This is part of my ongoing series on Canadian Mass Murders.
On April 6, 1996, Mark Chahal travelled from his home in Burnaby to Vernon, where he executed Rajwar Gakhal, his ex-wife, and eight of her family members, including Rajwar’s younger sister Balwinder Kaur Gakhal.
Balwinder was to be married later that day.
In less than five minutes, Chahal wiped out the entire Gakhal family in the second deadliest mass shooting in Canadian history.
Rajwar Gakhal left Chahal just six months after their marriage in 1994 because of his violent and abusive nature. She moved home to Vernon to live with her parents and filed for a divorce.
“The motive that we’re pursuing is that he chose to take revenge on the entire family,” said RCMP Sgt Doug Hartl.
The devastated groom-to-be learned of his fiance’s murder from the RCMP while he was still traveling from his home in Ontario.
The following people were murdered by Mark Chahal on April 6, 1996.
- Rajwar Kaur Gakhal (25) – Chahal’s estranged wife
- Balwinder Kaur Gakhal (24) – the young bride-to-be
- Karnail Singh Gakhal (50)
- Darshan Kaur Gakhat (45)
- Kalwinder Kaur Gakhal (21)
- Jaspal Singh Gakhal (14)
- Halvinder Kaur Gakhal (17)
- Balgit (Roger) Saran (33)
- Jasbir Kaur Saran (30)
After returning to his motel room, Mark Chahal wrote a brief suicide note before killing himself.
“We think his decision to commit suicide is a result of what occurred in the house, maybe because he felt his identity would be known,” said RCMP Sgt. Doug Hartl.
Rick Young, neighbour to Karnail and Darshan Gakhal, was outside playing with his kids when gunfire erupted next door.
“He had two guns, one in each hand, just like the old western-style shooters, blasting away,” Young said.
“He was only a few yards away. He turned and looked me in the eye. I thought I was going to die. He had a full opportunity to plug me full of holes. But he just turned away from me and went around again to the back of the house and then fired some shots at the back.”
Chahal’s animosity toward his ex-wife and her family was no secret.
“He told them he was going to make sure none of their other daughters would ever get married,” Balwinder Gakhal, the wife of Karnail’s cousin Torlok told Maclean’s.
“Nobody imagined he would be capable of doing this.”
Why did Police Issue Gun Permit to Man They Knew Threatened His Wife?
Despite Rajwar Gakhal’s complaint to police about Mark Chahal’s abusive behaviour, police still issued him a Firearm Acquisition Certificate (FAC). Chahal used that certificate to purchase two handguns which he used to commit the murders, as well as a 12-gauge shotgun which police found loaded but unused in Chahal’s rental van.
In January, 1995, Rajwar Gakhal filed a complaint with Vernon RCMP that Chahal threatened her, but requested police not to investigate her husband.
She said she only filed the complaint because she wanted the authorities to be aware of the situation.
Police said they were powerless to deny Chahal’s application because Rajwar specifically asked them not to investigate, saying there were no witnesses to his abuse and that she feared an official investigation would exacerbate an already rocky situation.
Timeline of Events
The following timeline of events is from the excellent April 24, 1996, news report by Sujata Talreja for OutlookIndia.com.
On April 4, 30-year-old accountant Mark Chahal left his Burnaby high-rise apartment for Vernon in the western province of British Columbia, home to one of the largest Sikh communities in the country.
In his red Nissan, Chahal was carrying a 12-gauge shotgun and two handguns—a Smith and Wesson 40-calibre semi-automatic pistol and a Smith and Wesson 38-calibre revolver. The entire Gakhal family was in Vernon to celebrate the marriage of Rajwar’s younger sister. Rajwar, separated from Chahal for a year, had been living with her parents in their home in Vernon, where her father Karnail worked in a local sawmill. Divorce proceedings were on, the marriage having ended within months of the 1994 wedding after charges of abuse.
At Kelowna airport, Mark parked his car and continued his journey in a rented dark green Ford minivan. When he reached downtown Vernon, Chahal stopped at the small Globe Motel, where rooms go for $29 a night, signing in simply as ‘Singh’, and paid for two nights in cash. At about 10.30 am on Friday, Chahal reached the Gakhal home, a two-storey house in a pretty middle-class neighbourhood where wedding preparations were well underway. Rajwar’s parents, Karnail and Darshan, well-known among the Vernon Sikh community and founders of the Vernon Sikh temple, had invited 400 guests to the wedding.
In the driveway, Karnail was washing one of the family cars. Leaving the shotgun in the van, Chahal walked up the driveway with his handguns and shot his father-in-law in the face. Karnail died on the spot. He then fired at someone through the front window before entering the house.
By then, everybody inside was screaming. Chahal walked through the house, shooting everyone: his ex-wife, her mother, her sisters, her brother, her brother-in-law and her grandmother. He only spared the children. He shot 28 times, aiming many of the bullets at his victims’ heads.
Chahal left through the back door and drove off. When the police arrived, six people were dead. Three more died later. After leaving the scene, Chahal returned to his motel room. The police believe he planned to escape but something made him change his mind. He wrote a short note apologising for his actions and asking the police to call his family. He then shot himself.