A coroner’s inquest into the death of Peter de Groot got underway in a Nelson courtroom Monday after a seven-year wait.
The RCMP alleges that de Groot fired a shot at them on Oct. 9, 2014, near Slocan, B.C., after the police responded to an argument between de Groot and another person.
De Groot then fled into the bush, and three days later was shot and killed by an RCMP officer after de Groot allegedly drew his firearm while hiding in a remote cabin.
After an investigation by the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) that took three years, the police were not charged with any wrongdoing.
However, there are gaps in the story of what happened in the cabin because the officer who shot de Groot, Brian Burke, refused to cooperate with the IIO investigation. Also there are several pathology reports, some of them contradictory, on how de Groot died, and the inquest will explore these.
The first witness called Monday was Peter de Groot’s sister, Michelle de Groot.
“He was always a source of love and laughter for me, and I will always miss him …” she said of her brother. “Our family is still grieving.”
She explained that her brother was a survivor of a construction accident, a motorcycle accident, two brain aneurysms, and brain surgery.
As a youth in rural Ontario he was a trapper and hunter, and loved connecting with animals.
Before his first undiagnosed brain aneurysm in summer 1993, he had just finished a masters in political theory at Western University. His family spent the next few years helping him try to discover why he was not feeling well. He came to B.C. in 1996 and started working on a second masters degree at the University of Victoria and had applied to do a PhD at Purdue University.
Michelle de Groot said in the summer of 1997 he had a second aneurysm, “and to the surprise of hospital staff he survived.”
The aneurysms and the brain surgery that followed left de Groot with health challenges, and he did not go back to school. He lived in a rural area near Smithers for some years, then moved to the Slocan area and rented a farm, in a conscious attempt to live a simple life close to animals and nature.
“In spite of challenges he was the most tenacious person I ever met,” Michelle said. “He wanted to live, he loved life. For many years he was in a weakened position, but his passion and determination always drove him. He appreciated help but he did not want people to think he was disadvantaged in any way.”
She said her brother kept cattle, sheep and chickens and was also a hunter who tanned hides.
“He made this little beaver wallet for me.”
He was an inspired reader, writer, and singer, she said, who was deeply motivated by nature and who lived extremely frugally.
Not a prosecution
Under the Coroners Act, inquests are mandatory for any deaths that occur while a person was detained by or in the custody of a police officer.
The job of a coroner’s jury is to make recommendations with the aim of preventing future loss of life in similar circumstances. They determine circumstances of a death and how it occurred, but do not assign guilt or blame. The process is not a prosecution and there is no accused.
Coroner Margaret Janzen is presiding over the de Groot inquiry, with a five-person jury, along with three lawyers — for the coroner, the de Groot family, and the RCMP. Eight members of the de Groot family were also in the courtroom on Monday.
The inquest is being live streamed at https://bit.ly/3AmEI5T.
The second witness of the opening morning was Sharon van Doesberg, who at the time of de Groot’s death worked for the West Kootenay Brain Injury Association. She met de Groot three times in the years before his death when he applied to get a disability benefit because of his brain injury.
She described de Groot as “a tall man, well-spoken, plainly dressed, gentle, soft-spoken.”
When asked by the Coroner’s counsel if he had anger issues, she said she had not noticed that, but stated he had a forthright manner. When asked if he was paranoid, she said she did not know, but he had told her he had made an enemy of someone powerful but she said this could have been paranoia or truth.
Asked about de Groot’s cognitive abilities, she said they were unimpaired.
A good neighbour, and a decline
Lynnda Moore, a home support worker who was de Groot’s neighbour, testified about her relationship with him.
During the three years she lived next door to de Groot they often chatted across the fence about their animals, she said. The relationship was cordial but de Groot preferred to be alone. She described him at the “hardest working person I ever met.”
She said that in the few weeks before de Groot’s death she began noticing changes in him. He was losing a lot of weight and he had started talking, sometimes loudly to himself, about strange ideas that she described as “pretty far out.”
He started keeping his pigs in a pickup truck, telling her that the soil on his farm was contaminated by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident and he didn’t want the pigs rooting in it. Then his cows and chickens, which Moore said did not appear to have food, escaped his property and were running loose, with neighbours complaining about it.
“I felt something was escalating,” she said. “It was clear he needed help.”
Moore said that over several days she made repeated and unanswered calls to the provincial mental health service and the RCMP. She also called the BC SPCA.
Moore said she was away from home, at work, on the day of the incident at de Groot’s property that precipitated a police manhunt for him that ended in his death.
Future witnesses to be called on the remainder of Monday and for the rest of the week included SPCA personnel, another neighbour, multiple police officers, and several medical experts.
The inquest will cover the initial altercation that sparked the manhunt, the manhunt itself, the circumstances of de Groot’s death in the cabin, the IIO investigation, the pathologist reports following de Groot’s death, and an internal RCMP review.
Following the inquest, the jury will make recommendations, and several weeks later the coroner will publish their written review of the evidence.