Fallen police officer remembered at ceremony

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Sgt. Michael Sweitzer and Sgt. Ron Maki took part in a flag-lowering ceremony Tuesday at Thunder Bay Police headquarters. The ceremony was held to mark the 35th anniversary of the death of Const. John Kusznier, who died in the line of duty on Jan. 15, 1978.
(Brent Linton)
Sgt. Michael Sweitzer and Sgt. Ron Maki took part in a flag-lowering ceremony Tuesday at Thunder Bay Police headquarters. The ceremony was held to mark the 35th anniversary of the death of Const. John Kusznier, who died in the line of duty on Jan. 15, 1978. (Brent Linton)

It’s been 35 years since Const. John Kusznier was suddenly and tragically killed, but his presence still looms large at Thunder Bay Police headquarters.
“He is the lone Thunder Bay Police officer in our history that lost his life in the line of duty, made the ultimate sacrifice,” Chief J.P. Levesque said Tuesday following a memorial for Kusznier. “It’s important for those of us who are still on the job (to remember) that there’s an inherent danger, an inherent risk, and every time you put on the uniform, you’ve got to think about what you’re doing.”
Kusznier was killed on Jan. 15, 1978, in a gun battle that broke out after he and his partner responded to a call at Thunder Bay’s Landmark Inn.
Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs, a former Thunder Bay Police officer, still vividly remembered Kusznier’s death.
“It was devastating for everyone,” said Hobbs, who was in his second year as a police officer when Kusznier died. “It ruined a lot of lives, and affected them forever.”
Hobbs recalled Jan. 15, 1978 as a frigid day, with temperatures that plunged to at least -20 C. Kusznier and his partner, who Hobbs said was a rookie officer, responded to a call at the Landmark shortly after midnight to deal with two unruly people who were being held in the manager’s office.
“One of the bad guys fired a shot in the manager’s office,” Hobbs said. “The manager just thought it was a blank gun, like a starter pistol. (He) didn’t notice a hole in the door.”
When police were called, the two men left the office, and Kusznier and his partner found them in the hotel’s front parking lot.
“A gun battle ensued,” he said. “John’s first concern was his partner. He threw his partner behind a car.
“One guy was firing point-blank at them, and missed somehow, and John fired back and hit the one guy” who died died of his wounds.
Hobbs continued: “As John was running around the one corner of the building, the other guy just aimed his gun." He said five eyewitnesses saw Kusznier drop. "And the guy still got acquitted" at trial, Hobbs said.
“Amazing. It was just bizarre.”
Richard Helmut Vonier was found by police eight hours after the shooting in a Landmark room, Hobbs said. Investigators never found the gun used in the shooting, he added.
Vonier and a female friends of his were charged with first-degree murder. The trial was moved to Ottawa — Vonier’s hometown — and both were acquitted.
Hobbs noted the verdict came down just days before Christmas in 1978.
“It was really a travesty, and it stuck with us for all our careers,” Hobbs said.
“The one good thing I got out of it . . . is it made all of us aware of how dangerous the job was, and we always talked about John.
“All through my career, I told recruits about John, and how the job is dangerous,” he said. “Nothing’s routine on that job.
“I know other professions, there are risks as well,” Hobbs said. “With police officers, these are deliberate. They’re premeditated murders, for the most part.”
That Kusznier looked out for his young partner didn’t come as a surprise to Marie McClelland, a long-time friend of Kusznier.
“He was a good policeman, but he was a family man,” she said Tuesday at the Balmoral Street police station. “He thought the world of his wife and his boys. His boys meant the world to John.
“He wasn’t an overbearing type of person,” McClelland said. “He talked to you.
“A really upstanding young man.”
Levesque noted that he’s gotten to know Kusznier’s family, but they didn’t attend Tuesday morning’s service.
A bridge on the Thunder Bay Expressway between Hodder Avenue and Balsam Street has been named in Kusznier’s honour, and the police department has two portraits of the late officer on display. There are yearly provincial and national remembrance services for fallen officers, as well.
Neither portrait is in public areas. One is on a wall in the gym, the other in the lunch room. That was a concern for McClelland, who noted a portrait previously hung in the lobby where the public could see it.
Hobbs said the portrait was moved after it was vandalized.
“Somebody drew on it,” he said. “That’s how cruel people are. We did move it deliberately.”
Const. Julie Tilbury said Tuesday she’d take McClelland’s request to police administration to move the portrait back to the lobby.