Inquest into 2018 death of Elton John Heebner at Regina jail underway

WARNING: this story contains graphic details that some readers may find disturbing.

On the first day of the coroner's inquest into the death of Elton John Heebner witnesses described finding the man in his cell dead, with a bed sheet around his neck.

Seven witnesses spoke at the inquest. They described the day and the conditions leading up to the 41-year-old man's death on Sept. 2, 2018 at the Regina Correctional Centre (RCC).

The purpose of an inquest is to establish who died, when and where that person died and the medical cause and manner of death. At the end, the coroner's jury may make recommendations to prevent similar deaths in the future.

Cpl. Kevin Gagne with the RCMP arrived at the correctional centre after Heebner's body was found. At the inquest he described the timeline leading up to Heebner's death.

Cameras in the jail showed the inmate, housed in Unit 5A, returned to his unit and went to his cell at 4:05 p.m. CST. Once in his cell, Gagne said that Heebner hung a sheet to cover the window on the cell door.

According to Gagne he was not seen again until a corrections officer found him shortly after 8:30 p.m. But, earlier that afternoon, around 4:45 p.m., Doug Deagnon, a corrections officer, passed by Heebner's cell. It was against policy at the RCC to obstruct the window on a cell, but according to testimony from Deagnon, inmates will often cover the window for privacy if they're going to bathroom.

Heebner was a familiar face during Jessie Paton's 17 years as a corrections officer at the RCC. Heebner had been in and out of jail for most of his adult life. She said Heebner was easygoing and non-problematic as an inmate — the kind of person you could joke with.

Leading up to his death, Paton noticed that Heebner was withdrawn. "He was non-verbal. He looked very sad," she said, adding that he looked like a "shell of a person."

Shortly before 8:20 p.m., inmates on Unit 5A were lined up outside their doors to be counted — a way to ensure each inmate is present and accounted for on the unit. Heebner did not present himself for the count, he was also not present at supper which was served at 5:30 p.m.

'He looked very sad'

When Paton checked Heebner's cell she found him with a noose around his neck, allegedly fashioned out of a braided bed sheet and wedged into the door jam of his cell door. She alerted fellow corrections officer Doug Deagnon and called a code blue.

Angel Whitford responded to the call, though it was called down while she was en route to the unit. Still, she felt compelled to carry on and see what had happened.

Whitford said when she got to the cell Heebner was grey, cold to the touch with a swollen face and tongue. She had trouble laying him flat because rigor mortis had set in and she wasn't able to establish an airway in his lungs because of swelling.

Whitford was also familiar with Heebner before his death and told the jury he had attempted suicide three times in 2015 and had exhibited signs of schizophrenia. In the three following years there were no records of self-harm or suicide attempts, but Heebner's health started deteriorating because of methamphetamine use, according to Whitford.

When inmates are admitted to the RCC they are given an assessment to determine if they are a suicide risk. Such assessments are seldom done after the initial one, but Whitford said there was no reason it couldn't be done more often. "They take 10 minutes," said Whitford.

17 witnesses are expected to testify during the inquest, which is set to last three to four days. The inquest will continue Tuesday morning at 9:30 a.m. CST.