Miscommunication and a lack of protocol among first responders appeared to rule the day when Brennan Ahenakew-Johnstone’s remains were found in a burnt out vehicle three years ago on the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation.
The coroner’s inquest into the 20-year-old man’s death got underway Monday in Prince Albert.
Witness Evelyn Sasakamoose told the inquest she phoned both the local fire department and Shellbrook RCMP detachment several times after she noticed what she believed to be a grass fire burning near her home in the early morning hours of May 10, 2018.
Sasakamoose said by 9 a.m. she had phoned the Ahtahkakoop Fire Department twice because she was worried about the proximity of the fire to her home.
She said firefighters had arrived on the scene but only to observe the fire and ensure it did not spread further.
Shortly after, Sasakamoose said she noticed a vehicle, that had never been in the area before, was part of the fire and phoned RCMP.
The Shellbrook detachment is located about a half hour away from the reserve.
At noon, she said she came home from work for lunch, phoned the RCMP again about the burning vehicle and was told by the person on the other end of the line “it had been checked out.”
Late that afternoon after finishing work for the day, Sasakamoose said she was told by neighbour Kerry Nayneecassum that there was a body in the vehicle.
Holding back tears, she told the jury she phoned the RCMP a third time and it was only then officers began arriving on scene.
Sasakamoose said she was upset and frustrated it had appeared to take several hours and three phone calls for the RCMP to follow up.
“I was shocked and mad because I had phoned them (police) right away,” she said. “I phoned the RCMP yelling, ‘nobody checked.’”
Nayneecassum told the jury she saw what appeared to be a body in the vehicle around 5 p.m. and immediately phoned 911.
She said by this time the fire was no longer burning.
Perhaps the most confusing witness of the day was Ahtahkakoop firefighter Tony Williams.
Williams initially told the inquest he noticed there was a body in the vehicle around 10 a.m. on May 10, 2018 but for reasons unknown did not contact police.
However, after reviewing audio of a statement he had given to police on May 11, 2018, he changed his statement to say that he did not see the body until late that afternoon.
Speaking after the first day of the inquest, Ahenakew-Johnstone’s mother Lisa Johnstone said both police and the local fire department botched the investigation from the get go.
“I don’t want to have another mother go through what I am going through sitting here three years later saying, ‘I told you, you didn’t do your job right,’” she said. “And even in regards to collecting my son’s remains, that wasn’t done properly. There was no apology, there was nothing of that sort.”
Johnstone has long maintained she believes some sort of foul play was involved in the death of her son.
She says he had been to a party the night before his body was found and may have fallen in with the wrong crowd.
However, a 2019 coroner’s report determined Ahenakew-Johnstone’s death was accidental and he died of smoke inhalation and burns.
The report also says the fire was caused by a single-vehicle collision
The coroner’s inquest continues on all week in Prince Albert.
(PHOTO: Brennan Ahenakew-Johnstone. File photo.)