Mother of victim ’emotional’ as day one of murder trial begins

Lauren Laithwaite, mother of Chris Van Camp, speaks to reporters outside Court of Queen's Bench in Prince on Jan. 27, 2020. Van Camp was found dead in his cell on June 7, 2017. Tyler Vandewater was charged with second-degree murder in his death. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

It’s been a long journey for Lauren Laithwaite.

The Calgary mother has spent the two and a half years grappling with the loss of her son, Chris Van Camp.

Van Camp was found dead in his cell at Saskatchewan Penitentiary the morning of June 6, 2017. His cellmate Tyler Vandewater is charged with second-degree murder in his death.

Laithwaite faced saw the man accused of killing her son face-to-face for the second time Monday as his trial began at Court of Queen’s Bench in Prince Albert.

“Seeing him, the person who killed my son, was really emotional,” Laithwaite told reporters outside of court Monday.

“I did see him a year ago when I was at his parole hearing. But I saw him face-to-face today.”

The other difficult part of Monday’s proceeding for Laithwaite was hearing how her son appeared thinner, and as one correctional officer said, “tired”

“Just understanding how sick my son was when he was brought back to prison — clearly everybody knew that he had lost a lot of weight. He shouldn’t have been put in there.”

She also had an issue with the person her son was sharing a cell with. Vandewater is also accused of a pair of aggravated assaults stemming from his time in prison.

Laithwaite has sued Correctional Services Canada for negligence in the death of her son. She alleged Monday that the prison was overcrowded. Court did hear Monday that there were close to 90 inmates in Unit 6 on the day Van Camp was found dead.

She said CSC’s defence, that Van Camp’s death was the fault of his “high-risk” lifestyle, is a “reach.”

He was very sick, she said, alleging that the inmate he was bunked with, Vandewater, was “violent.”

She also refuted CSC’s other point, that prison is an inherently dangerous place.

“That … tells me leadership isn’t doing their job,” she said.

None of Laithwaite’s allegations have been proven in court. The civil case is ongoing.

Van Camp was housed on a gang-affiliated range controlled by Terror Squad. But both Laithwaite and a friend of Van Camp attending court Monday said he was never a gang member.

“I understand from people — and they’ve all reached out to me, people that he was in prison with, that he was a very quiet, nice person,” Laithwaite said.

“He stuck up for people. Everybody interacted with … gangs within a range. My son was doing drugs in prison. Drugs were available to him. That’s why he came out an addict, and not surprisingly, he overdosed within a month of being out.”

Laithwaite said she didn’t know her son had a drug problem. He stayed with her while out on parole. If she had known, she said that she would have had him checked into a rehab centre.

She said people who use drugs can be on the fringe or associated with gang members, especially in prison.

Those memories, of Van Camp’s brief time on parole, are also tough for Laithwaite.

“He was let out on April 24,” she said.

 She picked him up from the Greyhound stop and took him to a hotel. She had a spare room for her to stay in with a University of Calgary student. Van Camp started as a crane operator and was going to school. He was re-establishing himself with clothes, a driver’s license and a new life. His parole officer approved of his living arrangements, Laithwaite said.

“Christopher would message me in the morning, saying ‘good morning’ on his way to school. This particular morning, he did not.”

She had someone check on him. Van Camp was near death in his room. He was rushed to the hospital and in a coma for five days on life support.

Laithwaite said she slept beside him in the room. She was there the day he woke up. She described his answers as “childish.” He was slightly confused and unable to carry on much of a conversation.

When Laithwaite returned the next morning, Corrections Canada was there.

Van Camp had been arrested for violating his parole. She was eventually allowed to see him.

“I went in there, hugging and kissing him, and he asked why I was crying. I said, ‘I just love you so much and I’m sorry.’ That was the last time I spoke to him.”

Van Camp was transferred to Boden Institution. From there, he was taken back to Sask. Pen.

Less than 24 hours after he was admitted to his cell, Van Camp was found dead.

Laithwaite has waited since then for some answers. While she knows the trial will be tough, she intends to attend the entire length of the trial.

“I understand what I’m coming into with the trial and I understand it’s going to be difficult,” she told the StarPhoenix last week.

She said she was given the option to stay in the courtroom to hear forensic evidence and photos.

She will hear at the same time as everyone else the truth about the cause of her son’s death.

“I’m looking forward to the trial being finished and done so I can actually put that out of my day-to-day thought process and then I can look back and remember the good times and my love for Christopher,” she said. “Not the way he died.”

— With Saskatoon StarPhoenix files from Thia James