His mother’s sobs could be heard in a Winnipeg courtroom Tuesday as she watched video of a group of correctional officers subdue William Ahmo in jail.
The 45-year-old Anishinaabe inmate had been in a prolonged standoff with guards at Headingley Correctional Institution west of Winnipeg on Feb. 7, 2021.
A provincial court trial heard Ahmo lost consciousness while guards “extracted” him from the area. He died a week later in a Winnipeg hospital.
The captain of the jail’s Correctional Emergency Response Unit (CERU), which handled the extraction, was charged with criminal negligence causing death and failing to provide necessities of life. Robert Jeffrey Morden has pleaded not guilty.
“It looked like their version of SWAT,” said John Kirouac, a provincial paramedic who testified he and a partner were called to the jail that evening for a case of “potential self-harm.”
But there was no sense of “urgency” when they arrived, Kirouac continued, and the paramedics were told to wait “10 to 15 minutes.” When they did enter a room Ahmo was lying spread eagle on the floor, surrounded by about 15 guards in riot gear, he said.
No one, including a female nurse, explained what happened, Kirouac added on Day 2 of the trial.
“We didn’t expect to walk into that,” he said.
Ahmo’s mother, Darlene, of Sagkeeng First Nation north of Winnipeg, has filed a civil suit against the guards and province of Manitoba for alleged racist treatment and excessive force in connection with William’s death.
She wore a traditional First Nations ribbon skirt to court with “#JusticeforWillAhmo” stitched along the bottom.
Manitoba’s chief medical examiner deemed Ahmo’s death a homicide.
Court heard it was a racist joke that sent William into a violent frenzy in a common area that afternoon.
Crisis negotiator Michel Jolicoeur said the inmate destroyed television sets, hurled computers and ripped a hot water dispenser off the wall “like it was nothing.”
He likened William’s roller coaster behaviour – angry outbursts followed by periods of quiet – to the methamphetamine-induced psychosis he’d observed in other prisoners. He said William made threats to kill people, raved about going to heaven, freeing all the inmates.
However, no drugs were reported in William’s system.
“He said, ‘This was war?’” asked defence lawyer Richard Wolson.
“Correct,” said Jolicouer, who previously testified William was having a mental health crisis. “He believed he was in a war.”
CERU officers fired pepper spray at the shirtless William, who could be seen washing his eyes and covering his face with clothing in the two-level room.
But throughout the three-hour standoff William continued stockpiling broken glass and other debris that Jolicouer said could be used as weapons against guards when he wasn’t pacing or sitting down and praying.
“I’ve been involved in over 60 major incidents as a crisis negotiator,” Jolicouer noted. “Probably one of the most in the province, and I’ve never seen an incident like this before.”
A second video court viewed Tuesday showed orange sparks when the projectiles fired by CERU officers struck William. Wearing a COVID face mask and shorts, he charged down the stairs toward the guards carrying a makeshift shield and mop handle.
The guards crowded around William, repeatedly hitting him with their batons, until he was laid out on the floor.
In a video shown on Day 1 of the trial last Friday, William could be heard yelling and telling the guards, “I can’t breathe.”
They tell him to be quiet. “If you can talk you can breathe,” one guard yelled back.
In the video Tuesday, guards are seen dragging a motionless William facedown into another room.
Crown attorney Jason Nicol, one of two prosecutors brought in from Ontario, told court William suffered cardiac arrest.
The video Friday shows no one immediately administering CPR.
Along with Kirouac the paramedic, the video eventually shows guards taking turns administering vigorous CPR and fist-bumping each other when William’s heart starts beating again.
But the father of one died in hospital on Feb. 14, 2021 after Nicol said life support was discontinued.
“On February 7, 2021 an incident occurred at the jail,” said Darlene in a written statement shared with APTN News, “for 11 minutes my son’s heart stopped. Eventually he was revived and put on life support.
“The doctors told us that he suffered damage to his brain and spine.”
Darlene said Will’s family is “committed to seeking justice” in both the criminal and civil courts. She said they have struggled since his death.
“It has been a horrible nightmare that we go through each day,” she wrote in the statement. “The pain and heartache is numbing. We still don’t have all the answers with what happened to Will. This tragedy has changed our lives forever.”
The trial before Judge Tony Cellitti is scheduled to take up to two weeks.