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Home News Officers face questions about RCMP response on second day of Ahenakew-Johnstone Inquest in Prince Albert

Officers face questions about RCMP response on second day of Ahenakew-Johnstone Inquest in Prince Albert

Officers face questions about RCMP response on second day of Ahenakew-Johnstone Inquest in Prince Albert
Brennan Ahenakew-Johnstone -- photo from GoFundMe.

Police witnesses who attended the scene of the fire where Brennan Ahenakew-Johnstone’s body was found in May 2018 dominated proceedings as the second day of testimony continued at the inquest in Prince Albert.

Coroner Blaine Beaven was forced to call for quiet from the gallery after audible complaints and comments during testimony from Cpl. Shayne Brown, the RCMP officer who was first on scene at the fire.

Brown told the inquest he was the only officer working the day shift on May 18 when Ahenakew-Johnstone’s body was found in the burnt wreckage of a car on Ahtahkakoop First Nation. Brown faced questions about why he stopped to investigate reports of a stolen quad on his way to the scene of the fire, and why he only took pictures of the burnt car without investigating what was inside.

Brown said he had no reason to believe there was a body inside the vehicle when he arrived on scene, since the resident who phoned police only told dispatchers someone had lit a stolen vehicle on fire.

Brown said stolen vehicle fires were common occurrences on the First Nation. He also said the report of a stolen quad came from Canwood, a community he had to drive through anyway on his way to Ahtahkakoop.

In hindsight, Brown admitted he would have reacted differently had he known a someone had died at the scene of the fire, but reiterated he had no way of knowing that was the case.

“I responded based on the information I received,” Brown told the inquest.

“Had I had information someone was in the vehicle, I would have walked up and looked in,” he added.

Brown said he got roughly 10 ft away from the vehicle before extreme heat coming off the charred car frame forced him to back away. Instead, he took pictures, and drove away to another call with the intent of returning later.

That return never happened. Instead, Brown finished his shift at the Shellbrook detachment after another officer took his car to help conduct a search warrant at a different residence in Ahtahkakoop.

The nearly 10-year RCMP veteran faced a barrage of questions about his response, many of which he acknowledged by repeating the phrase, “I responded to the complaint I received,” or a close variation.

That response provoked a reaction from the Coroner, who told Brown he wasn’t answering the question. At inquests, witnesses are not allowed to refuse to answer questions, since the process is a fact-finding investigation, and does not assign blame or fault.

Beaven had to quiet the gallery shortly afterwards, when some observers began making critical remarks about the Brown’s testimony and the line of questioning.

Brown said he would have called his supervisor and RCMP Major Crimes had he known there was a body inside the car. He also would have asked for help from the RCMP detachment, instead of leaving the scene to attend to another call.

When asked about not following up on the investigation, Brown said the detachment received a high volume of calls, but had limited resources to respond. He wasn’t notified that Ahenakew-Johnstone’s body was found in the car until after his shift ended.

Cpt. Mark Haider, the RCMP detachment supervisor, also gave testimony on Tuesday. Haider and another RCMP officer were helping with a search warrant at an Ahtakakoop residence when Ahenakew-Johnstone’s parents arrived and told officers their son may have been murdered.

Haider said he did not speak directly with either parent. He also told the inquest the couple left after another RCMP officer asked for more information. He added that the couple appeared distressed, but said he had no idea who they were. Without information, he told the inquest the officers couldn’t do anything about their concerns.

Haider faced questions about why he didn’t leave the scene of the search warrant to assist the couple and address their concerns, since the two officers were guarding just two occupants while others conducted the search. He said they were preoccupied with the search warrant, and he wasn’t even aware of the burnt car until shortly before 5 p.m.

He arrived at the scene after 5 p.m., where he found about 20 people surrounding the vehicle. Haider called the scene “chaotic” and said he attempted to secure the area to prevent residents from damaging potential evidence.

The Inquest also heard from Cpl. Normand Dupuis, the first RCMP investigator who arrived on scene on May 11, 2018, and Dr. Shaun Ladham and Dr. Ernest Walker, the two men who conducted the autopsy on Ahenakew-Johnstone’s body.

Dupuis said the evidence showed the driver of the vehicle drove off the road and into a grove of trees, where the heat coming off the car engine may have caused a fire to start in the dry grass underneath the frame. He added that scene was “pretty burnt up” which made the investigation difficult.

Dupuis told the inquest he saw no evidence of foul play during his investigation.

“Everything, to me, points to this being a motor vehicle accident,” he said.

Both Ladham and Walker testified that the body was badly damaged by the fire, which made it a challenge to identify. Walker, a tenured University of Saskatchewan professor who works as a consultant to the Office of the Chief Coroner, said they were able to determine the remains belonged to a large-bodied man between the ages of 20-22.

Ladham testified that several organs were intact, although damaged by the fire. He told the inquest it was unlikely Ahenakew-Johnstone died under suspicious circumstances, since the only signs of trauma were smoke and burn damage from the fire.

The third day of the Inquest into the death of Brennan Ahenakew-Johnstone continues at 9:30 a.m. in the Coronet Hotel on Wednesday.