Ten years after he saw his friend, Neil Stonechild, disappear into a Saskatoon police car, never to be seen alive again, Jason Roy (above) got the courage to report his misgivings since the public was interested in the freezing deaths of two Native men, apparently as a consequence of having been taken for a "Starlight Tour" to the Queen Elizabeth power station (left) on the edge of town by Saskatoon police.
Seems the Sudbury police may be a bit jealous of all this limelight on Saskatoon. They want a "piece of the action" and offering their own "Starlight Tour"
The story was picked up by Saturday Night magazine and inJusticebusters received permission from the author to carry it. [below]
This story is far from over but some progress has been made. We all await the autopsy results. There is news about the Hatchen and Munsen trial which resulted in their conviction for "unlawful confinement" of Darrell Night and many stories of police wrong doing in Saskatoon. An inquest into Rodney Naistus's death has come up with some lame recommendations.
On Nov. 30 in Saskatoon a judge will rule on whether or not to allow Hatchen and Munson to be sentenced by a sentencing circle. This is a cynical request since these two killer cops have shown no remorse, the first step in finding justice in a circle. We think that sentencing circles might show themselves to be an excellent tool for the justice system to adopt for individuals of all races, where appropriate. We hope thse two thugs haven't wrecked this possibility.
Until last winter, when Rodney Naistus and Lawrence Wegner turned up dead, it was a common way for Saskatoon police to deal with drunk natives: drive them to the outskirts of town and let them walk it off. Now Saskatoon's finest are on thin ice.
A pair of workers walk alongside an empty field near Saskatoon's northeastern boundary. They come across the body of a young man, face down and motionless. The police are called, the corpse is removed, an autopsy is performed. The pathologist's report notes that "the entire body was frozen firm. . . . We were unable to straighten the flexed arm. The knees were slightly flexed." Coroner B.J. Fern concludes that Neil Stonechild had died about two days earlier, "likely of exposure, possibly while inebriated".
Stonechild was an aboriginal young offender, on the lam from authorities at the time of his death. Following a brief investigation, the Saskatoon Police Service speculated that the seventeen-year-old boy had been heading to a provincial correctional centre on the edge of the city to turn himself in. He wandered into a neighbouring field, fell to the ground, and never got up. His death was deemed an "accident".
That was November 29, 1990 - almost a decade ago - but the assessment still haunts Stonechild's mother, Stella Bignell. She has steadfastly maintained that her son was the victim of foul play. Now, after recent disclosures about Saskatoon police leaving intoxicated aboriginals out in the cold, Bignell is convinced he was murdered.
The police department's account is undermined by several facts, she says. Her son had been AWOL for two weeks from a private group home in Saskatoon and had no reason to make his way to an isolated adult prison. Moreover, during that time he had been staying at his mother's home and had never shown any compulsion to turn himself in, nor had she advised him to do so. He was found with only one shoe, which would have made walking to the edge of the city difficult. He was without his favourite baseball cap, which his mother says he always wore. Blood drawn by the pathologist showed there was alcohol in Stonechild's system, but not enough to produce "marked incapacitation or coma. No other explanation for an altered mental state was found." The pathologist also noted a number of "recent abrasions" on his face, his chest, and lower body.
Bignell expressed her concerns to an acquaintance, a veteran Saskatoon cop whose son used to play with Stonechild and who retired from the Saskatoon force last year. He says he looked at the Stonechild file early in 1991 and "didn't like it. . . . But it wasn't my case."
Most troubling, however, was an account by Stonechild's friend Jason Roy, the last person who admits to having seen him alive. He had also been on the lam and was wanted by police. Roy, who has told the same story to a number of people over the years, says he had been partying with Stonechild on the evening of November 24 and the pair ended up at an apartment building in west Saskatoon, where a young woman whom Stonechild had been seeing was babysitting. The young woman refused to let them in and they began buzzing other apartments in the building, prompting a neighbour to call the police. Stonechild made off into the night, alone. Roy sought refuge from the bitter cold inside a convenience store. After warming up for a few minutes he returned to the street and started walking to where he had last seen his friend. A police cruiser pulled out of an alleyway and came up beside him. There were two police officers sitting up front. Stonechild, Roy says, was sitting in the back, his face cut and bleeding. He was screaming and begging for help, Roy alleges. The police asked Roy his identity; frightened, he gave them a false name and they drove away. No one admits to having seen Stonechild after that.
First Saskatoon vigil, January 2000
Saskatoon police destroyed most of the Neil Stonechild file last December, in a routine disposal of old documents. By then, Stella Bignell had resigned herself to the notion that circumstances surrounding her son's death would remain shrouded in mystery. As far as the police were concerned, the matter was long closed. But within six weeks of the file being destroyed, two more aboriginal men were found dead and frozen in another remote industrial area of Saskatoon. The gruesome discoveries bore striking similarities to the Stonechild case. Still, these deaths would probably have been written off as accidental as well, had yet another aboriginal man not escaped from the same industrial area with his life, and a chilling account of abuse at the hands of the Saskatoon city police.
These latest incidents soon set in motion the largest criminal investigation in the history of Saskatchewan. Led by the RCMP's major-crimes unit, a task force is reviewing concerns that Saskatoon police officers may have mistreated seven aboriginal men, five of whom died. A shadow investigation is being conducted by private sleuths hired by the province's main aboriginal group, indicative of the distrust natives have for police. Authorities in Regina and Winnipeg have also announced investigations into police "dumping," leading some to suggest that the Saskatoon revelations merely represent the tip of an iceberg. And yet, despite a disturbing pattern of anecdotal evidence, there are persistent fears in the aboriginal community that justice will again be delayed - or denied.
A man lurches through a city's streets at night. He's drunk or stoned. Perhaps he's causing a disturbance. The police pick him up. Instead of taking him to the station, tossing him into the tank, and filing a report, they drive him to an empty lot on the edge of town, push him out of their car, and tell him to walk it off. No muss, no fuss, no paperwork.
In some Canadian cities, it's known as the "Midnight Ride." In Saskatoon, it's called the "Starlight Tour". A local police constable named Brian Trainor described the practice three years ago in a newspaper column that was apparently a thinly veiled account of life on the beat. A pair of officers dubbed Hawk and Gumby are depicted picking up a drunk outside the Salvation Army. They decide to take him for a drive. "An uneasy silence had overcome the man in the back," Trainor wrote. "A few quick turns and the car came to an abrupt stop in front of the Queen Elizabeth Power Station. Climbing out and opening the rear door, Hawk yelled for the man to get out. . . . Quickly gathering his wits, the drunk scrambled out of the car and into the thickets along the riverbank, disappearing from view. One less guest for breakfast."
Some people might figure that dumping drunks at the city limits is a practical way of dealing with what's become a chronic problem, especially among Saskatoon's large aboriginal population. In the middle of winter, when the temperature drops below minus twenty degrees Celsius, it can be deadly. The former Saskatoon police officer whose son played with Stonechild says he's heard about dumping "for years, but not in the winter, when someone might die. Sometimes people are manhandled a little rougher than they should be. . . . I can't say that no one has ever been hospitalized because of police treatment."
"I'm hoping such things never did happen," says Sergeant Rick Wychreschuk, spokesman for the RCMP task force that's investigating the complaints. "Maybe I'm just being naive."
Second Saskatoon vigil
It was a cloudless, miserably cold winter morning last January 29 when Pat Lorjé (right), a New Democrat member of Saskatchewan's legislative assembly, went for a run. She followed her usual route through a semi-developed industrial park, within sight of the power station. Lorjé had paused briefly at the top of a slope when she spotted a man standing at the side of the road, peering down at something. He turned to her and started yelling. "Come here, come here," he shouted. Lorjé ran over and saw what looked like a rolled-up carpet lying on the ground. She realized it was an aboriginal male in his mid-twenties, naked from the waist up. His eyes were partially open. A frozen strand of saliva hung from his lip.
As Lorjé stood waiting for the police to arrive, three possible scenarios crossed her mind. Perhaps the young man had been involved in a break-and-enter gone wrong. But that didn't seem to fit the scene. Maybe he had been drinking with his buddies and had got into a fight. But there was no sign of a struggle. "I didn't see how someone so scantily dressed could have been there on purpose," she says. Her last thought was that someone, perhaps the police, might have dumped him there; she can't explain why.
A squad car arrived within minutes. "You know, I think he was dumped here," Lorjé told the officers. "They said, 'No, you can see his tracks in the snow.' But [the tracks] indicated that he had circled, fallen down, gotten up, and fallen down again."
The corpse was covered in tattoos, which helped police identify the body. Rodney (Steven) Naistus, a twenty-five-year-old member of the Onion Lake Reserve near Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, had been released from a Saskatoon detention facility three days earlier. In a celebratory mood, he had gone out drinking with his brother and met up with some people in a west-end bar. He was last seen heading downtown with a stranger, apparently on his way to a nightclub.
Another body was discovered on February 3. The evening before, Lawrence Wegner, a thirty-year-old college student, had been injecting a mixture of morphine and synthetic cocaine in a west-end apartment before staggering outside and causing a disturbance. He was, according to eyewitnesses, wearing only a T-shirt, jeans, and wool socks. A woman called the police shortly after midnight. Another eyewitness saw a man fitting Wegner's description talking to police a few blocks away, outside St. Paul's Hospital. The eyewitness says the man was shoved into the back of a squad car. Railway workers found his frozen corpse lying in a shallow depression 200 metres south of the power station.
RCMP investigators later told Wegner's parents that Saskatoon police had indeed been called to a disturbance near the hospital that evening. Apparently, no report was filed and there's no record that Lawrence Wegner was ever apprehended. Saskatoon police told the Wegners that their son had probably walked from the hospital to the power station, a distance of six kilometres, in his stocking feet. Curiously, there were no holes in the socks he'd been wearing that night. Mary Wegner later saw her son's body in the city morgue. There were scratches on the back of his hand, she recalls, an ugly bruise on his forehead, and a "purple mark all around his face. [The police] say it was from exposure. . . . I think he was killed."
Darrell Night was driving around Saskatoon with his uncle and nephew the day Wegner's corpse was found; they had heard about the discovery on the car radio. Because Night's nephew was not wearing a seat belt, a police constable named Bruce Ehalt stopped their vehicle. Night's uncle asked if the police had identified the body.
Ehalt paused. "Why do you ask?"
Night responded, "I can't help but think that what happened to that man is the same thing that happened to me."
Night recounted his story. He had been drinking the night of January 28. A big man, thirty-four years old, with a lengthy record of alcohol-related convictions, he had been ambling towards his sister's house on Saskatoon's west side when he was stopped by two police officers. Both fifteen-year veterans of the Saskatoon Police Service, they handcuffed Night and drove him to the southwest edge of the city, next to the power station. They yanked him from the car, removed the cuffs, and left him standing in an empty field.
"I'm going to freeze out here," Night complained. "It's twenty-five below." The officers drove off.
A light was on inside the power station. Night walked towards the main entrance and started banging on a door. A night watchman answered and Night told him what had happened. The guard said he didn't believe the story, but did call Night a taxi. He finally arrived at his sister's apartment, shaken and scared, but feeling fortunate to be alive.
After listening to Night's story, Ehalt asked why he hadn't filed a complaint. "Who would believe him?" Night's uncle replied. The officer wrote out a seventy-five-dollar ticket for the seat-belt infraction and drove away. But he did not let the matter pass; after all, two men had just been found dead in the same area where Night claimed to have been dumped. "I could either choose to believe what Night told me, or brush it off," says Ehalt, a twenty-two-year police veteran. "I chose to believe it."
Ehalt went straight to Police Chief Dave Scott, who told him to bring Night into the station for an interview. The following day, Ehalt took Night's statement and turned him over to internal investigators. "Only when I followed up did I realize the potential of what I was dealing with," says Ehalt. "You never want it to be like this, but [something] happened, so you have to deal with it honestly."
Fifteen members of the Saskatoon police force were called to a meeting chaired by senior police supervisors and told of Night's complaint. No one came forward at that time, but within forty-eight hours Dan Hatchen and Ken Munson, two constables who were at the meeting, acknowledged that they had dropped Night off at the power station. They were subsequently suspended without pay. "[Hatchen and Munson] have always thought they made an error in judgment here, but they still think, at the same time, there was a reason for what they did," explained Al Stickney, president of the Saskatoon police union. "I'm not going to say there is a good reason."
On February 16, at Chief Scott's request, Saskatchewan's Ministry of Justice asked the RCMP to launch a criminal investigation into Night's allegations and the deaths of Wegner and Naistus. The Mounties assembled their task force of fifteen investigators plus suppport staff; weeks later, its mandate expanded to encompass the case of Neil Stonechild, after reports of his death appeared in local media. The investigation also grew to include the cases of two other aboriginal men who died earlier this year, after being released from the custody of Saskatoon police. In January, Lloyd Joseph Dustyhorn was found frozen outside a Saskatoon apartment building. He had been drinking heavily before being arrested and then discharged. In February, Darcy Dean Ironchild died in his apartment, hours after his release from a Saskatoon drunk tank. While their deaths differed from the others, they added to concerns that Saskatoon police treat aboriginal men with reckless disregard.
In April, Hatchen and Munson were charged with unlawfully confining and assaulting Darrell Night. In June, after receiving "numerous calls" about police abuse, the task force added a seventh case to its list. Rodney Wailing claims that in 1995, he was sniffing lacquer thinner in Saskatoon's west end when he was apprehended by two police officers and put in the back of their squad car. Wailing, who is native, claims the officers grabbed his container of lacquer thinner and doused him with the chemical. He says he was taken to a field near the Queen Elizabeth Power Station, dragged to the South Saskatchewan River which runs nearby, and dunked several times.
Wailing didn't bother filing a complaint until the RCMP launched its probe. He says he simply forgot about the incident and went on with his life.
In June, I flew to Saskatoon, rented a car, and drove to the Queen Elizabeth Power Station. It's on the very southern edge of the city, next to a large landfill site. I sat down and stared at the depression where Lawrence Wegner had been found five months earlier. It was a warm day, sunny and utterly peaceful, save for the relentless hum emanating from the plant's electrical transformers.
Saskatoon's population is 212,000, but the city feels like a small town. No traffic jams, no shrieking road warriors. Drive in any direction and you find the open countryside and sprawling fields in minutes; agriculture still dominates the local economy. The city seems stuck in an earlier era. For many aboriginals, however, this means hardship, not happiness.
Indians make up 15 percent of Saskatoon's population. In the city's west end, they predominate. I took a walk down 20th Street West, which, lined with bars, bingo halls, and greasy diners, is the area's main commercial strip. Young aboriginal prostitutes stood on a corner. A drunken man threatened to sic the cops on me after I photographed a church mission. A rough-looking pair of panhandlers approached me. One, who appeared to be in his twenties, had a hole in his throat the size of a two-dollar coin, the result of a tracheotomy.
Abuse, addiction, unemployment, crime, illness - to say that a large segment of Saskatchewan's aboriginal population is plagued by these circumstances is not an ugly stereotype; it's a fact. Tragedy seems to dog them all.
The next day I drove two hours to the Saulteaux Reserve near North Battleford, where Lawrence Wegner's parents live. Looking for their house, I stopped at the band office. It was a Saturday, and the place was deserted. "Zero tolerance to verbal and/or physical abuse," read a notice taped to the building. "Please be advised that any dogs running at large will be shot," warned another.
The Wegners live in a blue house at the far end of the reserve. I found Mary, Lawrence's mother, standing outside, next to a bed of flowers. "I was just thinking, it's [summer] break and Lawrence would be home right now, helping with the yard or out at the lake swimming. That's what we'd usually do on Saturdays." She started to cry. "There's always a void, always a missing piece."
Gary, her husband, sat under a tarp, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken. He told me that their son had been a survivor. "A lot of times we almost lost him. He was in a car accident when he was two weeks old. Hit by a truck once, knocked fifty feet. When he was four, he got into some rat poison. I drove him into North Battleford and he started vomiting blood." Lawrence was a bright kid, Gary added, but he "had a dark side." He would drink and get high. He landed in a group home and trashed his room. In 1997, he'd stolen eleven dollars from a gas station and received three months' probation. The cops were always hassling him, Gary said. "But he didn't deserve to die."
West from Saulteaux near the Alberta border is the Onion Lake Reserve, where I met Rodney Naistus's brother, Darrell, and their grandfather Alphonse. We sat at a battered table in Alphonse's house, where he lives with his second wife and a cluster of children, some of whom are their own, some of whom they were looking after. Darrell and Rodney's parents separated when the boys were infants and they were raised in foster homes and group homes, on and off the reserve. "There was one place in Edmonton where we used to get whipped all the time," Darrell recalled. "We were seven or eight. A little old white lady used to whip us with willow branches and lock us up because we were late coming home from school."
The boys got into trouble. Someone offered them money to commit a break-and-enter in Edmonton. They were caught and received a sentence of four months' probation. They wound up back on the reserve, this time in a group home run by aboriginals. When that closed, Darrell and Rodney lived by themselves in an abandoned house, across the road from their grandfather's place.
Neither boy finished high school and they couldn't find jobs. Rodney was a quiet individual who would often draw tattoo patterns: dragons, eagles, and skulls. Last year, he broke into a store in Lloydminster, an oil town on the Alberta border. The police found him walking back to the reserve. Sentenced to do time at an urban work camp in Saskatoon, he was released late last January. Then he went out drinking with his brother, for the last time.
Alphonse was working in his garage when an RCMP cruiser pulled into his driveway. "He said, 'Rodney has passed away.' The cop just told me that and then he drove off."
Lawyer Donald Worme arrives at my hotel driving a black, late-model Jeep Cherokee. A forty-year-old Cree with long, loose hair and a quick smile, Worme grew up in a mud hut with no electricity on the Kawacatoose Reserve in central Saskatchewan. Today, he's one of the province's most prominent aboriginal lawyers. His client list includes Darrell Night and the families of Lawrence Wegner and Neil Stonechild.
Worme is a very busy man, and constantly on the road. Today, he's scheduled to appear before a provincial-court judge at the Willow Cree Nation, north of the city; this is my only chance to talk with him in person. We're soon speeding along Highway 11 at 130 kilometres per hour, talking about the challenges facing aboriginal youth. Growing up Indian isn't easy, Worme says. When he was four years old, he witnessed an axe-swinging maniac murder his mother and sister and had to testify about it in court. Two more of Don Worme's sisters later died in separate violent incidents. Somehow he managed to avoid sliding into the mire of alcoholism and drug abuse, and eventually graduated from the University of Saskatchewan law school.
These days, he says, aboriginal youth face a different set of problems, such as gangs, drugs, and pop culture. "Indian kids, their idol is Britney Spears. They don't give a shit what their grandma tells them any more." Worme shrugs, indicating he can't really blame them. "She was drunk half her life, and suddenly she's supposed to be a saint."
We pull onto the reserve and park in front of an aluminum-sided box, Willow Creek's courthouse. Inside, the day's proceedings have already begun. A judge sits at a folding table. On his right are two prosecutors; on his left, the defence table. About fifty members of the Willow Cree nation who are waiting for their cases to be called sit in front. Some smell of booze. All the cases that morning involve alcohol or violence, usually both. A man pleads guilty to beating his wife. Another is convicted of assaulting his father. The judge lists conditions of bail by rote, ordering each guilty party to stop drinking and enroll in anger-management courses.
Driving back to Saskatoon, our talk turns to Darrell Night. Several years ago, he was charged with second-degree murder. Don Worme says some thugs carrying baseball bats and metal table legs broke into his home late one night and set about destroying the place, apparently in revenge over some trivial matter. Night grabbed a kitchen knife and started swinging blindly in the dark. He stabbed one of his assailants, who later died. Although he was acquitted, Night became wary of reporters. He's not giving interviews. He doesn't want to attract any more attention to himself than he already has, Worme says. Recently, Night was stabbed in the gut by a pair of knife-wielding brothers and landed in the intensive-care unit of a Saskatoon hospital. It was "an unprovoked attack," says Worme. He declines to elaborate but adds that he and Night have received four threats since the RCMP began investigating the Saskatoon police.
There have been other unsettling events, Worme says. Jason Roy, who claimed to have seen his friend Neil Stonechild bleeding in the back of a police cruiser, told Worme he was tailed by three men while being interviewed by a journalist last February. Not taking any chances, Worme's law firm put Roy up in a downtown Saskatoon hotel. He "racked up a huge liquor bill," Worme chuckles. A week later, Roy called in a panic. His wife was being arrested at a corner store. She was taken into custody and strip-searched before Worme arrived at the police station and had her released. A Saskatoon police officer allegedly claimed that the young woman, a university student with a small child, had been selling lsd to children in the store. No charges were laid. Even so, says Worme, "it was necessary to take drastic steps to ensure the safety of these young people. The RCMP have put them into a witness-protection program."
A cone of silence has descended over most of Saskatoon's embattled police force. Constables Hatchen and Munson, suspended and facing trial, refuse to discuss their role in the Night incident. Munson, a Scottish immigrant who sings in a church choir, was away painting houses when I showed up at his door; his own home is for sale. He is represented by Morris Bodnar, a lawyer most recently in the public eye for defending Jack Ramsay, the former Reform MP convicted of attempting to rape a young aboriginal girl years ago when he was an RCMP officer. Hatchen is also keeping a low profile. His house in suburban Saskatoon was empty when I dropped by, except for a large barking dog.
Dave Scott, Saskatoon's police chief, calls the recent allegations of police brutality "every chief's nightmare." But he refuses to "point fingers." If a problem does exist, he suggests, it's within the aboriginal community itself. "There's nothing worse than an unemployed person," he tells me. "We've got to make sure that there are menial jobs where these people with low skills can make some kind of living. . . . The root issue is alcoholism. Over eighty percent of the people coming to our detention facilities are sniffed up, drunk, or on drugs. I'm fed up with it."
No one is happy with the current situation. It's often suggested that Saskatoon should have a short-term detoxification facility, where severely incapacitated people can spend a night with medical supervision. Bruce Ehalt, the officer who took Darrell Night's statement, agrees that new facilities are badly needed. When police are "faced with no alternative," he says, some will resort to dumping drunks at the edge of town or at a relative's house, when they should be treated instead. "Police get frustrated," he says. "You don't want to keep locking someone up. There's no help. We're glorified babysitters."
City police make 3,000 arrests involving intoxication every year; there are about 250 chronic repeat offenders, according to Superintendent Brian Dueck. "It's a revolving door. . . . It's not working," he said, during a recent appearance on a Saskatoon cable-television program. "We're dealing with the lowest of the low. We tend to shuffle them off, forget that they are human beings."
It was a remarkably frank comment. But Dave Scott claims his police service "has had tremendous, quiet success dealing with [Saskatoon's] aboriginal community. We have got so many heartwarming stories." He insists that there's no trouble with his officers' attitudes towards aboriginals. "We've had lots of intense sensitivity training . . . ," he says. "A tragic issue has happened here. We'll let the courts decide. There has to be full accountability. There will be justice."
This doesn't reassure the aboriginal community. Fearing that the RCMP's investigation might amount to little more than a public-relations exercise, Saskatchewan's main aboriginal body, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, has hired a pair of private investigators to shadow the task force, at a budgeted cost of $300,000. According to Oliver Williams, one of the private investigators and a former RCMP officer, the whole inquiry "is a mess. There's a lot of people involved, a lot of people scrambling," he says. Williams says he has heard that the Saskatoon police aren't interested in helping the RCMP with their investigation, that the trail has grown cold, that only one case - involving Neil Stonechild - might lead to more charges. And the others? "I don't know if there's enough to go on," Williams says.
Last June, the Saskatoon police union warned its members in a newsletter that two officers were under investigation in connection with Stonechild's death. "Please be very careful before giving a statement in regards to any investigation of wrongdoing by yourself or others," the newsletter reads. "Remember your rights."
Meanwhile, Williams says the federation itself has received some 400 calls from natives complaining of abusive treatment, including sexual assault, at the hands of police, both municipal and RCMP. In the cases where the callers aren't afraid to lodge formal complaints, the information has been passed along to the task force. "No one is untouched here," he says. "This is all about the way [the police in Canada] do business."
A change in the way that police deal with Aboriginals can't come soon enough for people like Mary Wegner. As a girl growing up on the Saulteaux Reserve, she looked up to the police. "I held them in high esteem," she says. But when I asked her if she thought the RCMP will uncover anything about her son's death, she replied, "I don't know. The police are just investigating each other. The truth might never come out and I have to prepare myself for that. In a way, I don't want to know the details of what happened to Lawrence. Because it hurts. I guess I'm scared of what they might find." One wonders how many members of the Saskatoon Police Service share her fear.