Michael Klassen wandered through the city with no destination but sunrise, haunted by the death of a man whose name he didn’t know.
The Edmonton Remand Centre van had dropped Klassen off in front of a police station in the middle of a late August night, leaving him stranded without a cellphone or a way home to Saskatoon. So Klassen rode city buses and drifted in and out of 7-Elevens as the temperature dipped to 7 C, telling strangers he saw jail guards kill a man.
“Anyone who would talk to me for two minutes, this story came out,” said Klassen, 39. “Bus drivers, people on the bus, people waiting for the bus.”
Klassen said it was the only time he’d met the man, as they both queued up for release in front of a jail processing desk. The man showed him kindness, which was interrupted by unexpected violence from a correctional officer, Klassen said.
He recalls the man pleading that he was “just in on tickets” and “free to go.” Then, other guards swarmed.
The man’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” were followed by silence, said Klassen in recent interviews with CBC, describing what he saw on Aug. 24, 2021, behind the jail walls.
He last glimpsed the man handcuffed to a rolling stretcher, a bag-valve mask over his face as a paramedic pumped.
“I was thinking that maybe he’s going to be OK,” Klassen said.
What happened delayed Klassen’s own release by hours, he said, and there was a shift change and a new guard who asked about “the dead guy.”
Klassen said he knew at that moment that he’d witnessed a death.
It would be months before Klassen would learn the man’s name was Daniel Robinson, a father of two boys, aged five and 13, who spent only one night at the Edmonton Remand Centre on an unpaid $2,650 fine for driving without insurance in 2019.
While Robinson didn’t officially die in jail, his life ended on the floor outside a cell, lying face down beneath the weight and force of corrections officers, with his hands cuffed behind his back. He suffered a heart attack, losing blood and oxygen flow to his brain for 20 minutes and causing irreversible, fatal damage.
That is the conclusion of an autopsy report, dated March 18, 2022, and provided to CBC News by the family, who received it more than a month later. The report is signed by Thambirajah Balachandra, who was hired out of retirement in 2020 to become Alberta’s fourth chief medical examiner in five years.
“He was restrained in the prone position with the hands cuffed behind his back with force being used to subdue him,” the report said.
Robinson “died due to hypoxic-ischemic brain injury following prone restraint cardiac arrest,” according to an autopsy conducted on Sept. 7, 2021.
The report’s incident summary doesn’t mention if Robinson said anything in the moments before his heart stopped and his brain was starved of oxygen.
It does say he was “involved in misbehaviour” and “refusal … to obey orders.” It also notes correctional officers subdued Robinson in a way “now known” to potentially kill someone, but it doesn’t say whether the officers knew this risk at the time.
In the end, Balachandra concluded Robinson’s death was “accidental.”
Homicide is defined as a death that’s caused directly or indirectly by the actions of another person, according to the Criminal Code and the province’s chief medical examiner’s website. A homicide can be culpable or non-culpable, so a finding of homicide does not suggest wrongdoing by guards.
Robinson’s death could meet that threshold, said Tom Engel, a criminal lawyer with vast experience in cases involving inmates who have been assaulted or mistreated by guards at the remand centre.
“If what this witness [Klassen] is saying is true, if it’s on video, then it’s obvious it’s excessive force — and then it led to more excessive force, that’s manslaughter,” Engel said. “That’s a crime.”
Key evidence connected to the death has not been publicly released, including the jailhouse video, guard logs and police notes.
But the pieces that are available — the autopsy report, paramedic logs and hospital records, combined with the Robinson family’s notes and recordings and Klassen’s eyewitness account — raise questions for Robinson’s family and Klassen. They say they believe the truth has been covered up.
“They killed Danny,” Klassen said of the officers. “I know that for sure.”
Robinson’s death is now before Alberta’s Fatality Review Board, but it’s only the first step in a painstaking review process that takes years. Next would be for the board to decide whether a fatality inquiry is warranted, something that would end with a judge’s report of recommendations to prevent future deaths. It cannot lay blame.
To put the timing in perspective, reports released in 2022 are dealing with deaths that happened in remand six years ago.
Robinson was picked up by police shortly after 6 p.m. on Aug. 23, 2021, about a block away from his apartment.
He’d just finished a shift as a DoorDash driver and a cruiser stopped him for a burnt-out brake light. He was flagged for an outstanding warrant from an unpaid driving without insurance fine and was arrested. Failure to pay this fine results in jail time in Alberta.
He contacted his mother, Marilyn Hayward, in Ontario through Facebook Messenger to let her know he was being taken to the Edmonton Remand Centre.
“Who is taken to jail for no [insurance]?” she wrote back.
He phoned her from the remand centre that evening, and they spoke for 10 minutes. Her son spoke in whispers, because the guards were like the ones in the movies and on television and he had to keep his voice down, according to notes of the call kept by Hayward.
Robinson ended the call with, “Guard is pissed at me, so I better go.”
“That call haunts me to this day, because I have not heard Danny whisper into a phone since he was literally 18 years old,” Hayward said in an interview. “I told him, somehow or other, we would get this fine paid.”
It would be the last time the two spoke.
The next day, Michael Robinson, 38, went to the Calgary courthouse and paid his brother’s fine at 2:57 p.m. local time.
In an interview with CBC News, he said the woman at the desk told him it would take about 30 minutes to process the payment and that his brother would be released sometime later that day.
“We waited all night, expecting to hear from him,” Michael Robinson said.
His mother sent him a message at 11:05 p.m. local time in Orillia, Ont.
“I am waiting and waiting to hear from you, yet no call,” she wrote. “Thinking and worrying about you constantly in a cell.”
Five minutes after that message was sent, Robinson had the heart attack, pinned beneath correctional officers.
Moments earlier, Klassen said, he and Robinson stood near the back of the line, waiting to be processed and released.
Klassen, who had spent about two weeks in jail for skipping a court date on a dangerous driving charge, said he wanted to get a bus to Lloydminster, Alta. There, his partner planned to pick him up and take him back to Saskatoon, he said. But he didn’t have a phone and didn’t know his way around Edmonton.
“Daniel is behind me and I’m starting to worry about how I’m going to get around,” Klassen said. “And he says, ‘Don’t worry about it, I have a phone, I can Google it when I get my possessions back.’ … So, I was like, OK.”
Then, for reasons Klassen said he still doesn’t understand, a guard behind the processing desk interjected and confronted them.
“He’s like, ‘I know you’re talking about me, say it to my face,’” recalled Klassen.
“And then Daniel’s like, ‘You know what? You’re being kind of an asshole.’ And then, the guard comes around and he’s like, ‘You know what? You’re not getting out with the rest of the guys.’”
Klassen said Robinson protested, saying it “was bullshit” and that he was just in on a ticket.
In the next moment, according to Klassen’s retelling, the officer pushed against Robinson’s back, driving him down the hall toward a nearby cell. Robinson leaned back as he was moving forward. The guard said, “Quit resisting. Put your hands behind your back,” Klassen said.
Klassen said he watched the guard punch Robinson in the kidney area and then a second guard moved in on him. A third guard put the other inmates in an adjacent cell, Klassen said, but through a transparent pane in the cell door, Klassen said he saw at least four guards rush to the takedown.
(A security emergency code was initiated in the midst of this, the Solicitor General’s department later revealed.)
While his hallway view was obstructed, Klassen said sound entered the cell through a gap at the bottom of the door, along with an odour of pepper spray. Everyone in the cell kept quiet, listening.
“We can just hear them piling on and him saying, ‘Please help me,’” Klassen said. “And then it turns into, ‘Please help me, I can’t breathe. Please help me breathe. I can’t breathe.’ Very frantic [and] desperate … loud [and] disturbing.”
Then, he said, there was silence.
Detectives never interviewed Klassen; a police statement claimed he couldn’t be reached.
Marilyn Hayward has a stack of Hilroy notebooks in a suitcase along with other documents and a framed school photo of her son as a boy.
Robinson sometimes wrote his thoughts down in the notebooks.
“The leaves are falling, but the sky is blue … I can’t help but think of my son,” one entry reads.
In another, he writes of shortening the distance between his heart and mind.
“Then I will be reminded how beautiful life is.”
The other documents Hayward’s collected include insurance records, Robinson’s birth certificate and a 90-page file from Robinson’s time in the intensive care unit at Royal Alexandra Hospital where he lay, hooked by tubes and wires to a ventilator and monitors, dark gashes from handcuffs on his wrists, his face bruised and swollen around and over his left eye.
On the day the family requested the machines stop, Robinson was surrounded by his oldest son, Kaiden, Hayward and his two youngest brothers, Michael and Chris Robinson. They wept together.
“I don’t know how to say it to anybody; I really don’t. Your mind, you can’t think anymore, you can’t speak,” said Hayward. “There’s times that you don’t even feel because you need to be numb.”
Robinson, 50, was pronounced dead on Aug. 30, 2021, at 10:40 p.m.
Eight days later, Edmonton Police’s Institute Investigation Unit (IIU) — responsible for investigating deaths and incidents at the remand centre, the federal Edmonton Institution and the Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Centre — closed its investigation, determining it to be non-criminal.
The troubled unit, which underwent an internal review in 2020 after a judge raised concerns about an earlier case, had two detectives present at the autopsy and closed the investigation into Robinson’s death the same day.
The family was told the investigation was closed after the chief medical examiner ruled the death accidental, according to a recording of a conversation between police and one of Robinson’s brothers.
“I don’t understand how [they] can say that this isn’t a criminal matter when my brother was being released and now he’s dead,” said Michael Robinson.
The logs and summary reports from Alberta Emergency Services paramedics and hospital records tell another part of the story.
At 8:45 p.m., Robinson was about to be released when he became involved in a “physical dispute with the guards,” the paramedics’ logs say. He took a blow to the left side of his face, and the guards used pepper spray. Then, Robinson is alleged to have become “agitated” or “violent,” according to separate summaries, and jail medical staff injected him with 10 mg of the sedative midazolam at 9:05 p.m.
At 9:09 p.m, he was witnessed suffering a heart attack. He lost consciousness a minute later and staff couldn’t find a pulse.
For about 20 minutes, remand medical personnel worked to revive him, administering CPR, inserting a tube down his airway and pumping air and oxygen through a bag-valve mask, according to the logs.
At 9:28 p.m., Robinson’s heart started beating again, in what’s known as a “return of spontaneous circulation.”
The ambulance arrived at 9:36 p.m. — about 15 minutes after it was called.
Paramedics found Robinson lying unconscious on the floor, outside a cell, with a pulse. They noted blood at the scene, as well as fecal and urine incontinence.
Robinson’s vitals remained steady on the ambulance ride to the hospital, according to the logs.
The autopsy report makes no mention of remand medical staff injecting Robinson with a sedative to control him. The toxicology report does note the use of midazolam and ketamine “during attempts to resuscitate him.” The paramedic logs say both sedatives were used by paramedics as they treated and stabilized Robinson for transport.
The use of pepper spray is also omitted from the autopsy report, but it’s mentioned once in the neuropathology report following an examination of Robinson’s brain, performed on Jan. 14.
For more than two months, Hayward believed her son was found dead in a cell because he defied guard orders to wear a mask. Hayward said she first heard the version of this story on Aug. 25, 2021.
She woke that morning with no word from or about Robinson; all she learned from a call to the remand centre was that “Danny had an episode [and] they had to do CPR on him, you know. And then 911 was called.”
After failing to get information from the hospital, Hayward called the remand centre again. She spoke to a man named Bill, according to notes she took about the conversation.
He told her that her son refused to wear a mask while he was being processed for release and then became angry, so guards put him in a cell, where he was eventually found unconscious, according to her notes.
Bill read to her from a guard logbook, her notes say.
”[Robinson] got confrontational with the [correctional officers], four men to restrain him, medic called, gave him sedative and was put back in cell. [Robinson] was found unconscious in cell. Medic called, CPR, ambulance called,” according to Hayward’s notes.
CBC News couldn’t independently verify the allegations contained here in Hayward’s notes. While the available record corroborates parts of this account, the autopsy report, the paramedic and hospital records make no mention of Robinson being found in a cell or being left alone.
Hayward said she immediately doubted that Robinson would refuse to wear a mask.
He wore masks while delivering meals for DoorDash; photos from the interior of Robinson’s Jeep and his apartment show multiple masks scattered about. He also wasn’t known for flouting or even disagreeing with public health restrictions during the pandemic, his family said.
The allegation that Robinson refused to wear a mask was also in the file held by investigators with Alberta Correctional Services.
Klassen was interviewed on Nov. 4, 2021, as part of an internal probe about Robinson’s death and he was asked whether the incident was sparked by a mask. “And I said, ‘No. It never was over a mask.’”
At the same time, Klassen was also searching for Robinson’s family. His partner tracked Marilyn Hayward down on Facebook and sent her a message.
After speaking with Klassen and receiving Robinson’s hospital records, Hayward had a different view of what happened.
“Somebody killed my son, because they needed a punching bag … to vent their own anger, that’s how I see it,” she said.
Her lawyer, a civil litigation specialist, said he believes guards used unlawful, unjustified and excessive force — and that led to Robinson’s death.
“The wrong is just so obvious and just so serious,” Tony Merchant, whose firm, Merchant Law Group, has offices across the country, said in an interview with CBC News. “And the wrong also involves a coverup by the prison and guards.”
There are numerous documented instances of excessive use of force by the guards at the Edmonton Remand Centre.
In May 2019, a jail guard search team confronted an inmate with a ball of tobacco in his mouth out in the recreation yard. Before the inmate could say what was in his mouth, he was grabbed by the throat, thrown down, handcuffed, kneed, kicked, punched and had his face smashed on the ground, according to a letter from criminal lawyer Tom Engel to Edmonton Police Chief Dale McFee.
One guard grabbed the inmate by the testicles, squeezed and pulled, while another officer yelled, “stop resisting,” the complaint from Engel reads.
“He thought he was going to die.”
The inmate was at first denied access to hospital treatment, but later sent to the Royal Alexandra Hospital, according to Engel. He was found to have two fractured ribs, a lacerated kidney and a broken front tooth.
When interviewed by a detective with the IIU about the guards’ behaviour, the inmate was accused of lying and stashing drugs in his mouth rather than tobacco.
But it later emerged that it was the guards who lied, claiming in their report that the inmate was asked three times to reveal the contents in his mouth, while video footage showed the man was given no time to respond, Engel’s letter said.
Engel, president of the Canadian Prison Law Association, said he has little faith in the Edmonton Police Service or the Solicitor General’s investigations into excessive use of force.
“They’ve [the IIU] been responsible for flat-out corrupt investigations when it comes to force used by jail guards,” said Engel.
In June 2020, an Alberta judge ruled the IIU was involved in the “coverup” of a “gang” assault by about 15 guards on an inmate. The jailhouse video shows guards swarming inmate Matthew McKnight while he was lying on the floor, following a beating by another inmate. The judge described the IIU investigation as “meager,” and said the police reports were disconnected from events captured by video.
Throughout his career, Engel has filed complaints on behalf of inmates who have experienced the sometimes brutal culture of violence, racism and homophobia among the guards at the remand centre — and about the failure of the IIU to investigate.
“It’s been going on for years,” he said.
The IIU underwent an “informal internal review” in 2021 which found it did “valuable investigative work,” according to a statement from the Edmonton Police Service. The statement said there were “a number of findings” that were either implemented or about to be implemented but did not release those findings in the statement.
As he finished his DoorDash shift, before a police cruiser pulled into his rearview mirror, Robinson phoned his mother. He told he was starting a new job and wanted to save money so he could move closer to her in Ontario.
For Robinson, his life was one of struggle. He worked as a journeyman steamfitter and pipefitter for 15 years, but downturns in the oil industry made it harder for him to find work.
He battled personal demons and sought treatment for addiction, his mother said. Robinson struggled with the trauma of living through domestic physical abuse as a child.
“Danny was born into violence and died into violence,” Hayward said. “That kills me.”
But he was always quick with kindness, his former partner, Dana Gray, Kaiden’s mother said. He was the kind of guy who would pull over on the side of the road to help someone with a flat tire in the pouring rain.
He had two sons, from two different relationships, who lived countries apart; his youngest, Randy, lives in the Dominican Republic, while his oldest, Kaiden, lives in Edmonton.
Hayward sometimes walks along the shore of Lake Couchiching, following paths she once took with her son. When she speaks of him, you can hear pain, anger, and grief surface in her voice and her memories.
Gaps still remain in what she knows about her son’s final minutes — and she wants those filled. She believes the jailhouse video, on a USB thumb drive in the chief medical examiner’s office, shows a critical moment, and she wants it to be publicly released.
She wants justice and accountability for what happened.
“I promised my son that this country needs to know what goes on behind those bars, those locked gates.”
With files from Madeline McNair