Story of Neil Stonechild
Almost 14 years after the body of Neil Stonechild was
found in a frozen field in Saskatoon's north end, a judicial
inquiry released the result of its examination of the original
police investigation into Stonechild's death.
On October 23, 2004, the Saskatoon StarPhoenix
outlined the case, the allegation, the key police
players and the revelations.
When Neil Stonechild's frozen body was found in a snowy
in the city's north end during the noon hour of Nov. 29, 1990,
the first question that occurred to most people associated with
the case was, "How did he get there?"
The 17-year-old was last seen alive five days earlier
west-side neighbourhood of Confederation Park. Did he walk the
nine kilometres to the huge undeveloped area between 47th and
48th streets during a cold, windy snowfall? Did he get a ride
into the area?
Why was one of his shoes missing? Did the blackened,
worn-through sock on his shoeless foot indicate that he had
walked a long distance without the shoe?
Despite the questions, former Saskatoon police Sgt.
Jarvis closed the file after a three-day investigation with a
simple, unsubstantiated explanation.
"It is felt that unless something concrete by way of
to the contrary is obtained, the deceased died from exposure and
froze to death. There is nothing to indicate why he was in the
area other than possibilities he was going to turn himself in to
the correctional centre or was attempting to follow the tracks
back to Sutherland group home, or simply wandered around drunk
until he passed out from the cold and alcohol and froze.
Concluded at this time," Jarvis wrote in his report of Dec. 5,
Four months after the death, Stonechild's mother,
Bignell, criticized the police investigation in an article in The
StarPhoenix. She didn't think enough had been
rule out the possibility of foul play. She thought the
investigation would have been more thorough if Neil had been the
The police spokesperson at the time was Sgt. Dave
later became chief of police. In response to the criticism, Scott
declared police had done a thorough investigation and had
"pursued every avenue."
"A tremendous amount of work went into that case,"
The Stonechild file was destroyed in a routine purge
seven years later, but a copy of it had been preserved at the
home of a constable, Ernie Louttit, who was dissatisfied with the
Questions about the case resurfaced in 2000, when a
RCMP task force was created to look into allegations of police
abandoning aboriginal men on the outskirts of Saskatoon.
2002, revisits the location where he was dumped by
Saskatoon police in January 2000, in
The issue arose after Darrell Night, a Cree man, came
in February 2000 saying two officers had left him near the Queen
Elizabeth Power Station on a freezing night, while he was drunk
and inadequately dressed for the weather.
The allegation was explosive because the frozen bodies
other aboriginal men, Lawrence Wegner and Rodney Naistus, had
recently been found in the same vicinity with no explanation for
how they ended up there.
Also within weeks, reporters resurrected a
humour column that had been written by Saskatoon Const. Brian
Trainor for the Saskatoon Sun. The column tells of two
rookie officers who drive a troublesome, drunken man, whose race
is not identified, to the Queen Elizabeth plant, where they order
him to get out.
In the midst of allegations against the police,
family and friends reminded the media about Neil's death.
Central to their complaints were the allegations of
Stonechild's friend, Jason Roy, who had been with Stonechild the
night he was last seen alive.
Within weeks of Stonechild's death, Roy had told
he had seen Stonechild in the back of a police cruiser,
handcuffed and bleeding and yelling, "They're gonna kill me."
The RCMP conducted an exhaustive investigation but were
able to verify or dismiss Roy's allegation. No charges were laid
in the Stonechild case but in February 2003, then-justice
minister Chris Axworthy appointed Justice David Wright as
commissioner of an inquiry to look into Stonechild's death and
the original police investigation.
The Stonechild inquiry probably would not have been
not for Roy's explosive allegation.
Roy was a rebellious 16-year-old with a drinking
November 1990. Many elements of his story have been substantiated
by other people and by police computer records. But some of the
evidence also casts doubt on the veracity of his claims.
Early in the evening of Nov. 24, 1990, at Stonechild's
Stonechild and Roy struck a deal with Stonechild's brother to buy
them a bottle of vodka. Neil unknowingly had his last
conversation with Bignell.
Stonechild was at large from an open custody youth
at the time and promised his mother he would turn himself in at
the end of the weekend, a point that figured in the conclusion
Jarvis wrote to his investigation.
Roy says he and Stonechild drank the entire bottle of
themselves by about 11:30 p.m. at their friend Julie Binning's
house in Confederation Park, on Milton Street. Though it was
blowing snow and well below -20 C, Stonechild convinced Roy to
join him in going to see his friend Lucille Neetz, who was
babysitting a few blocks away.
The pair trudged to the Snowberry Downs apartment
33rd Street and Wedge Road, where they caused a disturbance that
led to police being called.
They buzzed various suites in more than one building,
Roy says he wanted to give up and go back to the Binning's. The
boys argued, and Roy left Stonechild and headed back. He thinks
he stopped to warm up at a 7-Eleven.
As he walked south on Confederation Drive, he says a
car emerged from an alley in front of him and stopped.
Roy says Stonechild was in the back seat, his hands
cuffed behind his back, there was blood on his face and he was
calling Roy by name.
The driver asked him if he knew the youth in the back,
says, adding he denied knowing Stonechild because he feared he
would be arrested too. Instead, when asked his name, Roy gave the
name and birth date of his cousin, Tracy Horse, whom he knew had
no criminal record.
The police checked the name and allowed him to go.
As the police drove away, Stonechild seemed afraid as
yelled, "They're gonna kill me," Roy said.
Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) records have
that constables Larry Hartwig and Brad Senger used their on-board
computer that night to check Tracy Horse, as Roy claims. Horse
told the inquiry he was not stopped by the police that night.
The CPIC records also show that eight minutes later the
police officers checked the name of Bruce Genaille.
Genaille, coincidentally, was Stonechild's cousin, who
was walking on Confederation Drive late that night. He said he is
certain there was nobody in the back of the police car when he
If Stonechild had been in the car when the police
Roy, where was he when they checked Genaille? And why were police
still looking for Stonechild if they had just had him in their
custody? Would eight minutes have been long enough for the police
to drive in a winter storm all the way to the north industrial
area and back?
Roy also made the disturbing allegation that he told
police about seeing Stonechild in custody, but that he was
intimidated into giving a second, false statement that cleared
"I lied for my life," Roy told the inquiry.
The dates in Roy's story didn't mesh with other
heard at the inquiry. Roy said he gave the false statement
clearing police on Dec. 20, 1990, but Louttit, the officer who
preserved the only existing copy of that statement, said he
photocopied it from the file on Dec. 5 or 6.
- Const. Lawrence Hartwig had been with the Saskatoon
for almost four years in November 1990 when he was dispatched to
the disturbance involving Stonechild. He had previously been
partnered with Const. Ken Munson from January to October 1990.
Munson and Dan Hatchen were convicted of abandoning Night in
Hartwig knew Stonechild from previous incidents,
break and enter of which Stonechild was convicted, and had once
given him a ticket for driving without a licence.
- Const. Brad Senger was a rookie with the department.
Hartwig had never been partnered before that night. Both said
Stonechild was gone from the scene of the disturbance when they
arrived that night. Both said they never saw the youth that
- Const. Ernie Louttit photocopied the Stonechild
file on Dec. 5 or 6, 1990, soon after Jarvis concluded it. He
kept the file at home, thereby preserving evidence that has
proven key to understanding events of the time and shedding light
on the police investigation, after the original file was
Louttit became unofficially involved after Stonechild's
brother, Jason, known as Jake, told him he'd heard rumours that
Neil had been beaten by Gary Pratt and dumped in the north end.
Pratt was a friend of the Stonechild brothers with whom Neil had
supposedly had a violent falling out.
Louttit, an aboriginal former soldier who'd been with
Saskatoon police for three years, also visited Bignell,
Stonechild's mother. In January 1991, he complained to Jarvis
about the incomplete investigation. Louttit felt Jarvis
discounted his concerns and indicated he should back off or risk
being disciplined for meddling.
Months later, Louttit checked the file and found no
to the tip he had been provided from Jake or to his meeting with
Louttit didn't remember he still had the investigation
when the case was reopened by the RCMP in 2000. It was March 2001
before he came across it while looking for something else.
None of the police who responded to the scene of
frozen body said they considered it their responsibility to find
out how the youth had arrived in the field in the north
industrial area. Most police who testified didn't remember the
occurrence and the written notes of some had disappeared without
- Const. Rene Lagimodiere, the first officer on the
quickly assessed the situation and discounted the possibility of
foul play. He did ask that a dog handler be sent out to search
for the victim's missing shoe. The other officers who attended
the scene took a similar view and said they considered their
roles as collecting information for the investigator, whom they
assumed would use their information in the real
- Sgt. Robert Morton took photographs and a video of
scene and took a thumbprint at the morgue. In 1993, at Jarvis'
direction, he destroyed Stonechild's blue bomber jacket, jeans,
underwear, both socks and the one shoe he was found with.
- Sgt. Michael Petty was the highest-ranking officer on
scene. He decided the matter was not suspicious and did not
warrant a major crimes investigator attending the scene. He
treated the matter as a sudden death and referred it to the
Petty said it was his responsibility to make sure the
could rule out foul play, yet he acknowledged he didn't know the
victim was missing a shoe, that there were injuries on the face
or whether someone had deliberately left the victim in the remote
- Sgt. Keith Jarvis, who had been with the force for 24
at that time, was assigned the case several hours later when he
arrived at work.
He assumed that since the death had been assigned to
morality unit, that it had already been cast as a sudden death,
not a suspicious one. He went to the morgue with Morton, but says
he didn't look at the body and never saw two parallel abrasions
on the nose. People who attended Stonechild's funeral said the
scratches looked like cuts and thought he had been beaten before
Jarvis said he never went to the scene where the body
found, never looked at the video or the photographs taken at the
scene or at the autopsy, never looked at Stonechild's clothing
and didn't phone people whose photographs were found in his
He interviewed a few witnesses and the next day wrote
report that the file should be sent to major crimes. Then he went
on a four-day leave.
When he returned, he found that the file was still on
desk and that no further work had been done on it. He didn't ask
his superior why the file had remained idle in his absence but
worked on it for several hours that day, before concluding
Jarvis called the pathologist who had performed the
and found that Stonechild had not been beaten to death. Jarvis
was aware of rumours that Pratt had beaten and dumped Stonechild,
but he never contacted Pratt to question him. He stated in his
report that the rumours were probably just somebody's attempt to
cause trouble on the street for the Pratts.
He didn't include any information about talking to the
constables who were dispatched to the disturbance involving
Jarvis closed the file without waiting for the
report, which would have told him how much alcohol Stonechild had
in him when he died, a point which was central to Jarvis' theory
about the circumstances of the death.
Stonechild was found to have about twice the legal
limit of alcohol in his blood, which expert witnesses said was
not enough to cause the youth to pass out.
In what appeared to be a shocking revelation, Jarvis
RCMP investigators in 2000 and 2001 that Roy told him he had seen
Stonechild in the police cruiser.
On the eve of the inquiry, Jarvis recanted, saying he
think he had a real memory of Roy telling him about Stonechild in
the car. Jarvis said he thought suggestions by the RCMP had
implanted a false memory when they were trying to jog his vague
recollection of his interview with Roy. The taped interview
confirmed he had wondered about the source of the memory at the
time of the apparent admission.
- Staff Sgt. Bud Johnson, Jarvis's direct supervisor,
questioned the work, which his fellow officers declared
"incomplete," "inadequate" and "poor policing." He doesn't
remember anything about the case, and said he doesn't know why he
didn't refer it to major crimes as Jarvis requested, why he
didn't keep someone working on it while Jarvis was away or why he
authorized closure of the unfinished file.
- Sgt. Dave Scott, who was the police spokesperson and
later became chief of police, defended the investigation when
Bignell's complaint came to him through a media interview. He
declared the work sound and the matter unfortunate. At the
inquiry, he denied deliberately suppressing information about the
Scott didn't think Bignell's allegation of police
important enough to discuss with then-chief Joe Penkala, even
after the criticism appeared on the front page of the paper.
- Chief Joe Penkala declared that he was never told of
Stonechild's death or the investigation. He said he never saw the
front-page newspaper article and suggested that members of the
force deliberately withheld the information from him.
Penkala changed a point in his testimony after
proved his first statement false. On his first day on the stand,
Penkala said he wasn't aware of the Stonechild case because he
had been on holiday in December and early 1991.
When his appointment diary was produced, the inquiry
that he had been at work the last days of November to Dec. 10 and
had been on duty in March when the newspaper story ran.
- Deputy chief of operations Murray Montague and deputy
of administration Ken Wagner were in charge when Penkala was
- Insp. Frank Simpson was supposed to oversee Johnson's
Johnson, Simpson, Montague, Penkala and Scott were
executives who met every day to discuss important ongoing
matters. All agreed the death amid rumours of a violent feud
should have attracted their attention and further investigation.
Not one had an independent memory of the death or the front-page
- Coroner Dr. Brian Fern attended the scene, checked
for obvious trauma and formed the opinion the youth had not died
as a result of any injuries but from the cold. Fern could have
ordered a coroner's inquest to uncover the circumstances around
the death, but didn't.
- Deputy chief Dan Wiks, the highest-ranking, current
of the force to testify, was in charge of the police service
response to the RCMP investigation and the inquiry from 2000 to
2004. He answered questions about a special committee called to
address related matters.
Notes from the committee meetings revealed that in 2003
had given a StarPhoenix reporter incorrect information
about why the two constables suspected by RCMP in the case had
not been suspended while the matter was investigated. Wiks was
subsequently charged under provincial police regulations with
discreditable conduct. The matter is currently awaiting a
provincial disciplinary hearing.
- Inspector Jim Maddin, who later became Saskatoon
said there was concern in the police service about the Stonechild
file and there was knowledge two officers may have had some
involvement with the youth "about the time of his demise." He
does not believe high-ranking officers who say they didn't know
about the Stonechild case.
- Sgt. Eli Tarasoff knew the Stonechild boys and their
mother. He told Jarvis he thought the file had been closed
prematurely but said Jarvis was "flippant" about it.
- When constables Hatchen and Munson were convicted of
forcible confinement for driving Night to the Queen Elizabeth
plant, police declared that the incident was an isolated
incident. Hatchen and Munson were sentenced to eight-month jail
terms and were fired from the force.
Testimony at the inquiry, however, confirmed that
police have taken people to unauthorized locations over the
Several officers said they know of such incidents.
Const. Brett Maki said police sometimes use their
in deciding to release people and do not always make notes about
having done so. Former staff sergeant Bruce Bolton said that he
"took a person out 11th Street," about 35 years ago. Other police
witnesses referred to an officer who was disciplined years ago
for dropping someone off in an unauthorized location.
Commission counsel Joel Hesje said if police knew that
officers sometimes dropped people off in unauthorized locations,
it could have affected the way the Stonechild death was
- Allegations of police involvement in the death
be supported by physical evidence when the inquiry viewed a
startling photograph of handcuffs superimposed over Stonechild's
The image showed two metal strips of the cuffs aligning
two parallel abrasions that ran diagonally across the teenager's
nose, suggesting he may have received a blow to the nose with a
Gary Robertson, an image measurement specialist, or
photogrammetrist, put forward that theory as his expert
But Robertson's credibility was called into question by
police lawyers who revealed he had inflated his educational
Robertson's opinion about the possibility Stonechild's
had been broken and his observations about the marks on the
teenager's skin were called into question by lawyers who pointed
to his lack of training in medicine or human physiology. The
lawyers pointed out that medical pathologists were less certain
on the same points.
Three pathologists said they couldn't rule out
the cause of the abrasions but all said they could have been made
by Stonechild falling onto frozen stalks of weeds that were
visible in photographs from the scene.
area where Neil Stonechild's body was discovered,
November 29, 1990.
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