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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Dziekanski 'didn't attract any attention' on flight

January 20, 2009
IAN BAILEY, Globe and Mail

VANCOUVER -- A whiff of alcohol on his breath and confusion about his proper airline seat were about the only things that made Robert Dziekanski a notable passenger en route from Poland to Canada and his death in a confrontation with police after the use of a taser.

This was the picture sketched yesterday by a fellow passenger, pursers and a greeter testifying at an inquiry into the circumstances of the Polish immigrant's October, 2007, death in a struggle that was captured on a bystander's video. The case has sparked a furious debate on police use of stun guns.

It was suggested last month, when the Crown ruled out charges against the officers who dealt with Mr. Dziekanski, that he showed signs of chronic alcoholism.

Christine Hewer, travelling from Frankfurt to Vancouver on Mr. Dziekanski's 10-hour flight, recalled an unremarkable fellow passenger sitting nearby in the one-quarter filled airplane.

She ruled out having a conversation with the labourer, who was on his first ever flight to join his mother, because "he seemed a little provincial," she told the second phase of the provincial inquiry led by Thomas Braidwood, a former judge of the B.C. Supreme Court.

"He seemed hickey; a bit hickey," she said.

Ms. Hewer said Mr. Dziekanski mostly slept during the flight, watched the in-flight movie and was calm. "He didn't attract any attention."

Testifying by speaker phone from Europe, Lufthansa flight attendant Jesus Gonzalez, who was on Mr. Dziekanski's flight from Poland into Frankfurt, vaguely recalled detecting "a little bit of alcohol on his breath" and, through the help of an interpreter, urged the passenger not to consume any more. Mr. Dziekanski was also sitting in first class despite having an economy ticket, but agreed to move to another area of the plane.

Adolf Beuttner, a purser on the Frankfurt-Vancouver flight, said Mr. Dziekanski could not understand greetings in German and English, but was otherwise unremarkable except for sweating a little bit. "That happens to a lot of passengers," said Mr. Beuttner, who also testified by phone.

Patricia Hunter, a greeter at Vancouver airport, said Mr. Dziekanski seemed "robot-like" when he arrived in Vancouver, and did not understand English, but was able to complete his customs forms.

About 10 hours later, Mr. Dziekanski began to exhibit aggressive behaviour after failing to hook up with his mother, who was waiting for him. He began to throw around furniture, and was tasered and tackled after he brandished a stapler. The cause of his death was listed as "sudden death following restraint."

Mr. Dziekanski's mother, Zofia Cisowski, sat through yesterday's proceedings. Mr. Braidwood began the hearings with a promise to provide a complete record of the circumstances surrounding her son's death. "As a parent, I can imagine nothing more terrible than losing a son or daughter," he told her.

Her lawyer, Walter Kosteckyj, took issue with questioning by police lawyers and a representative for the stun gun's manufacturer, Taser International, which pointed to suggestions that Mr. Dziekanski was erratic or that his death could be linked to alcoholism.

"The strategy by the police lawyers and the lawyers for Taser International are to vilify Mr. Dziekanski and say he was the author of his own misfortune and to say, basically, 'We hold no responsibility here,' " he said.

Taser lawyer David Neve rejected that suggestion. "That's not fair. What we are doing is ensuring that the truth of the matter, the facts relating to Mr. Dziekanski's most unfortunate death, are before the commissioner so the commissioner can fulfill his mandate."

Mr. Kosteckyj said it was always clear that Mr. Dziekanski was a nervous, "unsophisticated" traveller, but that he acted oddly only in the last minutes of his life after behaving properly through more than a dozen hours in transit.

There was one unusual moment late in the afternoon when a man carrying a black backpack, wearing sunglasses and a military style shirt, entered the hearing room, paced around and called out "Where are the accused," referring to the four officers. He was restrained by three Mounties and held in a room for questioning before being released, without charges, and told to leave. He described himself to reporters as a friend of the Polish people, but did not give his name.

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