Two guards who were on duty while a prisoner lay dead in his cell at the Penticton RCMP detachment told a coroner’s inquest Monday that frequent visual checks of the lifeless victim didn’t raise any alarms.
Steven Joseph Scott died Aug. 10, 2012, a day after he was arrested for causing a disturbance at a Penticton home.
An autopsy revealed the 30-year-old, of no fixed of address, died around 2 a.m. after choking on his own vomit.
However, the inquest heard his death wasn’t discovered until around 10:40 a.m., when an RCMP officer went to Scott’s cell to wake him.
Kirsten Wehrmann, the lone civilian jail guard on duty for a 12-hour shift that ended at 6 a.m. on Aug. 10, told the inquest her duties were generally restricted to feeding and monitoring inmates, since she wasn’t permitted to enter cells without an RCMP officer present.
On the shift in question, she said, the detachment’s watch commander, Cpl. Don Wrigglesworth, personally checked on Scott several times in his cell to ensure he was OK following repeated complaints about difficulty breathing and low blood sugar.
Wehrmann, who was fired a month after the incident, said she observed Scott throughout the night by watching a video feed from his cell and looking through a window in his cell door.
However, she said the window was damaged, making it difficult to see through, and Scott was wrapped in a blanket, so it was hard to tell if he was breathing.
She said she watched Scott finally lay down between midnight and 1 a.m. and assumed he had fallen asleep.
Neil Eshleman, the guard who relieved Wehrmann at 6 a.m., said his visual checks of Scott also revealed nothing untoward, so he didn’t try to rouse Scott to ensure his well-being.
“As long as (prisoners) are peaceful and they’re calm, you try to leave them be,” said Eshleman, a retired Mountie who was suspended following the incident and then later quit.
Eshleman acknowledged, however, that the fact Scott didn’t move for several hours should have alerted him something was wrong.
Const. Ryan Shedden told the inquest Scott had recently been taken from cells to the Penticton hospital for treatment of an unspecified medical issue that prevented him from serving a weekend sentence.
Jon Cairns, who was in jail with Scott hours before he died, testified he heard Scott bang on his nearby cell door and call out for help because he was having trouble breathing.
An RCMP officer or guard then told Scott, “You’re not getting of doing another weekend,” and advised him to go to sleep, Cairns recalled.
“From what I heard, I was disgraced. I was even yelling at them. I was like, ‘Get him some friggin’ help!’” said Cairns.
Corners’ inquests are not meant to find fault, but rather determine the facts related to a death; make recommendations to prevent future deaths in similar cases; and make sure a death isn’t concealed, ignored or overlooked.
Witness testimony is expected to continue through Wednesday morning at the Penticton courthouse, after which the five-member jury will begin its deliberations.