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Canada The death of Neil Stonechild: Judge rejects police version of events one cold night in Saskatoon

Saskatoon police took a native teenager into custody and attempted a cover-up when he was later found dead, an inquiry has concluded, but the province says there isn't enough evidence to lay criminal charges against the officers.

Saskatchewan Justice Minister Frank Quennell's hands were shaking at a news conference yesterday as he released an inquiry report into Neil Stonechild's death and described the findings as "troubling."

The report contradicts key parts of the police story about the frigid evening of Nov. 24, 1990, when the 17-year-old disappeared. Bloody marks on the young man's face were caused by handcuffs, the inquiry concluded, and two officers who claimed no memory of meeting Mr. Stonechild did, in fact, drive away with the young man in the back seat of their cruiser.

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Saskatoon police have faced persistent allegations that they practised so-called "starlight tours," in which natives who caused trouble were picked up and taken to the edge of town on cold nights, forcing them to walk home.

Five days after Mr. Stonechild disappeared, two construction workers discovered his frozen body face down in the snow. He was wearing a T-shirt, wool lumberjack jacket, leather-and-fabric baseball jacket, blue jeans and one running shoe. His hands were pulled up into his sleeves. According to the report, temperatures dropped to -28C on the night he disappeared.

While the $2-million inquiry did not assign blame, one of its most scathing findings was the way police reacted when they found Mr. Stonechild's body on the edge of town.

The principal investigator at the time, Morality Sergeant Keith Jarvis, conducted a brief and shoddy examination of the death in order to conceal his colleagues' possible wrongdoing, wrote commissioner Mr. Justice David Wright.

"The only reasonable inference that can be drawn is that Jarvis was not prepared to pursue the investigation because he was either aware of police involvement or suspected police involvement," Judge Wright said.

The commissioner stopped short of blaming the officers for Mr. Stonechild's death, however, and Mr. Quennell said that lawyers from his department have concluded that the evidence would not result in a conviction.

"Inferences can be drawn from the findings he [Judge Wright]did make, but those are only inferences," Mr. Quennell said.

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Still, Mr. Quennell said the RCMP file on the investigation remains open. A lawyer for Mr. Stonechild's family said they have not decided whether to pursue civil litigation.

The Saskatchewan government will take action, Mr. Quennell added, to reform the Saskatoon Police and bridge what the report describes as the "chasm" between natives and non-natives in the province. In a matter of months, he said, the government will introduce legislation that would create a civilian board with a team of detectives who can pursue complaints against the police.

Stella Bignell, mother of Mr. Stonechild, wept as she faced reporters.

"I prayed for something to come out of all this," she said. "I never, ever want to see parents go through what I've had to go through all these years."

Sergeant Stan Goertzen, president of the Saskatoon City Police Association, said he disagrees with some of the inquiry's findings, including the commissioner's conclusion that the sergeant was covering for his fellow officers.

"This has been a comedy of errors," Sgt. Goertzen said.

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The inquiry commissioner, however, suggested that the problems with the initial investigation were more than simple mistakes.

"The deficiencies in the investigation go beyond incompetence or neglect," Judge Wright wrote. "They were inexcusable."

The trouble began on that November night when somebody called police to complain about a drunken Mr. Stonechild causing a disturbance at an apartment complex in southwest Saskatoon. Constables Brad Senger and Larry Hartwig were dispatched to investigate.

The last person who admitted seeing Mr. Stonechild was his friend Jason Roy, who said he saw the young man with his face pressed against the window of a police cruiser.

"He was freaking out," Mr. Roy testified. "He was saying, 'Jay, help me. Help me. These guys are going to kill me.' "

Police lawyers pointed out errors and contradictions in Mr. Roy's statement, and suggested that the officers never encountered Mr. Stonechild that evening. But Judge Wright said he found Mr. Roy "sincere and thoughtful."

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Lawyers for the officers also argued that police couldn't have taken Mr. Stonechild to the northern edge of town where he was ultimately discovered, because they wouldn't have had time to make the drive between their dispatched calls in Snowberry Downs and O'Regan Crescent on the city's west side.

Again, the commissioner decided that the police version wasn't credible.

"I am satisfied that Constable Hartwig and Constable Senger had adequate time between the Snowberry Downs dispatch and O'Regan Crescent dispatch to transport Stonechild to the northwest industrial area of Saskatoon," Judge Wright wrote.

A police expert also testified that marks on Mr. Stonechild's face were not caused by handcuffs, contradicting other experts, but Judge Wright said, "I am not convinced by her opinion."

Judge Wright praised the Saskatoon police force for recent attempts to change, but concluded that more work remains.

"The fundamental problem the service has to address is the public perception that it does not take seriously complaints about its members and that it defends its members against complaints," he wrote.

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