Another B.C. Taser death
raises claims of a ‘cowboy Mountie’

Brian Hutchinson, National Post, Nov. 20, 2009

RCMP Cst. John Graham testifies at the Reid inquiry.
Photo: Canwest News Service.


A B.C.-based RCMP officer who figures in a controversial in-custody death involving Tasers had a prior assault conviction from an incident that left his victim with broken facial bones and missing teeth, the National Post has learned.

Subsequent to those two events, Corporal John Graham was accused in B.C. provincial court of striking a Prince George man at least 21 times with a Taser. A judge in that case noted concerns had been raised about Cpl. Graham’s “propensity for violence.” Reference was made to still another incident, when Cpl. Graham shot and killed a mentally ill man in Newfoundland.

Robert Buckingham, a lawyer for a man in Newfoundland who is suing Cpl. Graham over an unrelated, allegedly wrongful arrest, calls the stocky officer a “rogue cowboy Mountie who is moved from place to place and [who] thinks he can do whatever he wants.”

In-custody deaths and the use of Tasers are a particularly sensitive topic in B.C., where Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski died following a confrontation with the RCMP in 2007. He was jolted by a Taser five times.

New concerns — including suggestions of a police cover-up — arising from an earlier case were raised this week at a news conference convened by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and a former chief medical examiner for two provinces.

Cpl. Graham was one of the officers who wrestled with a deranged Clayton Alvin Willey prior to his arrest in Prince George in July 2003, the civil rights group explained. Cpl. Graham bound Mr. Willey’s feet and hands behind his back in a “hogtie,” a restraint position that contravened RCMP policy.

Mr. Willey was dragged on his stomach into an RCMP detachment where he was Tasered multiple times by two other officers. He went into cardiac arrest while being transported to hospital, where he died the next morning. His cause of death was determined to be cocaine overdose.

One question raised this week is whether police disclosed a complete set of videotapes showing Mr. Willey in custody at the Prince George detachment.

David Eby, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, claims the tapes were “edited into a narrative” that was helpful to police at a 2004 coroner’s inquest into Mr. Willey’s death.

“The most important piece [of video] is missing,” he said in an interview. Members of Mr. Willey’s family claim to have seen video that shows his head smacking the ground as RCMP officers pulled him from a police vehicle inside the Prince George detachment garage.

Sergeant Tim Shields, the RCMP’s head of strategic communications in B.C., said this week that as far as he knows, “not one second of the video recorded to tape was withheld” from the Willey inquest. “In order to confirm that total and complete disclosure has been made, the original videotape is presently being examined by a forensic video analyst,” he added yesterday.

The video footage might be made public next month, said Sgt. Shields, once Mr. Willey’s family has had an opportunity to review it.

RCMP Constable Glenn Caston, one of the arresting officers, testified at the 2004 coroner’s inquest that he and another officer “pulled Mr. Willey from the vehicle through the side rear seat door by the rope that had been used to tie Mr. Willey’s feet together.”

Const. Caston “gave evidence that Mr. Willey may have bumped his head and shoulder on the frame of the vehicle and on the floor of the bay,” according to the inquest report.

The RCMP video shows a hogtied Mr. Willey on his stomach being dragged feet first into the detachment’s cells booking area, and it shows his head striking an elevator doorframe, acknowledged Sgt. Shields.

Mr. Willey’s family, their lawyer, Mr. Eby and forensic pathologist John Butt question why two RCMP officers chose to deploy their Tasers on Mr. Willey inside the detachment’s cells booking area where he remained hogtied.

According to the coroner’s inquest report, the officers believed Mr. Willey was still combative and needed further restraint. They felt he could not be unbound and let into a cell because he might harm the officers and himself.

Nowhere is it noted that Mr. Willey seemed capable of breaking free from the hogtie restraint.

“Constable Caston testified that he applied the Taser stun to Mr. Willey on his right arm and that there was no noticeable effect on Mr. Willey,” reads the inquest report. The other officer, Constable Kevin O’Donnell, “testified that he, too, was concerned about the strength that Mr. Willey demonstrated and that he, too, drew his Taser to attempt to control Mr. Willey by using the stun mode of the Taser to gain ‘pain compliance.’ He gave evidence that he applied the Taser to Mr. Willey’s back.”

An ambulance arrived a few minutes later. Mr. Willey was loaded inside and transported to hospital. He stopped breathing en route and went into full cardiac arrest, according to the inquest report. Only then were his restraints removed.

He experienced cardiac arrest a number of times in hospital and died the next morning after suffering another full cardiac arrest. An autopsy showed he had abrasions and contusions on his skin, fractures to seven ribs, and head injuries. Tests showed he had consumed a lethal amount of cocaine, which, the examining pathologist reported, explained his extremely aggressive behaviour prior to his arrest, as well as his eventual death.

But Mr. Willey’s treatment in police custody had not helped.

Dr. Butt is a former chief medical examiner for Alberta and Nova Scotia, now a Vancouver-based forensic pathologist in private practice. He is one of the few people outside the RCMP to have viewed the in-custody video of Mr. Willey. There was no need for police to deploy their Tasers, he feels. “The man was secure, on the ground,” he said in an interview this week.

Two months prior to the Willey incident, the RCMP banned the hogtie restraint because it can lead to positional asphyxia, which has caused death. Cpl. Graham was reportedly unaware of the prohibition when he bound Mr. Willey.

The officer’s troubled past was briefly noted at the B.C. civil rights group’s press conference this week. None of the participants seemed aware that Cpl. Graham had a prior conviction for assault or that a B.C. provincial court judge had referred to his “propensity for violence.”

And no one — not even an RCMP officer responding this week to media inquiries over the Willey incident — seemed aware that Cpl. Graham was the man who had shot and killed Norman Reid nine years ago, on the Bonavista Peninsula in Newfoundland.

“The shooting of Norman Reid was arguably the most sensational public tragedy in the history of the small community of Little Catalina,” wrote Newfoundland provincial court judge Donald Luther, in his 2003 report of inquiry into the sudden death of Mr. Reid. “Everyone knew one another; many had seen the events while all had heard about them.”

A 43-year-old schizophrenic with a long history of erratic, disturbing behaviour, Mr. Reid was well known to local RCMP, including Cpl. Graham, then a constable. On August 26, 2000, residents of Little Catalina reported that Mr. Reid had threatened some local children “in a violent way.”

Cpl. Graham was one of the RCMP responders. According to Judge Luther’s report, a confrontation ensued with Mr. Reid; he came at Cpl. Graham with an axe, screaming “I’m going to kill you.” Cpl. Graham shot him five times and the man died.

“The inquiry concludes that the five shots fired in this case were not excessive and were consistent with established police training and reality,” the judge wrote.

Cpl. Graham was deeply affected by the event and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, according to court documents. That and notoriety attached to the Reid case were likely behind his transfer to B.C.

In January 2002, Cpl. Graham assaulted “a Mr. MacDonald” in the Prince George area, according to a B.C. provincial court judgment. Mr. MacDonald had resisted an arrest. Cpl Graham “acknowledged that he panicked and over reacted when dealing with Mr. MacDonald, particularly with regard to kicking him three times in the torso and head area ... Subsequently, it was discovered that Mr. MacDonald had broken bones in his face and was missing teeth,” the judgment reads.

Cpl. Graham was charged with assault causing bodily harm. He pled guilty to the charge in August 2002. At sentencing he received a $2,000 fine and 18 months probation, and was ordered to complete 50 hours community work.

According to the judgment, Cpl. Graham received psychological counseling prior to his guilty plea, and afterwards. “No internal discipline was brought against him, except a reprimand was placed on his file. His duties with the RCMP were not changed,” the judgment reads.

The Willey incident occurred in July 2003. Two years later, Cpl. Graham and Const. Caston were called to the scene of a violent altercation between a Prince George man — who can only be identified as JAL — and his daughter. In their ensuing scuffle with JAL, Cpl. Graham used his Taser.

He did not file a Taser use report, as the RCMP requires, until more than a year had passed.

At JAL’s assault trial, Cpl. Graham testified he had deployed his Taser twice, in five-second cycles. But JAL’s doctor identified 21 marks on his body that seemed consistent with Taser burns. JAL also claimed he was beaten by Const. Caston while in handcuffs inside the Prince George detachment.

In his 2008 judgment, B.C. provincial court judge Michael Brecknell did not settle on the number of times JAL had been Tasered.

JAL was convicted of assaulting his daughter. Charges alleging that JAL assaulted the RCMP officers were stayed because videotape evidence of JAL’s detainment at the Prince George detachment had mysteriously gone missing.

They were lost or accidentally destroyed, according to the RCMP and the Crown. Judge Michael Brecknell did not accept that. “This was not a ‘simple mistake,’” he wrote in his judgment.

Neither Cpl. Graham nor Const. Caston was reprimanded over the JAL incident.

Cpl. Graham remains on active RCMP duty. He is described as a supervisor in the North District traffic services integrated road safety unit, based in Prince George.

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