By John Swartz
The night of January 2nd 40 years ago was a night you’d imagine a January night should be. It was 40 degrees below, Fahrenheit at the time, which for those who know temperature scales is just as cold as 40 below Celsius. It was windy and snowing.
“There was nothing on the road that night. Even the MTO guys who look after the roads were in there (at the shop) sleeping,” said Neil Hurtubise.
Nothing except for one car carrying 18-year-old Gary Fitzgerald and driven by 17-year-old Joseph Shoenberger. Both were from Windsor and you would think they would know enough to be off the roads on such a night, but they were on a mission.
“He (Shoenberger) was actually a good guy. He just got mixed up with Fitzgerald through a mutual friend in Windsor. Fitzgerald had relations in Mattawa and they were going up there to steal guns and then they were going to sell them and head south.”
They were southbound for sure. Chester Blackmore filled their car with gas at the Ultramar Station in Emsdale and Fitzgerald shot him for it. A passerby reported something was wrong at the gas station.
“What happened was the information we got is the gasoline chap that got shot was a hit and run. Our officer from Huntsville (OPP Const. Rick Verdecchia), he stopped them, he didn’t know who these guys were as far as I know and they shot him in the cruiser. They moved the cruiser up (Highway) 145 about a mile or so and ditched it,” said Hurtubise.
“I was in the office here and I heard Huntsville talking they can’t get a hold of one of the cars. I was thinking I’ll head out the highway there and that’s how I got involved in it. I got as far as the Big Chief hill and at that time on Highway 11 there was no barrier and that’s’ where (I stopped them).”
Hurtubise was 45-years-old and a 16 year OPP veteran at the time . He had no idea the car travelling without lights on was trouble, and there was no premonition his night was about to get very bad.
“Actually I wasn’t even supposed to work that night. What we do is half the office would work Christmas and take New Years off and then we’d just reverse that. But the wife’s (Pat) younger sister wanted to get married at Christmas, so I traded with one of the guys. Isn’t that something, eh?” Hurtubise said.
“When I walked up to the car, all the lights were turned off. Usually you never touch them. When I got up to the driver’s window, he was sitting a way back and there was a movement in the passenger part. It was so fast. I can remember a rifle, but it was too late. He shot across the driver.”
“It was bang, bang, bang. I said, “You don’t have to shoot me.” No kidding, that’s what I said. I don’t know what made me say that,” he said. “He was closer than you are to me when I got shot. You know how you go up to the car and look through the door.”
The first bullet hit his right cheek, passed through his mouth without damage, exited his left cheek and lodged in his shoulder. The second shot hit him in the upper chest.
“I presume when I was down on the road he shot twice again,” Hurtubise said. Those bullets got him in the left side.
“The .22 (caliber) only makes small holes. I was quite lucky,” Hurtubise said. He managed to get back to his car.
“You know John Palmer (freelancing with the Packet & Times). He was listening to a two way and he actually heard me call for help, 1078, 1078, (officer needs help)” he said. Help from the office, as Hurtubise refers to the detachment, was on the way.
“He (another officer) was just down West Street and Highway 11, he came up and saw how bad I was and the way the weather was you’d never get an ambulance up there, so he drove me in my cruiser to Soldiers’. One of the night doctors was just leaving, so I had somebody there to help me.”
“How he drove the thing I don’t know because I was sitting back at the wheel too,” said Hurtubise. “He was saying, “hold on old boy, you’re going to make it, don’t worry””
Parts of that story you may have heard or read about before, there have been other anniversaries when it gets retold. Neil’s son, Mike, joined the conversation and tells how the family perceived that night.
“It was literally the definition of unbelievable,” said Mike. “Dad was on nights so mom had the phone turned down. I guess they tried to call first. They came knocking on the door and finally Anne Marie (sister) woke up. Stg. Mike Mallon was here and mom said, “What’s going on?””
“Neil’s been in a wee accident,” Mallon said with an Irish lilt.
“Mom said, “What do you mean a wee accident?”
“He’s been shot,” Mallon said.
“So we piled in the cruisers and off to the hospital we went. It was just like a dream,” Mike said. “Everything’s happening. There’s this, there’s that and he’s not going to make it, oh maybe he’s going to be OK, we’re not too sure. It was a frenzy of information and activity, which is really foreign to Orillia, it never happens here,”
Once the initial hubbub waned, Mike had a sense his dad was going to be OK.
“It’s funny, He’s always been an athlete, a great baseball player, he went to a Brooklyn Dodgers baseball camp for God’s sake, always kept himself in shape and he was strong and I just thought, “No, he’ll be fine,”” Mike said. “Getting shot once would be enough to kill you and he got shot 4 times, and he’s still like, I’m alright.”
“It was early morning we got to see you,” Mike said to Neil. “He was in ICU and he was full of hoses and crap, he couldn’t talk, so he was writing stuff. You still have the piece of paper too. It says, “Hard to breathe. Where’s Liz (Mike’s sister)? What day is it?””
Neither Mike nor Neil misses an opportunity to inject some humour into the tale.
“He had a wound in his face and three or four days later he wanted a shave because he was getting pretty grizzly. He had this stupid, old style, screw down razor blade, safety razor and he makes me shave him. I’ve ever been more scared to hurt my father in my life. He’s like, “Harder, harder,”” said Mike.
“There was an orderly at the hospital, they called him Wild Bill, and he came in a couple days later with a straight razor. You said it was the best shave you ever had,” Mike said to Neil. “I don’t know if you remember that or not.”
The surgeon pulled three bullets out of Neil, one is still in his shoulder. They gave him one of the bullets, which he still has, but he makes it seem like its unimportant.
“It’s a piece of metal, that’s all it is,” said Hurtubise. There is a tiny scar on his face, so most people would never know he was shot.
“There’s a big J (shaped scar) on his back though,” Mike said. Mike’s assessment of his father’s physical condition up to the moment played out in his recovery.
“I was in the hospital for the first time for three weeks and I said, “I want to go home,” so they let me come home. They gave me these pills (for pain) and they weren’t doing any good, so I went back in for another three weeks. The 13th of February I came out of the hospital. I did exercises and I was off until the end of April,” said Hurtubise.
One would think there would be a good deal of excitement back at the office when he returned to work, but to hear Neil tell it things were business as usual.
‘They were very good. One thing, there were no bullet holes in the uniform. I was 25 pounds lighter, I lost a lot of weight, and I lost a lot of blood. Where are you going to get blood at 2 o’clock in the morning? They really came through. I went through 30 units of blood.” Blood had to be rounded up from elsewhere and his fellow OPP officers turned into couriers that night. That part of the episode seems to be the only thing that changed for Neil. It wasn’t his outlook on life.
“Not really,” he said, except he turned into a committed blood donor.
“I made my mind up then I was going to give blood, and I did, but it took me a year (before he was able to). I got up to 106 units of blood. About 2005 I had to give it up because the doc put me on blood thinners,” said Neil, He still continues to volunteer on blood donation days. “I just finished volunteering about two weeks ago. I like to make signs, Give Blood Here,”
Hurtubise also remembers the outpouring of good wishes from the community, especially one effort led by Betsy Gross.
“She got a family friend and got this card thing going and got 4,000 signatures on the card,” Hurtubise said. He also received a Police Medal for Bravery and had a road named after him. Many of us pass it frequently while travelling on the Bypass, or more likely waiting for the lights at the OPP Central Region Headquarters to change back to green. Neil had nothing to do with the traffic lights.
“Somebody said, “We should name the road after you,” said Hurtubise.
“It’s funny because my wife works at OPP and they’ll see her name and it’s like, “Hurtubise, anything to do with that road out there?”” added Mike.
Fitzgerald and Shoenberger were charged with two murders and one attempted murder. They were tried in Barrie.
“Actually, they didn’t go with my case at first. Fitzgerald, who did all the shooting, he was convicted, but Shoenberger got off, they let him go. But, when he walked out of the court the crown attorney in Barrie said, “Arrest him.” They arrested Shoenberger on my charges and he was actually convicted and served a lighter sentence, comparatively, to the 25 years Fitzgerald got.”
(Photos by Swartz – SUNonline/Orillia) Main: Mike and Neil Hurtubise look over a scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings and photos of Neil’s encounter with two murderers.