Drafted by : Mariam Durrani and Leonard Cler-Cunningham

Sylvester Thomas Plasway, Smithers BC, 1989, April 01

Years ago, I presented a paper at an International Qualitative Research Methods conference. The key note speaker was one of the founders of the Chicago School of Anthropology. We went out for drinks, and I asked him, “After 40 years of studying, what have you learned about the human condition?”

He took a sip of his beer, and said, “Len, stupid people do bad things.”

For Sylvester Thomas Plasway, “Stupid people doing bad things” cost him his life.

It had been almost 30 years since Sylvester had made the 100 kilometre trip south, trading the gravel roads of the isolated Fort Babine Reserve, for the pavement of Smithers, a town halfway between Prince George, and Prince Rupert in northern British Columbia.

Two nights before Sylvester had gotten himself so drunk that he spent the night in jail. The next day, he again got so intoxicated that he spent yet another night in the drunk tank. On this particular Saturday, April 1, 1989, Sylvester seemed to be in a rush to have it end up much the same. He had started the morning drinking with a group of friends, in the shed, behind the house. Sylvester got into a fight, at about 9:30am, with Thomas Naziel, during which he hit the ground. He staggered off, and passed out on the floor of Tom’s Laundry.

Half an hour later, two Smithers’ Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Constables showed up in response to a call, and loaded Sylvester into the police cruiser. On the way from the cruiser to the detachment the RCMP Constable let go of Sylvester, and he fell down, striking the ground for the second time that day.

Sylvester spent the next 12 hours in the Smithers drunk tank, and according to the eventual Coroner’s Inquest “in general stayed in the same position throughout the day”. It was shortly after ten in the evening when a Matron noticed that it appeared through the bars of the cell that Sylvester was not breathing. Guards, and Matrons are not allowed to enter cells except under the strictest of guidelines – perhaps, possible imminent death is not one of them in practice. She radioed for the Constable to return, and called for an ambulance to be dispatched. When the Constable returned, CPR was attempted to no avail. The ambulance took a surprising twenty minutes to arrive, despite it being a three minute trip down the Yellowhead Highway.

The autopsy revealed that Sylvester had stopped breathing due to a blow to his head. He had suffered a fracture to his sphenoid, and occipital bones. The sphenoid is often described as a butterfly shaped bone. It takes about a month after birth for it to harden, and it is found in the front of the skull, while the occipital is found at the back of the skull. It is made of four parts at birth, and fuses into a single bone by the age of seven. It was a blow to Sylvester’s head that ultimately led to respiratory arrest.

On the first day of April, 1989, at 10:30pm, Sylvester Thomas Plasway was declared dead. Depending on which Canadian province you live in, whenever someone dies under suspicious, or unusual circumstances, and/or society can benefit by an in-depth understanding of how, or why that person died, a Coroner, or Medical Examiner is immediately called. Possessing the power to enter anyplace, at anytime, and imbued with the authority to seize any records related to the death, they immediately take possession of the body for examination, and to identify the victim. Barring a few small limitations, a Coroner, or Medical Examiner, ‘can seize anything that they believe is relevant to the investigation’.

The reason for the extent of the power we grant to these institutions is that they are often the first determination of whether the death is accidental, natural, or a potential homicide. The Medical Examiner system optimally involves a qualified forensic pathologist with specific legal, and medical training to identify the cause of death. A Coroner does not have to possess any medical training, but it is not as if a used car salesman can call himself a coroner by pencilling it onto the bottom of his business card.

Except, according to RCMP archival documents, that is exactly what happened in Sylvester Plasway’s case:

In 1971, the professionalism of the Coroner’s office was called into question when Fred Quilt was killed. Depending on whom you believe, Fred died: when the RCMP jumped up, and down on his prone body, or when his drunk wife backed up over him in their truck. The Coroner’s office came under criticism from the BC Supreme Court when they overturned the results of the first inquest into Quilt’s death, ruling “that a coroner’s jury selected by a police officer, and of which was composed of persons who were sympathetic to or might be sympathetic to the police was an improperly constituted jury.”

Although the coroners jury investigating Sylvester’s death in custody was not composed of police officers, and their friends, it does have one thing in common with Fred Quilt’s case – it was still a cop investigating other cops. Glenn B. Delwisch’s former employment as a RCMP came to public attention when he was named as one of the ‘structurists’ in what was later revealed to be a multi-million dollar Ponzi scheme. According to the Globe and Mail the ‘structurists’

offered educational sessions that bad-mouthed mainstream investing tools such as stocks and bonds. Once potential investors had paid a membership initiation of about $1,700, it offered an alternative: Members were given the ability to make offshore investments with promised annual returns of between 35 and 40 per cent.”

Poor future business decisions aside, the former RCMP officer either chose to ignore, or was unaware of recommendations made in the coroner’s inquest investigating the death of Joanne Leah Totus. Joanne, like Sylvester, suffered from a lifetime of alcohol abuse, and was also no stranger to the drunk tank. Her Coroner’s jury was very specific in their recommendations about what the RCMP should do in order to prevent other people of ‘questionable consciousness’ from dying in custody.

The Totus inquest identified that:

The RCMP must ensure that all members of the R.C.M. Police must adhere to policy guidelines regarding the handling of unconscious detainees as per Chapter 111, sec. C, paragraph 12, and make themselves familiar with the “Glasgow Coma Scale” for determining the level of a person’s consciousness, regardless of the number of times that the person has been detained in the past. It is essential that all R.C.M. Police personnel, Guards, Matrons, and any persons having care, and control of detainees be aware of all police guidelines, and amendments regarding the handling of prisoners.

According to the RCMP operations manual at the time, section C.12 states that:

C. 12. A person who is injured, ill or of questionable consciousness at the time of arrest shall not be placed in a cell unless medically examined and found fit to be incarcerated.”

The only recommendation made by the jury at Sylvester’s inquest was:

“We recommend that more immediate attention should be given to a person who is suspected of needing emergency medical attention. A three to five minute time-lapse before administering first aid is too long.”

While the coroner ignored the possibility that fulfilling the Glasgow Coma Scales requirement of being able to count up to the number 15, or that people of questionable consciousness be checked by a doctor might have potentially saved Sylvester’s life; Delwisch took exception to the jury’s subtle suggestion that the Smithers Detachment could not have done anything different to avoid Sylvester’s death arguing that only a minute and half had passed.

The potential for a conflict of interest when the BC Coroners office allows retired police officers to investigate former colleagues arose as recently as 2006 when a group of coroners asked the Solicitor-General for an external review of the service. Among the issues they brought up were;

“1. Community coroners’ reports and recommendations are subjected to editing, deletions and additions by both the regional coroners and the chief coroners offices. In one example, a coroner recommended that “…police review their high speed policy” in the report of a death. The chief coroners office deleted the recommendation, told the coroner that he was not to “criticize the police”. He was terminated some months later. There can be important discrepancies between the community coroners investigations and the final report from the BCCS.

2. The BCCS is staffed with many former police officers. Investigations of deaths in custody can involve looking at the actions of previous associates or members of their previous associations (such as RCMP). This is a situation that has the perception of a conflict of interest.”

In a letter of support for our failed freedom of information requests, the former coroner wrote that:

“My perception is that the BCCS has become unnecessarily secretive, lacks investigative integrity and has forgotten that its mandate is to report to society who died, when, where and by what means and to make recommendations in order to prevent future similar deaths. They have become a bureaucracy that seeks to protect itself, rather than the public.”

Next story in the series begins to look at whether a case can be made that the BC Coroners Office, and RCMP are guilty of negligent homicide.