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Kugluktuk man died of 'head injury consistent with a fall,' inquest hears

The forensic pathologist who performed an autopsy on Austin Maniyogena told a coroner’s inquest Tuesday that the 22-year-old would have been left with severe brain damage even if he had received immediate medical attention.

Immediate medical intervention may not have saved Austin Maniyogena, forensic pathologist testifies

Kugluktuk, Nunavut, in the winter of 2019. A coroner's inquest is underway in the community to determine what happened to Austin Maniyogena when he died in police custody in 2018, and to make recommendations to prevent similar incidents in the future. (Marc Winkler/CBC)

The forensic pathologist who performed an autopsy on Austin Maniyogena told a coroner's inquest Tuesday that the 22-year-old would have been left with severe brain damage even if he had received immediate medical attention.

Dr. Thambirajah Balachandra testified by video at the coroner's inquest into Maniyogena's death underway in Kugluktuk, Nunavut. Maniyogena died of a head injury in September 2018 while in the custody of the RCMP. 

Balachandra testified that Maniyogena had a number of "superficial injuries" but it wasn't until he examined his skull that he was able to determine a cause of death. Balachandra found that Maniyogena died of a "head injury consistent with a fall." He told the inquest that the back of Maniyogena's skull had been fractured and his brain had "significant bleeding."

When asked if Maniyogena would have survived his injuries even if he had received immediate medical attention, Balachandra told the inquest he couldn't be sure. However, he did say that even if Maniyogena had been immediately brought to a hospital with a neurological surgeon, he would have been left with "severe brain damage."

RCMP officer testifies

On Monday, the inquest heard that Maniyogena had been arrested by the community's bylaw officer, Matthew MacDonald, on the morning of Sept. 19, 2018 for allegedly driving an ATV while intoxicated. MacDonald testified that he and Maniyogena struggled before MacDonald was able to place him in the back of the bylaw vehicle. 

Austin Maniyogena and his mother, Jennifer Maniyogena. Austin Maniyogena died from a head injury while in RCMP custody in September 2018. (Jennifer Maniyogena)
The inquest also heard from a number of witnesses that testified Maniyogena jumped from the back window of the moving bylaw vehicle and landed on the road.

RCMP Cpl. Tim Fiset testified Tuesday that he was called by MacDonald and told about Maniyogena's arrest and subsequent fall. He said he then drove from the community's RCMP detachment to where Maniyogena and McDonald were, about a three-minute drive. 

He said he was told that Maniyogena had jumped out of the vehicle but assumed the man had fallen on his shoulder. He said Maniyogena did have a small cut above his eye but that he was conscious and responded when he was spoken to. Fiset said Maniyogena appeared "very intoxicated."

Fiset said he placed Maniyogena in the back of his police vehicle and drove to the detachment. He testified that Maniyogena said several expletives while in the back of the vehicle. 

He said that when he brought Maniyogena into the cells, however, his responsiveness changed. 

Surveillance video shown at the inquest depicts Maniyogena being placed into a cell. Officers then remove his pants and shirt while Maniyogena lies motionless on the ground. 

A file photo of the RCMP detachment in Kugluktuk, Nunavut. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Fiset said he spoke to Maniyogena in the cell and while he did not respond, he moved his head and made eye contact. Fiset said he wiped some of the blood from Maniyogena's forehead but said it only appeared to be a "small cut." He said he told the civilian guard at the time, Larry Whittaker, to watch him closely so that he didn't vomit and choke.

Fiset said he then called the community's health centre and spoke with a nurse about Maniyogena's cut. He said the nurse told him to wait until Maniyogena sobered up and then bring him in.

Four hours later, Fiset said he was alerted by Whittaker that Maniyogena seemed to have trouble breathing. When he went into the cell, he said it became clear that Maniyogena needed medical attention. Fiset said he and a fellow officer loaded a semi-conscious Maniyogena into a police truck and drove him to the health centre.

He told the inquest that he would have done things very differently had he known that Maniyogena had suffered a head injury.

"It's had a big effect on me," Fiset told jurors.

Differing accounts from cells

The inquest also heard from Whittaker who said he was responsible for keeping watch over Maniyogena through a surveillance camera in his cell. In small communities, it's common for community members to be hired as part-time guards to monitor prisoners while they are in cells. 

Whittaker said he kept a close eye on Maniyogena and, several times an hour went to his cell and looked inside through a small hole in the door. He said Maniyogena moved around several times but appeared to be sleeping the majority of the time. 

On Monday, the inquest heard from Crystal Miyok who said she was in another cell in the detachment when Maniyogena was brought in. She said she heard Maniyogena scream that his head hurt. She said she yelled to Whittaker that Maniyogena needed medical attention.

But Whittaker said that never happened. He said neither Miyok nor Maniyogena called out from their cells.

Whittaker said that around 2 p.m., he went to check on Maniyogena and saw that his breathing had become laboured. That's when he said he alerted Cpl. Fiset. 

The inquest is adjourned until Thursday. Jurors are expected to begin deliberations later this week to come up with recommendations on how to prevent similar deaths in the future. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hilary Bird

Reporter

Hilary Bird is a reporter with CBC North in Yellowknife. She has been reporting on Indigenous issues and politics for almost a decade and has won several national and international awards for her work. Hilary can be reached at hilary.bird@cbc.ca

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