Combination of depressants may have led to Fort St. John in-custody death

The jury and Presiding Coroner Donita Kuzma heard more about the circumstances of the death from the Fire Department and B.C. Ambulance members who attended the scene, as well as from a forensic pathologist and toxicologist and the coroner.

Lohouse, who also went by the nickname Henry, was found unresponsive in his cell on September 9, 2011, after being in police custody for just over three hours. He was booked at 5:35 p.m. under suspicion of robbery, and placed in what’s referred to as a “drunk tank” cell to sober up as he was intoxicated. 

RCMP Toxicologist Ronald Pon testified that in addition to alcohol, he also found “therapeutic” amounts of other drugs in his system, including Amitriptyline, an anti-depressant, and the sedative Lorazepam. He also found a small amount of THC, or marijuana, and Lidocaine, which he couldn’t explain as was not used when attempting to revive him. Lohouse did not have a prescription for any of those drugs, and Pon says, as they are central nervous system depressants like alcohol, when combined and self-medicated they are potentially lethal.

At the time of his death, Lohouse had a blood alcohol level of 339 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood, or .339 per cent, which is over four times more than the legal limit for driving. As he hadn’t had a drink for at least three hours before, Pon says based on an average elimination rate of 15 milligrams an hour, his peak could have been .384 per cent or higher, which he calls “exceedingly high” and “consistent with a close to fatal level”. 

Lohouse’s autopsy showed major blockages in two of the arteries in his heart, but Pon argued the mixture of the drugs and alcohol could also have caused his death. When compounded, they could have slowed down his brain activity to the point that his brain stopped sending signals to keep him breathing, leading to respiratory arrest. 

On Monday, RCMP officers and guards testified that Lohouse only seemed “modestly” intoxicated when booking him, with one guard saying it was the most sober she’d seen him in custody. Coroner Merrill Flewelling explains that “experienced” drinkers, like the deceased, are able to mask the symptoms of their intoxication much better than a novice might, and has since provided training at the detachment on acute alcohol and drug intoxication. He argues the best thing for officers to do is ask more questions about a prisoner’s medical history, monitor their snoring, and ensure they are able to wake them up periodically. 

In preparation for their deliberations, the jury had several questions for the witnesses, many of which revolved around how to better detect the level of a prisoner’s intoxication when putting them into a cell. New Westminster Police Department Staff Sergeant Chris Mullin, who helped in the external investigation of the in-custody death, admitted that better quality cameras for monitoring would get destroyed by prisoners, and that doing breathalyzer checks on criminal suspects poses logistical problems. He mentioned that at his detachment the Watch Commander is able to monitor a cell from a screen at their desk should there be a higher risk prisoner, but added that there is “no better check than a physical check”.

The jury is scheduled to present its findings Wednesday.

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About Erica Fisher 4010 Articles

Erica is a reporter for Moose FM and energeticcity.ca in Fort St. John, B.C. She grew up in Victoria, B.C. and received her Bachelor's Degree in Journalism from Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec.