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Neil Stonechild

Police chief says drop-offs happened 'more than once'

Neil Stonechild

SASKATOON - Saskatoon's police chief says officers may have been dumping native people outside the city for years, an admission that comes as new information emerges about a 13-year-old case.

A CBC News investigation has uncovered new details about the activities of the police the night a Cree teenager from Saskatchewan vanished.

Seventeen-year-old Neil Stonechild's frozen body was found in a field on the outskirts of Saskatoon in November 1990.

Electronic records confirm that police were looking for Stonechild the night he disappeared, CBC has learned.

The teen's body was found five days after a witness says he saw him in the back of a police cruiser.

Stonechild's case was all but forgotten for 10 years until the RCMP reopened it after two other aboriginal men were found frozen outside the city within one week three years ago.

In 2001, two of the city's police officers were convicted of unlawful confinement after they dropped off Darrell Night in freezing weather on the city's outskirts.

For years, the Saskatoon Police Service has insisted that the conviction marked an isolated case of such treatment of aboriginals.

Police Chief Russell Sabo concedes that's not the case. "It happened more than once and we fully admit that and, in fact, on behalf of the police department I want to apologize," he said. "It's quite conceivable there were other times."

"We had indicated that, as I understand, that we didn't have any other incidents of this nature," said Sabo. "And I think we have to take ownership of the things that have transpired."

Sources say in Stonechild's case, electronic records confirm police were looking for him that night in 1990 because of a noise complaint.

He and a friend, 16-year-old Jason Roy, were out earlier that night, looking for Stonechild's old girlfriend, ringing apartment buzzers at her building.

They woke people up and someone called the police.

The two were separated, but about 15 minutes later, Roy says a police car pulled out of an alley with Stonechild, handcuffed and bleeding, sitting in the back seat.

"Neil looked very, very scared. He was screaming at me and he wanted me to help him," says Roy.

Roy says he was scared and gave police a false name. The police called the name in on their radio, Roy says, and he was released.

Another teenager, Bruce Genaille, says police also stopped him that night in the same alley. He says they kept insisting he was Neil Stonechild.

Sources say the computer checks police made that night still exist and confirm that police stopped Roy and Genaille.

Roy told police twice what he saw that night, once right after Stonechild was found dead, and again months later when he asked to speak to a homicide detective.

Roy says police weren't all that interested.

"They just made a couple of notes, and they said they would get back to me. Nobody ever got back to me on it," he says.

The original case files were destroyed prematurely during renovations at the police headquarters.

After the freezing death of two aboriginal men outside of Saskatoon within one week in 2000, the province brought in the RCMP to investigate.

The RCMP interrogated two Saskatoon police officers about a dozen times, but prosecutors decided there was not enough evidence to lay charges.

A public inquiry will look into the teen's death this fall. Both police officers questioned by the RCMP in the case, Const. Brad Senger and Const. Larry Hartwig, have official standing with the inquiry.

Their lawyers say it will show their clients did nothing wrong.


Saskatoon police trying to move beyond the past: chief

SASKATOON -- The Saskatoon Police Service has operated under a "cloud of suspicion" for several years, which has severely impacted the morale of its members, Chief Russell Sabo told the aboriginal justice reform commission Monday.

However, the service wants to move beyond the past, and is dedicated to working with all citizens, he said.

"Slightly more than three years ago, the community and our service personnel were shocked and deeply distressed by the news that two of our members, constables Dan Hatchen and Ken Munson, had failed to live up to their oath of office," Sabo said in his speech at the Indian and Metis Friendship Centre.

"I can assure you our department and the community of Saskatoon have paid a heavy penalty as a result of their actions. For the past three years, our members have been under a cloud of suspicion and this has severely impacted the morale of our dedicated men and women who have continually tried to get beyond this adversity.

"It is our deepest hope that we will all learn from the mistakes of the past, and will began to focus on making things better for the future," he said.

The Saskatoon issue of so-called "Starlight Tours" first became public in 2000, after Darrell Night complained he was ejected from a police cruiser on the outskirts of the city on Jan. 28, 2000, when the temperature had dipped to a frigid -22 C. Soon after, the bodies of two other aboriginal men who had frozen to death were discovered in the same area.

Night's complaint sparked the creation of an RCMP task force and led to unlawful confinement convictions against two Saskatoon police officers who later lost their jobs. Dan Hatchen and Ken Munson began serving eight-month jail sentences earlier this year.

In February, the province also announced a public inquiry in the 1990 freezing death of 17-year-old Neil Stonechild, whose body was found on the edge of Saskatoon. That inquiry will be held this fall.

Sabo said the police service has "great expectations" that the commission's deliberations will act as a catalyst for much-needed change.

"I think many people would say that the creation of this commission to introduce change into the justice system and potentially other related systems is long overdue," he said.

The five-member, $2.5-million justice commission was set up in late 2001 to address concerns about the high number of aboriginal people involved with the justice system, and the way they are treated.

Throughout Monday's presentation, Sabo and other police officers continually highlighted some of the police service's successes, such as its aboriginal liaison program.

The police officers also told the commission about the Peacekeepers program, which was created in 1996 to address a lack of follow-up services for youth, and to provide officers with a better understanding of young First Nations people, their issues and cultural solutions to crime. Peacekeepers activities have included day trips to Prince Albert, where youth, adults and police collect firewood to bring back to Saskatoon for elders to use in sweat lodge ceremonies.

But during a question and answer period, commission members pointed out that despite some of the changes that have taken place within the police service, there are still some outstanding concerns.

Commission chair Willie Littlechild wondered why there were no comments about racism in the police service's presentation.

"Maybe it's just not a word we want to use anymore. The fact of the matter is it still continues," said Littlechild, adding that the Saskatoon Police Service has worn "a black eye."

"We can't sit here and underline good things that came after the fact. We should've done this years ago," said commission member Joe Quewezance, adding that admitting to "factors of wrongdoing" is a way of beginning the healing process. "Had things gone so good, I don't think we'd be sitting here today."

Of the Saskatoon Police Service's approximately 400 sworn members, only about 32 or 33 are aboriginal. Sabo said the service has not participated in a healing circle with members of the First Nations community since he's become chief, but pointed out that the organization is actively trying to recruit more members from specific groups, including the aboriginal community.

"If the interpretation that the board had was that we're promoting racism, that's not what we're doing. We are actually trying to promote unity, trying to draw us together and highlight those things where we are the same as opposed to those things where we are different," Sabo said.

Sabo said while the service still hasn't overcome the negativity brought about by the actions of Hatchen and Munson, he hopes the Stonechild inquiry "will answer some of those questions.


News Release

Legislative Building - Regina, Canada S4S 0B3 - (306) 787-6281
February 20, 2003
Justice - 092

INQUIRY CALLED INTO DEATH OF NEIL STONECHILD

Justice Minister Eric Cline, Q.C., today announced the appointment of the Honourable Mr. Justice David Wright of the Court of Queen's Bench to conduct an inquiry into the death of Neil Stonechild.

"The head office of the Public Prosecutions Division reviewed the RCMP investigation into the death of Neil Stonechild and determined that there is not sufficient evidence to lay charges," Cline said. "There is, however, evidence that Neil Stonechild had contact with members of the Saskatoon Police Service on the day he was last seen alive."

The appointment was made by Order-in-Council, which also outlines the terms of reference for the inquiry. The inquiry will have the responsibility to inquire into any and all aspects of the circumstances that resulted in the death of Neil Stonechild, and the conduct of the investigation into the death of Neil Stonechild.

Joel Hesje, of Saskatoon, has been designated by the Inquiry Commissioner as Commission Counsel. Hesje indicated that over the next few weeks the Commission will establish the infrastructure and processes required to complete the inquiry.

The Commission will deliver its final report and recommendations to the Minister of Justice.

For More Information, Contact:

Debi McEwen Justice Regina Phone: 787-6043 Email: dmcewen@justice.gov.sk.ca


Stonechild's mother among parties to get standing at inquiry City force, union, officers, FSIN also receive full standing

The request of two Saskatoon police constables for standing and financial support during the upcoming inquiry into the freezing death of Neil Stonechild was granted Tuesday by the inquiry's commissioner.

Justice David Wright ruled that Const. Larry Hartwig, 43, a 17-year member of the Saskatoon Police Service, and Const. Bradley Raymond Senger, 39, a 14-year member, should have "full standing."

"Const. Hartwig is vitally interested in this matter, having been considered at one juncture a suspect in the earlier investigation of Mr. Stonechild's death," Wright wrote in his ruling.

"The same comments apply to Const. Senger."

In addition, Stonechild's mother Stella Bignell, the Saskatoon Police Service, the Saskatoon City Police Association and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) were also granted full standing.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, meanwhile, "will have standing limited to the date it was appointed to investigate the Stonechild matter," Wright decided.

Bignell, who lives at the Cross Lake First Nation near Thompson, Man., is expected to be a witness at the inquiry. The fees and disbursements of her legal counsel, Saskatoon lawyer Don Worme, will be provided at no cost to her. Wright fixed Worme's hourly rate at $192.

"I expect Ms. Bignell will be a witness at the inquiry and, certainly, I anticipate she will be present throughout the inquiry. She does not have any resources to retain and instruct counsel. She lives in northern Manitoba and must travel by public transportation for some distance," Wright wrote in his ruling.

"Ms. Bignell will be allowed her expenses for travel, accommodation and meals for the days she chooses to attend the inquiry.

"Ms. Bignell asked that travel expenses of her daughters in Manitoba be paid. I am not disposed to grant such a request, as she has a son living in Saskatoon," he wrote.

Both Hartwig and Senger will also be entitled to funding for one counsel each, with lawyers' fees fixed at an hourly rate of $192. The FSIN will also be entitled to such funding, but funding was denied to the Saskatoon Police Service.

"It is true the police service did not initiate the inquiry and that the inquiry may have some implications for the province overall," Wright wrote.

"The service is acutely interested in this matter, as two of its members feature prominently in it. Be that as it may, the legal costs of the service will not be significant, save for the fact that they fall on the taxpayers of the city generally. That is so because the service engaged a city solicitor to act for it."

Funding was also denied for the Saskatoon City Police Association, while the RCMP did not ask for it.

Stonechild, 17, froze to death in a field in the city's north industrial area in late November 1990. After a three-month investigation, city police concluded he walked to the Saskatoon Correctional Centre when the cold overtook him.

His family suspected foul play, and a close friend has said he last saw Stonechild bleeding and cursing in the back of a Saskatoon police cruiser shouting "They're gonna kill me."

His remains were exhumed in 2001 by an RCMP task force examining the deaths of several aboriginal men. No charges were laid.

The task force was established after an aboriginal man, Darrell Night, complained police drove him to the outskirts of the city and left him there in the middle of a January night.

The allegation sparked a firestorm of controversy because two other aboriginal men, Rodney Naistus and Lawrence Wegner, were found frozen to death in the same area in the same time frame.


Police officers want to testify at Stonechild inquiry

SASKATOON -Two Saskatoon police officers are expected to ask to be part of the public inquiry into the suspicious death of Neil Stonechild.

The Cree teenager was found dead on the outskirts of Saskatoon almost 13 years ago.

Stonechild's frozen body was found in a field in an industrial area of Saskatoon, on a cold day in November, 1990. He was lightly dressed and missing one of his shoes. The official cause of death was hypothermia.

Police ruled it an accident and the case was closed.

Three years ago, the RCMP investigated two Saskatoon police officers in connection with Stonechild's death.

Earlier this year, the province set up an inquiry into this case, saying there were questions about whether police were involved.

On Wednesday, the commissioner of the inquiry, Justice David Wright, will hear submissions from people who want official standing and money to help pay their legal bills.

Constables Bradley Senger and Larry Hartwig are among the seven applicants.

The lawyer representing the commission, Joel Hesje, explained how the standing will be granted.

"One of the criteria the commissioner will consider is what interest does the group represent," said Hesje, "and to what extent is that person or group impacted by the inquiry."

Neil Stonechild's mother, Stella Bignell, the Saskatoon police department, the RCMP and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations have also applied for standing.

The inquiry is not intended to determine criminal or civil responsibility. Instead, it will look into the way Neil Stonechild's death was investigated in 1990.

The inquiry is set to begin in September.


Justice probes come too late

In all likelihood, the coming inquiry into the death of young Neil Stonechild will raise more questions than it answers.

Still, it is high time the family, police members and the public have an opportunity to look into those cold November hours in 1990 that made up the final segment of this 17-year-old's life.

From the beginning, the case made little sense. Shortly after his body was found in a field north of Saskatoon, police concluded Stonechild died while trying to walk across the city to turn himself in at the correctional centre. He attempted this, they said, in the wee hours of a Saturday morning, while drunk, in minus 28 weather, wearing sneakers, a jean jacket and a lumberjack coat.

That he was a young offender who had escaped from a group home -- and, therefore, not a regular at the correctional centre -- should have been enough to raise doubts about this conclusion. That the last person to have seen him alive said he was in the back seat of a police car at that point should have assured that the case was given extra attention.

Instead, 13 years have gone by and the public and the family are still waiting for answers. This is a wait that could have gone on forever had Darrell Night not survived an attempt to leave him, drunk and ill-equipped for a winter stroll, near the Queen Elizabeth II Power Station three years ago.

Night's story, which has already resulted in the conviction of two city police officers, kicked off suspicion about other deaths, including that of Stonechild. Suspicion -- but never any charges.

Although the RCMP looked into the cases of freezing victims such as Stonechild, Rodney Naistus and Lawrence Wegner, it found insufficient evidence to lay charges in any of them. Few people have been satisfied by this.

While we should be grateful that Justice Minister Eric Cline has decided to launch the Stonechild inquiry, the delay in reaching this stage did no one any favours.

Saskatoon Police Chief Russell Sabo expressed concern Thursday about the impact this inquest could have on morale in his force, but the eternal wait for closure on this case has been hard on everyone -- including the police.

There can be little question that Saskatoon's police service and Saskatchewan justice have gone through a hard few decades, beginning with the botched David Milgaard conviction for the 1969 rape and murder of Saskatoon nursing assistant Gail Miller, ranging up to the Martensville investigation into a fictional gang of child molesters, through to the batch of frozen Native men who were being found on the outskirts of the city and the accompanying stories of "starlight cruises," where inebriated and rowdy individuals were driven out of town to sober up.

Yet answers are hard to come by. Milgaard spent 23 years in prison for a murder he clearly didn't commit and, it appears, he could wait just as long for an inquiry that will explain why Saskatoon police were so determined to put him behind bars. Had police not looked the other way when faced with evidence, they might have kept Larry Fisher off the street and away from the victims he so brutally assaulted between the time of Miller's death and his ultimate conviction for it nearly 30 years later.

The promised Milgaard inquiry has never taken place, just as no inquiry has been held into the Martensville debacle. While it is true there is a danger of perverting justice when an inquiry is held in the midst of civil or criminal investigations and court cases, the very long time it is taking to clear the air on these incidents leaves us with a sense of doubt, suspicion and distrust.

There's an old adage that justice delayed is justice denied. The fog that lingers over all these cases while the system's wheels grind slowly does more to damage the integrity of the justice system than anything that could come from the inquiries.

Until we see clearly how these travesties were allowed to take place, and are assured that a process exists to ensure they can't be repeated, the best in the justice system will be forever tarnished by the worst.


Inquiry to be held into Native teen's death

Newly appointed Justice Minister Eric Cline is expected to announce today that the government has struck a public inquiry into Neil Stonechild's death.

Stonechild, an aboriginal teen, was found frozen to death in a field outside Saskatoon more than a decade ago.

CBC news reported Wednesday that the Saskatchewan government will launch the inquiry and that a Court of Queen's Bench judge has also been appointed to look into the case.

Deb McEwen, a spokesperson from the Department of Justice, would neither confirm nor deny the report when contacted late Wednesday afternoon, but said Cline would be making an announcement at 10 a.m. today.

"He will be making a statement about the Neil Stonechild matter," McEwen said.

Stonechild's death resurfaced in February 2000, when The StarPhoenix published a story outlining details of Stonechild's last day alive.

Although ruled accidental by police at the time, Stonechild's family always believed that the youth died of foul play. Fueling their concern was a report by one of their son's friends, who said he last saw 17-year-old Stonechild in police custody.

Stonechild's body was found in a field in the city's north industrial area on Nov. 29, 1990, near the 800 block of 57th Street. An autopsy confirmed he had died of hypothermia.

In 2000, RCMP assembled the largest task force in the province's history to investigate the freezing deaths of two Native men, and an accusation that two Saskatoon police officers abandoned another man on the city's outskirts in frigid weather.

The task force report resulted in charges against two veteran police officers, Dan Hatchen and Ken Munson, in connection with the case of Darrell Night. Night came forward and reported he had been abandoned by two police officers on the outskirts of Saskatoon in freezing temperatures.

The officers were both convicted of unlawful confinement in 2001, and were fired the same day.

No charges have been laid in relation to Stonechild's death.

Neil Stonechild

Coroner exhumes body
RCMP task force probing deaths of Native men orders autopsy

The provincial coroner is ordering the body of Neil Christopher Stonechild be exhumed so a second autopsy may be performed a decade after the young man died under suspicious circumstances.

The body, buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Saskatoon, will be disinterred within the next month and then transported to Edmonton under RCMP escort. Alberta's chief medical examiner Graeme Dowling will do the autopsy.

Saskatchewan chief coroner John Nyssen made the order at the request of the RCMP task force investigating the deaths last year of two Native men who froze to death outside of Saskatoon in January 2000.

The task force began examining the circumstances of Stonechild's Nov. 23, 1990 death at the request of friends and family.

Family suspected foul play in the 17-year-old's death from the start. The last person who saw him alive said Stonechild was detained in a Saskatoon city police cruiser, screaming "They're gonna kill me."

Police at the time concluded Stonechild died while trying to walk across the city to turn himself in at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre. He attempted this, they said, in the early hours of a Saturday morning, drunk, in -28 C weather wearing sneakers, a jean jacket and a lumberjack coat.

At the time, he was supposed to be in a group home for young offenders. He had walked away earlier in the week and there was a warrant for his arrest.

Police disputed the witness's account of Stonechild struggling and screaming in the back of the cruiser. Police Chief Dave Scott, then a sergeant, insisted the case was investigated thoroughly but that no evidence of foul play was found in the youth's death.

The task force is not saying why they're taking the highly unusual step of exhuming the body for a second autopsy.

"We have available to us numerous ways of doing things and we just don't discuss that with the public on any investigation," said RCMP Sgt. Rick Wychreschuk.

Nyssen, chief coroner for the past six years, said this is the first time in at least two decades he's aware of the chief coroner requesting such an action. The task force approached him three weeks ago with the request to approve the exhumation.

"Exactly what they're after, I don't know. I don't know if there's something specific they're looking for," he said in an interview Tuesday.

"I'm not going to stand in the way of the investigation in any way."

Nyssen said he asked that Dowling, chief medical examiner for Alberta, do the autopsy. Dowling is also an adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta.

"I thought it best be done out of province because the first autopsy was done in province," Nyssen said. "And Saskatchewan does not have a qualified, trained forensic pathologist."

Nyssen will co-ordinate the exhumation and examination of the body. He said doing an autopsy a decade later presents special challenges. The embalming process, for instance, changes the skin coloration and complicates interpretation of possible injuries. The full extent of decomposition is also not known.

"But the body should be well preserved and pretty well intact, I imagine. It's in an environment, not just the dirt," he said.

A number of steps must be satisfied before the exhumation, he said, including notifying the family 48 hours in advance and contacting the manager of the cemetery.