A green light to kill

Jeff Hughes’ death is an indictment
of callous, cowardly Canadian police

Oct. 22, 2011

A coroner’s inquest notwithstanding, RCMP haven’t adequately explained
why they killed Jeff Hughes. In addition, the way in which they killed him
speaks volumes about Canadian police.


This post, one of the last before concluding my police accountability project, takes a belated look at the Jeffrey Scott Hughes killing. The case received relatively little media coverage and wasn’t taken up by any of B.C.’s “official” (government- and mainstream media-approved) activists. But of all the police brutality cases I’ve read about in B.C. over the last several years, this is possibly the most disturbing.

Following the direction given by a coroner’s inquest, media coverage largely attributed Hughes’ death to a lack of communication between police and mental health workers. But the events suggest something far more chilling. A group of poorly trained Nanaimo RCMP officers waited, with growing excitement, for the opportunity to kill Hughes, regardless of justification. When they finally got their chance, they fired wildly, showing their inability to handle guns and endangering others besides their target. After up to 20 shots, three bullets struck Hughes in the back. As he lay on the ground slowly dying, police refused to call in an ambulance that was waiting nearby. Instead, they contacted their PR department. Several cops spent several minutes watching Hughes slowly die, even though they saw no sign of a weapon on him. Eventually more police arrived and, long after Hughes had stopped moving, they approached the body. They said they found a flare gun.

Victoria police, on behalf of the Vancouver Island Integrated Major Crime Unit, dragged out its investigation into the shooting for 19 months. Predictably, they exonerated the Mounties. But they refused to say why. VicPD refused to disclose how many officers were involved, how many shots were fired, how many bullets struck Hughes or why he was even shot.

A week-long coroner’s inquest was held last July. A number of tax-funded lawyers, including inquest counsel Rodrick MacKenzie, attended to support the police. Just one lawyer, Douglas Christie, who represented Hughes’ brother Russell, questioned the police account of events. Coroner Marj Paonessa consistently sided with the police and the government lawyers.

Paonessa was seen entering and leaving the building with Victoria police detective Michelle Robertson, who took part in the cop-on-cop investigation.

The coroner’s jury didn’t have the authority to assign blame. But it did accept all of Christie’s recommendations, suggesting strong skepticism about the police story.

Hughes was “known” to police, but not for criminal activity. He evidently held some kind of racist views and even hung a Nazi flag on his wall. Several of his neighbours were native drug dealers. But a Cree neighbour, 75-year-old Dino Davis, described Hughes as a good man who ran errands for her. She told media that the flag was a “scare tactic” to deter thieves. She told the inquest, “They killed the wrong man.”

Another neighbour was Dana Wagg, who said he’d been a journalist at the 1990 Mohawk standoff in Oka, Quebec. He said, “Jeff was kind and helpful. He was coming out of himself and being a bit more friendly. However he was pissed off at the loud partying.” Their apartment building had been the location of loud, all-night parties for at least a month before Hughes’ death. Wagg added, “He wanted to live in peace and quiet. Instead he’s dead. His life could have been turning around.”

Hughes had been a 10-year volunteer with the Georgia Strait Alliance. The environmental group’s administrative director, Cathy Booler, knew about the Nazi flag but told media, “He was a person trying to turn his life around. He had quite a kind heart.” She said Hughes had become very depressed shortly before his death and told her he needed to get out of his building and out of Nanaimo. Neighbours said he had a job interview in Vancouver scheduled the day he was killed.

Hughes had been treated for psychological problems in 2005. This, like Hughes’ alleged racism, was frequently cited by both police and media after the shooting. That information often overshadowed the manner in which Nanaimo RCMP killed Hughes. The accusation of racism, ambiguous as it is, probably explains why B.C.’s “official” police accountability activists, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, have said nothing about the shooting. Yet the group has shown no interest in the beliefs of people like Frank Paul or Clayton Alvin Willey, very dangerous non-whites who died in police custody. Could it be that political correctness trumps concern for human life?

Evidence at the inquest consisted mostly of police radio calls and uncorroborated police testimony.

The events began early in the morning of October 23, 2009. Hughes phoned police at least once to complain about his neighbours’ loud all-night party, an ongoing problem with the drug dealers who lived in the small, run-down building.

For reasons not explained, police did not respond to Hughes’ complaint.

David heard Hughes ask his neighbours several times to quiet down so he could sleep. He told them he had a job interview the next morning.

At about 4:00 a.m. Hughes, a small, slight, 48-year-old man who might have had a physical disability, approached his neighbours.

One of those present was Jesse Crnec, who stands over six feet tall and weighed 175 pounds. He punched Hughes in the face, knocking him flat on his back. As a teenager tried to lift him up, Crnec slammed his knee into Hughes’ face. Several others at the party bragged about the assault with loud comments like, “We hung a good one on him.”

Hughes returned to his own apartment, leaving a trail of blood down the hallway. At some point he turned his own music up loud. That prompted building manager James Hyzelendoorn to call police. Nanaimo RCMP, who refused to respond to Hughes’ noise complaint against a group of criminals, responded in force to Hyzelendoorn’s noise complaint against Hughes.

Police arrived at Hughes’ building at 5:47 a.m., 10 minutes after Hyzelendoorn’s call. But they apparently did not approach Hughes’ apartment until 6:03 a.m. The reason for the 16-minute delay isn’t clear.

RCMP Constable Matthew Watkin testified that Hyzelendoorn told him Hughes had assaulted someone. It’s interesting that Hyzelendoorn would make such an accusation or even lodge a noise complaint against Hughes, since it was some of his other tenants who were violent criminals and regularly held all-night parties. CTV News showed Hyzelendoorn storming away from the inquest building, refusing to talk to media.

At 6:03 Watkin and Const. Derek MacFarlane went to Hughes’ door. They didn’t try to phone him. The coroner ruled out Christie’s question of whether they had even asked him to turn down the music.

Watkin testified that he identified himself but Hughes swore at him and said he’d shoot him if he came inside. At the inquest, Watkin was vague about the details. He had written a duty report, although not until the day after the shooting. When Christie asked that the report be entered as evidence, government lawyer David Kwan objected.

Officers’ notes and reports are often entered as evidence for obvious reasons. Time (in this case, nearly two years) causes memory to fade and also allows more opportunity to cook up lies. Nevertheless the coroner sided with Kwan, offering this strange explanation: “The best evidence is live testimony.” This is the same coroner who was seen with one of the police investigators before and after at least one of the inquest sessions.

Watkin stated that, with MacFarlane standing right behind him, he crouched down. Watkin said Hughes then opened the door, pointed a handgun four inches from Watkin’s face and threatened to shoot him.

After Hughes was killed, tactical officers said they found a flare gun on his body. Apparently a flare gun looks much different than a handgun. But the coroner ruled Christie out when he asked about the appearance of the gun that Watkin said Hughes pointed at him. Neither Watkin nor MacFarlane explained how they could have mistaken a flare gun for what MacFarlane described as a “revolver-style handgun.”

Watkin testified that after Hughes pointed the gun at him, he and MacFarlane retreated down the hall and Hughes went back inside his apartment. More police arrived.

At 6:37, Const. Sean Ziegler said over police radio: “Know your crossfire that there’s no blue on blue.” That cop jargon sounds like a warning to stay out of their fellow officers’ line of fire. It sounds like they were getting ready for the kill.

Fourteen minutes later Ziegler shouted: “He’s got a firearm. He’s waving a revolver.” Hughes was still inside his apartment.

At 6:56 Hughes opened the door and left his apartment. An apparently excited Ziegler immediately shouted, “We’ve got a green light, we’ve got a green light you guys.” That sounds like cop jargon granting permission to kill.

Hughes left the building and walked down an alley leading to the street.

The police had taken cover behind cars. MacFarlane testified that Hughes was wearing headphones and pointing a gun towards the street, away from MacFarlane. The officer said he stood up from behind Hughes and shouted at him to drop his gun. He said Hughes turned and pointed the gun at him. MacFarlane says he fired three times, missing him each time. Then he heard further shots.

Watkin, however, told a different story. According to his testimony, he stepped out from hiding as Hughes was still walking down the alley. Watkin testified that he shouted, “Drop the gun!” Hughes turned to look at him, then turned away again. Watkin shot at him six or seven times, apparently as Hughes had his back turned and was simply walking away from him. Watkin said one of his shots might have struck Hughes, yet he continued walking around a corner.

Const. Heather Cook testified that she ordered Hughes to drop the gun and then fired four shots at him. The jury heard that Corporal Paul McIntosh fired several more shots.

Out of something like 18 to 20 shots, three hit Hughes, all in the back. One hit him in the heel, another in the upper leg, another passed through the back of his arm and entered his chest. Hughes fell to the ground, but was still alive. Police refused to call in the ambulance that was waiting nearby.

They did call their media department at 6:58 a.m. The spin doctors were given advance notice but the ambulance was kept waiting. Hughes was still alive.

At 6:59, Cook said, “He’s still breathing. Did anyone see where the gun went? He’s moving his head and every now and then he puts his hands on his crotch.”

Police still refused to call in the waiting ambulance.

The armed cops continued watching Hughes for several more minutes. The ambulance continued waiting.

At 7:16, the RCMP Emergency Response Team arrived. Also at 7:16, Nanaimo cops told Victoria RCMP staff sergeant Norm McPhail that Hughes had fired at them and was now in custody.

An ERT tactical officer, Sgt. Kirby Anderson, eventually approached Hughes’ body and said he found a flare gun. The flare gun was not entered as evidence. Police did say that the flare gun had not been fired.

Finally, at 7:21, an RCMP dispatcher laughed out loud as she told the ambulance driver that Hughes was dead.

The combination of cowardice and callousness is staggering. Yet inquest counsel MacKenzie tried to portray the shooting as a result of miscommunication between police and mental health professionals. To some extent the jury agreed. But, given that almost all evidence consisted of uncorroborated police testimony, Christie asked the jury to recommend police keep an audio-visual record of serious incidents. Over the objections of the lead investigator, VicPD Staff Sgt. Keith Lindner, the jury adopted all of Christie’s recommendations. That suggests strong skepticism about the police story.

However a coroner’s jury can’t assign blame or make binding recommendations. The inquest, following the long, drawn-out Victoria police cover-up, falls far short of the scrutiny Hughes’ death deserves. In any case, RCMP officers are almost never held accountable for their actions. B.C.’s new Independent Investigations Office might improve the investigative process but the IIO is actually designed to assuage public concern while supporting the police as much as possible.

The problem doesn’t just lie with Nanaimo Mounties. At least some of the officers involved now work in other parts of the country. Nor is this an exclusively RCMP problem. These cops have the unequivocal support of the Victoria Police Department, the Vancouver Island Integrated Major Crime Unit, the B.C. Coroners Service and several government lawyers. With the police status quo firmly entrenched, there’s little anyone can do to seek justice in this case or try to prevent similar outrages from happening in the future.

Jeff Hughes’ needless death speaks volumes about police recruitment, police training, police culture, police ethics and police accountability. It leads to a despairing conclusion: Canadian police officers can get away with being contemptible, callous, cowardly killers.

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