Another useless inquiry ends -- a year later and a new justice minister says matter "not necessarily closed"
The RCMP will review a CBC news report about the January 2000 freezing death of Lawrence Wegner to see if there is any new information, Justice Minister Eric Cline said Wednesday.
The review does not constitute the launch of a new investigation but rather continuation of the investigation into an unsolved suspicious death, Cline said.
"The matter will never be considered closed as long as there are unanswered questions," Cline said.
"I was advised yesterday the matter was never closed," he said.
"If there's any way we can get the answers, we will."
Cline's position appears to differ from that of his predecessor, Chris Axworthy, who wrote last November to Wegner's family to say no further investigation was planned.
"If the implication from the letter was that the matter was closed then I think that was inaccurate . . . . The investigation must be ongoing as long as there are unanswered questions.
"The letter was in error. I'm prepared to take responsibility for that error as minister of justice and apologize for it," Cline said.
He also said he is "not shutting the door to a judicial inquiry" into the matter, though he did not immediately commit to calling one.
Wegner, a 30-year-old with mental illness and drug addiction, was found dead in a field near the Queen Elizabeth power plant on Feb. 3, 2000. He had gone missing three days earlier.
He was found just five days after another aboriginal man, Rodney Naistus, was found frozen to death in the same remote area.
Suspicion fell on the Saskatoon police after a third aboriginal man, Darrell Night came forward saying he had been abandoned by police in the same field, the same weekend after being picked up while intoxicated.
Night was vindicated when two constables, Dan Hatchen and Ken Munson, were eventually found guilty of unlawful confinement and sentenced to jail for the crime. Both were fired and are currently serving eight-month sentences.
The Wegner death was investigated by Saskatoon police before the file was handed to a major RCMP task force created to look into all of the incidents and the deaths of several other aboriginal men who had had some recent contact with police.
Eighteen months later, the unsolved Wegner file was handed to then Saskatchewan Justice Minister Chris Axworthy, who later ordered a coroner's inquest.
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During the inquest, two women came forward for the first time saying they had seen Wegner being forced into a police cruiser. The inquest was adjourned while RCMP looked into the allegations and arranged to have a composite sketch created based on the women's recollections.
Coroner Hugh Harradence ruled the information inadmissible at the inquest and prohibited publication of the sketch until recently.
Cline addressed the media Wednesday to squelch a controversy that arose after he told the public broadcaster the Wegner file would be "reinvestigated" because of new information in their report.
However, RCMP have no intention of reopening the investigation, RCMP spokesperson Heather Russell responded Wednesday morning.
"Unless something significantly new comes forward they feel they have covered the ground that needs to be covered in this investigation," Russell said.
She later modified her statement and agreed with the minister that the file had never been definitively closed.
"It's never closed but they did come to a point where there was nothing more that they could think of to do. The terminology, 'closed' is probably not a good word."
SASKATOON - A coroner's jury in Saskatoon says it cannot determine the cause of Lawrence Wegner's death.
Wegner's frozen body was found on the outskirts of Saskatoon two years ago. He was wearing socks, a T-shirt and jeans when he was discovered.
The inquest into his death began in January. The jury heard from two women who testified they saw Wegner being pushed into a police car the night he disappeared.
The jury deliberated for about 12 hours before delivering a decision. The verdict of "undetermined" means the jury believes the cause of death can't be explained, based on the information they heard.
Three men and three women on a coroner's jury will begin this morning to try to unravel the mystery of Lawrence Wegner's death, to conclude how he came to rest in the wind and snow of a remote field near the Saskatoon dump.
With hours of conflicting testimony from a weeks-long inquest, a contaminated scene, and missing pieces of evidence, it's not likely to be an easy job.
"You must not supplement the evidence by speculating," presiding coroner Hugh Harradence said in his hour-long instructions to the jury late Tuesday afternoon. The jury is expected to begin several hours of deliberations today.
Harradence suggested jurors consider three main possibilities when deciding how Wegner met his death: accident, non-culpable homicide, and undetermined. The jury may also make recommendations on how to prevent similar deaths in the future.
They cannot assign blame for the death, and Harradence warned them about dealing too heavily with the "broader issues of tension to police and the aboriginal community," which have been a topic of controversy for more than two years.
Several witnesses said they spotted Wegner with city police officers on the last night his friends saw him alive. Harradence told jurors that if they believe this evidence they should ask themselves if it proves the police took Wegner anywhere.
During his remarks to the jury Harradence expressed doubts about the credibility of several witnesses -- including two women who came forward recently to testify they saw police put Wegner in a cruiser outside St. Paul's Hospital.
The inquest heard "no evidence of a dumping practice" by Saskatoon police, he added.
The last evidence heard by the jury came from Sgt. Kirke Hopkins, a lead investigator for the RCMP. Wegner family lawyer Greg Curtis questioned him closely on the Mounties' methods, telling reporters later the family still has concerns about the ability of one police force to thoroughly investigate another.
Hopkins said RCMP interviewed all 40 Saskatoon police officers on shift in the city during Wegner's last hours, and all denied having any contact with the man. They were not asked to perform polygraphs on the officers because there were no inconsistencies in their statements, he told Curtis.
Former officers Dan Hatchen and Ken Munson, convicted of leaving another aboriginal man on the edge of town, were not interviewed because they were not on shift at the time, he said.
"How do you know you got everything?" Curtis asked.
Hopkins paused for several seconds before replying, "We relied on the Saskatoon Police Service. We asked them for the information we wanted and as far as I know that's what we got."
Spectators have wondered for weeks about what happened to the clothing Wegner was wearing when his body was found. Saskatoon police did not seize the clothes in the two weeks before their investigation of the death was turned over to the RCMP.
Curtis told reporters the family retrieved his T-shirt, jeans and socks from the hospital and had washed them before RCMP showed up to ask for the clothing. They turned over his jeans and T-shirt, as well as the white socks he wore under another pair of grey ones. The family did not turn over a pair of grey socks because they didn't know which pair were the right ones, Curtis said.
After rooting through a box of materials for the white socks, Hopkins reddened visibly in court Tuesday.
"I'm sorry, I don't have them with me," he said. "They're in Regina."
Neither the jeans nor the shirt, on which witnesses reported seeing a spot of blood, were produced at the inquest.
Wegner's former roommate, Brent Ahenakew, testified earlier about strange cars lurking in his neighbourhood following Wegner's death, and a phone call from a man asking if he wanted to "end up like Lawrence."
RCMP were unable to trace the call, Hopkins said.
During their own surveillance of the area, the officer in charge reported what he thought was "possible counter-surveillance" by a Saskatoon police member in an unmarked cruiser over at least a two-day period. Hopkins said Saskatoon police told them the officer was checking for disqualified drivers. No further investigation was done.
Harradence ruled Tuesday that a composite drawing of a police officer cannot be copied for distribution to the public. It was prepared with help from one of the two women who said she saw Wegner getting put into a police cruiser.
The RCMP showed the drawing to Saskatoon police Staff Sgt. Al Sather, who was in charge of the officers on duty the night in question, and "he was not able to assist in identifying a Saskatoon Police Service member based on that sketch," Hopkins said.
Comparing the drawing to a photo lineup of city police officers was considered, but the idea was discarded because a warrant would be needed to seize photos from the police personnel files, he said.
"Based on what I had, I did not believe I had grounds for a warrant."
RCMP are not investigating the identity of the officer depicted in the composite, he said. "There's no criminal investigation being conducted into Lawrence's death."
SASKATOON - The jury at the inquest into the death of Lawrence Wegner heard about serious problems with Saskatoon's 911 system.
On the night Lawrence Wegner went missing, a woman called 911 about a man outside her house, wearing only a t-shirt, jeans and socks.
The tape of that call was played several times to the jury on Monday afternoon, however, several parts were missing.
A police officer explained there are numerous problems with the recording system, and that causes blank spots on the tape.
The officer also said the night Wegner disappeared was one of the busiest he'd ever worked.
A woman who claims she saw two police officers pushing a handcuffed and shoeless Lawrence Wegner into the back of a cruiser in front of St. Paul's Hospital appeared unruffled as she testified before the coroner's inquest into his death.
"I came across a cop cruiser with three people situated around it," she told the jury Tuesday.
"They varied in height. It appeared they'd handcuffed him, gave him a push to his lower back, that's when I recognized it to be Lawrence Wegner, when they were roughing him up."
The woman, who was acquainted with Wegner, is expected to continue her testimony today. That will be followed by testimony from her friend, who was in the car with her.
They cannot be identified due to a publication ban imposed by Hugh Harradence, the lawyer presiding as coroner over the inquest. The reason for protecting their identities is also subject to a publication ban until the hearing concludes -- likely sometime this week.
The woman told the jury she was driving her car, with the other woman as passenger, down 20th Street West on a cold night in late January two years ago when she saw the officers detaining a slim aboriginal man with a moustache, who was wearing jeans and a white T-shirt.
Wegner was last seen alive early in the monring of Jan. 31, 2000. He was found frozen to death in a field near the city dump and the Queen Elizabeth Power Station three days later, wearing only a white T-shirt, jeans and socks.
The discovery was made within days of an incident in which former city police officers Dan Hatchen and Ken Munson dropped another aboriginal man, Darrell Night, from their cruiser in the same part of town and instructed him to walk home. They were found guilty of forcible confinement last year.
Rodney Naistus, another aboriginal man, was found frozen in the same part of the city two days before Wegner disappeared. No charges have been laid in either death.
The woman said she saw Wegner's face clearly as one of the officers propelled him toward the open rear passenger door of their cruiser. When they pushed his head down and shoved him head first into the back seat, his legs flew up, she testified.
"I saw a socked foot. It was so clear, because the inside of the cop car was blue," said the witness.
The police car was parked near the hospital exit, facing west at an angle that obstructed her driving lane so that she had to go around it, she said.
She called her friend's attention to it and both agreed it looked like Wegner, she added. When she looked in her rearview mirror later, the interior light of the car was no longer on, so she concluded they were all inside the cruiser -- but she couldn't see if they pulled away from the curb with him inside, the woman said.
She kept her cool through hours of questioning and requestioning by lawyers representing the coroner's office, the Wegner family, and the Saskatoon police force, as well as Harradence and members of the jury.
The inquest, called after an RCMP investigation resulted in no criminal charges, is not able to assign blame for Wegner's death. The jury determines the cause of death and can make preventative recommendations.
Lawyers pointed out some discrepancies in the three statements the woman gave to RCMP investigators since coming forward with her story two weeks ago, and her testimony in court.
Some details came to her after her initial statements to the RCMP were made, she said. Differences in other details -- such as the type of vehicle she was driving -- resulted from "honest mistakes," she said.
The woman's testimony differed in places from that of Albert Chatsis, who testified earlier that he saw police detain a man matching Wegner's description in a different spot outside the hospital on the same night. Chatsis said he later watched from Diefenbaker Park as a police car with three people stopped near the power station.
Under questioning from Harradence, the woman admitted she may not have seen the incident on a Sunday -- the last day Wegner was seen alive. But she said the traffic at the time, and the errand she was running with her friend, make her fairly certain it was the last Sunday of the month.
The woman told the jury she hesitated to come forward to tell the authorities what she saw because she was afraid for herself and her children. She said she knew there would be a lot of attention focused on her once she told her story.
"I thought I'd have to pack up and leave town," she said. "I just jumped to conclusions and never thought to come forward. I was just plain old scared."
She told the jury she eventually felt compelled to come forward by her own conscience and the friend who was in the car with her, because they knew that if one of them spoke up, the other would have to do it as well.
"I do feel a whole lot better . . . (now) that I actually told someone," she said.
Jurors returned to the train bridge in Diefenbaker Park Tuesday night for a second look at the view Chatsis claims to have had from across the river. This time they were permitted to walk onto the bridge, where Chatsis testified he was standing.
The inquest into the freezing death of Lawrence Wegner was further complicated Monday by the possibility -- raised by a city police officer -- that portions of a tape recording of a phone call from a potential witness are "missing."
"There's parts of it missing, in my opinion," testified Saskatoon police Sgt. Bruce Marsland, who took the phone call from Jennifer Whitecap at 12:20 a.m. on Jan. 31, 2000.
Whitecap may have been one of the last people to see Wegner alive. She complained of a seemingly drunk man wearing no shoes or jacket, who was outside the door of her 20th Street West home claiming to be a pizza delivery driver. Her next-door neighbour, Bev Urchenko, testified earlier she heard the man, too.
Urchenko said she looked out her window to see a marked police car, with two uniformed officers and an agitated aboriginal man inside, parked outside Whitecap's home. The officers drove away after a few minutes, with the man still inside, she said.
Wegner was found frozen to death in a field south of the city dump three days later, wearing only a T-shirt, jeans and socks. The inquest, which is held to determine the cause of death and make preventative recommendations, was called after an RCMP investigation resulted in no criminal charges.
Whitecap has already expressed doubts about the tape, saying it does not contain a portion of the conversation in which she was told there had already been calls about the man in her yard.
Marsland seemed to agree. On the tape, which was played repeatedly Monday for the coroner's jury, he does not ask for her address -- though he tells her he'll get officers to keep an eye out for the man she described.
"He'll probably be cold by now," Marsland told Whitecap on the tape.
He would not have known her address without asking because the call did not come in through the 911 system, he testified. It would have been "stupid" of him to make that offer without knowing what part of the city she was calling from, Marsland added. "I believe the address should be in there," he said.
The communications system used by police has been subject to "numerous problems," resulting in pieces of phone calls, or sometimes entire calls, getting lost, Marsland said.
No police record of any message to "be on the lookout for" the man matching Wegner's description -- a procedure known as a BOLF -- has ever been found.
Marsland said he may have decided not to send out a BOLF if someone else told him the man had already been picked up while he was talking to Whitecap, but he can't remember if that happened.
"The city was going crazy . . . it was just very, very busy that night," he said.
Greg Curtis, the lawyer representing Wegner's family at the inquest, raised questions about an audible "click" on the tape, between the end of a question Marsland asked Whitecap, and her reply.
Marsland said he didn't know if records kept by Saskatoon police are vulnerable to tampering.
"Are you sure you didn't just miss the course on erasing tapes?" Curtis joked. Outside the courthouse, he told reporters he may call technicians to the stand regarding that issue later.
Lawyer Hugh Harradence, who is presiding as coroner over the inquest, is expected to rule this morning on whether or not two surprise witnesses, whose new allegations put the inquest on hold last week, will take the stand.
The two women, who were acquainted with Wegner, prompted a re-opening of the RCMP investigation after telling the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) they saw the 33-year-old social work student being loaded into a police cruiser outside St. Paul's Hospital shortly after he went missing.
The man who shared an apartment with Lawrence Wegner for about a week before his disappearance told a coroner's inquest he received a threatening phone call shortly after speaking to the media about Wegner's death.
Brent Ahenakew, 22, shook visibly and wiped away tears as he described the strange call that came in as he arrived home from the CTV television interview he gave a day after Wegner's body was found frozen in the snow near the garbage dump in February 2000.
The interview had not yet been broadcast.
The unfamiliar voice asked, "So Brent, you hate police officers, eh? You want to end up like Lawrence?" Ahenakew told a hushed Queen's Bench courtroom late Wednesday.
Ahenakew said the caller hung up before he had time to react. He testified that he tried to report the call to a Saskatoon police sergeant, but nothing came of it.
A few days later, Ahenakew said, he started noticing police cars hanging around his apartment on Avenue P South -- sometimes "creeping up" with their lights off, and other times just sitting there idling for 15 minutes at a time.
Ahenakew's statements came at the end of a long day filled with testimony from police officers and two drug experts. The six-member jury, half aboriginal and half white, is expected to continue hearing evidence for at least another week.
Their role is to determine how, when and where Wegner died and make recommendations on how similar deaths might be prevented.
Wegner, a 30-year-old social work student at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, was found frozen in an open field on Feb. 3, 2000, just days after another aboriginal man, Rodney Naistus, was found frozen near a feed lot in the same part of town.
Ahenakew said that the night Wegner disappeared he and his girlfriend had injected morphine twice with Wegner and another man, and Wegner had smoked pot. After Ahenakew began fighting with his girlfriend, Jennifer Heidel -- prompting visits from the landlord and police -- Wegner left to escape the tension, he said.
Ahenakew said he offered his own parka and boots to his roommate and watched as Wegner left in them. They were never returned. Wegner was found wearing only a white T-shirt, jeans and socks.
Ahenakew, who had known Wegner for eight years and frequently smoked marijuana with him, rejected the idea that his friend would walk the five kilometres from 20th Street West to the place where he was found, especially while sedated by various drugs and without proper clothing. He said Wegner was acting normally despite the drugs he'd taken.
Barry Rossman, the lawyer representing Saskatoon police, attacked Ahenakew's credibility, questioning him about differences between his testimony and statements he gave police. Ahenakew said his memories of that night consist of "flashbacks" because of the drugs he'd taken, but he feels they're accurate.
Wegner had been struggling with schizophrenic symptoms for several years and was on four prescribed medications -- an anti-depressant, an anti-anxiety drug, an anti-psychotic and a drug to limit side-effects, his psychiatrist Dr. David Keegan testified.
He'd been evicted from a group home for breaking into a storage cabinet about a week prior to his disappearance, and a decision was made to let him live with Ahenakew despite some reservations, Keegan said.
Under questioning from the family's lawyer Greg Curtis, he said it was unlikely Wegner could have walked five kilometres in the cold, given the tranquilizing drugs in his system.
RCMP toxicologist John Hudson told the jury there was no alcohol in Wegner's system when he died, but tests indicated he'd smoked marijuana within a few hours of his death.
A lone set of meandering footprints and three telltale depressions in the snow were the only clues presented Monday to suggest how Lawrence Wegner came to rest in a lonely, wind-swept field near the Saskatoon dump nearly two years ago.
What happened to him in the three days before his poorly clad body was discovered -- days in which no one seems to have seen him -- remained an open question as a coroner's inquest into his death began at Court of Queen's Bench.
"It looked to me like he had laid down in the snow and rolled several times," Victor Hargraves, a GE Rail Cars manager, told Hugh Harradence, a lawyer conducting the inquest for the coroner's office.
A six-member jury, half aboriginal and half white, will spend the next week or more listening to some 46 witnesses (including 17 current and former Saskatoon police members) before deliberating on when, where and how Wegner died.
The jury can also make recommendations on ways to prevent similar deaths in the future, but they cannot assign blame.
Wegner was last seen on the night of Jan. 30, 2000, by Albert Chatsis, who has said he witnessed police officers putting the 30-year-old man into a cruiser in front of St. Paul's Hospital.
It was the same weekend two local police officers left another aboriginal man, Darrell Night, in the same part of town. Former constables Dan Hatchen and Ken Munson were convicted of forcible confinement for that incident last year.
It was also the same weekend a third aboriginal man, Rodney Naistus, was found frozen to death in the same part of town.
Hargraves drove city police to Wegner's body after an employee of the company spotted it from a distance on Feb. 3. The snow was considered too deep for police cruisers at the time.
Over the ensuing hours, Saskatoon police took over the scene, photographing the area and tracing the footprints. The sub-zero temperatures had frozen his body to the ground, face-down. Police needed portable heaters and a makeshift tent to thaw the area before he could be moved.
Wegner's mother, brothers and a sister-in-law watched quietly from the gallery Monday. His father, Gary, stayed home on the Saulteaux First Nation near North Battleford. They declined interview requests.
"They've had a couple of years to sort of deal with the impact of their loss," said their lawyer, Greg Curtis. "They seem like quite a tight-knit family and quite articulate about their views on things and the world in general. But they don't have a great deal of confidence in this particular process. We'll have to see whether that lack of confidence is warranted or not."
Curtis questioned witnesses closely about the lack of any accumulated snow around Wegner's body, wondering how it could be so free of drifts after two nights of high winds had started to obscure other tracks in the area.