The man accused of killing Christopher Van Camp in a prison cell in June 2017 says Van Camp was paranoid and tried to stab him in the side, court heard Friday.
Tyler Vandewater took the stand as the defence opened its case during the fifth day of a second-degree murder trial at Court of Queen’s Bench in Prince Albert.
Vandewater has been charged with second-degree murder in Van Camp’s death. Van Camp was found dead in his prison cell on the morning of June 7, mere hours after he was returned to Saskatchewan Penitentiary (Sask. Pen) after overdosing while out on parole.
Everything seemed normal at first, Vandewater said.
The two men had shared a cell for a handful of months before Van Camp was released on parole.
“We were bros, brothers I would say,” Vandewater told the Court.
“I considered him my brother. We were family.”
When the correctional manager asked Vandewater if he would be okay living with Van Camp again, Vandewater said he had no problem with it.
It was about 10:30 p.m., Vandewater believes, when Van Camp was brought to his cell.
“I noticed he lost weight. I made fun of him for it,” Vandewater said.
The two exchanged a pleasant greeting.
Vandewater said he gave Van Camp back his blade, which he had stored in a void under his desk. He described it as a pick or an ice pick. It was made from a piece of chain link fence, Vandewater said, broken off, straightened and sharpened.
The first time Vandewater noticed that something was off was about an hour later.
Van Camp, he said, had a conversation with the inmate one cell over. He said people were going to get him.
Vandewater said that Van Camp was then pacing in the cell, walking back and forth with his blade in his hand.
He remembers telling Van Camp to “chill out.”
Van Camp, Vandewater said, “was like ‘I know people are going to get me.’”
At this point, Vandewater said, he began to grow nervous. Van Camp was bigger than him. He had seen him fight before, at times knocking out other inmates with one punch during so-called “discipline” meted out by inmates on the range, which was controlled by the Terror Squad Street Gang.
Vandewater said the two men were facing each other, with Vandewater’s back up against the bunk, about one-foot apart.
Van Camp “starts trying to stab me on the side.”
Vandewater said he pushed his cellmate into the desk, drew his own homemade knife — made of a short edge and a handle wrapped in shoelaces and a shirt — and fought back.
“That’s when I started trying to stab him in the face,” Vandewater said.
“I was pretty scared.”
Vandewater said he was able to overpower Van Camp and throw him to the ground. They wrestled around, he testified, with Van Camp ending up on his stomach.
Van Camp dropped his weapon. So did Vandewater.
Next, Vandewater said, Van Camp reached over and grabbed Vandewater’s blade. Vandewater says he grabbed Van Camp’s and began to stab him in the back.
Vandewater says at this point, he blacked out. The next thing he remembers, he has Van Camp pinned between the toilet and the wall.
“I was stomping on his face,” Vandewater said.
At this point, he noticed that Van Camp was no longer moving. He said he thought Van Camp died at around midnight. The entire fight, he said, lasted around a minute to a minute and a half.
He said he kept stabbing Van Camp because it didn’t seem like it was having any effect.
“I didn’t think my weapon was working,” Vandewater said.
“It didn’t feel like it was going in and he kept fighting, so I kept going.”
He said the damage to Van Camp’s face was likely from his homemade knife and from his kicking and punching. He said the wounds on Van Camp’s back came from the other knife, what Vandewater referred to as a “pick.”
Vandewater had some visible scratches on his side. He testified that he also received scrapes on his back and elbows. He said he was wearing a black shirt — earlier evidence included a black t-shirt with puncture holes in it.
“Now I’m panicked,” Vandewater said. “I didn’t know what to do right away.”
He was worried about what would happen when doors were opened in the morning for breakfast. He was afraid that if the other inmates on his range learned he had killed Van Camp, they would come after him. He spent about a half-hour to an hour cleaning up the cell. He wrapped Van Camp in a blanket and placed him in the bottom bunk. He hid the Van Camp’s weapon alongside his body.
“I lifted him up on the bunk to make it look like nothing happened.”
He cleaned all the blood, stuffing the blood-soaked rags into plastic bags and hiding them under the bottom bunk.
He spent the next several hours watching TV. “I was so scrambled,” he said. He knew he couldn’t go to the guards because he would look like a snitch.
“I’ve got a lot of years left in this place,” Vandewater said.
“I’d rather be in that cell than be known as a snitch and be stabbed everywhere I go.”
Earlier in the day Dr. Shaun Ladham, a forensic pathologist testified that there were 26 wounds on Van Camp’s head area and 25 on his back. He also saw four on his chest. The cause of death was blood loss and a collapsed lung.
Ladham said the face wounds would have bled significantly, as did the chest and back punctures. Three of the chest wounds punctured the lungs, while two went right through the lungs and into the heart.
Throughout Vandewater’s testimony, Lauren Laithwaite, Van Camp’s mother, was shaking her head. At one point, she muttered “no.”
Outside court, she said she didn’t believe a word of what Vandewater said.
“I don’t believe the story he’s telling. It doesn’t make sense based on what the coroner said that Christopher had no defensive or offensive wounds on him,” she said. “I don’t believe Mr. Vandewater is telling the truth.”
She added that she doesn’t believe her son was a gang member or would have done any “dirty work” for Terror Squad.
“He’s never been charged with any violence in jail. That goes against what the guards have said. The friends that know him say he’s not a violent person. Would he fight if he was protecting someone or helping? Yes, but he wouldn’t instigate ….and someone who went in and did (Terror Squad’s) dirty work? I don’t believe that for a minute.”
Laithwaite said Friday, with the autopsy report and Vandewater’s testimony was the most difficult day for her so far. She hasn’t received many answers, except the “extreme” of what her son went through.
“I don’t ever think we’ll really find out,” what happened in that cell, she said.
“No one wants to see their child in that condition.”
The trial continues Monday with the Crown’s cross-examination of Vandewater and testimony of a second defence witness, a fellow Sask. Pen inmate.
The trial is expected to wrap up with closing arguments by the middle of next week.
— with files from Jayda Noyes