A coroner’s inquest into the death of a Kugluktuk, Nunavut man who died in RCMP custody this week heard conflicting evidence about who specifically ruled Austin Maniyogena did not need immediate medical attention after his fall and his head injury.
The 22-year-old died on September 19, 2018 from a head injury he sustained shortly before police arrested him. Four hours after police placed him in a cell in the community detachment, officers found him unconscious and struggling to breathe. They took him to the health center where he was then medically evacuated to Yellowknife. He died later that night.
On Monday, the inquest heard from Community Bylaws Manager Matthew MacDonald. He testified that around 8:30 a.m. on September 19, he was told that Maniyogena was driving an ATV around Kugluktuk while intoxicated. MacDonald said he called the police twice, but they told him there was only one officer on duty.
MacDonald said he found Maniyogena standing near an ATV parked behind a residence in the community. He told her he was under arrest and they had a physical struggle. MacDonald said he overpowered Maniyogena and handcuffed him. He said he put Maniyogena in the back of his truck and it was obvious that Maniyogena was intoxicated.
His “speech was almost completely incoherent…the eyes were very bright, almost completely closed when we could actually see his face. So I would describe him as a very high level of intoxication. He needed almost complete help to get himself move,” MacDonald told the inquest.
MacDonald was asked if it was common for him to arrest people in his role. He said no and that it was the first time he had done it but he thought it was a “life or death situation” since Maniyogena was driving drunk.
Crawled out the back window, landing on the floor
MacDonald said he then called the RCMP again and Cpl. Tim Fiset to drive Maniyogena to the detachment about a mile away.
“When I contacted the detachment, I was advised that only one member was working that day today and asked to transport him to the RCMP,” MacDonald said.
He said that as he started driving, he noticed Maniyogena shifting around in the back seat. He said he heard the rear window roll down. As he pulled up, MacDonald said Maniyogena crawled out the back window and landed on the ground.
MacDonald said as he exited the truck, he saw Maniyogena lying unconscious with a cut above his eye and blood around his nose and ear.
Called health center and RCMP
MacDonald said he called the community health center and spoke to nurse Byron Bussey. MacDonald said he told Bussey that Maniyogena was unconscious and needed an ambulance.
Bussey testified that he then called to have the ambulance dispatched.
MacDonald said he contacted the RCMP again. A few minutes later, when the cap. Fiset arrived, Maniyogena lay unconscious.
Fiset and MacDonald put Maniyogena in the back of Fiset’s police vehicle. MacDonald testified that he told Fiset what had happened and that an ambulance was on the way.
But in his testimony, Fiset said he was never told the health center was called or an ambulance was dispatched. He also testified that Maniyogena was conscious and responsive, although intoxicated.
Both Fiset and MacDonald said they then drove Maniyogena to the detachment and put him in a cell.
“He was fine”
On Thursday, the inquest heard from Shannon Case, a community member who volunteered to drive the community ambulance that day.
Case said she first drove to where MacDonald’s truck was, but didn’t see anyone. She said she then called Bussey to find out where she needed to go.
Bussey said he then called Fiset who told him that Maniyogena had been brought to the detachment and placed in a cell. Bussey said he asked about his condition and whether he needed treatment. He said Fiset told him he was “fine.”
“My main concern was whether he was conscious or not. [Fiset] said he was walking and talking,” Bussey said.
Bussey said Fiset told him Maniyogena didn’t need to be seen by a nurse right away.
When asked why he didn’t argue with Fiset, after being told by MacDonald that Maniyogena was unconscious, Bussey said he assumed the bylaws officer was just new and inexperienced. Fiset, on the other hand, was a very experienced policeman, Bussey said.
“[MacDonald] panicked, he was new… I accepted [Fiset’s] live. I trusted his assessment,” he testified.
But Fiset gave a completely different recollection of the events. He testified that he was the one who called Bussey about Maniyogena’s condition. He told the inquest it was Bussey who determined that Maniyogena did not need immediate medical intervention.
Fiset said he was never aware of Maniyogena’s head injury and was only worried about the cut above his eye. He said Bussey told him to wait until Maniyogena “sobered up” before taking him to the health center.
“It’s the medical experts,” Fiset said. “I’m not.”
But Bussey testified that waiting until someone had sobered up to examine him wasn’t ‘best practice’ and he didn’t believe it had ever happened in his seven years working as a nurse in Nunavut. .
In his testimony, Fiset said Maniyogena was sensitive when brought into cells. MacDonald, on the other hand, said he never saw Maniyogena regain consciousness after jumping out of the vehicle window.
Kugluktuk RCMP Detachment surveillance video shown to the inquest showed Maniyogena lying motionless on the floor of the cell as officers removed his clothes and wiped the blood above his eye.
Need for immediate medical attention
On Thursday, the inquest also heard from an expert witness, Dr Harold O’Connor, a specialist in emergency medicine.
O’Connor testified that Maniyogena needed medical attention immediately after he fell from the truck, which drew a round of applause from members of the public attending the inquest.
O’Connor said the level of consciousness Maniyogena would have shown immediately after his fall, and while he was placed in a cell, should have prompted law enforcement to get him medical attention.
O’Connor also recommended that vehicles used to transport prisoners be equipped to ensure prisoners are safe and cannot walk out on their own.
The jury is expected to begin deliberations on Friday to come up with non-binding recommendations on how to prevent similar deaths in the future.