woke my mom up and I told her." Then, the resourceful youngster called police. With local RCMP already on the way, Chahal walked out of the Gakhal house and paused to loose a few more rounds into its beige siding. Stepping into his rented van, he calmly buckled his seat belt and departed.

When the first police officers arrived moments later, they encountered a scene of carnage rarely equalled in Canada. In addition to Karnail, 50, five more people lay dead, including Darshan, 45, Rajwar, 26, and the bride never-to-be, Balwinder, 24. Another five were bleeding heavily from multiple gunshot wounds. Three of them died later.

In less than five minutes, Chahal had wiped out the entire Gakhal family, including younger daughters Kalwinder, 21, and Halvinder, 17, as well as the only son, 14-year-old Jaspal. The couple's oldest daughter, Jasbir, 30, and her husband Balgit Saran, 33, were also among the dead. One of Jasbir's three young daughters, six-year-old Justine, had a bullet wound through both thighs. Saran's 60-year-old mother, Gurmail, had also been injured, taking a bullet in her face. It was the second-worst shooting rampage in Canadian history, exceeded only by Marc Lepine's savage hunt through the halls of a Montreal engineering institute in 1989.

And like Lepine, Chahal could not live with what he had done. Police later concluded that his attack had been planned with an escape in mind. Nevertheless, after the killings he drove barely three kilometres to a second-floor room at the Globe Motel, just off Vernon's main street, where he had checked in the previous evening as "M. Singh." There, Chahal penned a hasty note apologizing to his family for what he done and leaving police several telephone numbers with which they could reach his next of kin.

Fastidiously, he dated and signed the note, adding that police could find his identification in the pocket of his pants. Just before 11 a.m., he fired the semi-automatic one last time-into his own head. Police, responding to a call from motel staff, found Chahal dead on the floor. In his van, they found a third weapon: a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun.

For Vernon's 40,000 residents, among them about 150 Sikh families, the morning's events were a shattering introduction to the violence that seems increasingly to erupt from family breakdowns across Canada. "Our community is in a state of deep shock," a sombre Vernon mayor, Wayne McGrath, told a news conference the day after the shootings. Ron Shunter, a superintendent at the Tolko Forest Products Ltd. sawmill in neighboring Lavington, where Karnail Gakhal had worked for 26 years, said the tragedy "is going to shake the whole community up." Gakhal, who operated a planing machine, had been "a friendly sort of fellow, " Shunter recalled. "Quiet, reliable, a good employee."

Among the town's close-knit Sikh community, the shock and remorse were even greater. Members of the community knew Karnail Gakhal well. Shortly after arriving in Vernon from Punjab, India, he had helped to establish the town's first Sikh temple. Balwinder 's wedding, like Rajwar's, had been planned for a newer white stucco structure that in 1989 replaced the older house of worship, less kilometre from the family home in the community's prosperous middle-class Mission Hill district.

In the wake of the tragedy, the temple instead became a place of mourning. As dusk fell on April 5, the traditional Sikh wailing of bereaved friends and relatives filled the building. Throughout the following day, members of the congregation held a vigil for wedding guests, some of whom did not learn about the tragedy until they arrived in Vernon. (The groom, whose name was withheld by family members, had received the shocking news while en route from Ontario.) "We are gathering together, talking, preparing hot meals so they will have some comfort, " said temple president Satwant Dhindsa. "Everybody is in shock. We don't know what to think."

For no one was the shock greater than for the Gakhals' immediate relatives. They had known that Chahal harbored a grudge against his estranged wife and her family. In January, 1995, Rajwar visited Vernon RCMP to file a complaint that Chahal had threatened her, but she requested that the police take no action against him. Still, Chahal's animosity was common knowledge among relatives. "He told them he was going to make sure none of their other daughters would ever get married," Balwinder Gakhal, the wife of Karnail's cousin Torlok said. "Nobody imagined he would be capable of doing this." In a few terrifying minutes, with just a week to go before the Sikh holiday of Vaisakhi, which celebrates the revelation of the five symbols of Sikhism, Vijay Chahal proved just how deadly his rage could be.


The search for answers: trying to explain the massacre in Vernon

The Okanagan evening was cool and damp, but those who mourned barely seemed to notice. More than 600 residents of Vernon, B.C., gathered last week in a candlelight vigil for nine members of the Gakhal family who were killed in a hail of bullets on April 5.

The rampage, committed by an estranged husband with two legally registered handguns, provoked calls for tighter controls on firearms. It also raised questions about family violence and cultural influences, including the Sikh custom of arranged marriage. But there were no clear conclusions. "It's tempting to look for an easy explanation when we see visible differences, " said Stephen Hart, a forensic psychologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby. "It allows us to say, 'that won't happen to us.' "

The painful search for answers touched nerves in South-Asian communities and aroused concern about stereotyping among those who study and counsel abusive men and their partners. Some counsellors suggested that rigid gender roles could have created an emotional pressure cooker between the killer, Vijay Chahal, 30, and his wife, 26-year-old Rajwar Kaur Gakhal. Like many men who kill their wives, Chahal committed suicide shortly afterward. But members of South-Asian groups vehemently denied that cultural factors played a part, instead noting that the same type of family violence takes place in virtually all Canadian communities.

In one respect, the relationship that triggered the murders was unusual. Although the five Gakhal daughters and one son were born and raised in Canada, the family continued to live by many Sikh traditions, including arranged marriage. Chahal and Rajwar Gakhal were married in April, 1994, after only a few meetings. Chahal was a successful and apparently well-liked Burnaby accountant, and Rajwar worked as a dental hygienist.

The marriage went horribly wrong from the beginning, with Rajwar later telling friends that her husband beat her and called her a "slut" on their wedding night. She left the couple's Burnaby apartment within eight months, returning to her parents' middle-class home in Vernon. Soon after, Rajwar registered a complaint with police about assaults during the marriage-but asked them not to take any action. By the time she and her family were murdered while they prepared for the wedding of her sister Balwinder-also an arranged marriage-the Gakhals had registered three more complaints about Chahal's threats and harassment. Rajwar consistently refused to press charges, however, for fear of making her husband more violent. Ironically, the Gakhals had originally considered a match between Rajwar and the Grimsby, Ont., engineer that Balwinder was to marry the day after the murders. The family halted the plan because they did not want their daughter to move so far away.

There are no statistics on the success rate of arranged marriages, but some experts say they are often sabotaged when husbands demand total control, especially when the couple lives in North America. In a recent book, The Seven of Us Survived, Toronto social worker Aruna Papp chronicles the failure of several arranged marriages. " Asian couples often think that violence is just part of marriage," she says. "And women are socialized to believe that marriage is their fate, and that they cannot leave." Papp added that, in her experience, it is very unusual for a traditional Indian family to do what the Gakhals did-support Rajwar's decision to leave her violent husband.

That generosity may have cost them their lives. Vancouver social worker Shashi Assanand specializes in counselling women from diverse cultural backgrounds, many of them from Asia. "The issues of power and control are the same in all cultures," she says. " What is different is the way people respond. With an arranged marriage, everyone takes an active role in making or breaking the relationship. So the blame can be attached to the whole family. It's likely that in Chahal's mind, the Gakhals were part of the problem because they were protecting his wife."

Still, it is difficult to understand how anger over a failed relationship turns into a murderous rage. Mark Bodnarchuk, a research associate at the British Columbia Institute on Family Violence in Vancouver, said that dominant male stereotypes are an important factor in such cases. In addition to problems with jealousy and rage, he said, many men believe they are entitled to beat their wives. "Abusive men often view themselves as king of the castle-their control over the family is tied to identity," he sa id. "That is true in the West-but in other cultures the belief can be more extreme."

Many Sikhs, however, reject the notion that the killings were caused by an arranged marriage or cultural frictions. "That idea concerns us," said Gian Sandhu, a resident of Williams Lake, B.C., and past president of the Canadian branch of the World Sikh Organization. "This was an appalling tragedy-why is it being painted as having a cultural nature?" Both partners were born and raised in Canada, he pointed out, and were therefore comfortable in both cultures. "Arranged marriages are not the same as they w ere 50 years ago," he added. "It's more like assisted marriage, and there is consent by the bride and groom."

Hart is inclined to agree that Chahal's overwhelming personal problems were the driving force behind his rampage. The pattern of assault, abandonment, threats, and possession of weapons are all typical of such crimes, he noted. The Gakhal family was just unlucky to be present when Chahal arrived to kill his wife, he said. "Once you've started firing, it's easy to keep going. I'm not saying arranged marriages are a good thing," he said, "but it's a mistake to connect them with homicide."


Survivor still haunted by memories

Teenager recalls shots, screams and bloodbath

Manpreet Grewal - The Province

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Gunshots. Screams. A chaotic bloodbath.

That's how one of the four survivors of the Vernon massacre -- B.C.'s worst mass murder -- recalls the day 10 years ago when her young life changed forever.

"I remember everything vividly, as if it had happened a couple of hours ago," says Brittany Saran, speaking for the first time about surviving the massacre that claimed nine family members and gunman Mark Chahal, her estranged uncle.

Saran remembers the sounds of gunshots, the screams, the bloodbath and the chaos -- and that suddenly, it was over.

Six-year-old twins Brittany and Justine and four-year-old sister Courtney were happily watching television with their mom in their grandparents' living room when Chahal -- armed with two handguns -- began his rampage.

Bitter over his failed marriage to Rajwar Gakhal and enraged over her allegations of abuse, Chahal stalked methodically through the house, firing at former in-laws preparing for a family wedding.

By the time Chahal finished, the entire Gakhal family -- Brittany's grandparents, four aunts and an uncle -- and mother Jasbir Saran and her father, Roger, were dead.

The days following the massacre, which shocked the Okanagan city and its tight-knit Indo-Canadian community, were hazy.

"I remember being with the extended family in Vernon for a few days and then my grandpa brought us to Abbotsford," she recalls. "The grandparents moved in with us in our parents' home."

Despite the familiar surroundings, life was never the same.

"I remember Halloween firecrackers could make me shudder when I was young," she says. "I would be scared and run to my grandparents. I can still feel insecure, just hearing a door slam.

"I still have haunting dreams of that terrible day. I still feel unsettled if I have to go to Vernon for any reason."

Despite the killings, the twins have good memories of their parents.

"I have memories of my childhood. We were always at baseball games, watching my dad practise and play," she says.

"We were in ballet lessons, enrolled in gymnastics, skating and swimming. We had very active lives.

"We travelled a lot as a family. I have fun memories of visited my grandparents and aunts and uncles in Vernon.

"All that changed for us. My grandparents, who have raised us in the last 10 years, mean the world to me.

"But I always feel that they have their own place in my life. I was close to them even when my parents were alive. They gave up their life for us and have tried to provide us with a lot of safety and caring."

Brittany remembers her mom as a smart, sweet, confident modern woman who would have provided them with opportunities in life.

She remembers her father as a strong, sweet, protective force in her life. He was a corrections officer to whom she looked for security.

"When he was alive, I always thought of myself as daddy's little girl," she says. "I miss them so much. I got an English and a drama award last year and I so wanted them to be there and proud of me.

"Both Justine and I have participated in plays at school and performed to huge audiences. I was the main character in the Alice in Wonderland enactment at school. When I am on stage, my eyes always search for my parents' faces in the crowds. I can imagine their camera clicking. Those are some of the hardest mom- ents for me.

"Birthdays are also hard for all of us, because we remember the birthday parties my mom and dad used to throw for us."

Brittany remembers the transition from elementary to middle to eventually secondary schools as particularly difficult without the support of her parents.

"In some ways, our lives are like everyone else's with ordinary routines, but in other ways different, because of our tragic past, which will always be a part of us," she says. "We, as siblings, don't talk about the tragedy too often. We all deal with our ugly memories in our own way.

"What we love to do is listen to others share happy memories of our parents. For example, just the other day, the principal from my old school was saying he knew my dad and he thought he was a great hockey player. I was thrilled to pieces."

Adds Justine: "Our grandparents' whole life in the last 10 years has revolved around us, but they are older and traditional and can only do so much. Absolutely nothing can take the place of our parents."

That absence led Brittany to follow her mother's footsteps in a bid to understand the person she was.

One day, she saw one of her mother's business cards from Abbotsford Community Services (ACS) and felt a tug at her. She needed to learn more about what her mother had done in the workplace and the community.

Last May, Brittany went to the ACS building to volunteer. Justine soon followed.

"I felt the connection as soon as I walked in," says Brittany.

She recalled the whole family participating in the laughter and sounds of community events in a big meeting room now named The Jasbir Saran room.

It was months before Brittany told anyone in the agency who she was.

The twins learned their mom had worked for ACS for about nine years and was instrumental in the growth and development of English as a second language classes, which provide language training, settlement and orientation to new immigrants. She was known for her empathy, compassion and diligence by those she had served and for her professionalism, commitment and hard work by her colleagues.

That brought solace to the orphans, now on the cusp of their adult lives.

Says Brittany: "I want my parents remembered not only with happy memories, but also in the context of what happened to them. They need to learn and prevent it from happening in the future. People in government and police need to know that there is something really wrong when people get guns and shoot and change lives forever."

The Vancouver Province



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