Warren Thwing collects model trains and Avro Arrow paraphernalia, posters and stamps. The keepsakes at his home in Kingston, Ont., span aviation, hockey, Star Trek and car racing. But by far his biggest haul is of RCMP memorabilia.
“I have always been a lover of the Mounties,” he said in an interview with CBC News. “I wanted to join the RCMP years ago, but I was that short on the height requirement — it was five foot eight, and I was a half-inch short.”
Instead, he channelled his fervour for the national police into its gear. He says he’s spent thousands of dollars, largely on eBay and at collector exhibitions, on hundreds of items, including three complete uniforms, crests, shoulder insignia, caps, collar pins, epaulets and a Stetson hat. On his mantle are RCMP figurines and two commemorative Royal Doulton ceramic busts.
He dressed up in the red serge uniform he bought and had portraits taken in his house; he posted the photos online and framed them for his wall at home. His Facebook timeline is full of well wishes and congratulations to the Mounties for various anniversaries and accomplishments.
Thwing says he never imagined his passion — police are calling it an obsession — would one day go south.
At 6:30 a.m. on May 7, 2020, Thwing was in bed, listening to the radio, about to start his day.
“All I heard was one — pardon the expression — one hell of a bang, and smashing glass and things. And my house alarm.”
SWAT team members in commando gear bashed down his side door and rushed into his house and his bedroom, rifles drawn. His home security camera captured seven officers, though Thwing says he remembers closer to a dozen.
WATCH | Home security camera captures police raid Warren Thwing’s home in May 2020:
When they told him they were there to execute a search warrant for impersonating a police officer, Thwing said, it made no sense to him. He said he asked an officer, “Why didn’t you ring the doorbell? And he said, ‘You had a gun.’ I said, ‘Yeah. It’s locked up.'”
Decades ago, Thwing had inherited a chipped and tarnished antique revolver from his grandfather, he said. Thwing said he’s never fired it and owns no bullets.
Thwing was handcuffed, taken to a police station and charged with one count of impersonating a peace officer. He was given a first court appearance later that day.
N.S. Mounties were on alert
Under normal circumstances, Thwing’s collection of RCMP items might never have drawn the eye of authorities. But just 2½ weeks earlier, on April 18, 2020, another man who had acquired an authentic RCMP uniform massacred 22 people in and around Portapique, N.S., including a Mountie. He eluded police for 13 hours, in part because he was driving a decommissioned RCMP patrol car purchased at an auction and refitted to look like the real thing.
In the weeks following, Nova Scotia Mounties scoured social media for anyone who had posted pictures of RCMP gear. The force told CBC in an email that “RCMP officers in Nova Scotia were monitoring social media platforms concerning the use of RCMP uniform items by non-RCMP employees.”
Officers noted numerous photos of RCMP uniform items online, the email said. Gear like the traditional red serge tunic can be bought on eBay, and the official Mountie online store sells plenty of items with the RCMP logo.
But the only instance that raised any alarm was a Facebook account under the name of Warren Thwing.
“This individual was in photos actually wearing the uniform items in public. Which is why the information was passed on to the police of jurisdiction in Ontario,” the RCMP said.
An RCMP spokesperson emphasized there was absolutely no connection between the Nova Scotia shooter and Thwing.
The Mounties kicked the investigation to local police in Kingston on May 5, 2020. A Kingston detective then went onto Thwing’s Facebook page and noted a number of his entries: One from March 2019, where he’s at home wearing his ceremonial red uniform; another from October 2019, where he was strolling the Queen’s University campus in pants that matched the RCMP’s yellow-striped uniform, an RCMP hoodie he bought online at the official Mountie boutique, and a hat with a store-bought RCMP crest; and a photo of Thwing at home wearing the same hat and a face mask to which he had attached an RCMP badge.
The detective applied the next day to get a search warrant for Thwing’s home. “I believe that William Warren Thwing has an interest in the RCMP and has been in public wearing what appears to be an RCMP uniform,” he wrote in his search warrant application. “I believe that it is likely that if a member of the public had seen Thwing wearing his uniform, that that person would believe that Thwing was a peace officer.”
The search-warrant application said police were worried Thwing might have “an interest in self-harm” because his Facebook bio at the time read: “I am the biggest screw-up and truly wonder why I was ever born. I wish I was dead.”
Police also flagged that Thwing had a firearms licence and was the registered owner of a revolver.
2 weeks in jail
“Personating a peace officer,” as it’s officially called, is a relatively minor offence. Courts have sentenced first-time offenders to as little as a $200 fine, though the maximum penalty is up to five years in prison.
Criminal defence lawyer Leora Shemesh, who the CBC consulted about Thwing’s case but had no involvement in it, said the circumstances should have allowed him to be released on a promise to appear in court at a later date.
But at his initial court appearance, someone — Thwing isn’t sure who because he appeared via videoconference — asked for him to undergo a psychiatric assessment. Because of COVID-19 isolation requirements in provincial jails at the time, he was held for two weeks before finally being released, on condition that he surrender all “police clothing, badges or other paraphernalia” to Kingston Police.
Thwing said it was a tough time in jail, with COVID-related lockdowns confining detainees to their cells for up to three days at a time. He didn’t get all his prescription medicines, for his diabetes and heart condition, he said, and at first wasn’t given the right food.
The charge against him was withdrawn in March 2021.
‘A simple knock on the guy’s door’
Police in commando gear bashing their way, unannounced, into someone’s home is supposed to be rare in Canada. By long-standing legal precedent — hundreds of years old — officers are usually required to knock and declare their presence and purpose when executing a search warrant.
Exceptions are allowed under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms when there are reasonable grounds to be concerned about the destruction of evidence, or about potential harm to officers or the home’s occupants.
“Usually no-knock search-warrant entries, especially with this many officers on a [SWAT team], is for guns and gangs — sometimes child porn,” Shemesh said.
CBC News showed her the Kingston Police search-warrant application and a police occurrence report from 2018, when Thwing posted about it being an opportune time to jump off a pedestrian bridge in nearby Gananoque, Ont., that was closed for construction (Thwing told CBC he has warped sense of humour and the post was a joke). She also watched the home security camera footage of the police raid on Thwing’s residence.
Shemesh said that not only did she think the door-bashing raid wasn’t called for, but she barely saw any justification for a search warrant at all.
“I had a hard time understanding where the offence was. Even when I read the warrant for the first time, I almost felt like I was missing something, that there had to have been more,” she said.
“A simple knock on the guy’s door would have been the same effect.”
Kingston Police didn’t respond to questions from CBC News last week, saying the officers involved in the operation were on holiday.
An ongoing CBC News investigation into no-knock police raids across Canada has turned up numerous dubious operations, including where tactical teams smash their way into people’s homes based largely on the evidence of paid, confidential informants, but then find none of the drugs or weapons they anticipated. Some police forces have acknowledged under oath that they use no-knock raids — called “dynamic entries” in police parlance — in nearly every drug case.
There is no official national count, but through access-to-information requests, the CBC has tallied hundreds of no-knock raids each year in Canada, prompting some defence lawyers and criminology scholars to call for more stringent regulation of the tactic.
One problem, legal experts agree, is that no one — not police, nor the provincial ministries that oversee them — tracks how often a raid on someone’s home leads to no charges, or all charges being withdrawn, meaning there is no way to properly assess the tactic’s effectiveness.
Shemesh said requiring police to get a judge’s approval ahead of time would help contain a practice that has become more common in recent years.
Gun licence at risk
Ever since the raid, Thwing says he has had trouble sleeping. His home insurance rates went up after he put in a $5,000 claim to replace his glass-panelled door that police destroyed. While some of his memorabilia was returned to him, police kept more than $1,000 worth of items that were deemed to be official RCMP gear, he said.
And while his criminal charge was dropped, his legal ordeal isn’t over. Police now want to take away his gun licence. A provincial firearms officer wrote to Thwing that “your collection of RCMP memorabilia has gone past the collector stage and clearly has turned to an obsession.… Your obsession with the RCMP and emulating their uniform in your daily fashion choices causes me great concern.”
Court records show Thwing’s doctor also opposes his having a gun licence, without saying why.
Thwing is fighting it, and has a hearing at the end of the month.
Once an ardent supporter of the Mounties, he says he now has mixed feelings.
“Why didn’t you call me? Why didn’t you pick up the phone and say, ‘Warren, we’d like to talk to you?'”