Witnesses described heavy smoke and a loud explosion on the day 20-year-old Brennan Ahenakew-Johnstone was found deceased in a burnt car on Ahtahkakoop First Nation, but there was some confusion about the timeline leading up to the discovery of his body.
Four witnesses testified as the first day of the inquest into Ahenakew-Johnstone’s death got underway at the Coronet Hotel in Prince Albert on Monday. Coroner Blaine Beaven briefly delayed proceedings so one witness could review the statement they gave to police back in 2018 due to confusion about when the body was found.
That witness, firefighter Tony Williams, told the inquest his memories of that day were hazy. Williams was one of five or six firefighters called to the scene that day. He remembered discovering a burnt-out car in a field, but by the time firefighters arrived the fire was so far away from the car they didn’t think anything of it.
Williams also told the inquest firefighters later discovered the remains of a body in the vehicle, but did not immediately call police. Instead, he said one firefighter phoned Ahenakew-Johnstone’s family, because they knew the 20-year-old was missing. He also had trouble remembering whether firefighters were called to the scene once or twice that day.
Williams clarified some of his statements after listening an interview he did with RCMP investigators in 2018. However, he admitted he didn’t remember much about the incident.
“I’m still kind of fuzzy about the timeline,” he told the inquest, then added later, “my memory is foggy.”
Williams said firefighters thought the car was an abandoned wreck when they started putting out the fire. He estimated he wouldn’t have come within 50 ft of the vehicle during the operation, since the flames had spread so far away. He also said it was common to see grass fires on Ahtahkakoop at that time of year.
When firefighters later looked inside the vehicle, Williams said they were shocked to discover the remains of a body. Williams told the inquest he regrouped with his fellow firefighters near the road, where they were all in disbelief at what they saw.
Kerry Nayseecassum, who was first to report the discovery of a body to police, also testified on Monday. Nayseecassum broke down in tears several times during her testimony, as she recounted her experience finding the body at around 5 p.m. that day.
The stay-at-home mother said she heard about the burnt-out car and Ahenakew-Johnstone’s disappearance while visiting friends and family later that day. Initially, she did not want to approach the vehicle. After agreeing to do so, she found the remains of a body, and phoned police. She also urged family and friends to stay away from the site because seeing it was so traumatic.
Nayseecassum saw “thick, white smoke,” but no flames at around 7:30 a.m. that day. She recalls seeing a few individuals in the distance, but assumed they were extinguishing the fire.
Destiny Knife, another nearby homeowner, told the inquest she also saw thick clouds of smoke, and may have heard screams of pain, and an explosion at around 6 a.m., however she couldn’t be sure.
Knife said she was panicking that morning because she woke up and found the door open and her eight-year-old son gone. She later found out he’d walked to his grandparents’ house just down the road, and worried those few frantic minutes had impaired her judgement.
When co-workers picked her up and drove her to work, she didn’t say anything about the screams or the explosion. She worried it was all in her head.
“(It was) like somebody was in pain and they were crying for help,” Knife told the inquest. “I didn’t put two and two together until I found out Brennan had passed away.”
When asked about the reliability of her memory, Knife said she was now confident in what she heard.
“It wasn’t something that you just hear, even when you’re scared,” she told the inquest.
Knife said she knew Ahenakew-Johnstone, but not well. She described him as a big teddy bear who was one of the nicest, friendliest people she knew.
Brennan Ahenakew-Johnstone’s body was found inside the charred remains of a vehicle on May 10, 2018. RCMP learned about the vehicle, but the officer who discovered it did not initially search it. Officers later returned to the scene after receiving reports that there may be human remains inside.
A 2019 coroner’s report declared his death accidental. Lisa Johnston, Brennan’s mother, has hired a lawyer to represent the family at the inquest.
Inquests are fact-finding, not fault-finding processes. They establish when and how someone died, while also highlighting dangerous conditions or practices. Juries can make non-binding recommendations to prevent further deaths.
The Ahenakew-Johnstone Inquest continues at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 24.