VANCOUVER, B.C. – Two markedly different images of Robert Dziekanski are emerging at the public inquiry into his death: the sweaty, erratic and visibly agitated man described by investigators, and the calm, polite and courteous person encountered by many of the people who saw him last.
The inquiry began last week to explore what happened to cause Dziekanski to throw furniture while he was in the international arrivals area at Vancouver’s airport.
His strange behaviour in the early morning hours of Oct. 14, 2007, set off a brief confrontation with four RCMP officers, where he was stunned five times with a Taser and died minutes later.
When Crown prosecutors announced last month that no charges would be laid against the officers in the death they said Dziekanski was pale, sweating profusely and appeared nervous, confused and frustrated in the hours before his death.
But most witnesses who testified at the first week of the inquiry described a calm and obedient man who, while sweating and at times growing frustrated that he couldn’t be understood, was much like any other passenger after a 21-hour journey.
“He was co-operative, he was compliant, non-violent, he didn’t seem aggressive,” said Kal Bharya, one of the border officers who processed Dziekanski.
“Just like any other typical traveller.”
Still, lawyers for the RCMP officers have questioned witnesses repeatedly at the inquiry about whether Dziekanski appeared intoxicated and how much he was sweating.
No alcohol or drugs were found in Dziekanski’s system, but a forensic pathologist suggested to police that withdrawal symptoms from chronic alcohol abuse may have explained his behaviour
The inquiry has heard Dziekanski was confused at times but mostly docile on his two flights from Poland to Vancouver, although an attendant on his first flight recalled “a little bit” of alcohol on Dziekanski’s breath when he boarded the plane.
Witnesses have said Dziekanski, an inexperienced traveller who had never flown before, again seemed confused when he first arrived in Vancouver, his face dripping with sweat.
But much later, when he was finally processed after spending hours unnoticed in the customs hall, he was calm, polite and had stopped sweating.
Bharya and another officer, Tina Zadravec, both testified at the inquiry that there was nothing out of the ordinary about Dziekanski, but told police in 2007 they thought he may have been intoxicated.
Zadravec told police Dziekanski looked like he had woken up from a “serious drunk,” a conclusion she reached from observing his body language from several metres away. Bharya’s only reason to think Dziekanski had been drinking was that he was speaking Polish, when he must have known the officers only spoke English.
Walter Kosteckyj, the lawyer for Dziekanski’s mother, said questions about whether Dziekanski appeared drunk were nothing more than an attempt to smear him and dodge responsibility.
“The strategy is to vilify Mr. Dziekanski and to say he was the author of his own misfortune,” Kosteckyj said last week.
David Butcher, who represents one of the RCMP officers, said he and other lawyers are simply trying to put forward their own theory about what happened.
“Our effort, of course, is not to vilify Mr. Dziekanski, that is nonsense,” Butcher said in a recent interview.
“What we’re trying to do is find out whether there’s an explanation for Mr. Dziekanski’s behaviour, which caused civilians to call 911.”
Butcher said he plans to show evidence that Dziekanski may have been suffering from a form of extreme alcohol withdrawal, which can lead to symptoms including sweating, increased heart rate, anxiety and hallucinations.
That evidence could include several reports that helped Crown prosecutors assess Dziekanski’s cause of death – officially “sudden death following restraint,” possibly linked to heart disease from alcohol abuse.
A lawyer for Taser International asked the head of the inquiry, retired judge Thomas Braidwood, to enter those reports as evidence, a motion supported by three of the officers’ lawyers and the federal government.
But Braidwood temporarily denied that request until it was clear whether the reports’ authors could be called as witnesses to be cross-examined.
The inquiry can’t find criminal or civil liability, but Braidwood’s final report can make findings of misconduct.
Braidwood is also preparing a report from a study commission held last year that examined the use of Tasers in general.