'Thrown to the wolves': Travis Vader testifies about violence and humiliation in custody

Testifying from the witness box for the first time Tuesday, Travis Vader recounted for an Edmonton court details of the day he was arrested in July 2010.

Convicted Edmonton killer sees himself as a victim: wrongly accused, wrongfully convicted, mistreated

Convicted killer Travis Vader testified Tuesday morning during the second day of his sentencing hearing. (CBC )

With two manslaughter convictions hanging over his head, Travis Vader stood in the prisoner's box Tuesday and gave testimony recounting scenes from his arrest and time in custody that included violence, nudity and coarse language.

He touched on "shit bombings" by other prisoners, recalled standing "buck naked" and humiliated after his arrest in 2010 and claimed guards at the Edmonton Remand Centre broke his wrist during an altercation.

Vader told Court of Queen's Bench Justice Denny Thomas about his arrest in July 2010. He said RCMP officers told him was being taken into custody on outstanding warrants and advised him he was a suspect in the disappearance of Lyle and Marie McCann, an elderly couple from St. Albert, Alta., whose bodies have never been found.

Driven to the RCMP detachment in Edson, about 200 kilometres west of Edmonton, Vader was strip-searched while a video camera recorded the scene.

"The cell door to the holding cell was left open," Vader said. "Everybody could see."

'I remember standing there, buck naked'

Defence lawyer Nate Whitling asked Vader how he felt at the time.

"It's humiliating, absolutely humiliating," Vader said. "I still remember standing there, buck naked, in front of the world basically. Being recorded."

Whitling told court his client will only testify about issues related to his constitutional rights while he was in custody.

Vader testified that after his arrest, he tried to meet with a lawyer, but an RCMP constable remained in the interview room with a recorder.

He said he asked the officer to leave several times because he wanted to speak to his lawyer privately.

"I didn't want to bring up any issues while the officers were in the room recording," Vader said. "I didn't know what to do. The officers would not leave."

'It's what you call the hole'

Questioned by his lawyer Tuesday, Vader spoke at length about his time in custody at the Edmonton Remand Centre, where he was housed in Unit 5B.

Whitling asked his client what name prisoners used for Unit 5B.

"It's what you call the hole," Vader said. "It's a disciplinary unit. It houses the worst of the worst inmates. Your gang leaders, your fighters."

Asked about the conditions on the unit, Vader described them as "horrendous."

There was no hot water for inmates, he said, no radios in the cells and no access to TV.  Prisoners were locked up 23 hours a day.

"The minute I walked on that unit, it was like being thrown to the wolves," Vader said.

He told court he was the victim of an inmate practice called "shit bombing" at least three times.

"The first shit bombing came through a newspaper, the same day I was admitted. There was human feces collected from other inmates and placed in a newspaper."

The idea, he said, was to stomp on the newspaper and send feces flying across the cell.

Vader arrived in court with bandages on his right hand and lower arm, and a splint on two fingers.​ He told court about an incident in the remand centre, where SWAT team members began pulling inmates from their cells. He said he was locked in his cell at the time, but the SWAT team extracted him anyway and roughed him up. He said he was "strip searched on camera."

"They twisted your wrist in the handcuffs to the point you showed pain," Vader said. "The pain was almost excruciating. I hear my wrist snap and I asked, 'Is that enough?' "

He told court he asked for an X-ray on his wrist but didn't get one until after the injury had healed.

Vader told court he converted to Islam in 2012 and continues to practise the religion. He claimed guards regularly made derogatory comments about Muslims and tampered with his meals.

Whitling has told CBC News the defence team's goal is to convince the judge to reduce Vader's sentence because of the treatment he received, or to impose a stay of proceedings.

After listening to hours of testimony from Vader, Bret McCann told reporters the man convicted of killing his parents was trying to refashion himself as a classic victim.

"I heard two things," McCann said. "One was, prison is not a very nice place to be. And I heard sort of a, 'Woe is me, I'm a victim here.' Instead of who the real victims are — my parents. I have no sympathy for him."

The defence will seek a prison term of four to six years, while the prosecution will ask for two life sentences.

Wrongful prosecution lawsuit

In April 2014, Vader filed a $1-million wrongful prosecution lawsuit against more than four dozen RCMP officers, Crown prosecutors and jail guards.

The 16-page statement of claim contains many allegations that have not been proven in court.

Vader complained he was held in a cell at the Edmonton Remand Centre known as the "asshole tank," which was "frequently used to confine problematic inmates," and was "generally contaminated with body fluids including blood, saliva and urine."

He also complained about being transported by sheriffs in unpadded "cage vans" with no seatbelts and no grab handles, where "sudden movements would often cause inmates to collide with one another or be thrown around inside the cage."

Vader complained he was often locked in his cell for 23 hours a day and was subjected to attacks from other inmates who, he said, hurled human waste into his cell. Vader also accused Edmonton Remand Centre staff of verbal and physical abuse.

'Inherent human dignity'

The lawsuit claims Vader's constitutional rights, including "the protection of his inherent human dignity, the right to privacy and the freedom from interference with fundamental personal choices," had been violated.

Vader will continue to take the stand Wednesday when the Crown will complete its cross examination.

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Rick McConnell has worked as a writer and editor in Alberta for more than 30 years.