Five years after the death of Peter de Groot in a police shooting near Slocan, his family is still waiting for the province to schedule an inquest into his death.
An inquest must be held if a person died “while detained by or in the custody of a police officer,” according B.C.’s Coroners Act.
The 45-year-old Slocan resident allegedly fired a shot at police on Oct. 9, 2014 when officers responded to an argument between de Groot and another person.
De Groot then fled into the bush, and three days after the initial encounter was shot and killed by an officer after de Groot allegedly drew his firearm while hiding in a remote cabin.
The family’s lawyer, Don Sorochan, says there are many unknowns about how de Groot died, including whether he was shot from the front or the back, the position of the body on the floor when and after he was shot, and how immediate his death was.
This information would come out in an inquest. It was not included in the April 2018, report by the Independent Investigations Office (IIO), the body that investigates whenever a person is killed or injured by a police officer.
In this case the IIO investigated and cleared the police officers of using excessive force. The investigation was notable because of the refusal of the shooting officer, RCMP Cpl. Brian Burke, to talk to IIO investigators. The IIO report therefore does not include the perspective of the only person who saw De Groot die.
Sorochan says the missing pathology information is complicated because two pathologists were involved in the case — one hired by the coroner and another hired by the family — and each had differing opinions on the details of the death including whether he was shot from the front or the back. But the details of that disagreement are not known.
Sorochan wants access to that information before the inquest and has been unable to get it, even though after the IIO decided to exonerate Burke, Sorochan says he got a consent court order to get the pathology information.
“I was supposed to get all of the evidence, but the B.C. Coroners Service is interfering with me getting all the evidence,” he said.
He also needs the pathology information in order to conduct the family’s civil lawsuit against the RCMP, which is being held in abeyance until after the inquest.
Why is it taking so long for the Coroners Service to schedule an inquest?
Sorochan doesn’t know, and the Coroners Service won’t tell the Star, nor will they say when an inquest might be scheduled.
“We would have to make sure all other processes are concluded,” Andy Watson of the Coroners Service told the Star. “We would need to contact all the people we would need to make this work, then announce it publicly.”
An inquest did not happen immediately after the death of de Groot because it had to wait until the conclusion of the IIO investigation.
Meanwhile, Burke is suing the IIO because of the time it took to conduct its investigation. His lawsuit asserts that the delay resulted from the IIO’s failure to use properly trained experts and that it didn’t gather all the relevant evidence.
The purpose of a coroner’s inquest is to determine the facts relating to a death, not to assign guilt or blame. A coroner’s jury makes recommendations with the aim of preventing future loss of life in similar circumstances.
Sorochan expects the inquest will try to restrict its deliberations to only the incident at the cabin, as did the IIO. But he thinks the IIO should have considered the circumstances that led to the manhunt in the first place — and so should the eventual inquest.
“As far as I am concerned it should include the start of the thing, and why the police were even there bothering him in the first place.”
In a strangely parallel situation, an inquest has just begun in Prince George five years after police shot and killed John Beuhler in a remote cabin near Valemount in 2014 (the same year de Groot was killed). The IIO investigated, found the police not at fault, and an inquest was not scheduled for 18 months.