Piercing, uncomfortable moments of silence filled the air as the chairman of a military watchdog agency rebuked and lectured the Canadian Forces investigator who probed the 2008 suicide of Corporal Stuart Langridge.
Glenn Stannard, a former police chief, on Friday systematically ripped apart some of Sergeant Matthew Ritco’s most important assumptions about Cpl. Langridge’s death – perceptions that it turns out shaped most of the investigation.
“You’re a police officer … Stuart Langridge was counting on you investigating,” Mr. Stannard told Sgt. Ritco at the end of a 20-minute barrage of pointed questions and clarification that at times bordered on a stern lecture.
That observation prompted Cpl. Langridge’s mother, Sheila Fynes, to drop her glasses and burst into tears.
“In all of your training, did you ever hear the phrase, or hear the phrase from anybody – from your mother to police training – ‘Treat others the way you want to be treated?’” Mr. Stannard said, looking directly at Sgt. Ritco.
“Do you think that happened here?”
Throughout almost two complete days of testimony, Sgt. Ritco defended and apologized for some of the most egregious mistakes in the investigation, most notably his decision to withhold Cpl. Langridge’s suicide note from his family for 14 months.
Sgt. Ritco explained that he felt he was handling evidence and didn’t want to rule out foul play too quickly.
He said he treated the March, 2008, death as a possible homicide until he was convinced beyond a shadow of doubt – three months later – that Cpl. Langridge, a troubled veteran of military action in Bosnia and Afghanistan, had died by his own hand.
The repeated assertion left Mr. Stannard incredulous.
“The issue of suicide could potentially have been determined long before the date of June,” the chairman said. “The issue of whether Stuart Langridge hanged himself could have been concluded much sooner.”
Mr. Stannard led the rookie investigator through evidence at the scene, including a door locked from the inside, no signs of forced entry or a struggle, a suicide note, the coroner’s statement that it was a “classic suicide,” and the position and condition of the body.
When put on the spot by Mr. Stannard, Sgt. Ritco had trouble recounting the textbook definition of lividity – post-mortem discolouration of the skin – and what it tells investigators.
“Given that it was my first suicide … ” the military cop police officer began to say.
Mr. Stannard quickly shut him down. “I don’t care if it was your first or your 50th.”
The uncomfortable, at times painful, exchange was punctuated by long moments of awkward silence.
“I did not intentionally try to do any harm to anyone here, sir,” Sgt. Ritco said at one point.
The Military Police Complaints Commission is examining whether military police conducted a biased investigation into Cpl. Langridge’s death, setting out from the beginning to smear the troubled soldier who was in and out of hospital with drug and alcohol problems.
Inquiry lawyers separately delved into other aspects of how Sgt. Ritco handled the case, questioning why he didn’t interview Cpl. Langridge’s ex-girlfriend, who testified she’d been assured that Cpl. Langridge had been placed on suicide watch.
Sgt. Ritco said he and his case supervisor decided not to talk to her, even though she was initially listed as an important witness.
Sgt. Ritco was also questioned about the fact his final report on the death was heavily rewritten and censored.
On Thursday, he said “direction … came down from higher” to create two case summary files – one he wrote, and a version to be delivered to the chain of command, including Cpl. Langridge’s commanding officer.
The final draft removed all but one reference to the victim having been on suicide watch before his death, an important point in the question of whether the military was negligent in handling the case.
If Cpl. Langridge had died while under such strict supervision, military police would have been obliged to open a criminal negligence investigation.
Sgt. Ritco had earlier testified that he had “issues” with his name being on the second version of the report, given that two other people worked on it, but he backed away from his initial remarks as the inquiry resumed on Friday.
He told the inquiry that he stands by both versions of the report as a fair representation of his investigation.
“My only concern was … just by my name being on the top of that text box; not the content, just the name,” he said.
Military police did not initially look at whether members of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) regiment were culpable – something the family has insisted should have been done from the outset.
Sgt. Ritco’s confrontation with Mr. Stannard wasn’t the only source of drama Friday.
A last-minute witness was added to the list of those scheduled to testify, prompting a flurry of objections from federal lawyers.
Mark Freiman, who represents the complaints commission, said Kirk Lackie, a personal friend of Cpl. Langridge, came forward to declare he has something relevant to add to the investigation.
Justice Department attorney Elizabeth Richards said bringing in a surprise witness may not be fair to the military investigators who conducted the probe.
Ms. Richards said she’s also concerned because the witness has a criminal record and the Crown knows little about him.