Family yearns for answers one year after death of James Williams

Duncan, BC

One year after his body was found in a Duncan shelter, those who were close to James Williams fear that authorities have given up on finding the true cause of his death.

A year ago today Williams, a 52-year-old father of five and member of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, was found lifeless on the floor of the room where he was staying at the Warmland Shelter. The staff member who found him described Williams’ neck being still warm, but his hands were cold.

The autopsy cites the cause of death as “subdural and subarachnoid hemorrhage” in the brain and “blunt head trauma” to the back of his skull, “with no associated fracture.” Estimates have a head injury within seven days of his passing, with another resurgence of bleeding within seven hours of death.

“A re-bleed of an older subdural hemorrhage can occur with minimal/trivial trauma to the head potentially without signs of impact to the head due to the fragility of the blood vessels within this region,” states the autopsy report.

Accounts describe Williams as appearing hungover that day, after spending much of the previous evening in jail. He was not charged with an offence, but was picked up by Duncan RCMP for public intoxication just before 4:30 p.m. on July 15, 2020. While on patrol the officer said Williams was lying back down on the concrete base of a business sign in a parking lot at Alexander Street and Highway 1.

“He was intoxicated to the point of obviously not being able to care for himself, but I also felt that he was not in a position to be brought to the sobering centre,” said the officer in his account. “He was too intoxicated for the sobering centre, but not intoxicated to the point he required medical attention.”

With no fixed address to be brought to and no one to monitor him at the shelter, the decision was made that a jail cell was the safest place for Williams to be that afternoon. Over the nine hours he spent in the cell, Williams was described by a guard as a “model prisoner”, only asking when he could leave near the end of his duration in custody. Video footage shows he did not fall while in the cell.

Williams was let out at 1:30 a.m. on July 16, 2020. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, no taxis were running in Duncan at that late hour, so he was left to walk to his room at Warmland House. Video shows Williams entering the shelter at 2:08 a.m., then he was seen going to the facility’s laundry room at 5:54 a.m., before being found deceased later that afternoon by an employee looking for the laundry room key.

An examination by the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. ensued, producing a report nine months later that determined any actions or inaction by police were not a factor in Williams death.

“It seems likely, given that Mr. Williams was found initially passed out on his back on a concrete slab, that the bruise on the back of his scalp and the underlying hemorrhage may well have been the result of a fall while intoxicated, compounded by a number of pre-existing conditions set out in the Port-Mortem Report,” states the IIO report. “[T]here was evidence in the brain of previous strokes, and some hardening and narrowing of arteries supplying both the heart and the brain.”

But questions remain about the cause of other injuries to Williams’ body. The autopsy found bruises on his torso and left leg. On the right side three ribs were bruised, while another two had fractures. Close to the end of his time in the cell, Williams complained of chest pains to the guard, but this was not communicated to officers at the detachment.  

Jennifer Touchie, Williams’ cousin, said the RCMP appears to be convinced her relative’s injuries were caused by a fall.

“They are trying to say that he was intoxicated and fell, and it’s most likely from a fall,” she said. “Something happened to him because of what the coroner is saying. It conflicts with the RCMP.”

Touchie said police have not considered requests from family to seek other avenues for answers.

“We discussed what they should look into, whether it’s video footage where he was, a person that might have been harassing him,” she said. “They always had answers. They weren’t interested in the investigation.”

The last contact police had with Williams’ family was two months ago, when they said “it’s still an open investigation, but it’s more likely because of a fall,” said Touchie.

The RCMP did not respond to Ha-Shilth-Sa’s requests for comment.

Mariah Charleson, vice-president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, said the duration of the investigation has been problematic. The family didn’t get a full account of the details leading to Williams’ passing until the IIO report was released on April 27.

“It took a very long time for the family to have this information with them,” said Charleson. “The family is put in a really difficult position because they had to wait all that time for the IIO to come up with their final report.”

The Independent Investigations Office is brought in if there’s a possibility that police could have been a factor in someone’s death. But Ron MacDonald, the IIO’s chief civilian director, stressed that the agency would not interfere with the RCMP’s ability to find answers.

“We would never do anything to hinder a police investigation in those types of circumstances,” he said. “The police are pretty smart to tell us when we might be.”

Although it’s rare, the IIO can be conducting an investigation at the same time as police, MacDonald noted.

“If there was a question mark about how the person died, but also a question mark about whether or not the police were involved, then theoretically we could both be working at the same time,” he said. “It doesn’t happen very often. That’s unusual - usually it’s fairly clear as to how they died, or that decision is made fairly soon.”

While communicating with Duncan RCMP this spring, Charleson found little initiative to find answers.

“One of the first things that the detachment said to me was it’s going to be really difficult to find any information because of how long this has been. To me, that’s not an excuse,” she said. “Because of the injuries that were listed, and because reason to believe foul play may have happened, we, of course, want to see a complete and full investigation.”

Meanwhile, Touchie said her family is still struggling with what happened to James Williams.

“We are all still fighting, trying to grieve, and coming to terms with what happened,” she said. “We just want truth. We want racism to stop, we’re all human beings and need to be treated equally. Brother James’ life mattered, and it’s his family, his children, that are hurting and missing him.”

Share this: