Inquest opened into Samwel Uko’s death in Regina

Just over two years after Samwel Uko’s death, a much-awaited public inquiry has begun to analyze the details of his death.

Uko, a 20-year-old football player from Abbotsford, British Columbia, died in Wascana Lake on May 21, 2020, while visiting an aunt in Regina. His family said it was a suicide.

A public inquest into his death began at 10 a.m. CST Monday at the Ramada Plaza Hotel in Regina. It is expected to continue for at least a week, although it could be extended until June 6. The jury will hear from 25 witnesses in total.

Jury selection took place on Monday morning.

The inquest will investigate when and where Uko died, as well as the medical cause and circumstances of his death. From there, the coroner’s jury can make recommendations to prevent similar deaths.

The survey was previously scheduled to take place September 20-24, 2021, but was postponed due to public health and safety concerns and COVID-19 regulations.

Prior to his death, Uko had twice sought medical help for mental health issues and was forcibly removed from Regina General Hospital. Her body was found at Wascana Lake about an hour later.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority apologized to Uko’s family in July 2020, later admitting in a legal document that it failed to provide follow-up care, and paid $81,000 in damages to the family.

Coroner Robert Kennedy is presiding over the inquest. The rest of the week, the daily debates will begin at 9:30 am.

First Witness

In an opening statement, Kennedy gave the jury some insight into what happened on May 21, 2020.

He said Uko’s cousin took him to Regina General Hospital between 9 and 10 a.m. The cousin was not allowed to enter the hospital with him due to COVID-19 protocols. The cousin picked up Uko two to three hours later near Mosaic Stadium.

Then, around 5 p.m., Uko called the police to ask him to go to the hospital again. He was escorted out of the hospital untreated.

At 7:36 p.m., a 911 call was made claiming that a black man had removed his jacket, cell phone and keys and entered Wascana Lake. He did not reappear.

The first witness to take the stand was Daniel Ripplinger of the Regina Fire Department, a firefighter who worked from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. on the day in question. He said at 7:58 p.m. a call came in of a drowning rescue case on the north side of the Albert Street Bridge.

Ripplinger said he remembered seeing personal belongings at the water’s edge, including a wallet, a phone and a Saskatchewan Health Authority business card with a number.

He said his team recovered the body in about an hour and 10 minutes.

“[We] snagged something with our gear and slowly brought it to the surface,” Ripplinger said, adding that the man who emerged from the water was shirtless and had braids in his hair.

He said at 9:25 p.m. the man’s recovery was confirmed. EMS hooked him up to a monitor, but there was no sign of life.

“I think what happened to Uko was a total tragedy,” Ripplinger said.

When cross-examined by SHA attorney Reginald Watson and Regina Police Department adviser Katrina Swan, Ripplinger said there were no signs of trauma to the body. He also said the SHA’s business card with the handwritten phone number “looked a little weird”.

Uko’s uncle Justin Nyee says family want answers about his death (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

The pathologist testifies

Medical Examiner Dr Andreea Nistor, who performed Uko’s autopsy, testified that there were no drugs or alcohol in the athlete’s system, only a therapeutic level of a drug against allergies, maybe Benadryl.

“The body showed no signs of trauma externally,” Nistor said during the afternoon session. “Based on the circumstances communicated to me and the results of the autopsy, the cause of death is consistent with drowning.”

Next, the jury heard from Saskatchewan Health Authority representative John Ash, executive director of acute care with integrated urban health.

He said on May 22, 2020, he was informed that there may be a connection between Uko’s death and Regina General Hospital. In response, he said he had indicated there had to be an investigation. He then viewed video footage and spoke with staff.

“We didn’t provide Samwel with the care he deserved. We let Samwel down,” Ash told the inquest.

He said that at the time certain processes were not followed.

“Samwel was unfortunately inappropriately escorted.”

Ash identified the changes that were made to emergency operations because of what happened to Uko. He said the SHA moved COVID-19 testing into the triage process. Additionally, family members of potential patients can now enter through check-in and triage.

Ash said there is a process to register the patient if he cannot determine the person’s identity. You also have access to translation services. In mental health cases, staff should identify a mental health emergency and the emergency nurse should consult with the emergency psychiatric nurse.

Ash also said the SHA has been working on an improved handover process between police and staff.

“We didn’t have a very good process [for a] voluntary [mental health patient] that comes with police like Samwel,” Ash said.

Ash told the jury he doesn’t believe anyone ordered Uko to be escorted out of the hospital. He thinks it was a misunderstanding.

“Samwel was stuck between the intake program and being seen by a doctor,” he said.

Ash said it wasn’t a thing that stopped Uko from getting the care he needed. He said there were a lot of holes that happened, like “Swiss cheese”.

Uko’s family presents

Uko’s family say they hope to get answers as the coroner’s inquest continues through the week. His uncle, Justin Nyee, said the family wanted to know if race was one of the reasons Uko hadn’t received the help he desperately needed.

“People should all be treated the same. We shouldn’t treat people differently because [of] what they look like, what they believe in, what their sexual orientation is… we should believe that everyone should be treated the same,” Nyee said.

He said the family had been waiting for the investigation for a long time.

“And he’s finally here. It’s been very stressful and long [time] was waiting for us as a family because we wanted to get the answers. We have so many questions, we haven’t gotten any answers. So that will shed some light on what happened, and it’s very important that he’s finally here so that we can start.”

Uko’s parents are present at the investigation. They asked not to speak to the media on Monday, but said they would give interviews on Tuesday.