Julianna Cummings and Brent Wittmeier (Edmonton Journal), Edmonton, AB – The family of a woman found dead in a northern Alberta RCMP cell say police were instructed to transport her to a nursing station.
Charlene Danais, 28, was found dead early Sunday in a cell at Assumption RCMP detachment after being arrested for mischief the previous afternoon.
John Talley, Danais’ cousin, said the woman’s parents called police when they discovered she was drinking after taking a number of strong prescription medications, including sleeping pills and antidepressants.
“The parents knew she had taken these prescription pills and wanted RCMP’s assistance to take her to the nursing station,” Talley said.
“Instead of doing so, they took her right to the drunk tank to get her to sleep it off.”
Talley said Danais’ common-law husband also ended up in police custody and attempted to tell police about the medications. Instead, Danais was reportedly given two cups of water.
Police say she was later found unconscious and not breathing. Attempts were made to revive her before paramedics arrived and she was taken to hospital, where she was pronounced dead. An autopsy conducted by the medical examiner could not determine a cause of death, and toxicology reports are pending.
Danais was a “loving” mother of two young children, Talley said.
“She was an outgoing person, really happy, loved life,” Talley said. “Everyone up here in Assumption is taking it pretty hard. You hate to see someone that young die so young over something that could have been prevented.”
A funeral for Danais will likely take place on Friday, Talley said.
RCMP Major Crimes is investigating the incident.
Sgt. Patrick Webb with the RCMP declined to comment on any of the specific allegations made by the family about the arrest and detainment of Danais, citing the ongoing investigation. Nor would he comment about the grounds for Danais’ arrest.
“All that information is what the investigators are looking at,” Webb said, adding that police will look at the woman’s activities in the days and hours before she was taken into custody.
Guards have to check on inmates at least every 15 minutes, Webb said. The Assumption RCMP detachment has six double-occupancy cells and two drunk tanks. The cells have toilet facilities. Generally, one guard would be on duty at any given time.
Webb said surveillance video of the cells will be reviewed.
When someone dies in police custody, the province’s fatality review board automatically reviews the case, said Alberta Justice spokesman David Dear. It is up to the board to decide if a fatality inquiry is warranted. The board will not review the case until toxicology results are released.
A fatality report released in 2010 recommended RCMP officers seek out more information about intoxicated people placed in holding cells.
Arthur Ross Lafrance, 49, died of an overdose of alcohol and a prescription painkiller after he was arrested for causing a disturbance on Oct. 15, 2007. He was visibly intoxicated when he was arrested.
The report recommended questioning friends and family of intoxicated people to determine which drugs, drinks or other substances may have been ingested. People present at the arrest knew what painkillers were taken, but they were never asked.
The report recommended improvements to the RCMP’s prisoner intake system, particularly the form filled out for anyone who enters a holding cell. The judge found the form is not specific enough in questions about possible impairment by alcohol or drugs.
The recommendations were referred to the national policy centre for review. They are not binding and RCMP officials could not confirm what came of the recommendations.
Fatality inquiries aim to ensure that similar cases don’t happen a second time, noted Tom Engel, spokesman with the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association.
“It’s obviously failing,” Engel said. “You can have all the policies in the world — but you have to comply with them.”
Although the woman died in custody, the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team, or ASIRT, is not involved in the investigation, said Roy Fitzpatrick, assistant director of the organization.
ASIRT investigates incidents involving police that result in serious injury or death.
Fitzpatrick said the solicitor general’s office decided ASIRT did not need to be involved with the investigation, leaving it in the hands of the RCMP. Such decisions are based on ASIRT resources and how much work individual organizations have already completed into investigations. It can also depend on the history of the people involved in a particular place.
Assumption is about 880 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.