Mother of murdered inmate gets answers at trial

By Lisa Joy

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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The mother of an inmate who was murdered in his cell in Saskatchewan Penitentiary says she got answers about her son’s death during an eight-day trial, which was heard before a judge alone in Prince Albert’s Court of Queen’s Bench.

Christopher Van Camp, 37, was found unresponsive in his cell June 7, 2017. His cellmate, Tyler Vandewater, who was 28 at the time, is charged with second-degree murder in the death of Van Camp. The trial went from Jan. 27 to Feb. 5. Justice Brian Scherman reserved his verdict until March 5. 

Van Camp’s mother, Lauren Laithwaite of Calgary, attended the trial every day.

“I got a lot of answers,” she said in an interview Feb. 6. “I learned with everyone else the extent of his injuries. I didn’t know he died from blood loss.”

Until the trial she didn’t know her son’s body was riddled with 60 wounds when guards found him lifeless in his cell shortly before 8 a.m. June 7, 2017. According to the autopsy report, he died from loss of blood. 

“Christopher had no offensive or defensive wounds on him,” said Laithwaite. 

Laithwaite said she doesn’t believe Vandewater’s assertion that he acted in self-defence and that Chris Van Camp was acting paranoid. 

“I believe Chris got up to use the toilet, where the attack began, initiated by Tyler. Christopher had no chance of fighting back. He was probably going to the bathroom at the time.” 

Correctional Service Canada said in a June 7, 2017, press release that when the guards found Van Camp’s lifeless body, emergency services was called but Van Camp couldn’t be resuscitated.

According to CSC, at the time of his death Van Camp was serving a sentence of five years, five months and 12 days for armed robbery since 2012. He was serving the sentence for fraud, break, enter and commit theft, break and enter with intent, possession of property obtained by crime, disobey an order of the court, failure to comply with conditions of an undertaking or recognizance since June 6, 2012. 

At the time of Van Camp’s murder, Vandewater was serving four years, 11 months and 11 days for aggravated assault, assault causing bodily harm, two counts of assaulting a peace officer and uttering threats. 

Laithwaite is suing CSC alleging prison staff was negligent. She says under the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act her son shouldn’t have been arrested and returned to the maximum security unit at Saskatchewan Penitentiary for violating his parole after he overdosed. To reduce fear of police attending overdose events and encourage people to save a life, the act provides some legal protection for people seeking emergency help during an overdose. The act allows for protection of people from charges such as possessing a controlled substance or breach of conditions regarding possession when on parole, conditional sentences or a pre-trial release. 

The act became law May 4, 2017, three weeks before Van Camp overdosed. 

The statement of claim filed July 2017 names the Attorney General of Canada, which represents the Correctional Service of Canada, Alberta Health Services, Foothills Medical Centre, and the City of Calgary/Calgary Police Service.

The lawsuit alleges Van Camp was wrongfully arrested and imprisoned by both CPS and CSC, who suspended his parole on the grounds that he didn’t abstain from drugs. 

None of these claims have been proven in court. 

Van Camp overdosed on May 24, 2017, one month after being paroled from Saskatchewan Penitentiary, said Laithwaite. 

“He was pretty close to death so he was put on life support.” 

He was in a coma for five days. 

“He woke up and a day later his parole officer said Chris would not be rearrested and he would go to rehab.”

But that didn’t happen. 

Instead, Laithwaite said a supervisor overruled the parole officer and had CPS issue a warrant to arrest Van Camp. 

“Within a week he was murdered,” she said, her voice cracking. “It is almost too big to believe. Even two-and-a-half years later when I’m talking about it I find myself disassociating from it to even tell the story. It doesn’t seem real to me still. Even just the manner people in such an authoritative position acted is beyond me at all. There was no empathy.

“My son didn’t do a crime to be sent back,” she added. “The guards were able to give me peace of mind. They found Christopher polite and never violent in prison. He needed addiction help, not maximum security.” 

In addition, Laithwaite said CSC shouldn’t have double-bunked her son with Vandewater, who has a history of violence. 

CSC spokesperson Christina Tricomi confirmed that CSC no longer uses double-bunking in the maximum-security unit of Saskatchewan Penitentiary.

“The practice ceased in February 2019 as part of an overall CSC strategy to reduce the number of double-bunked offenders in maximum security units across the county,” she said in an email statement Feb. 6. 

“The Correctional Service of Canada takes the death of an inmate very seriously, the loss of life is always a tragedy,” said Tricomi.

“Following Mr. Van Camp’s death, CSC convened an internal Board of Investigation. BOIs allow the CSC to examine circumstances of incidents and to present findings and recommendations that may prevent similar occurrences in the future. Any actions that address any areas of concern are considered and implemented accordingly. CSC cannot provide any further details as this matter is before the courts.”

Tricomi said CSC institutions have cells designed for a single offender and for two offenders. 

“Double-bunking involves installing a second bed for another offender into a cell designed for one. Double-bunking is a normal practice used by many countries. CSC uses this option to manage pressures from an increasingly complex and diverse offender population.

“The safety and security of staff and inmates is paramount when deciding where to place an inmate. CSC ensures all available beds are used to provide an environment that is safe and secure to help inmates in their rehabilitation. To manage inmate population pressures, transfers between CSC institutions can be facilitated. All transfers are made in accordance with the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, and CSC performs risk assessments before transferring an offender to a facility. Transfers play an important role in CSC’s ability to manage the inmate population within the confines of the law, and are key to meeting the organization’s priorities.”

But that’s little comfort for Laithwaite.

“As a mother you don’t want to wish your child to be gone,” said Laithwaite. “I wish he died in hospital instead of being sent back to that violent death.”

Laithwaite said she will be in Prince Albert for the judge’s decision next month. 

“The prosecutor did an amazing job. I have no doubt that the conviction will come.”

See related story: Lawyer recounts ‘inhumane’ treatment of Chris Van Camp he says led to death

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