MONCTON, N.B. - As Elaine Gray emerged from the sombre, dimly lit auditorium where three slain Mounties lay in flag-draped coffins, the Moncton woman dabbed her reddened eyes with a tissue and squinted in the blazing sunshine.
Gray was among hundreds of people who attended a public visitation Monday for constables Fabrice Georges Gevaudan, Douglas James Larche and Dave Joseph Ross, who were all shot dead in the line of duty last week in Moncton's north end.
"I just wanted to say thank you again and again to these people," Gray said. "(What happened) was so senseless and such a shame and such a loss. I didn't know any of them personally. I know all of them now."
About 200 people were lined up as the doors swung open to the Wesleyan Celebration Centre. At the front of the auditorium, the coffins were placed end to end, each one with a Mountie's brown Stetson on top.
On a stage behind the coffins were several wreaths and large bouquets, most of them laden with red and white blooms.
In front of the wreaths were displays featuring framed photos of each of the victims and their brown leather boots.
As the crowd filed past, six RCMP officers in red serge were there to greet them. Amid a murmur of voices and a few heavy sighs and sobs, each Mountie took turns shaking hands and accepting quiet thanks and personal tributes from the mourners.
Most of the people in the auditorium were older, but as the line grew longer the range of ages widened considerably. One woman brought two small children, a boy and a girl in their Sunday best.
Some people wore formal outfits, others were in jeans, shorts and sandals as the temperature outside rose above 25 C.
Aline Chiasson from nearby Dieppe said she wanted to show her support for the Mounties.
"We came down because we're really sorry for those people and their families, having to go through such terrible stress and sorrow," she said, her Acadian accent highlighting the area's strong bilingual roots.
"It's too often that we criticize the RCMP. But what would we do without them? We need them to protect us."
The visitation service was held as the city prepares for an RCMP regimental funeral service Tuesday. Mayor George LeBlanc said he expects between 5,000 and 7,000 police officers from across Canada to attend at the Moncton Coliseum, which will be preceded by an RCMP parade. The service will be televised.
LeBlanc said the city's outpouring of support for the families of the slain officers has been one of the bright lights in a dark time.
"If you just look around here today, it won't take you long to see somebody coming up and shaking the hands of an RCMP officer," LeBlanc said before attending the visitation service. "That is the goodness of Moncton shining through."
The city has set up at least five other sites where people can gather to watch the funeral. Residents have also been asked to volunteer their homes as billets for travelling police officers.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau will travel together to Moncton to attend the service. Gov.-Gen. David Johnston was also scheduled to attend.
The office of Premier David Alward has asked people to observe a moment of silence Tuesday at 1 p.m., when the service begins.
Gevaudan, Larche and Ross were gunned down Wednesday evening after responding to a report of a man with firearms in a residential neighbourhood in the northwest area of Moncton. Two other officers — Constables Eric Dubois and Darlene Goguen — were wounded and released from hospital.
The shootings and the ensuing 30-hour manhunt for the alleged killer brought the city to a standstill until an arrest was made just after midnight Friday.
Schools reopened Monday and counselling services were made available to students. Books of condolence were also set up at various city halls and RCMP detachments throughout New Brunswick.
Gevaudan, 45, originally of the Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt, was remembered in his obituary as an advocate of women's rights who adored his wife and "Twin Flame," Angela, and stepdaughter Emma.
"While he died protecting the lives of the individuals in his community, his spirit tells us he died as he lived — a happy man," it says.
The obituary for Larche, 40, of Saint John, N.B., says he died while working as a plainclothes officer who "without fear or hesitation ran towards danger to protect his community and family." He leaves behind his wife Nadine and three daughters and "little princesses" Alexa, Laura and Mia.
Ross's obituary says the 32-year-old dog handler died doing what he loved. He is survived by his wife Rachael and son Austin, with another child expected in the fall.
The RCMP released a statement from Ross's wife and father saying his love of dogs brought the couple together.
"Dave's first dog, Art, played a special role in their relationship," the statement read. "When Dave and Rachael would hold hands, Art would often try to nose their hands apart because he wanted all of Dave's attention. These were very special memories the couple shared."
LeBlanc said the deaths of the officers are difficult to fathom.
"It's hard to accept that this is reality," he said. "It's hard to find words to describe it."
Justin Bourque, 24, of Moncton is facing three charges of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder. He made a brief appearance in provincial court Friday and is scheduled to return to court July 3.
© Coast Reporter