Day two of murder trial sees testimony from Penitentiary staff who found deceased

Tyler Vandewater is escorted out of court on Jan. 27,2020. Vandewater is accused of killing cellmate Chris Van Camp in 2017. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Editor’s note: The following story may contain content that some readers may find upsetting.

The corrections officer who discovered Chris Van Camp lying dead in the bottom bunk of his Saskatchewan Penitentiary cell in 2017 “wasn’t expecting” to find him in the condition he did.

Van Camp died less than 24 hours after he was returned to the institution after overdosing while on parole living in Alberta. Van Camp’s cellmate, Tyler Vandewater, is on trial, accused of second-degree murder in his death.

Van Camp’s mother, Lauren Laithwaite, is observing the trial. Laithwaite told reporters heading into the trial that she knew it would be difficult.

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.

On Tuesday, day two of the lengthy trial, she heard from the officers who found Van Camp dead.

“It’s still shocking,” she said.

“It’s everything I imagined already. To actually hear it and to compare it to what his defence wants to suggest happened, I think we could stop the trial now and it would be all over with. It’s so ridiculous.”

Defence counsel Brian Pfefferle has said the argument of self-defence will be key. Vandewater is expected to testify later in the proceedings.

On Tuesday, officers who were present for Van Camp’s last hours testified to what they saw in the early morning of June 7, 2017.

None of them noticed anything out of the ordinary prior to the 8 a.m. hourly check. Then, they found Vandewater standing near the back of the cell eating. The figure on the bottom bunk, though, wasn’t moving.

Dean Friedt was one of the correctional officers on duty that morning.

He had also worked the night before, picking up Van Camp from Edmonton, searching him and then driving the bus back to Sask. Pen.

He recognized Van Camp from his previous stay at Sask. Pen. He engaged Van Camp in a brief conversation, asking him how he ended up back in custody and how long he would be staying for.

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, Friedt said, other than Van Camp appearing to be “quite thinner” compared to the last time he saw him.

Once they arrived in Prince Albert, Van Camp was taken off the bus. That was the last time Friedt saw him alive.

The next morning, he was on shift. He took the 8 a.m. walk through the prison ranges. He and his partner noticed nothing out of the ordinary until they came to the Van Camp and Vandewater cell.

Friedt noticed the name tags on the door. One was Van Camp’s. But when he looked inside, all he could see was Vandewater, standing and eating.

Friedt’s partner looked and tried to get a response from Vandewater as to where Van Camp was.

There was no response.

Friedt intervened. He asked Vandewater where Van Camp was. Vandewater pointed to the bottom bunk. There was a pile of blankets. Friedt couldn’t remember how many, but he said there were more than two.

Friedt asked Vandewater to wake Van Camp up.

Friedt testified that Vandewater then walked over to the bottom bunk, touched it, and said “hey buddy wake up,” all without breaking eye contact.

“His eyes were on me, looking through me,” Friedt testified.

He grew worried. He knew Van Camp had to be in his cell. He had dropped the inmate off after final count, meaning there had been no moving of inmates since the previous night.

He said he had a “gut feeling” something wasn’t right.

Friedt knew from his many years of experience that inmates could hide under the bunks or under the covers. Once backup arrived, Friedt had the cell door opened, and he instructed Vandewater to step to the side.

Friedt reached down and pulled the blankets away, revealing Van Camp’s face.

“It didn’t look normal,” he said.

As he pulled the blankets off Van Camp, he said he saw him lying on his side in the fetal position. His face was pale, and eyes open.

As he described the wounds, Laithwaite sobbed.

“He (had) blood on his face, and a cut above his eye,” Friedt testified.

“I couldn’t get a pulse.”

Van Camp’s hands were curled up by his face. Friedt said the body appeared to have been cleaned, with several puncture wounds on his back, but no dried blood. There was trauma to his face, neck, back and legs. Van Camp was dressed only in his underwear. He had been placed on clear plastic garbage bags, a crude shank made out of what appeared to be fence ties sitting between Van Camp’s body and the wall.

Nurses arrived on the scene quickly to see what they could do.

“There was no signs of life,” Friedt said.

“There was nothing we could do.”

While he hadn’t noticed blood at first, Friedt said that later he spotted some near the toilet at the back of the cell. He didn’t notice anything else.

“Everything happened so fast,” Friedt said. “There was so much going on. I wasn’t prepared to find him in the condition I did”

He was just focused on Van Camp.

Other officers took Vandewater away, first to do a strip search and then to secure him in the interview room.

They didn’t find any weapons.

Multiple correctional officers who were on the scene testified to not spotting any visible wounds on Vandewater.

Vandewater, though, did ask to see health care. Over the course of testimony Tuesday, reference was made to both potential wounds on Vandewater’s elbows as well as to a comment he reportedly made about being scraped by a shank.

None of the officers knew whether Vandewater received medical attention nor were they aware of any injuries.

They were all relieved by other officers before the requested health care was provided.

Earlier, correctional officer Rod Frank testified about the 7 a.m. count, the last check done on Van Camp’s cell before the discovery shortly after 8 a.m. that he wasn’t breathing.

The officer said he was “convinced” he saw two living, breathing bodies in that cell. Vandewater was definitely moving, he said, while the blanket over Van Camp was rising and falling ever so slightly.

“I’ve gone through it 1,000 times. I saw that blanket move,” he said.

Still, though, on cross-examination, the officer said he now believes that he had counted a deceased inmate.

“He was dead at the time of the count,” Frank said, adding that he’s now “certain” Van Camp was dead.

At the suggestion of the Crown, he said that the slight movement could have come from something like a puff of air or a draft.

Following his testimony, Frank and Laithwaite had a brief conversation near the front entrance of the courthouse.

Laithwaite identified herself and thanked him. He expressed sorrow for her loss.

She explained that thanking that correctional officer was important because of the way he spoke about her son.

“How he talked about his character — a lot of people want to write off people that are in prison, and a lot of people out there on the internet are saying my son deserved to die,” she said.

“I think once we see all the guards talking so highly about him and the type of man he was, it makes me feel good. I could feel his sadness that he checked a dead body. He was sorry for my loss.”