The common-law partner of the man responsible for a massacre on a Saskatchewan First Nation wept as she talked about years of emotional and physical abuse that would culminate in the death of her father during the stabbing rampage.
"I wish I left sooner," Vanessa Burns said Thursday while wiping tears from her eyes on the fourth day of a coroner's inquest.
Burns met Myles Sanderson when she was 21 and he was 17. They would go on to have five children.
The 14-year relationship was full of violence and ended with Sanderson killing her father, Earl Burns Sr., and 10 others on the James Smith Cree Nation and in the nearby village of Weldon on Sept. 4, 2022. Seventeen people were also injured.
Sanderson died in police custody a few days later.
Vanessa Burns said she reported Sanderson to police at least 12 times for domestic violence. Often the charges were dropped, she said, as he was able to manipulate her through guilt.
In August 2022, the couple, living in Saskatoon, went to the First Nation to sell drugs.
A few days before the killings, Burns said Sanderson attacked her. Damien Sanderson, his brother, tried to calm him down, and she drove back to Saskatoon.
The inquest and its six-person jury are to establish the events leading up to the killings, who died, and when and where each person was killed. A second inquest focusing on the killer's death is scheduled for February.
Questioning during the inquest Thursday focused on how both brothers had outstanding warrants and were violent against the women in their lives.
Damien Sanderson's wife, Skye Sanderson, said she became pregnant with their first child when she was 14. There was love in the relationship, she said, but also violence, especially when her husband would drink or do drugs.
She said he had plans to go to treatment.
The inquest has heard the brothers took Skye Sanderson's vehicle and began to cause chaos in the community after Vanessa Burns went back to Saskatoon.
Text messages show the brothers communicated with community members about drug deals and debts. Damien Sanderson also texted his wife fatalistic messages about death.
Skye Sanderson had also called 911 the day before the killings, saying her husband took her vehicle without permission. Damien Sanderson was wanted on outstanding warrants over domestic violence charges.
Officers told the inquest they located the vehicle outside a home. Const. Tanner Maynard said Wednesday he later learned a man he had talked to in the home was Damien Sanderson, but he gave a false name.
A photo police had of him was from 2014, and Maynard didn't recognize him.
Skye Sanderson testified she encouraged police to keep looking for the brothers, because they were harassing her family and others in the community. She said she sent a message out on the social media platform Snapchat warning the brothers weren't going to stop.
In an overview of how the massacre unfolded, the inquest was told Myles Sanderson first killed his brother.
"Damien was always scared of his brother," Skye Sanderson said.
Myles Sanderson then went from home to home, kicking in doors and stabbing people. Skye Sanderson's father, Christian Head, was among those killed.
She said the death of her husband and father has destroyed her family, and her children are suffering.
The detachment commander at the time in Melfort said the mass killing was the worst thing he'd seen in his 33-year career.
"It just didn't seem real," said Darren Simons, who is now retired.
Simons testified he was at his home, a 45-minute drive from Melfort, when he received a call about two stabbings. Simons, who had taken the helm of the detachment about a month earlier, said he'd only been on the First Nation once or twice.
While driving to the detachment, Simons said he ordered breakfast sandwiches and juice for officers from a fast-food restaurant.
When asked by a representative for the family of Bonnie and Gregory Burns, a mother and son killed in the massacre, why he would stop for food, Simons said he didn't understand the extent of what was happening.
"I wouldn't have done that if I'd known what we were dealing with."
Once Simons arrived, the death and destruction quickly became clear. In an unusual move, Simons said he kept Maynard, one of the first Mounties who responded to the 911 calls, in command of the scene.
"I wanted to take over … but I realized that was like jumping on a moving train," Simons testified.
Instead, he went to check on a home where a stabbing had been reported. He also went to check on a school bus that had been left running in a ditch. Earl Burns Sr. was dead in the vehicle.
The man's other daughter, Deborah Burns, asked Simons why he drove by the bus twice before stopping.
The Mountie said he wished he'd gone to the bus sooner, and he apologized.
The inquest was told that Sanderson stabbed Earl Burns Sr., who fought back and ended up driving the bus to chase after the killer.
Vanessa Burns said not long after her father was attacked, she saw a text from her 13-year-old son, who had been staying with her parents.
"Dad tried to kill me," the message said.
Vanessa Burns said the next few hours were a blur of packing up her four other children and trying to figure out where to go. When she learned her father had been killed by the father of her children, she broke down in tears.
She made her way to Prince Albert, Sask., where her mother was in hospital, as she had also been stabbed.
"I felt so mad at myself for trusting (Myles)," she said. "I'm still mad at myself."
Sanderson, who had a record of violent assaults, received statutory release earlier in 2022, but was unlawfully at large when he went on the stabbing rampage.
Mounties have said because the killer is dead, people may never get all the answers about why the massacre happened.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2024.