Feb. 14, 2015: An incoming call flashes on a 911 operator’s monitor in the Prince George emergency communications centre.
On the other end: 17-year-old Adelle Jonker, distraught, speaking through tears, tells the operator her father Jacobus is intoxicated, has a gun and she fears for her life.
A dispatcher alerts police in Smithers.
Within moments, RCMP Const. Ashley Vanleeuwen is the first to arrive at the corner of Driftwood Crescent and Reiseter Avenue. He finds a very large, agitated and combative individual in a front yard wearing a T-shirt and shorts despite the sub-zero temperatures of the winter night. He tries to calm the man to no avail.
Const. Jennifer McCreesh arrives as her partner is shouting at Jacobus to get his hands out of his pockets; she notes a neighbour hustling two women into a nearby house.
Eventually, Jacobus complies with Vanleeuwen’s command to remove his hands from his pockets, but the man raises his fists and charges at Vanleeuwen. The young officer hits him full in the face with pepper spray. He goes down, rubbing at his face with his T-shirt.
McCreesh handcuffs Jacobus and gets him into a cruiser. She stays behind to interview Jacobus’s family while Vanleeuwen transports Jacobus back to the detachment.
As Vanleeuwen and Const. Dean Klubi, who was on-duty at the detachment, attempt to usher their prisoner into a cell, Jacobus tries to overpower them.
Vanleeuwen grabs Jacobus by the head and neck and manages to bring him down as Klubi restrains him by the legs. Jacobus becomes unresponsive. The officers attempt CPR then call an ambulance. Paramedics transport Jacobus to Bulkley Valley District Hospital (BVDH).
Unable to determine the problem or treat his patient, the attending physician airlifts Jacobus to Victoria General Hospital (VGH), where he is put on life support.
One week later, Jacobus is removed from life support and pronounced dead.
In a nutshell, that is the tumultuous story a coroner’s inquest into the in-custody death of a once-beloved Smithers rugby coach heard in the Smithers courthouse Sept 9 – 13.
One of the main purposes of a coroner’s inquest is to classify a death as natural, accidental, suicide, homicide or undetermined.
After hearing 19 witnesses over five days, a jury of seven Smithers area residents classified the death as accidental, listing “external pressure to the head [and] neck” as the immediate cause of death.
The jury also made five recommendations:
That RCMP “E” Division (British Columbia) review handcuff removal procedure with respect to prisoner booking;
That the division considers implementing a standard Oleoresin Capsicum (pepper) Spray decontamination procedure in a secure location;
That the division requires further compliance with Section 188.8.131.52 of the “E” Division Operational Manual to ensure re-certification occurs within a prescribed time period;
That RCMP consider using this incident as a case study in their Crisis Intervention and De-Escalation (CID) training; and
That the Minister of Education, considers implementing a “Respectful Relationships Program” in the provincial school system.
A Respectful Relationships Program currently exists within the provincial corrections system. In 2006, the Province provided funding to nine communities in B.C. to implement a similar program in some local school districts.
A TENSE DAY
The public inquest began Sept. 9 with testimony from Cornelia Jonker, wife of the deceased, who told the jury about the events that led up to the night of Feb. 14, 2015.
The day began, she said, with Jacobus becoming frustrated with his son for not wanting to help him take some trash to the Telkwa dump.
When she got back from a hair appointment, she could tell things were tense at home.
Despite trying to calm him down, Jacobus became argumentative.
Later, when Cornelia left for the grocery store, she asked him if there was anything he wanted her to pick up for him.
Jacobus had just one request: alcohol.
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea, I said, [and he said] ‘well, that’s what I want’.”
In response to a question from inquest counsel Christopher Godwin, Cornelia said she believed Jacobus had a drinking problem.
“When he started, he couldn’t stop and when he’s drunk he became aggressive … and he was already upset,” she said.
That evening, Cornelia began making dinner while Jacobus started drinking brandy.
By the time supper was ready, Jacobus was uninterested in eating.
Cornelia said she did not know how much he had drank.
When the couple’s daughter Adelle arrived home around 8:30 p.m. the situation began to escalate.
The Jury heard from a video statement given by Adelle on Feb. 16, 2015 at the Smithers RCMP detachment that Jacobus became verbally abusive and she went to her mother’s side to defend her.
“I told him that he had no right to tell my mom that everything was her fault.”
Shortly after mentioning to his daughter that he was feeling depressed and “in a dark place,” Jacobus locked himself in the home’s master bedroom.
It was at this point Cornelia remembered the guns — six, stored in a gun safe in the spare bedroom.
“My concern was that he’s going to kill us all,” she told the inquest.
Worried by Jacobus’s statements and state of intoxication, Adelle and Cornelia headed to the gun safe.
When they got there, they noticed the safe’s spare key was missing.
The only other key was in the master bedroom — where Jacobus was.
Adelle broke into the room using a quarter to wiggle open the lock. She saw her father lying on the bed, reading from a Bible. She retrieved the key and went back to the spare bedroom to join her mother and brother.
Her brother opened the gun safe and confirmed all six guns were still present.
In her statement, Adelle said it was at this point she told her mother she didn’t think they would be able to handle the situation on their own and should call 911.
But before they could come to a decision, Jacobus entered the room.
Adelle told him she would call the police if he did not leave.
That, she said, got his attention.
“His eyes went all lifeless and [he] just said ‘I am not going to the drunk tank’.”
Jacobus then stormed into the kitchen, where Cornelia told the inquest they could hear him routing around in drawers where he kept his hunting and fishing knives.
Shortly after, Adelle — who had already left the spare bedroom — saw her father come out of the kitchen, holding a knife.
“It was a really sharp … it was the sort of knife you can kill someone with.”
She ran outside and called 911.
Seconds later, Jacobus came back upstairs to the spare bedroom — this time with his gun safe keys — and lunged past Cornelia toward the safe.
She ran, leaving the house and hiding behind a neighbour’s vehicle across the street.
Moments later, she saw the barrell of a gun emerge from a small crack in the doorway.
It was around this time she also noticed Adelle, just outside the house on the phone with the police dispatcher.
“My mom ran out and she saw me and she just said, ‘Adelle, run, he has a gun!’ and I went behind his truck that was parked on the far side of the front door in the driveway and I saw him with his gun inside the doorway … in his left hand.
“I didn’t know if it was loaded or not.”
Adelle said Jacobus never raised his hand and was holding the gun above his hips.
“I was close enough that I felt like he could shoot me if he pulled the trigger right now and hit my leg or something,” Adelle said.
She then ran from his truck across the street and hid behind a neighbour’s car.
“I heard the door close and I ran,” said Adelle, who was still talking to 911 during the whole interaction.
“I told [the operator] to rush, I told her to bring people because I don’t know what’s going on — I don’t know what he’s going to do.”
Moments later, the first RCMP officer to respond to the call — Const. Ashley Vanleeuwen — arrived on the scene.
Cornelia testified that when Vanleeuwen arrived, Jacobus came out of the house (not carrying a gun) and walked over casually to his vehicle, almost as though he was going to go for a late-night drive.
“He gave the impression that he was oblivious of what [was] happening around him.”
Addressing the inquest Sept. 11, Vanleeuwen said when he first came across Jacobus exiting his house, he tried a number of soft communication techniques to try and calm the 53-year-old down, namely asking him in a raised-but-polite voice if he would come over and talk with him.
He added he was still aware this was a potentially firearm-related case and his main concern was the safety of Jacobus and his family, as well as determining where any unsecured firearms within the house might be.
Vanleeuwen told the jury his soft (non-physical and relatively non-threatening) means of trying to communicate with Jacobus proved unsuccessful and Jacobus continued to walk in his direction with one hand in his pocket.
The officer told him to take his hand out of his pocket, to which Cornelia testified Jacobus responded with something along the lines of “you come do it.”
She said in a short period of time, Jacobus’s demeanor toward the police shifted from oblivious to taunting.
“He was moving towards the officer in a straight line and then at some point the officer [drew] his weapon and [kept] on saying to him take your hands out of your pocket.
“And [Jacobus] yelled, ‘shoot me, shoot me’.”
At this point, Stephen Jennings, a neighbour ushered Cornelia and Adelle into his house.
Const. Jennifer McCreesh, second on the scene, said when she arrived she saw a surprisingly large individual approaching Vanleeuwen, who was shouting commands for the man to take his hands out of his pockets.
She immediately pulled her weapon to provide backup to her partner.
McCreesh told the inquest after a few tense moments, Jacobus brought his fists up and hunched his shoulders and started bobbing in a way she described a boxer might. Then, she said, Jacobus charged at Vanleeuwen who deployed his pepper spray into the man’s face.
She estimated Jacobus was approximately six to eight feet away from Vanleeuwen, who continued to move back and to the left in an attempt to get out of the charging man’s trajectory.
After being hit with the spray, McCreesh testified Jacobus went down to the ground and lifted his shirt by its hem over his head in an attempt to wipe away the pepper spray.
McCreesh told the inquest, as someone who had also been pepper sprayed before (part of RCMP training), she could tell exactly what three words he was repeating as he coughed through his shirt:
“Just shoot me.”
It was also around this point McCreesh noticed a glinting flash from a pile of clothing close to Jacobus she was worried could be a firearm.
Jacobus began to back up toward the pile, not complying with the her commands to stop.
“I didn’t want him to get any closer to what I thought might be the gun that had been referred to earlier.”
Still fearing a potential confrontation, McCreesh opted to try a more gentle approach and connect with Jacobus on a personal level, telling him she was there to help him.
That proved successful and she was able to get him into handcuffs. She said she was shocked by the size of Jacobus’s arms and wrists and had to use two sets of cuffs linked together to restrain him.
While he was initially calm, when McCreesh told Jacobus he was being arrested for pointing a firearm at his family he again became aggressive, once again telling officers to shoot him.
“I remember telling him no one’s getting shot tonight,” McCreesh testified.
She then placed Jacobus in the back of Vanleeuwen’s car.
AT THE DETACHMENT
Arriving at the detachment shortly after 11 p.m., Vanleeuwen testified he removed Jacobus’s handcuffs and he and Const. Dean Klubi who was on duty at the detachment, ushered Jacobus into a cell with an eye wash station to wash the pepper spray from his face.
“Wouldn’t it have been easier to just lock the door here?” asked Godwin. “Wouldn’t it have been safer?”
Vanleeuwen told counsel they were not yet finished “decontaminating” Jacobus, (searching and removing any potential means of self-harm from an individual in custody). Namely, they hadn’t removed his shoes or checked for any drawstrings on his clothes.
Vanleeuwen told the inquest the officers were trying to be humane in giving Jacobus the opportunity to wipe his eyes right away.
But he also acknowledged doing so as an “oversight.”
Once Jacobus had had the opportunity to wash his face, Vanleeuwen and Klubi brought the man back to the bench in the booking area where they sat him back down and attempted to further decontaminate him.
Vanleeuwen said Jacobus began to make what the officer perceived as veiled threats, such as mentioning his 20 years of military service in South Africa.
The officer testified Jacobus also made the comment that “this will never make it to court.”
These comments — especially the latter, which Vanleeuwen characterized as “sinister” — increased his risk assessment of Jacobus as an inmate with a potential to become aggressive or violent.
“The way he said it, and the feeling it gave me, was he was going to handle it one way or another.
“My guess [was] he was going to kill himself or kill his family — that’s what that statement meant to me.”
Shortly after these statements, Vanleeuwen said Jacobus sat up and began to walk toward the two officers, something which prompted Godwin to ask about whether re-cuffing him would have been an option at that point.
“Many things are options,” said Vanleeuwen, noting the situation was a static one, his partner was not in uniform and that Jacobus was physically much larger than either of them.
Godwin asked Vanleeuwen why they would remove an inmate’s handcuffs if he had a high risk of aggression.
Jacobus was not being combative when the cuffs were initially removed and he was attempting to build rapport and trust with the subject, Vanleeuwen replied.
As Jacobus continued to walk around, he became progressively more aggressive, Vanleeuwen told the inquest.
Security footage from the detachment was presented to the jury which appears to show Jacobus — who coached high-school rugby — attempting unsuccessfully to tackle Vanleeuwen.
At this point, the two officers began to usher Jacobus back toward the cell area. When they got within a few steps, both officers testified Jacobus became hostile and attempted to overpower them.
In the video, Vanleeuwen can be seen grabbing Jacobus by the head and neck area, eventually bringing him to the ground.
The struggle continued on the detachment floor as Vanleeuwen and Klubi both attempted to restrain Jacobus, who continued to thrash about after hitting the ground, with Vanleeuwen restraining his head area and Klubi restraining his lower body.
After a short period of time, Klubi tapped on Vanleeuwen (who was facing in the opposite direction) to let him know Jacobus was no longer resisting and to remove the hold he had on him.
They noticed Jacobus was unconscious and not breathing normally.
The video shows the officers beginning chest compressions on Jacobus trying to revive him. They also put him on an automated external defibrillator (AED), but the machine analyzed his vital signs and determined no shock to his body was required.
The machines cannot be manually operated, aside from being turned on and instructed to perform a scan.
Counsel questioned Vanleeuwen whether the move he used to bring Jacobus down during the altercation was an example of a frontal carotid control technique, what most people refer to as a chokehold.
Vanleeuwen stated he did not use the technique in subduing Jacobus.
“I just held on and where the head goes the body goes … there was no carotid control applied.”
“So when you got him down to the ground … I take it you used his neck and head to take him down?” asked Godwin.
“You let go then, did you?”
“No I still held on, I did not want him to alligator roll … I did not want him to turn on me.”
The carotid control technique is an example of a submissive stranglehold and is commonly used in sports such as mixed martial arts.
The hold is traditionally performed by applying pressure to a subject’s neck on either side of the windpipe—but not on the windpipe itself—to slow or stop the flow of blood to the brain via the carotid arteries.
The B.C. RCMP’s use-of-force-expert Cpl. Gregg Gillis testified officers are generally instructed not to use the neck in control tactics, or as a fulcrum point for a submission or chokehold, and are taught to wrap and control the head of a potential threat if that is the only or most accessible means of controlling the subject.
Gillis also told the inquest while officers are trained on carotid control techniques, they are relatively high on the scale of compliance techniques, meaning they are to be used only in the most dire circumstances.
Even in situations where the technique is applied ideally, he said, there are risks associated with its use.
He said these increase exponentially with variables such as prolonged or incorrect use of the technique.
Counsel asked when such a technique is appropriate. Gillis replied that as long as they are applied in the safest manner possible given the individual circumstances, that use of a high-risk control technique is preferable to an officer being overpowered by a subject or subjects.
He gave the similar example of gouging at eyes, another technique officers are taught to use in situations where they fear for their lives or the lives of others.
“Police officers have to win the fight,” Gillis said. “If they lose the fight, control is lost.”
When Vanleeuwen’s and Klubi’s efforts to revive Jacobus failied, they called for an ambulance. Attending paramedic Kerrie-Anne Gould said they arrived at the detachment at 11:54 p.m. and transported Jacobus to BVDH arriving at approximately 11:57 p.m.
Jacobus was transferred into the care of Dr. Darren Jakubec, the on-call anaesthetist that night.
While Jacobus seemed to be breathing somewhat on his own, and while his vital signs seemed OK, Jakubec said he wasn’t reacting to efforts by the doctors to communicate or invoke some sort of stimulus response.
Jakubec said he was unable to determine what the problem was.
“I wish we had a CT scanner at the time, because I thought something doesn’t add up in the stories I was getting from collateral histories.”
He said his main goal was to keep Jacobus stable so he could be transferred to a facility with a CT scanner as soon as possible.
Although he was unsure about the exact problem, Jakubec did tell the inquest he had concerns at the time it could be neurological.
“Were you able to even, in the absence of a CT scan, determine a differential diagnosis?” Godwin asked.
Jakubec said, while speculative, some sort of “insult to the brain” where it lost oxygen and bloodflow for a sustained period of time could, hypothetically, account for the symptoms.
RCMP Counsel Andrew Kemp asked whether the large size of Jacobus’s neck could be significant with regard to a disproportionate effect from lack of oxygen.
The doctor explained people with necks larger than 16 inches in circumference are at higher risk for not breathing in situations such as coming off anaesthetic.
Jakubec also testified people with large necks are at an increased risk of not breathing if they are under the influence of a sedative such as alcohol.
“It would be in fitting with his anatomy that if he stopped breathing, if there was any sort of sedation or reason for his airway to close off, he could be without oxygen for a little bit longer than somebody that didn’t have a neck that size.”
“And to be clear, his neck was greater than 16 inches in [circumference]?” asked Kemp.
“I didn’t measure it, but it certainly looked that way to me.”
Ultimately unable to determine the cause of Jacobus’s injuries, Jakubec had him airlifted to Victoria General Hospital (VGH), leaving BVDH at approximately 5:25 a.m.
At VGH, Jacobus was under the care of Dr. Peter Sherk, who told the inquest he believed the 53-year-old was in a state of hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (brain injury caused by oxygen deprivation).
Sherk also told the inquest he could not determine exactly how long Jacobus was without adequate oxygen levels. MRI and CT scans showed no evidence of head or brain trauma.
After speaking with Jacobus’s family doctor and a brother living in South Africa, a consensus was reached that Jacobus would not want to live in the poor neurological condition he would likely be in were he to recover and a decision was made to remove him from life support.
Jacobus was pronounced dead at 4:24 p.m. on Feb. 21, 2015 at VGH.
Dr. Carol Lee, a forensic pathologist at Royal Columbian Hospital, who conducted an autopsy on Jacobus, told the inquest that both the presence of a disrupted right side of the superior horn of the thyroid cartilage and the presence of hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy makes it much more likely that his death was caused by external pressure to the head and neck as opposed to a twisting of the head by itself.
A coroner’s inquest does not find fault or assign blame. Jury recommendations are intended to try to help prevent future deaths in similar circumstances. Jury recommendations are non-binding.