Forensics officers take to witness stand on day 4 of Vandewater murder trial

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

Items seized include wire, shank, pen, bloody mattress and T-shirt with small holes

A member of the Prince Albert RCMP’s Forensic Identification Section (FIS) described the cell where Chris Van Camp was found deceased as having “a lot of blood in a lot of different places.”

Tyler Vandewater—the man accused of killing his cellmate in 2017—quietly sat in the prisoner’s box as a 13-year member of Prince Albert’s FIS, Cpl. Janelle Samoila, went through detailed photos of items obtained from the scene.

Court also viewed a video of the cell, taken by fellow FIS officer Cpl. Normand Dupuis.

Van Camp’s mother Lauren Laithwaite travelled from Calgary to attend the trial.

She was in tears as court saw photos and video of her son’s lifeless body.

Her breaking point, though, was when a close-up of Van Camp’s face appeared on the screen. His pale skin had streaks of blood. Laithwaite whispered ‘Oh my God,’ wiping her tears away with Kleenex.

“I looked away quite a bit. I was pre-warned what I was going to see and that doesn’t really prepare you,” she said afterwards outside of the Court of Queen’s Bench.

Laithwaite said she’s made up stories in her head about what happened to Van Camp, but seeing the evidence and hearing the details “is a whole different thing.”

“We’re talking about my son here,” she said.

The pictures showed Van Camp in nothing but orange-red underwear. On the video, Dupuis pointed out puncture-like wounds, as well as trauma to Van Camp’s face and blood smear by both the side and foot of the bed.

He also pointed out bloodied rags and other blood staining by the toilet, along with a partial bloody handprint by the door.

“There was blood from one end (of the cell) to the other…to some extent,” he said.

Officers processed Van Camp’s body on June 7, 2017, after he had been declared deceased. He was discovered in his cell earlier that same morning.

They came back the next day with a search warrant. Some items had to be placed in a drying cabinet before being photographed on June 22.

Samoila showed photos of the items they seized, which included several ripped institutional towels, T-shirts, pillow cases, bed sheets, paper and plastic bags. The majority of the evidence contained stains of blood, some faint and others almost entirely covered.

Dupuis said he spotted cloths in a blood-soaked bag under the bed. He said the bag was so wet the blood was seeping through.

Samoila said the mattress on the bottom bunk, which she explained as quite thick, was extremely bloody.

“We could tell there was blood saturated all the way through the mattress,” she said.

When FIS officers lifted up the mattress, there was blood on the steel frame of the bed.

Samoila testified they seized what appeared to be a wire. The video showed it sitting on the bed beside Van Camp’s motionless body.

“One end was sharp,” she said, and “It was shaped like it was from a chain-link fence.”

Dupuis, who said he’s investigated incidents at the penitentiary at least 10 to 15 times, said it’s common to find improvised weapons inside the prison’s walls.

“I’ve been to the penitentiary a few times,” he said. “People are pretty creative.”

He said most of the wounds he could see on Van Camp’s body looked like they came from a nail or an awl. The exception was a cut on his face.

Another item seized was what Samoila described as a shank, with a pointed end showing about an inch and the rest wrapped in a black material, “almost like it was a rope or cloth.” The material covered roughly three-quarters of the metal.

Dupuis described it as having cutting edges. It, too, contained visible blood stains. He said that weapon appeared to match the slicing wounds more than the other had.

An agreed statement of facts says Van Camp died from excessive blood loss from blunt force trauma and sharp force injuries on his body. He also suffered a collapsed lung.

Samoila said officers also seized a black T-shirt, which had five holes each measuring approximately two millimetres. They were all close together on the left chest area.

There’s no evidence, she said, of who the shirt belonged to and “there are some marks on it that appear to be consistent with blood.”

On the side of the cell door was a bloody hand mark, testified Samoila. Forensics stained the blood darker to get as much detail as possible.

“In the end, it wasn’t identifiable.”

Defence counsel Brian Pfefferle described each of the surfaces of the evidence in the room—including the pen and the shank—to which Samoila said fingerprints could not be detected to say if a particular person had held them.

Samples were taken from the cell’s plumbing, but Samoila said it was sent to a lab and she doesn’t know the results. No items were found in the plumbing.

Dupuis testified that there wasn’t enough evidence from the blood stains in the cell to determine what had occurred or where the wounds had been suffered. He also said it appeared as if some of the blood stains near the toilet had been cleaned.

Court also heard from a third member of the FIS on Thursday.

Sgt. Mark Goodwin was called in to process Vandewater. He photographed his body and took a swab of his hands.

An initial examination turned up nothing except for a small blood blister on the inside of Vandewater’s right thumb.

When Vandewater pointed out he had scratches on his side, though, Goodwin took a closer look. He found about ten “light” scratches, each about one centimetre in length and about two to three millimetres in diameter on Vandewater’s side.

He took photos of the scratches — viewed in court Thursday — and made note of the injuries. The scratches were clustered together on Vandewater’s right abdomen, near the bottom of his ribcage.

Vandewater has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder in the death of Van Camp. His judge-only trial began on Monday and continues Friday with testimony of medical examiner Dr. Shaud Ladham.

With files from Peter Lozinski