The first day of a public inquest into the 2016 death of a Port Alberni teen included witness testimony from RCMP, a doctor and the family of the deceased.
Jocelyn George, 18, died of heart failure in hospital in Victoria on June 24, 2016 after transfer from police custody at the Port Alberni RCMP detachment. She had spent a day and a night in custody.
The BC Coroner’s Service had to reschedule the inquest to Monday, June 21 after the coronavirus pandemic interfered with the original date in 2020. The first day of the inquest, which is taking place at the Capitol Theatre in Port Alberni, opened with two prayers from Hupacasath First Nation elder Haayuups (Ron Hamilton).
Matthew Lucas, George’s uncle, told the court on Monday that his niece was a “friend to many” who never hesitated to provide a helping hand. As a young mother, George “gave her all to be the best mother she could” to her children, said Lucas. George was also an “avid dancer” who made her own regalia.
“She had dreams of where she wanted her path to go,” said Lucas.
On the morning of June 23, 2016 RCMP received a complaint that there was an individual on the stairwell at the Salvation Army in Port Alberni under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Richard Gagnon, a constable with the RCMP who is now retired, told the court that he made patrols in the area and located George. Gagnon said George wasn’t dressed appropriately for the conditions. At the time, it was lightly raining. George’s hair and clothes were wet and she was shivering slightly, said Gagnon.
“She was very calm, but she was obviously very confused,” said Gagnon. “What she was saying didn’t make sense. My first impression was that she was under the influence of some sort of drug.”
After calling and contacting George’s mother, Gagnon and another officer, Cst. Beth O’Connor, made the decision to take George back to the station and hold her in one of the cells until she was able to take care of herself.
The court was shown CCTV footage of the time when George was brought into the RCMP detachment on June 23. In the footage, George is able to walk and enters the detachment of her own accord.
In the afternoon of June 23, George was released by RCMP, but she was brought back to the cells approximately an hour later after a phone call from concerned family members.
In the morning of June 24, Gagnon said he checked on George and observed that “she was rolling around on the floor a bit” and her arms were fidgeting. Gagnon said he was concerned for her physical health, as her intoxication had gone “beyond the realm” of a normal detox period.
“Miss George appeared to still be intoxicated,” Gagnon told the court.
Officers were also concerned because George had not eaten or had anything to drink while she was in police custody, even though she was provided with food and water.
Gagnon and other officers at the detachment made the decision to contact paramedics. George was eventually taken to West Coast General Hospital (WCGH), then to Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria. Despite medical intervention, she died on the evening of June 24. Her cause of death, according to an Independent Investigations Office (IIO) report, was drug-induced myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle, due to the toxic effects of methamphetamine and cocaine.
Prior to her death, George had previously been admitted to WCGH on June 9 under the Mental Health Act. According to Dr. Dirk Smit, a psychiatrist at WCGH, George was suffering from stimulant drug-induced psychosis and believed people with guns were out to get her. During her four-day stay at the hospital, she was treated for her psychosis and alcohol withdrawal. She was diagnosed with stimulant and alcohol use disorders.
She was offered treatment for her substance use disorders when she was discharged on June 13, but declined treatment, said Smit.
The IIO cleared Port Alberni RCMP of any involvement in George’s death back in 2018. Under Section 18(2) of the Coroners Act, inquests are mandatory for any deaths that occur while a person was detained by or in the custody of a peace officer.
The inquest will continue at the Capitol Theatre for the next week. Presiding coroner Margaret Janzen and a jury will hear evidence from witnesses under oath to determine the facts surrounding George’s death. Jurors will hear testimony from approximately 30 witnesses, including paramedics, doctors and RCMP.
The jury will certify the identity of the deceased and how, where, when and by what means death occurred, but will not make any finding of legal responsibility or express any conclusion of law. The jury will have the opportunity to make recommendations aimed at preventing deaths under similar circumstances.