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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Coroner's inquest into Chilliwack taser death gets under way

November 18, 2009
Robert Freeman - Chilliwack Progress

Robert Knipstrom's father fought back tears yesterday as he described his son to a coroner's jury that's looking into his death two years ago after he was tasered, pepper-sprayed and hit with a metal baton by Chilliwack RCMP officers.

"He was a lovable kid," Knipstrom said. "Everybody loved him."

He said his 36-year-old son called him from the EZE-Rent-It Centre in Chilliwack at about 3 p.m. on Nov. 19, 2007, saying the truck he was using to return a wood-chipper wouldn't start.

"He sounded normal. He wasn't excited or anything," Knipstrom told the coroner's jury.

But something set off Robert Knipstrom in the next few minutes, first turning him into a customer cowering inside the rental shop afraid to go outside, and then into a raging madman fighting off the two police officers who came to help him.

Twice Knipstrom begged the officers, who were unaware he'd been tasered before, not to turn their tasers on him again.

An expert in "excited delirium" - a disputed medical condition allegedly brought on by cocaine abuse that renders the victim resistant to pain while bestowing extra-ordinary strength - is expected to testify at the inquest later this week.

An autopsy report cites a lack of oxygen and "illicit drugs" as the official causes of death, inquest counsel Rod MacKenzie said Monday at the start of the hearings.

A toxicologist and legal counsel for the doctor who treated Knipstrom at Chilliwack General Hospital are also expected to testify at the inquest.

Knipstrom's father allegedly told police at the scene that his son smoked marijuana "regularly" and used cocaine, but he did not know if his son had used any that day. Knipstrom made no mention of his son's drug use during his testimony Tuesday.

Knipstrom was eventually tasered at least five times by police officers, but it appears only one had any effect. It's unclear whether that's because the probes did not make proper contact, or because Knipstrom was feeling no pain because of the "excited delirium" syndrome.

RCMP Cpl. Bruce Abbott finally took Knipstrom down by grabbing him with his hands and "gently" rolling him to the ground while other officers grabbed his arms and legs.

But Abbott agreed he was able to take that action only because he happened to be in the right place at the right time.

"(He) was coming at me quickly, and I didn't want to be fumbling with my pepper spray," Abbott said.

If Knipstrom had been armed, the 39-year veteran agreed, he would have been forced to consider other options to keep him from leaving the shop and harming himself or others.

"Yes, the options would have changed," Abbott said.

Knipstrom remained lying on his stomach with his hands cuffed behind his back even after he was taken to hospital because he continued to struggle and scream unintelligible "jibberish."

Coroner Vincent Stancato asked several witnesses whether they had ever been advised about the risk of leaving a patient in a prone or face-down position.

Chilliwack Fire Captain Jim Clarke said a patient can breathe while lying on their stomach, if they are conscious, "but if they lose consciousness the airway can become restricted."

But Knipstrom was very conscious and did not appear to have any difficulty breathing, despite his prone position.

Clarke said if he felt the police handcuffs were affecting Knipstrom's breathing, he would have cut them off himself, if need be, because the patient's medical condition takes priority.

At the hospital, RCMP Const. Cynthia Kershaw said Knipstrom was strapped "face-down" into a bed in a "quiet room" because he was "showing signs he was still ready to fight."

But at about 4:28 p.m. he suddenly stopped breathing, she said.

"He wasn't screaming anymore. He wasn't responding. Obviously something was not OK," she said.

Doctors and nurses were able to get Knipstrom's heart beating again at 4:55 p.m. He was then transferred to Surrey Memorial Hospital where he was put on life support until he died shortly after midnight on Nov. 24.

RCMP Const. Pam Skelton said she thought about turning Knipstrom onto his back that first night at Chilliwack General Hospital, but a paramedic advised her to wait for a nurse to administer a sedative first.

She said Knipstrom's apparent pain, not any difficulty breathing, prompted her to think about turning him onto his back.

"No, I didn't see he was having difficulty breathing," she said. "It's more that he was in pain."

Skelton broke into tears when she recalled the only intelligible words she heard Knipstrom utter during his noisy struggles that night.

"I love my family, I love my family, he said it twice," she said.

The inquest continues.

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