Cocaine overdose, not RCMP actions, caused Myles Sanderson’s death, inquest hears

Michelle Berg/Saskatoon StarPhoenix. RCMP on Highway 11 after the arrest of Myles Sanderson north of Saskatoon on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022.

Julia Peterson

Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Warning: This story contains graphic and disturbing details some readers may find upsetting.

An overdose of cocaine, not any actions from RCMP officers, led to the death of the man responsible for the James Smith Cree Nation mass stabbing, a coroner’s inquest heard.

The inquest into the death of Myles Sanderson resumed Tuesday, addressing critical questions about what happened after his arrest on Sept. 7, 2022. Sanderson, 32, killed 11 people and injured 17 others during a stabbing rampage on James Smith Cree Nation and in the nearby community of Weldon on Sept. 4, 2022.

Sanderson died in police custody after an extensive manhunt that ended in a high-speed chase near Rosthern.

Going well over 130 kilometres-per-hour on the highway near Saskatoon, RCMP Const. Heidi Marshall struck from behind the stolen vehicle Sanderson was driving, pushing it off the road and into a ditch, the inquest heard. Sanderson was pulled out of the vehicle at gunpoint and arrested. Minutes later, he went into medical distress, and died at Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon later that day.

On Tuesday, Saskatoon Police Service Det. Sgt. Ken Kane walked the inquest through the dozens of interviews and wide-ranging evidence conducted and examined by SPS officers. Because Sanderson died in RCMP custody, a different police agency was required by law to investigate the response by RCMP officers involved in the high-speed chase and arrest that morning.

“There is no indication that the actions of the RCMP members caused or contributed to the death of Myles Sanderson,” said Kane, summarizing the investigation’s most essential conclusion.

Instead, a pathologist said on Tuesday, Sanderson died from a cocaine overdose after he was taken into police custody.

“There was so much cocaine there,” said forensic pathologist Dr. Shaun Ladham, describing the amount of the drug found in Sanderson’s body.

‘You should have shot me’

Video and audio recordings from RCMP vehicles show what happened in the moments after Sanderson was arrested.

As the stolen Chevrolet Avalanche came to a stop in the ditch and officers approached, Sanderson’s hands were up, but he was moving them — towards his face, back down, repeating the movement. Later, after an officer found powdered cocaine and rolled up $20 bill Sanderson had in his hand when he was arrested, Kane said that explained a lot.

“My reasonable conclusion is that he was ingesting cocaine at the end of the pursuit,” Kane said.

After handcuffing Sanderson on the ground, officers put him up against a police vehicle and started searching him.

“He’s smiling, kind of laughing, joking … certainly not somebody who appears to have any injuries from the accident or being taken into custody,” Kane told the inquest.

“I’m ready to die now,” Sanderson is heard telling the officers in the video, before asking how many people he had killed.

“You should have shot me,” Sanderson told the officers, speaking fast and high-pitched, repeating the sentiment multiple times in a variety of profanity-laced comments. “Shoot me, man.”

One officer responded: “Luckily, it didn’t have to come to that.”

Sanderson’s condition was deteriorating quickly. He started swaying backwards and forwards. His strange, heavy breathing was caught on police microphones. While he was being walked from one cruiser to another, he stumbled, as though he couldn’t get his feet under him.

“You should’ve shot me,” he gasped again, quiet and slurred.

As officers called for paramedics to meet them on-site, they lowered Sanderson down on the grass beside the vehicle. Almost immediately afterwards, Sanderson crumpled and started to convulse. When asked if he had taken anything, Sanderson’s reply was unclear, but officers thought he said ‘meth.’

As Sanderson’s nose began to bleed and his lips turned gray, he was given naloxone, a drug used to reverse opioid overdoses.

“I felt like he was dying,” recalled Marshall, who was one of the officers on-scene.

Paramedics arrived and started chest compressions. At 3:51 p.m., Sanderson went into an ambulance that took him to hospital in Saskatoon.

Collision not a factor in death: detective

Kane emphasized that the precision immobilization technique (PIT maneuver) Marshall used — hitting Sanderson’s vehicle to force him off the road — was not a factor in Sanderson’s death.

At such high speeds, it took very little contact to send Sanderson’s vehicle spinning off the road. In fact, Kane said, if Marshall had driven into Sanderson’s vehicle with much more force, it would likely have caused “a more devastating collision,” in which there was “a great likelihood that Mr. Sanderson and Constable Marshall would have been seriously injured, if not killed.”

The only actual damage to the stolen Chevrolet Avalanche was a broken tail lamp, a couple minor dents on the rear bumper, and clumps of dirt and grass packed into the exhaust pipe after it went into the ditch.

Similarly, the police vehicle Marshall was driving took damage to the front lights and bumper, which Kane described as “essentially cosmetic.”

“Once the scene was concluded, this vehicle was in fact driven back to the RCMP detachment by a member,” he said.

Though Marshall, as a regular RCMP detachment member, was not trained in this kind of high-speed maneuver, Kane said he and the rest of the SPS investigators had nothing but praise for her actions that day.

“To say that she perfectly executed this is not an overstatement,” Kane said.

“It’s exactly what happened. The fact that she did it at this speed, with that ability, is, frankly, quite unbelievable. … I am impressed with the control with which with the PIT maneuver was executed. This was the best possible outcome for a highly stressful situation.”

Training ‘came into play subconsciously:’ RCMP officer

For Marshall herself, the events of that day are still difficult to talk about.

As she told the inquest, as she was following Sanderson down the highway “going at a ridiculous speed, heading south, in the wrong lane,” knowing her orders were to take him off the road if she could, she knew she might die in the attempt.

“I have two little kids at home, and when we were southbound at those high speeds, the thing that I remember thinking at the time was ‘what’s going to happen to my kids?’ ” she said, choking up. “Am I going to leave them without a mom? … The one thing in my life that I always wanted was to be a mom, so I did not want to leave my family without a mom.

“That quickly fleeted out of my mind — I didn’t have an opportunity to think of it for too long. While I was on the road I was thinking, ‘this could be it. This is it.’ “

But when Sanderson crossed over into the southbound lane, Marshall knew she had a chance to get him off the road.

“At that point, the only thought in my mind — I wasn’t thinking about my family,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking about anything but getting this person off the road, getting this vehicle off the road, so nobody else gets hurt.

“I got up onto the pavement and just thought, ‘I have to commit to this.’ ”

Though Marshall had no specific training in this sort of maneuver — accelerating to nearly 140 kilometres per hour to catch up with Sanderson’s vehicle and pushing it off the road — in the moment, she said she reverted back to basics.

“There are some elements of our training that came into play subconsciously,” she said.

She drew on skills from the standard RCMP advanced driving and winter driving courses, and how officers are taught to respond to an active shooter situation.

“This training is probably one of the reasons that I’m here,” she said.

After hearing Marshall’s emotional testimony, Eddie Head — Myles Sanderson’s uncle, representing his family at the inquest — invited her to come and visit James Smith Cree Nation and join them as they all work on healing together.

“We certainly support you for what you’re doing, and keep up the good work,” he said. “And when you’re on the road, come and talk to us.”

Cause of death ‘acute cocaine overdose: pathologist

Dr. Ladham, Saskatchewan’s chief forensic pathologist, performed the autopsy on Sanderson’s body. During the autopsy, Ladham found that Sanderson had “a very large level” — 6.5 milligrams per litre — of cocaine in his blood when he died.

“In my opinion, the cause of death was cocaine toxicity,” Ladham told the coroner’s inquest.

Compared to other autopsies on victims of cocaine overdoses Ladham has supervised or performed, this was extraordinarily high, he said.

Forensic toxicologist Dr. Jennifer Billinsky, who has worked at the Roy Romanow provincial lab for the last 10 years, agreed with that assessment.

“That is a very, very high reading,” she said. “It’s one of the highest cocaine levels I’ve ever seen in my career.”

During the autopsy, Ladham also found that Sanderson had “significant narrowing of one of the coronary arteries.” Because cocaine use can add stress to the heart and circulatory system, Ladham said this could also have been a contributing factor to Sanderson’s death.

“It could have played a role, but I can’t say that it had to play a role,” he said. “There was so much cocaine there, and with what it could have done to the heart itself, it didn’t have to have the heart disease there.”

Ladham also pointed out that, unlike opioid overdoses where medications like naloxone can be a lifesaving tool for immediate first aid, when it comes to cocaine overdoses, “there’s not an antidote.”

In the emergency room, doctors can try to treat the symptoms of cocaine overdose with a variety of specialized medications beyond what paramedics have access to in the field. But, as Ladham explained, “by the time (Sanderson) would have got there, it’s too late for any of that.”

Evidence brings mixed emotions

Darryl Burns, whose sister Lydia Gloria Burns was killed in the stabbing attacks, said watching the RCMP video recordings of Sanderson’s arrest and collapse brought him back to the emotions he felt that day: anger and relief.

“I don’t want to wish death on any other person,” Burns said. “But at the same time, looking back on it, knowing that the danger was gone was a relief.”

For Burns, the information he has learned over the past two days of testimony has helped put some painful questions to rest.

“Now I feel I can start the healing,” he said. “For myself, I can start the healing, knowing all the facts.”

Cindy Ghostkeeper-Whithead, a family wellness worker from James Smith Cree Nation, said watching these videos has been “very emotional.”

“You could feel the emotions in the room — mixed emotions, for sure,” she said. “Some relief. Unanswered questions, I suppose. And, yeah, some sadness.”

But she hopes, with all the information out in the open, the whole community will be able to move forward.

“I know that once this week is over, there will be a little more closure, and we can continue the healing process,” she said.