Fatality inquiry opens in Transit Hotel fall death

First responders who rushed to the scene after a woman reportedly fell three storeys from the Transit Hotel testified at a fatality inquiry Wednesday.

Rhonda Auger, 49, died of blunt force injuries after being found unresponsive on the ground outside the hotel on Fort Road on April 27, 2017.

When paramedic Chelsey Waldie arrived at the hotel shortly after 11:30 p.m., she found that Auger was not breathing but did have a pulse. 

Auger was transported to hospital, where she was later pronounced dead.

Court also heard from Const. Joel Rashotte, who went up to the third floor and saw an open window in the hallway with the screen pushed out. Rashotte said he interviewed the hotel's night manager, as well as one resident, Carl Arcand, who is expected to testify at the inquiry Thursday.

He said Arcand reported he was in his room when he heard a banging on his door, then looked out the window and saw a woman fall. Arcand told the police officer he pulled the fire alarm to call for help. No one Rashotte spoke to at the hotel seemed to know Auger.

"Was there any indication that night that Ms. Auger had pushed out the window?" asked Josh de Groot, the province's lawyer leading the inquiry.

"No," Rashotte said.

"Based on the information I had at the time, I didn't believe it was suspicious," he said.

Days later, court heard, Auger's family sent an email to Rashotte, asking police to investigate further.

"What they had been told about the event didn't add up in their minds," Rashotte said. 

The case was handed over to a detective, who is expected to testify at the inquiry on Thursday. No criminal charges were ever laid in connection to Auger's death.

Philip Tennant, the hotel's night manager, testified Wednesday that he was alerted when he noticed a fire alarm going off on one of the upper floors. When he went to investigate, he spoke to one tenant who reported seeing a woman fall from a window. Tennant said he didn't see anyone else on the third floor.

He rushed outside, and when he saw Auger, he called 911 and stayed with her until first responders arrived. 

Tennant told court that Auger was not a tenant of the hotel, and only residents had keys that let them access the third floor. He said he didn't know how Auger got up to the third floor. 

Other witnesses reported seeing Auger earlier with a man in the hotel bar. Asked if he recalled seeing the man, Tennant said he did but couldn't tell if it was the same person in a photograph he was shown while testifying.

"That might be him," he said. "It's hard to say."

A deputy fire chief and other city officials are scheduled to provide evidence about building and safety codes, as well as about the history of the hotel, built in 1908. Documents filed as court exhibits show the hotel was the subject of several public health investigations between 2000 and its closure in June 2017. When the hotel closed down, owners had posted a sign stating that it was shuttering for economic reasons. 

Among the city officials expected to be called is Judy Downey, head of the city's housing and homelessness section.

In an opening statement, City of Edmonton lawyer Anna Turcza-Karhut said much of the city staff's evidence will focus on improving safety of balconies and windows.

A fatality inquiry judge cannot assign blame but can make recommendations about how similar deaths could be prevented in the future.

Turcza-Karhut asked provincial court Judge Renée Cochard to consider that if she makes recommendations that affect the ability of the city's many rooming houses to stay open, it could decrease low-income housing stock, for which the city is already experiencing a deficit.

"Consideration must be given to the value these properties have in preventing homelessness," she said. 

The inquiry is scheduled to run until Friday.