Five years after a mother and son were killed by RCMP officers in the small northern B.C. community of Granisle, a coroner’s jury has recommended a new approach to crisis situations in rural and remote communities.
The jury classified the deaths as homicides and called on the RCMP and Northern Health officials to work together to create a better response when people are in crisis.
Shirley Williams, 73, and her 39-year-old son Jovan were killed at their home on April 21, 2016, when RCMP were called following an altercation with a neighbour.
The five-person jury heard during last week’s testimony that medical professionals and police officers in the community of about 300 people were aware of concerns about Shirley’s mental health and the ongoing neighbourhood dispute, but interventions failed to resolve the issue or get Shirley the help she needed.
Shirley also expressed a fear of RCMP, believing she would die at the hands of police, the jury heard.
“Shirley got scared,” said Harvey Williams, Jovan’s father and Shirley’s former partner. “She thought the cops were going to shoot her.”
During five days of testimony, Shirley was described as an involved community member who fought for social justice throughout her life. But in the years leading up to her death, Shirley’s mental health appeared to shift, witnesses said. She became fearful, believing neighbours were trying to run her out of town.
Her son, Jovan Williams, was quiet but “always pleasant,” according to a long-time family friend. He was from the Cheslatta Carrier and Lake Babine Nations.
Harvey Williams blamed racism in the small community north of Burns Lake for his wife’s fears. Their son, Jovan, had moved to Granisle to protect his mother, he said.
Witnesses from the community described seeing a change in Shirley’s behaviour in her final years. “She thought people were out to get her,” one neighbour said. “I was surprised she didn’t have help.”
The jury also heard from medical professionals who had talked to Shirley, including a family physician in Burns Lake she spoke with about her mental health concerns in 2014, the inquest heard.
Dr. Loren Caira said Shirley seemed to want him to validate her perceptions of her experiences, something he said was difficult to do.
“I think she was probably developing a psychosis, likely due to stress of someone who lives in a remote area with friction with a neighbour,” Caira said.
While he referred her for a psychogeriatric assessment to determine if treatment was needed, he didn’t know if it ever happened. “They don’t see everyone who’s referred to them. They simply don’t have the manpower.”
RCMP Sgt. Stephen Rose said the RCMP has “a very robust” protocol it follows when a report is made about the mental health of an individual, including talking to family members and mental health professionals.
“Ultimately, though, unless we have reasonable grounds to believe that, at that moment, the person poses a clear risk to themselves, to a member of the public, or that they appear to suffer from a mental illness, the police intervention at that point has stopped,” Rose said.
Although police were aware of “general concerns” about Shirley’s mental health, there was not sufficient grounds to apprehend her under the Mental Health Act, Rose said.
The inquest covered both deaths, but the jury was directed to make separate recommendations for each.
In both cases, it recommended that the RCMP’s E Division and Northern Health work together to implement Community Crisis Intervention teams in isolated communities.
The teams would bring together members of agencies such as emergency health services, first responders, municipal councils, band offices and community health, police and school officials to provide “cohesive responses to critical incidents,” the jury said in both verdicts.
In the case of Shirley Williams, it further recommended that Northern Health ensure appropriate followup by community health clinicians in rural and remote areas when assessing and treating clients with mental health issues.
In addition, it recommended that RCMP review its critical incident communication protocol for rural and remote communities, specifically to consider the option of using family or victim support services personnel during a crisis as an alternative or along with RCMP officers.
In the case of Jovan Williams, the jury recommended RCMP review its policy to encourage the deployment of members in pairs where possible, particularly when it comes to high-risk incidents in isolated communities.
It also said the RCMP should reopen its Granisle detachment, which was closed in 2012.
Shirley Williams had a long-standing dispute with a neighbour across the street, the inquest heard. Heinrich “Hank” Fehr has since died.
Sgt. Ryan Creasey testified that two months before the shooting, he had responded to a dispute between Jovan and Fehr where the latter had confronted Jovan with a baseball bat. Jovan reported the incident to RCMP.
Creasey twice recommended an assault charge, he said, but the charge was not approved because there was little likelihood of conviction.
On April 21, 2016, the relationship between Fehr and the Williams hit a breaking point.
At about 1 p.m. that day, the Houston detachment about 80 kilometres south of Granisle responded to a call from Fehr, who told officers that he was approached by Jovan, who pulled out a handgun and pointed it at Fehr.
“Mr. Fehr said that he heard a click as the trigger had been pulled on the handgun,” Rose said. “It didn’t fire and Jovan then lowered it slightly.”
A scuffle ensued, during which Jovan hit Fehr with the butt of the pistol before both men returned to their homes, where Fehr called police.
Officers were dispatched believing they “weren’t only dealing with an assault with a weapon, but what appeared to be a clear attempt to kill Mr. Fehr,” Rose said.
“He was very shaken,” Rose said about Fehr, “and wanted the police to resolve this quickly.”
Within 90 minutes after the incident, four RCMP officers had arrived at the scene and moved into position around the house, with one officer behind the house. Once in place, Rose called the Williams residence and spoke to Shirley.
“Shirley then went into a bit of a perspective on how the police don’t do anything and the police didn’t deal with it when Hank had assaulted Jovan and basically gave her perspective of the longer standing neighbour dispute,” Rose said, adding that Shirley mentioned an incident the same morning where she had been blocked from leaving her driveway.
“I told her, that’s not why I was calling, that I wanted to speak with Jovan about an incident between him and Hank,” Rose said. Shirley would not confirm where Jovan was, something that concerned Rose, “because I’ve got officers out there and we now aren’t certain where he is,” he said.
Const. Darrin Meier, based in Smithers at the time, had a background in the RCMP’s Emergency Response Team and was positioned behind the Williams’ house as Rose spoke with Shirley on the phone.
As he recalled that day in Granisle, Meier paused for a moment to pull himself together.
“You have to bear with me if I get emotional from time to time,” he said. “I want to be composed so I can give everybody the information that they deserve and that they want.”
Moments after Rose’s call to Shirley, Meier saw a man exit the back of the Williams’ house with a long gun, he said. Jovan was carrying what appeared to be a Molotov cocktail, or improvised bomb, in one hand. He also carried a rifle with a bayonet, Meier said.
In the moment that they saw one another, Meier identified himself as a police officer and Jovan lit the incendiary device, throwing it into the bush away from Meier, according to testimony. “Once it left his arm, he immediately grabbed the gun that he had and he started raising it,” Meier said. “I fired three rounds real quick.”
Jovan then disappeared behind a fence and Meier testified that he wasn’t sure where he was or if he’d been shot.
Moments later, Shirley appeared and went to where Jovan had last been seen, apparently to check on him, Meier said.
“Then she got up and she started scanning around,” Meier said. When she saw Meier, she lifted a shotgun in his direction.*
“She didn’t hesitate, nothing. She just grabbed her shotgun. She raised it up, and I pulled the trigger,” Meier said. “I thought she was going to kill me for sure. It was the most horrible feeling.”
The inquest would hear that Jovan received a gunshot wound to the chest and Shirley to her abdomen.
Meier testified that, in both cases, he felt he had no choice but to shoot.
When asked by a juror why he fired at Jovan three times, Meier responded, “Ultimately, I’m not going to stop until I feel the threat is over. I’m going to shoot as many rounds as I need to until the behaviour changes or the threat is over.”
The inquest jury determined that Jovan and Shirley died two minutes apart, at 2:49 and 2:51 p.m., as a result of the shots. But it was almost an hour before emergency response crews were allowed to assess them, according to testimony.
The inquest heard that medical help for the mother and son was delayed because RCMP did not want any interference with the scene, in addition to fears the pair presented a risk to emergency responders.
RCMP also believed the backyard could be booby-trapped as officers familiar with the property warned about its “potential for risk,” the jury heard.
At 3:34 p.m., paramedics were allowed to assess the Williams and determined there were no signs of life. They were not allowed to remove clothing to examine their injuries, the inquest heard.
In 2018, the Independent Investigations Office of BC, a police oversight body, found that Meier was justified in using lethal force given the firearms pointed at him. It did not recommend charges against the officer.
At the time of the shooting, Meier was already faulted for a 2014 incident involving a Wet’suwet’en Elder who was injured during a struggle with Meier outside a retail outlet in Smithers. A B.C. Supreme Court decision found that Meier used more force than necessary when he took Irene Joseph to the ground and attempted to handcuff her, believing she had shoplifted from the store. A search of the Elder’s purse found no evidence of theft.
In her decision to award $55,000 in damages to Joseph, Justice Brenda Brown noted that the 61-year-old used a walker.
In an email, the RCMP said it is reviewing the recommendations and will provide a formal written response, which will be posted to the BC Coroners Service’s inquest page. No timeline was given for the response.
Northern Health did not respond to The Tyee’s request for comment before publication.
Inquests are required for any deaths occurring while in police custody. The purpose of the inquest, stressed presiding coroner Larry Marzinzik, is not to find fault but to determine what led to the deaths and form recommendations aimed at preventing future similar deaths.
In addition to RCMP, family and friends of the Williams testified last week, as well as experts in RCMP policy and use of force, witnesses, a paramedic, an expert toxicologist and a medical pathologist.
The inquest was originally scheduled for June 2020 but was postponed due to the pandemic.
More than five years after the incident, many who testified expressed not being able to recall details as a result of the time that had passed.
* Story updated on Nov. 9 at 10:46 a.m. to correct that Shirley Williams used a shotgun, not a rifle.
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