Danna de Groot was desperate to help the RCMP find her brother Peter de Groot during a manhunt in 2014 in the bush near Slocan, B.C.
She had driven from her home in Vancouver overnight on Oct. 11, 2014, after she got word that her brother was in trouble. The RCMP had Slocan locked down – no one was allowed in or out – and it took some effort for Danna to get past the police roadblock on the highway to talk to the police command centre in town about her brother.
Peter had been involved in an altercation with a neighbour and the police on Oct. 9, 2014, at his home in Slocan. Shots were fired and Peter ran into the woods, armed with a rifle.
On Oct. 8, 2021, Danna was the last of many witnesses at a nine-day inquest into Peter’s death at the hands of the RCMP in a cabin near Slocan on Oct. 13, 2014.
The purpose of a coroner’s inquest is to find facts and make recommendations for future similar deaths. It is not to assign guilt or innocence.
The 2014 police response in Slocan (population less than 300), included dozens of officers, air support, dogs, a tactical armoured vehicle, 10 other vehicles, an ambulance, camouflaged and plainclothes officers, a school lock-down, and an order preventing residents from entering the town by vehicle.
Danna testified that during the RCMP’s manhunt, she offered to go into the woods with them and help to find, and communicate with, her brother. They refused, citing concern for her safety, she said.
The officers wanted her to record a message to Peter to broadcast in the media. She said they wanted her to tell him to “surrender and come out so no one gets hurt,” but she was not willing to take that approach. She told the RCMP she thought Peter was probably very scared.
“I didn’t want to say something to him … that in any way makes him feel unsupported and like his family didn’t care,” she told the jury.
She knew her brother would trust her if she could find him, she said.
Danna said there was an assumption on the part of the RCMP that her brother was mentally ill, and she felt that this misinformed their tactics. In fact, she said, Peter was a highly educated person who was disabled by a brain injury.
Faced with repeated frustration in getting access to information and to Peter’s property in locked-down Slocan, she and her brother Miles de Groot decided to mount their own search on Oct. 13. The RCMP officers were skeptical, she said.
Danna testified that she explained to the RCMP that she is trained in emergency first aid and is a good tracker, having learned it from Peter, who was a trapper and hunter from a young age in their remote Ontario childhood home. She had her hiking boots with her in Slocan, she said.
“I’m a great hiker. I did the Grand Canyon in a day.”
But it was too late. Later that day they were told that Peter had been killed.
Earlier in the inquest, former RCMP officers Brian Burke and Robert Courcelles testified that Burke had shot Peter when they opened the door to a cabin to find Peter with a rifle aimed at them. The Independent Investigations Office (IIO), which investigates deaths caused by police officers, after a three-year investigation, decided that Burke had not used undue force. As a result, Burke was not charged with a criminal offence.
Danna told the jury that the B.C. Coroner’s Service refused to allow her to attend the autopsy of her brother’s body, conducted by anatomical pathologist Dr. Gilles Molgat at Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops on Oct. 16, 2014.
So the family hired a forensic pathologist, Dr. John Butt, who agreed to examine the body, with Danna present, at a funeral home in Vancouver on Oct. 24. She had not yet seen Molgat’s autopsy report, which stated that Peter had been shot from the back and that he had died within minutes from internal bleeding.
She was warned that she might not want to see her brother’s injured body, but she persisted, and attended with Butt.
“Peter was shockingly hurt,” Danna told he jury. She described cuts, bruises, and scrapes on his head, neck, and arms, including a head wound described in earlier testimony by Molgat as “blunt force trauma.” Molgat had said these all occurred at or near the time of death, and Butt agreed. Butt said, however, that it was likely that Peter had been shot from the front, and an additional forensic pathologist, Dr. Matthew Orde, who later examined the photos taken by Molgat, agreed.
The report of the IIO, issued on March 2o, 2018, did not refer to these bodily injuries or their possible causes, but restricted itself to the gunshot wound. The report states that it accepted the opinions of Orde and Butt that Peter had been shot from the front because that theory fit with the other evidence it had been given, including that of Courcelles’.
A visit to the cabin
Danna told the jury that she and several of her siblings, on Oct. 23 and 24, 2014, visited the cabin in which Peter was killed.
They made detailed measurements and calculations about the bullet trajectory, the path of the swinging door, and the placement of the people and objects in the room. They also took into account that Molgat and Butt had disagreed about the angle of the bullet through Peter’s body. Danna is an architect with experience in creating 3D models, which she did here, but the siblings did not formally introduce their calculations as evidence at the inquest because they could not be considered medical or ballistics experts.
Danna testified that they also found a large amount of blood that had seeped through the floor onto two beams beneath, something the IIO did not mention in its report and which contradicted the evidence of Courcelles that there had been no blood. This again raised questions for them about the manner of Peter’s death and the accuracy of the IIO report.
At a meeting with the IIO on March 28, 2018, the siblings intended to present all of these concerns to the IIO in order to assist them, Danna testified. But they were met instead with an already-written IIO report that they were given 20 minutes to read before it was released to the public the next day.
“I told them I thought that the result of their investigation — the story of what happened to Peter — should be derived from the evidence rather than evidence attempting to match the story, and that they had it backwards,” Danna told the jury.
In 2016 the de Groot family launched a lawsuit against the RCMP seeking damages for the loss of their brother. The legal action has been held in abeyance pending the inquest.
The jury was scheduled to be instructed by Coroner Margaret Janzen on Oct. 13, 2021, with their recommendations submitted within two days later.