Despite regular checks by guards and police, the death of a prisoner at the Penticton RCMP detachment wasn’t discovered for approximately eight hours, a coroner’s inquest heard this week.
An autopsy revealed Steven Joseph Scott died after choking on his own vomit around 2 a.m. on Aug. 10, 2012, following his arrest for causing a disturbance while drunk outside a Penticton home.
But it wasn’t until 10:40 a.m., when an RCMP officer entered Scott’s cell to wake him for a telephone call with a lawyer, that his death was noticed.
The circumstances surrounding his demise, and what can be done to prevent a similar tragedy in the future, are the focus of this week’s inquest at the Penticton courthouse.
RCMP Cpl. Don Wrigglesworth, the watch commander on duty when Scott died, testified Tuesday he went to Scott’s cell several times after the prisoner complained about having difficulty breathing.
Wrigglesworth said, however, that he didn’t buy the complaints since Scott didn’t exhibit any signs of distress.
“He’s telling me he can’t breathe, yet I can have a conversation with him,” the corporal said.
Wrigglesworth said he considered sending Scott to the hospital, but that would have meant tying up an officer on what was a busy summer night, and didn’t call for an ambulance since “there wasn’t an emergency medical condition that was evident.”
At 5:45 a.m., the Mountie went to Scott’s cell for the final time of his shift and thought he could hear snoring through a port in the door and figured the prisoner was OK.
In hindsight, Wrigglesworth said, “I can only assume the sound of snoring I heard was from another cell.”
The inquest was shown video from a camera in Scott’s cell that recorded his last movements at 2 a.m., when he rolled over on his bunk into the fetal position facing away from the door with a blanket bunched in his arms.
Dr. William Currie, who conducted Scott’s autopsy, estimated the victim, whom he believed to be an alcoholic, died shortly after 2 a.m. following a “massive terminal inhalation” of stomach contents into his lungs.
Such victims of aspiration pneumonia, Currie testified, can neither breathe nor speak, and usually die within minutes.
Kirsten Wehrmann, the lone civilian jail guard on shift at the time of Scott’s death, said she watched on video as Scott lay down between midnight and 1 a.m. and assumed he had fallen asleep.
She said she continued to check on Scott throughout the night, by watching him via the video camera and looking in through a window in his cell door, but didn’t notice any problems.
Wehrmann acknowledged, though, that neither method of observation allowed her to detect chest movements associated with breathing because the video wasn’t clear enough and the cell door window was damaged.
Neil Eshleman, the guard who relieved Wehrmann at 6 a.m., said his visual checks of Scott also revealed nothing untoward, and 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.
He later admitted that the fact Scott didn’t move for several hours should have alerted him something was wrong.
Both guards also testified that they lost their jobs soon after the incident.
Scott had a difficult upbringing in Abbotsford, according to half-sister Candace Sabo Derksen, who has been watching the inquest.
Sabo Derksen told reporters she last saw Scott in 2009 and is unsure when he arrived in Penticton and what brought him here.
Witness testimony is expected to continue through Wednesday morning at the Penticton courthouse, after which the five-member jury will begin its deliberations and make recommendations.