'Tiny and fragile': Edmonton woman's family seeks answers after she dies in police custody

Deanna Noname opted to leave her oxygen tank behind when she left her brother's home for the last time that Sunday morning. When her family next saw the 55-year-old, she was dying in a bed at Edmonton's Royal Alexandra Hospital.

Deanna Noname, 55, died in hospital Aug. 7, the day after she was arrested

Deanna Noname, 55, died while in police custody on Aug. 7. Her death has sparked an investigation by the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team, and left her family shocked and angry. (Submitted by Chantell Burns)

Deanna Noname opted to leave her oxygen tank behind when she left her brother's home for the last time that Sunday morning.

When the family next saw Noname, she was dying in a bed at the Royal Alexandra Hospital.

During the intervening 36 hours, Noname, 55, was arrested and spent the night in Edmonton police custody.

Her death has sparked an investigation by the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team and left her family shocked and angry.

"I feel like the Edmonton city police did not care for her," her daughter, Samantha Noname, said from her Calgary home. "Maybe if she was cared for better and taken seriously, maybe she would still be alive. I don't know. I'm just grieving for my mom."

Family members, who spoke exclusively to CBC News, say Noname left her brother's house in the Montrose neighbourhood early on Aug. 6.

'I just want to know what happened'

5 years ago
Duration 1:06
Chantell Burns and Tammy Desjerlais have questions about the treatment their aunt, Deanna Noname, received before she died in police custody.

Hours later, around mid-afternoon, she and her two adult daughters arrived at the Belvedere LRT station. At some point, one daughter fell off the platform onto the tracks.

Tansi Noname, 23, told CBC News she tried to help her sister up. Her mother called 911.

Maybe if she was cared for better and taken seriously, maybe she would still be alive.- Samantha Noname

Police arrived and ran the women's names through the database. All three had outstanding warrants. Officers let the younger Nonames go on a promise to appear.

"They didn't try to understand why [my sister] was on the tracks," said Tansi Noname, adding she begged police take her instead, because her mother was "tiny and fragile."

"I said, 'She can't live without her oxygen tank.'"

According to her family, Deanna Noname suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. She began oxygen therapy late last year, but could go without her tank for short periods. When she didn't get enough oxygen, they said, she became confused and slurred her words.
Deanna Noname with her daughter Samantha Noname, who wonders if her mother was properly cared for in police custody.

Noname struggled with addiction, but family members say they're not sure if she had been drinking on the day she was arrested.

That Sunday, police charged Noname with making a frivolous or vexatious 911 call, causing a disturbance by being drunk in public and breaching conditions of her release.

She was handcuffed and taken to the northeast police division office, and later transferred to holding cells downtown.

At 10 a.m on Monday, Noname was found unresponsive in her cell.

Authorities notified her family. Her daughters, sisters, brother and nieces rushed to the hospital. That evening, they removed Noname from life-support. 
Niece Tammy Desjerlais says she saw bruises on Deanna Noname's body in the hospital.

Tammy Desjerlais, Noname's niece, said she resisted the urge to confront a handful of police officers standing outside her aunt's hospital room door.

"I wanted to scream at them," she said. "I wanted to ask them why."

A day later, ASIRT announced the investigation in a news release.

"There were no obvious signs of significant trauma or injury," the release said.

But Noname's nieces said they noticed bruises and bumps on her head, her arms and body. They snapped photographs as evidence. Later, they said, investigators told them their aunt suffered a stroke in her cell. Police have not released results from her autopsy.

 "They said that they brought her in [to police cells] normally, yet they brought her out of there and she was brain dead," Desjerlais said.

ASIRT investigates allegations

In response to CBC's inquiries, ASIRT executive director Sue Hughson wrote a lengthy email.

She said it would be "irresponsible to all involved" to address allegations until all the evidence is collected and understood. That would include 911 recordings, video surveillance, witness statements and medical records.

"ASIRT will report publicly on what happened," Hughson said.

The public, the officers involved and family members have a right to that information, she said.

"At the end of this investigation, ASIRT will be in a position to share with the family what the investigation showed happened both at the Belvedere LRT station and during the woman's time in police custody," Hughson wrote. "In cases involving persons who go into medical distress while in custody, ASIRT will always examine whether officers satisfied their duty of care towards the person in custody."

Deanna's demons

Noname was a member of the Piapot First Nation, 20 kilometres northeast of Regina, who ended up on the streets in Edmonton, her family said.

She could be belligerent and struggled with her demons, they said.

Over a handful of years, she pleaded guilty to mostly petty offences. She served short stints in jail, often for shoplifting, but also for assault and obstructing a peace officer.

Late at night, family said, Noname scratched out her feelings in a lined notebook — cover missing, writing smeared — documenting the racism she said she encountered from police and others, and other forms of injustice.

In her 30s, Noname's five-month-old baby died in foster care. Noname didn't attend a residential school, but many family members did.

"People don't understand how bad the residential schools were to our people and how it really traumatized the person that it happened to," said Chantell Burns. "But not only just that person, it happened to their children, to their grandchildren. It just went on and it's still going on.

"This is why a lot of our people are on the streets."

'Her head held up high'

Noname's nieces recalled happier times living on Piapot, where they attended powwows with their aunt.

Noname competed as a fancy dancer — a kaleidoscope of colour in a dress stitched by her kokum, "her head held up high," said Desjerlais.

Burns said her aunt had a sense of pride in her Cree heritage, and passed that on to the next generation.

Last weekend, the family returned to Piapot, where a hilltop offers a magnificent view of low, rolling hills.

Deanna Noname's final resting place is on one such hillside, dotted with white crosses. Loved ones gathered there Sunday to say goodbye to a daughter, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, sister, aunt and friend.

andrea.huncar@cbc.ca       @andreahuncar
Family buried Deanna Noname at Piapot First Nation in Saskatchewan last Sunday.