About two dozen sympathizers braved minus-10 temperatures to attend a vigil on Wednesday, 22 January 2014 to mark the tenth anniversary of a suspicious death at the Law Courts Building in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
In 2004, a handcuffed and shackled 16-year-old Kyle Young — set to appear in Youth Court — plunged five floors down an empty elevator shaft after being pushed through a closed, one-piece metal door.
No one was charged in connection with the youngster’s death.
A decade later, one concerned citizen still wonders why.
It was around 11:40 Thursday morning, the 22nd of January 2004 when I walked out the west doors of the Law Courts Building — known simply as the Courthouse — and spotted a firetruck with lights flashing, parked out on the street. A possible story, I thought. At the time, I was reporting from the Courthouse for 630-CHED Radio.
I approached a firefighter who was busy grabbing some rope and asked what was going on. He looked my way, cursed and slowly shook his head from side to side. The guy was some pissed off. But not at me. He was appalled at something he’d just seen in the bowels of the Courthouse.
With a good length of rope draped over his shoulders, metal hooks jangling, the firefighter made his way across the street to the Law Courts Building.
It didn’t take long for word to get out that a teenage prisoner [in legal jargon, a ‘Young Offender’] had died violently at the Courthouse. I went to the fourth floor of the Provincial side and noticed an unusually high number of guards milling about Courtroom 444, Youth Court.
There was sure no welcome mat that day. The officers looked tense, their eyes shouting what their lips feared to say: Piss Off.
The explanation we reporters got initially from the Alberta Government was that a Young Offender had somehow fallen down an empty elevator shaft. “How the hell did that happen?” I asked a PR person. “Aren’t there doors to prevent that?” The explanation was that an investigation was underway and everything would come out in the wash.
We were hoping not a whitewash. More often than not, when reporters are covering a story, bureaucrats are covering their asses.
In an interview from Vancouver, Ryan Wilson, VP of the well-known elevator manufacturer, ThyssenKrupp, discounted any possibility the doors had opened prematurely before the elevator car arrived. “It is basically impossible for those doors to come off or to open prematurely when there is no elevator there,” Wilson told the Edmonton Sun. “Elevator doors just don’t open. They just don’t. Engineering-wise it is just impossible for that to happen.”
The firefighter used his rope to secure a damaged elevator door, hanging precariously off one of the cables and in danger of plummeting down the shaft.
Five stories down was the still body of a teenage boy, suspended in the air, his neck wedged in a metal bracket. Kyle Young was handcuffed and shackled at the waist. His feet, in chains also, dangled about a meter off the concrete floor.
When I saw police photographs of the dead teen hanging in mid-air — handcuffed and chained — I realized why the firefighter was so ticked. My reaction when I saw the pictures? “WTF??? …” They are photos I wish I’d never seen. I can’t delete them from my head.
Edmonton Police showed up, but not right away. That’s because no one notified them about the suspicious death — for at least half an hour.
The death of a teenager at the Law Courts Building soon morphed into a national news story, with reporters scurrying about, looking for fresh angles and ‘scoops.’ The competition was on. Day One went to the Edmonton Sun for being the first to publicly identify the Young Offender. Its competitor, the Edmonton Journal, followed the next day with the boy’s name.
Day Two belonged to CHED Radio. Our newsroom got a tip that a teen who’d been in a holding cell closest to the elevator, just around the corner, had heard [… but not seen] everything. The morning after Kyle’s death, I found the youngster outside a courtroom on the fourth floor. He was sitting with his mother and so I asked her, “May I speak with your boy about what happened yesterday?” She glanced his way and said, “It’s your choice, son.” He nodded yes.
At that point, a court-appointed lawyer intervened and told the kid not to say anything. That was my cue to ask the youngster and his mother to come to my office, a couple of floors down, where we’d talk. And so off we went.
Tony Blais of the Sun, with whom I shared the office, couldn’t help but overhear the interview. He asked, “Can I jump in on this?” I said, “Sure.”
The teen revealed there had been a lot of loud banging, and when the elevator door broke free, he said, his cell shook. I asked him if he had heard any screams, and he said no. Strange. A youngster had plunged five floors to his death. One would think he would’ve yelled something. Christ, how tough was this guy? I know if I had fallen like that, I sure would have screamed.
Unless I was unconscious.
A video camera was aimed directly at the elevator door, but no tape ever surfaced. Guards claimed the camera wasn’t set up to record. However, the youngster said that immediately after the incident, he witnessed guards hurriedly carting away recording equipment. I couldn’t help but wonder if everything had in fact been recorded — and the evidence subsequently destroyed.
At the inquiry that followed months later, two Courthouse guards [now known as Sheriffs] admitted pushing the youngster up against the elevator door but maintained they were only trying to restrain him because he’d allegedly been verbally abusive and threatening. One guard even testified that Young asked to be bruised.
The elevator door suddenly swung open, the guards said, and down the lad fell. Strange, they didn’t think to hold onto him. In any case, that was their version of events. Kyle of course never got to give his side of the story.
THE LONE PROTESTOR
Not only the firefighter was disgusted. A commercial pilot, Rob Wells of Edmonton, protested on the Courthouse steps, walking back and forth and holding a sign that read: ‘Justice for Kyle … [No] abuse cover up’ and ‘No More Brutality.’ The other side read, ‘Stop Killing Kids’.
Wells recalled that when word finally came down — five months later — there would be no charges, “My gut feeling said there’s something wrong here. It just stunk.”
Wells felt strongly that Kyle’s death was not an accident.
The northeast entrance of the Courthouse is a busy place with hundreds of people coming and going every day. Some had words with Wells, but most walked right by him.
The one-man ‘demo’ grabbed the attention of somebody at the Courthouse. According to Wells, a guard shoved him and ordered him off the bottom step because he was “trespassing.” Years later, in reflecting on the incident, Wells says, “I believe it [the Courthouse] was a public place and I had a right to protest.”
It was the Nobel prize-winning author, Isaac Singer, who wrote, “What a strange power there is in clothing.” Wells came to that same conclusion when he protested outside the Law Courts Building. When Wells didn’t dress up, people asked him if he was Kyle’s father — but when he wore a suit and tie, they wanted to know if he was Kyle’s lawyer.
CROWN PROSECUTOR STAN FOWLER
Scores of Crown Prosecutors also walked those Courthouse steps, but only one — the late Stan Fowler — took the time to hear what the protestor was worked up about. According to Wells, Fowler told him, “This makes me ashamed to be part of the system.”
Fowler, who had studied for the priesthood, later told me that what happened to Kyle Young was wrong.
Stan was a thoughtful, gentle human being and a good friend. I liked him because he had more passion for fair play and justice than legal technicalities. Stan died from brain cancer on January 6, 2012. He was 68.
Many, including lawyers and judges, showed up for Stan’s funeral service at St. Joseph’s Basilica in downtown Edmonton. Sitting alone at the back of the church was Mr. Courthouse Protestor. I wasn’t aware that Rob Wells had been friends or acquaintances with Stan, and so when I asked him why he was there, he simply replied, “Stan Fowler had integrity.”
THE INTERVIEW WITH WELLS
In the summer of 2004, I interviewed Rob Wells about why he felt the way he did about the death of someone — in this case, a troubled teenager he didn’t know. We chatted on the sidewalk on the east side of the Courthouse. Wells didn’t hold back in saying he strongly believed there had been a cover-up — and a blatant one at that.
The man summed things up this way: “I will never be convinced that Kyle Young’s death was anything but a homicide.”
A ‘bombshell’ hit while I was talking to Wells. A guard, clearly agitated with the protestor, walked up to him and made a gesture that could be best described as a death threat. The officer raised his hand, then dropped it suddenly, complete with sound effects … as if to mimic someone, say, plunging down a shaft.
A week before, the same guard told Wells, “Don’t you have a job? I’ll take you for an elevator ride … kids are no fun anymore.”
“The threat showed the mindset of people in the system,” Wells surmised.
The day after the news was broadcast on CHED Radio, both Wells and the mother of Kyle Young got a phone call — and an apology — from the Provincial Solicitor-General.
Wells was then called to a meeting with Mel Bertsch, the guards’ supervisor, with Wells requesting that the guard not be suspended or fired. Good for Wells.
I too was called to a meeting with Bertsch. I too expressed the same sentiment. The official revealed the guard had fessed up to making both threats. I give the guard credit for being honest. He could have had a “convenient memory loss” [lawyer-speak for lying through one’s teeth], but the guy came clean.
The guard remained on duty. When he and I met again, at the Courthouse, we shook hands. He was no longer agitated.
An inquiry held months after the mysterious death, raised more questions than answers. An official with ThyssenKrupp Elevator testified that an inspection of the elevator just a month prior showed that everything was in perfect order — and that the metal safety pin which prevented the door from opening was not only in place but in good shape.
However, when police investigators finally showed up the day Kyle was killed, the sheared-off metal safety pin was nowhere to be found. What happened to that important piece of evidence?
Because of pressure that had been applied to the elevator door, the metal bracket at the top of the door was bent at a right angle. Critics pointed out this was clearly not the case of someone gently pushing on the door … the kid had become a human battering ram.
The damage to the door flew in the face of statements by Edmonton Police Service Sergeant Chris Hayden who said his investigators “looked at the doors and they did not see any visible damage.”
In a further incongruity, it also came out at the inquiry that five hours had passed before Edmonton Police detectives interrogated the two guards. Five hours. By then, the pair had received legal advice from a defence lawyer in a fast-tracked meeting at the Courthouse.
Based on an investigation by the Edmonton Police, the Crown’s office in Calgary decided there was “insufficient evidence” to charge anyone in connection with the death of Kyle Young.
Could Kyle have rammed the door open on his own, with the two guards doing nothing to stop him? Not likely, according to his mother, Lorena Young. During breaks in the hearing, the tearful woman pointed out that her son weighed 123 pounds [55.9 kilograms], and that because he was both handcuffed and shackled, he was also restricted in how much force he could exert.
Mrs. Young admitted her son was “no angel.”
“He did not deserve to die the way he died, so violently. No way. Not shackled like some big-time criminal, hand-to-foot and down an elevator shaft. He was just a boy.”
According to Mrs. Young, her son had spent six months in jail for car theft and was completing a high-school course at home.
A second teenage boy, who had been held in a holding cell next to Kyle’s outside Courtroom 444, testified that two security officers had gone inside Young’s cell; one grabbed the shackled teen by the back of the neck, pushed him out the cell and pinned him up against a wall. “They would push him up against the wall,” the youngster recalled, “then sort of pull him back and then push him again.”He added that Kyle didn’t appear to be fighting back and kept saying, “All I want is some food, man.” Owing to the fact the teenager was both handcuffed and shackled, he had no way of defending himself. He was at the mercy of the guards.
In just minutes, Kyle went from meeting two aggressive men to meeting His Maker.
Kyle Young was what some would call a “little shit.” It came out at the inquiry that he had spat in the face of a female guard just days before he was killed. One reporter wondered out loud, “Could it be the kid was just being ‘tuned in’ by guards and things got out of hand …?”
An autopsy revealed that Young’s head had been cut, the result of it striking a protruding bolt more than a meter straight away on the inside of the elevator shaft. That meant that when the elevator door broke free from its restraints, Young was flying horizontally. So much for a door suddenly opening when Young was ‘held’ against it.
In what could have passed as a scene from a Monty Python movie, a guard sitting at a desk close by testified he didn’t notice any confrontation nor hear any banging because he was busy reading the Criminal Code of Canada.
Things got really quirky when another guard revealed he had discovered “problems” with the elevator door [it kept coming loose] and had outlined his concerns in a memo, which he produced at the inquiry. It became known as the ‘phantom memo’ since nothing had been said about it at the time of the boy’s death.
As well, nothing was ever done about the problems the guard had pointed out in his alleged memo.
Hang on. If the memo wasn’t a fake and the elevator door was coming loose from its hinges now and then, why wasn’t this potentially fatal problem taken care of lickety-split?
And if the door was so unsafe, why were two burly guards shoving a boy up against it? Was Kyle hit so hard the safety pin was sheared off?
From time to time, I pulled aside Courthouse guards to see if they could shed light as to what happened that day. Their responses could be summed up this way: “Wish I could tell you more, Byron, but I can’t. Sorry.”
MOVE ALONG FOLKS, NOTHING TO SEE HERE
The inquiry, headed by Judge Jerry LeGrandeur, cleared the guards of any wrongdoing, concluding they had not used excessive force. The way LeGrandeur saw it, because of a mechanical problem, the door gave way and swung inward like a closet door, suddenly popping off its track.
In the end, no one faced any charges. Just the opposite. Those involved seemed to be given a clear message: ‘You’re doing a good job.’
Tom Engel, the lawyer for the family, told reporters:
“Significant force was used to remove Kyle Young from the cells, take him to the elevator and push/propel him against the elevator door. Either Kyle died of the excessive force or died as a result of a defective elevator or a combination of both … and it can’t be none of the above.”
Engel concluded, “Somebody had to be responsible.”
Chris Chambers, one of the guards involved in the suspicious death, remained on the job at the Courthouse. The other officer, Ali Fayad, quit his job at the Law Courts Building and joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He was then posted to Fort McMurray in Northern Alberta.
Rob Wells returned to the Law Courts building for the vigil. “Hopefully Kyle’s death is not forgotten and such institutional abuse is not repeated,” he said, “and that changes will be made in how Courthouse guards are selected, trained and held accountable.”
According to Wells, it was not the guards’ job to mete out punishment that day. “Their job,” he says, pointing a finger in my direction, “was to protect that teen and escort him to Youth Court.”
Wells wondered if any of the Courthouse guards was on steroids.
He says too many peace officers use steroids, which he claims affects not only their health — but their mood. “I’m going to press for random drug testing of peace officers,” he writes in an email on 12 April 2015, “because ‘roid rage in a cop is a threat to public safety.”
“I believe that Kyle Young would still be alive and well today if we had mandatory drug-testing in .” — Rob Wells
The head of the Edmonton Police Association was quoted as saying that people compare steroid-using cops to Ben Johnson [disgraced Canadian athlete who got caught using performance-enhancing drugs], but he claimed there’s a difference because Johnson denied using steroids, and the cops have admitted it.
“The difference,” Wells points out, “is that cops have guns, tasers, batons … and Ben Johnson just had a little medal.”
The vigil, on the west side of the Law Courts Building [across from City Hall], was also attended by more than a dozen members of the Edmonton news media.
Former New Democrat MLA Jim Gurnett, who organized the event, said he wanted people to remember what happened to Kyle.Lorena Young was reminded not to talk about the amount of money the family got from the lawsuit stemming from Kyle’s death.
Protestor Rob Wells — who wasn’t alone the day of the vigil — recalled how upset he was in 2004 when he heard on the news that no charges would be laid in connection with the suspicious death.
Lawyer Tom Engel didn’t mince words. He said the police investigation was nothing more than a coverup … to protect the system.Amanda Young read a poem about her kid brother. I recalled seeing Amanda ten years ago. She was at the inquiry, sitting alongside her mother, the pair sharing tears and comforting each other. That’s another image I can’t delete.
While people bowed their heads, Audrey Brooks said a short prayer for Kyle. Folk singer Maria Dunn then followed with a song about the dead teen.