Settling A Dangerous Debt

Stripper Shawn Pelkey is acquitted of a burly bill collector's murder

By: Stephen Lequire

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Bryan Alexander "Popeye" Peters knew how to inspire the fear. His friends grimace as they recall the way this hulking six-foot four-inch, 244-pounder would amuse himself by casually slapping around bar patrons in Calgary. Anyone bold enough to retaliate was savagely mauled. Another favourite Peters' pastime: taping a person's head inside a motorcycle helmet and attempting to smash it with a baseball bat.


One of his victims, Shawn Pekley, learned all too much about Peters' perversity over the course of three beatings. On May 21, 1987, Mr. Pelkey, a 26-year-old exotic dancer with a taste for cocaine ended Peters' reign of terror with two blasts from the sawed-off shotgun, one to the heart, one to the face. Late last month an eight-woman, four-main Court of Queen's Bench jury acquitted him of a second-degree murder. They agreed with defence lawyer David Yanko that he acted in self-defence.

Before his death at age 25, Peters had studied martial arts, boxing and wrestling. He was also much in demand as paid enforcer for drug dealers. His attempts to collect a $3,000 cocaine debt from Mr. Pelkey revealed his dedication to his chosen field of endeavour.

Mr. Pelkey was first beaten by Peters in the early spring of 1986. The pounding bruised his face and humiliated him, but far worse was to follow. A second assault occurred in June, 1986, at Calgary's Beacon Hotel (a strip joint favoured by bikers and now named the North Centre Inn). This time the punches and kicks blackened the target's eyes and bruised his nose. In yet another attack a month later, Peters and an accomplice abducted the five-foot 10-inch, 160-pound dancer from the Town and Country Motor Hotel in southeast Calgary. They drove him to the edge of the city and pummeled him to unconsciousness.

The thrashings failed to induce a stubborn Mr. Pelkey to pay his drug bill but they did force him into hiding. Mr. Yanko said his client continued to pursue the stripping career he'd begun in 1984 but began confining himself to out-of-town engagements. On the day of the shooting, Mr. Pelkey was preparing to leave for a series of performances in Edmonton and Fort McMurray. Accompanied by friend Martin Watkinson, he was driving his Volkswagen eastbound across busy Macleod Trail S.W. It was 2:45 p.m. The two men spotted Peters standing beside his car, urinating on the street. The enforcer also identified the stripper. In the ensuing chase the VW proved no match for Peters' black Thunderbird. The pursuit ended a few block away on a service road south of Blackfoot Trail and 42 Avenue S.E. where Peters was able to wedge Mr. Pelkey's car against a curb.

As Peters strode toward the car, Mr. Pelkey grabbed a sawed-off shotgun from beneath his seat. "I didn't even pull the trigger consciously. I thought it hit the door," he testified on March 21. In fact, the hail of lead exited via a side vent window, perforating his assailant's chest with 33 pellets. Eleven pellets entered Peters' hear and turned it into "a bag with holes in it," a medical examiner Dr. John Butt explained to the jury.

Mr. Pelkey told the court Peters kept coming despite the initial blast. He admitted his second shot – which struck his attacker in the face – was intentional. "I leaned right back, closed my eyes and pulled the trigger," he said. Philipp Bruce Cowley, Peters' sidekick in the chase vehicle, attempted to comfort his fallen friend. Meanwhile, Mr. Pelkey drove away, taking refuge with the mother of his former girlfriend. (Mr. Pelkey and the former girlfriend have one-year-old son.) He met with Mr. Yanko later that afternoon and on his lawyer's advice, surrendered to the city police.


At the trial, Mr. Yanko's task was to convince the jury that Mr. Pelkey shot Peters by accident or in self-defence. To this end, it was necessary to establish that Peters was a sinister individual whom his client genuinely feared. Guy Lanoutngan was one of 14 defence witnesses to describe Peters' character. According to Mr. Lanoutngan, Peters was the type who "would destroy you if you got in his way." Police detective Paul Wood told the court that Peters had a record of three assault convictions in the past four years, resulting in fines of $250, $500, and three months in jail.

Mr. Yanko applied for and was granted use of Section 442 of the Criminal Code, providing for in camera testimony. The defence counsel insisted that exposing two of his witnesses to Peters' friends in open court could have placed their lives in jeopardy. Mr. Pelkey himself testified that he was constantly afraid Peters would cripple or kill him. "Nobody ever stopped Brian [Peters] from doing what he wanted. He was the most dangerous person I had ever met in my life." The sight of Peters approaching his car last May was his "worst nightmare coming to life," he said.

Crown prosecutor Mark Krotter argued that Mr. Pelkey clearly planned to shoot Peters when he obtained a shotgun and cut it down in order to conceal it. In his final address to the jury, Mr. Krotter said the gun was good for only one purpose: "killing people." He added that Mr. Pelkey ought to have contacted the police if he thought his life was in danger. "This is Canada," he said. "This is not a jungle. This is not Dodge City." On March 24, after three hours of deliberation, the jury cleared the accused.

Calgary wrestling promoter Steward (Stu) Hart had a strikingly different impression of Peters. He sympathized with him as young man who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Ottawa and who was forced to fend for himself after his father shot himself in 1977.


Prior to Peters' killing, Mr. Hart, 72, had been grooming the young man for a professional wrestling career. Peters had been over to the Hart house for dinner on at least 20 occasions. He impressed his host with his good manners. "He always brought a box of chocolates along," says Mr. Hard, "and he was always very well-spoken.

The promoted confesses he knew of Peters' darker side but says he was hoping wrestling would offer him a positive alternative. "He grew up with violence as way of life," says the promoted, who read the eulogy at Peters' Funeral. "He had lived in an ugly world but he was well-liked."

Peters' death came just four days before he was slated to fight with his first professional wrestling match. Says Mr. Hart: "It was standing room only at the funeral. The parking lot was filled with Harley-Davidsons."

Peters may be dead and buried, but Mr. Pelkey isn't resting in peace. He fears the bikers' colleagues will avenge his death. On the courthouse steps following his acquittal, Mr. Pelkey broke an emotional embrace with his mother and sister to speak briefly with the reporters. "I'm going to go as far away as is humanly possible," he said.


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