Coroner hears of panicked moments in Cranbrook cell block

The Coroner's Inquest into the in-custody death of Collan Kohalyk has begun at the Cranbrook Law Courts.

Witnesses to the in-custody death of Collan Kohalyk testified Tuesday about a chaotic scene at the Cranbrook RCMP detachment cell block on the night of December 24, 2010.

The Coroner’s Inquest into the death of Kohalyk began Tuesday, October 9 and will continue for the rest of the week with Coroner T.E. Chico Newell presiding.

The inquest heard from RCMP members, the City of Cranbrook-employed guard in charge at the time, responding B.C. Ambulance Service paramedics and Cranbrook Firefighters who arrived on scene to attend to Kohalyk after hearing the call for help from the cell block in the early morning hours of Christmas Eve.

Guard Tom Woloshansky told the inquest he assisted RCMP members around 1 a.m. as they brought Kohalyk into the cells after he was arrested following a domestic dispute. Woloshansky was the only guard on duty at the time and was watching over two females in the cells as well as Kohalyk.

Const. Bob Archer and Const. Len Sullivan were the RCMP members who brought Kohalyk into the cell block.

Archer said the man was agitated, directing swears towards the RCMP members. Woloshansky and Sullivan both confirmed he was combative as they attempted to remove his clothes down to only one layer, as is standard procedure.

“He was swearing, wanting to fight us,” Archer said. “All I can remember was him swearing.”

At one point Kohalyk kicked off his shoes, nearly striking Sullivan in the head according to Archer. The two officers then brought Kohalyk into the cell, where they removed his cuffs and jacket. The members were unable to remove the man’s sweater. Sullivan later explained that doing so without cuffs on would have left the officers vulnerable.

Archer then went to the guard’s room, where he viewed Kohalyk via camera as he removed his sweater and pants and rolled them up into a ball to use as a pillow. He attended the cell again, and the man refused to hand the clothing over to police.

Woloshansky said entering the cell at that time would have further aggravated the situation.

“When you have someone who is agitated and you keep going in and out, that actually exaggerates the agitation,” he said.

Archer agreed, saying the risk was too great to Kohalyk and the RCMP members.

“Somebody would have gotten hurt,” Archer said. “He was very violent.”

Sullivan said when he saw Kohalyk use his clothes as a pillow he believed through his 30-years experience as an RCMP officer that the man would settle down.

“I thought that the situation had de-escalated itself,” he said.

Woloshansky performed a check at 1:19 a.m., and noticed Kohalyk was standing with his back to the bars. He could not see part of his upper body on the camera. Woloshansky said it is common for prisoners to stand this way attempting to hear what is going on outside the cell. He continued with other tasks.

“I’ve got two other prisoners I’ve got to monitor,” he said.

Woloshansky received a call from Archer asking him to remove a cellphone belonging to the domestic dispute victim from Kohalyk’s effects. He began bagging the cellphone, but at 1:28 a.m., he realized Kohalyk was still in the same position.

“Something just didn’t feel right to me,” Woloshansky said.

He did a physical check of the cell, which lay behind a heavy steel door that had been closed because the man was disrupting the other prisoners. It was then that the guard realized Kohalyk was hanging from his T-shirt that had been tied to the cell door.

On the night Kohalyk died, Const. Eldene Stanley happened to be in the detachment after assisting with the victim of the domestic dispute. She was the first officer to respond after Woloshansky called for help. When she arrived, she found Woloshansky entering the cell, holding the man up to relieve pressure on his neck. Stanley used a pair of scissors to cut Kohalyk down, and the pair administered First Aid until help arrived.

Woloshansky said he is sometimes left alone monitoring the cells, but the RCMP officers are quick to assist. It is policy that guards may not enter the cell without a member present.

“A lot of times they’re out on the road but times when I’ve needed them they’re there within a minute,” he said.

The jury at the inquest asked Stanley to describe the man’s position when she attended to him, but the veteran officer said she didn’t pay attention to details as she rushed to help the man.

“It was just a panic at that point,” she said. “I just saw his face and he needed help.”

Archer, Sullivan and Const. James Fayle all arrived on scene to assist Woloshansky and Stanley. Firefighters arrived ahead of ambulance personnel, who told the inquest later they were at the hospital registering the victim of the domestic dispute when they got the call to attend the cells.

The firefighters were able to insert a breathing tube to protect Kohalyk’s airway. When paramedics arrived they hooked him up to oxygen and transported him to the East Kootenay Regional Hospital.

The man later died in hospital after being transported to Kelowna.

Woloshansky noted that the cell in which Kohalyk was placed in is no longer in use unless absolutely necessary. Many of the cells at the Cranbrook block have been renovated, and it is now policy to use the newer ones that have been fitted with steel doors instead of bars first.

Former Cranbrook Detachment Inspector Bryan Edmondson is expected to testify this morning about the changes that have happened since Kohalyk’s death. Woloshansky said the camera has been changed so that the entire cell is viewable.

Fayle told the inquest Kohalyk’s name did not bring up any concern about a possible suicide risk when it was run through two separate police database as is standard procedure in any case.