What started out as a “normal” Monday for Attila Szalay would prove to be anything but when the Surrey Mountie unknowingly stumbled across – and caught – an armed homicide suspect inside Peace Arch Hospital. The man had just hopped the U.S. border in his attempts to flee police.
“It was like a scene out of a movie,” the constable said of the drama on Jan. 28, which involved using his phone to Google the suspect’s mugshot – only to discover he’d made eye contact with the man 30 minutes earlier, later walking back into the emergency room to see him a second time, and eventually a foot chase through the hospital to subdue the wanted man.
“It was definitely the craziest thing I’ve dealt with in my life, for sure,” he said.
Black Press Media ran a story on the incident at the time, with Corporal Elenore Sturko highlighting the fact that “within 30 minutes of the dispatch,” the suspect was in custody.
Szalay was among 376 people recognized – some RCMP members, some civilians – by Surrey’s top cop, Assistant Commissioner Dwayne McDonald, during the annual Officer in Charge Awards on Friday, June 21.
The awards are meant to recognize “outstanding contributions made to public safety in Surrey by police officers, employees, community partners, and civilians.”
For Szalay, the action began when he was responding to an unrelated motor vehicle incident in the middle of the day. He was at the hospital waiting to see if the driver of the vehicle was going to survive.
“So as I was there, sitting there listening to my radio, I had my earpiece in, our dispatch broadcasted over the air, ‘Just a heads up to all the Surrey units, U.S. police has called and told us they’ve recovered a stolen vehicle just south of the border, just south of Peace Arch Park on the U.S. side. And that stolen vehicle is associated to a homicide suspect out of Puyallup.’”
Soon after, the doctor informed Szalay the driver was going to make it, and he walked back to his cruiser. That’s when an update on the homicide suspect came over his radio, some time around 1 p.m., alerting officers that the suspect’s father said he’s made it into Canada, and had just told him he’s at a hospital.
“Well, I’m at the nearest hospital to the border crossing and I’m thinking, OK, this just got more interesting,” said Szalay.
By then, dispatch was sharing the suspect’s name.
“I whip out my phone, type in his name, first image that comes up, I look, I thought, ‘Oh my god. I just saw this guy half an hour ago,’” he said. “When I first got to the hospital, I noticed this guy with his hoodie up, scratches all over his face. I thought he kind of looked suspicious.”
Detectives searching for homicide suspect Jordan Eaton. Reportedly shot his girlfriend early this a.m. in South Hill area, fled to Puyallup where he stole a van. Be on lookout for white 2006 GMC Savanna, refrigeration unit on top & Liberty Distribution logos, plate B25902H. pic.twitter.com/cuZJ1i8raQ
— Pierce Co Sheriff (@PierceSheriff) January 28, 2019
Szalay said the man “tensed up” after the two made eye contact.
“So now I’m looking at the picture and thinking, ‘Oh man, that was the (alleged) murderer.’”
Szalay then began patrolling the area in his car, but came up empty.
“I figured I’d spooked him and he’d taken off. But at that point there was a live update from the dog handler. He’s on his phone. Our dispatch takes a few seconds to run it, and I’m just pulling into the parking lot at that point and dispatch says yep, that’s coming back from Fraser Health.”
“I get out of my car, my sergeant is already coming over saying ‘Let’s get the emergency response team involved, we’re going to have to lock down the hospital.’”
He’s the only officer on scene.
“I walk in, and it’s just like a scene out of a movie,” he recalled. “As soon as I step through the emergency room door, I look to my left and he’s sitting right there. We make eye contact. He looks at me, he’s got his hoodie on and he’s got one hand under his arm. I thought, ‘Oh, he’s got a gun.’”
The waiting area was full of people at that point.
“I walk out, right past him, and scoop around the corner. It’s a brick wall. I pull out my gun and at that point I call for code cover right now. I need people here, lights, sirens, because I’m got him in the waiting room.”
Once other officers arrived on scene, the suspect took off inside the hospital, Szalay said.
“He’s gone. I’m running now.. I come around the corner. I can see him walking at a brisk pace – speed walking.”
He feared the worst.
“It was a narrow hallway. On the right side it was all people lined up for triage. It’s literally a lineup of people watching the show go down and I knew, if he turned around, this is going south.”
He rounded the corner with backup and yelled,“Stop, police, you’re under arrest, get on the ground.”
But the suspect kept running.
“I’m like, ‘Oh no, this is bad.’ It’s getting deeper into the hospital. So I’m running after him and I used a few choice words with him that I’m not going to repeat here, but very strong language to convince him to stop. He drops. Drops to the ground a few seconds later and surrenders.”
After pinning him down, popping handcuffs on him, he asked where the gun was. The man said it was in his waistband.
“I grab and there it is. There’s people now gathered around and I yell, ‘He’s got a gun!’ My partner reaches down and sure enough, it’s right there in a plastic bag.”
It was loaded, he recalled.
With the situation under control, he said the “immigration nerd” in him came out – as a former border services agent – and he detained the man under the Immigration Act, and for possessing a loaded firearm. Once the man was in custody, Surrey RCMP began an investigation and liaised with U.S. police as well as U.S. and Canadian border officials.
The News Tribune reported on June 1 that after trying to claim asylum in Canada, the accused killer had been booked into Pierce County Jail. The publication reported that Jordan Eaton, 26, was booked for murder, assault and five other charges on May 31, in connection with the fatal shooting of his 19-year-old girlfriend.
At the Bell Performing Arts Centre, a slew of other officers were awarded for their efforts during the annual award ceremony, including Constable Erica Urff, who stopped a shooting suspect – who tried to return to the scene of the crime – in the nick of time in Whalley on Jan 9, in the 9500-block of Prince Charles Boulevard.
Also commended was Constable Hannah Crawford for defusing a road-rage incident in which a suspect followed a woman home and pulled out an imitation firearm, in Newton on Oct. 30, 2018, in the 9200-block of 121st Street.
Six civilians were also honoured, including Karampal Sahota who, along with his then-pregnant wife, helped police locate a suspect in a fatal pedestrian hit-and-run, at the corner of Fraser Highway at 164th Street on Dec. 16, 2016.
“We were just going to do some Christmas shopping,” he recalled.
After witnessing a man “floor it” and hit the elderly women, Sahota said she was in the “fetal position” and wasn’t moving. He recalled feeling compelled to follow him and thought “he’s not getting away.”
The couple followed him down Fraser Highway, along 168th Street, then up 80th Avenue toward 176th Street, then back onto Fraser Highway. “There was a bus stop and a side street, and he turned in there and he stopped. So I stopped in the bus stop. At the same time we’re on the phone with RCMP, telling them step by step where we are. Within minutes I saw a police car show up.”
Sahota said the couple was “traumatized by what had happened” and said it’s still tough to go past the intersection today. Given the opportunity, Sahota said he’d do it all over again.
Surrey RCMP Constable Vanessa Puszka, who was a lead investigator in the file, nominated the Sahotas for their efforts, noting it’s “something that not everybody does.”
She said it was “integral” in locating the suspect “in a timely manner so certain charges could be investigated, or criminal offences could be investigated.
“Specifically the impaired operation which is quite timely, and you need to gather information in a timely manner,” she said, “so that was really important to be able to have no gaps in timeline. In this case we were able to place the driver behind the steering wheel which was really integral.”
While she said police “don’t recommend” following suspects, she said that what the Sahotas were able to do “really helped secure that investigation so we could provide a complete package and recommend charges and ultimately that person did plead guilty and other charges were laid as well.”
McDonald said it is “important to pause and recognize the contributions our officers and staff make, as well as the civilians who lend a hand when someone is in trouble. Much of the work being recognized goes largely unnoticed, but it is ultimately these efforts that keep our communities safe. I am very proud of all of this year’s award recipients and grateful for their service, bravery and commitment to community.”