Vandewater guilty of murder in death of cellmate

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)

Christopher Van Camp was the victim of an “particularly violent, brutal, one-sided and sustained attack” by Tyler Vandewater “that was not provoked” the night he died in his Saskatchewan Penitentiary cell, a Court of Queen’s Bench justice ruled Thursday.

Justice B. Scherman found Vandewater guilty of second-degree murder in the 2017 incident, rejecting the argument of self-defence. “I do not believe the evidence of Vandewater,” Scherman said as he read portions of his written statement in court.

“Gratuitous and unrestrained force was used that cannot, in any environment, including a max unit in a federal prison, be viewed by any measure as reasonable.”

Vandewater stared straight ahead throughout the verdict. He did not say anything as the finding of “guilty” was laid out. Van Camp’s mother, Lauren Laithwaite, sat alone in the courtroom, dabbing at tears as her son’s wounds were laid out again.

Van Camp was stabbed more than 60 times, with at least 30 wounds in his head and neck area.

He had a broken nose and cheekbone, 26 cuts or stabs to his head, mostly around his eyes and forehead, five wounds to his neck and five to his upper left chest area, likely caused by a pick or shiv.

Three of those wounds pierced his left lung, with two passing through into his heart.

Van Camp also had 25 stab wounds on his back, likely caused by a pick or shiv. Four of them also punctured his lung.

Throughout the trial, Laithwaite has been certain that her son was the victim, not the aggressor.

“It shows me rage,” she said after court adjourned. “(Correctional Services Canada) knew of this rage and (Vandewater’s) ability. One of the reasons he was in jail was because of an unprovoked rage attack. I knew it couldn’t have gone down any other way.”

Still, Laithwaite doesn’t place the blame on Vandewater himself.

During a break in proceedings, she said that the system killed her son. Vandewater was just the weapon.

“There are no winners here, just loss on both sides,” she said.

Lauren Laithwaite, mother of Chris Van Camp, speaks to reporters outside Court of Queen’s Bench in Prince on Jan. 27, 2020. Van Camp was found dead in his cell on June 7, 2017. Tyler Vandewater was charged with second-degree murder in his death. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

While Vandewater said nothing and has not offered any explanation or apology, Laithwaite would be open to one.

“I would love that,” she said.

“The best thing that can happen for me is that he gets rehabilitated and that he is able, at some point, to be paroled because of his changed behaviour, because of having empathy and compassion.”

She said she doesn’t see that right now. Right now, she sees a man “who’s feeling sorry for himself.”

“I can’t imagine what it would be like to be 31 and looking at 35 years in prison.”

She added that Vandewater’s serious crimes adding to his prison time were all committed while behind bars.

“That’s what gave him 35 years. If that is not upsetting for everybody, I don’t know what is. He went in, he should be out. Instead, he’s got 35 years for crimes he committed inside the prison system.”

Sentencing will be held on June 5. Second-degree murder comes with an automatic life sentence without parole for a minimum of 10 years. That limitation, though, can go as high as 25.

Defence lawyer Brian Pfefferle said he was “disappointed” with the decision, but that it wasn’t completely surprising. He said counsel will now take time to review the decision and the evidence presented in court to determine if there are grounds for an appeal.

Pfefferle said he and his client “respectfully disagree” with Scherman’s findings that Vandewater’s evidence wasn’t believable.

“Mr. Vandewater was very clear and very honest. We certainly do respect the amount of work put in by the trial judge here. … We will assess this going forward, but that may be an area that gets reviewed in the future.”

Crown prosecutor Linh Le said, in this case, the evidence “spoke for itself.”

“I think it’s important to keep in mind that, at the end of the day, as the judge has stressed, the law of Canada applies in prison just as much as outside prison. It‘s not the G-code that runs the day as the accused may have believed.”

Scherman highlights inconsistencies in Vandewater’s account

Vandewater said that shortly after arriving at his cell, Van Camp became agitated, paranoid and thought someone was out to get him. He testified that Van Camp came at him, leading to the fatal scuffle. Vandewater claimed he stabbed Van Camp in the face and chest with his weapon, while Van Camp attacked Vandewater with one of his own.

He said that Van Camp then fell to the floor, on his stomach, but reached for Vandewater’s weapon. At that point, Vandewater testified, he grabbed Van Camp’s weapon and stabbed him in the back.

Vandewater said he then blacked out. The next thing he remembers is kicking Van Camp’s head in with Van Camp wedged between the prison wall and the toilet.

In his decision, Scherman pointed out that, despite the story, Van Camp had no defensive wounds on his hands or forearms. Vandewater also had few injuries other than a handful of scratches on his left side and a black T-shirt with holes to match.

Scherman said that none of the many prison staff who interacted with Van Camp as he was admitted to the penitentiary saw any signs of worry, distress or paranoia. He wrote that, in the guards’ testimonies, Van Camp had multiple chances to indicate if he felt unsafe on that prison range. At no point did Van Camp show any signs the bunking arrangement was a concern.

Scherman also found that, aside from Vandewater’s testimony, there was no evidence that Van Camp had ever been violent in prison. Even if Van Camp did fear for his safety, Scherman wrote, he would have wanted his cellmate alive for support and to have his back.

Vandewater’s honesty was also called into question.

Vandewater  said during cross-examination that he received permission from a fellow gang member named “Slim” to testify.

“This evidence … raises serious concerns whether the evidence of Vandewater was being governed by fidelity to the oath or affirmation he swore or by the scope of authorization he received from others,” Scherman wrote.

As for the altercation itself, Scherman wrote that it’s unlikely a man of Van Camp’s size would stab someone at close quarters without causing a single wound. He also noted that Van Camp had no injuries to his arms or hands.

“The instinctive reaction of anyone being repeatedly struck about their head and face would be to attempt to block the blows and/or grab the weapon being used.”

While Vandewater said he grabbed the pick while Van Camp was lying on his front, Scherman found that the stab wounds to Van Camp’s chest were also inflicted by the pick.

The T-shirt Vandewater was wearing, Scherman wrote, lacked any significant bloodstains that were found on other items exposed to the supposed fight. Vandewater’s institutional sweater, however, was covered in blood. While the holes in the T-shirt matched the scratches on Vandewater’s side, there were no such holes on the sweater.

“If, in fact, the holes were made by the pick, the probable and logical explanation is that they were made by Vandewater … so as to attempt to give some corroboration to his then developing story.”

Scherman’s conclusion was that Van Camp lost consciousness “at some point early in an unprovoked and unexpected violent attack” by Vandewater, and was the victim of an “unanticipated attack that eliminated or minimized any defensive or offensive action on Van Camp’s part.”

Unfortunately, Scherman wrote, what really happened that night may never come to light.

“Vandewater may have had personal reasons,” he wrote.

“Perhaps a Terror Squad decision was the reason. The gang or prison code ensures that even if someone other than Vandewater knows, that we will never know.”