Python deaths: 'This could have been prevented by a simple action'

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Python deaths: 'This could have been prevented by a simple action'

Python deaths: 'This could have been prevented by a simple action'

The now-retired RCMP investigator who recommended charging Campbellton python-owner Jean-Claude Savoie in the deaths of two boys killed by a snake rejects the suggestion he bowed to interference from top RCMP brass.

Retired Insp. Marc Bertrand, 60, conducted the last of three RCMP reviews of the investigation into the deaths of Connor and Noah Barthe, who were killed in August 2013 by an African rock python while on a sleepover with Savoie's son.

Bertrand said he approached his review the way he would a cold case – essentially as a fresh investigation, rather than as an examination of the files. He said he wasn't asked to recommend charging Savoie.

"I wasn't given the file to take it to the Crown," Bertrand said. "I was told to make sure the investigation is done the best it can be done."​

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Bertrand said he was brought in because the first two reviews simply looked at the original investigation file without reinterviewing witnesses or seeking new information.

The young brothers were killed by the 3.8-metre snake after it escaped its enclosure in Savoie's apartment and fell through ceiling tiles into the boys' room.

Review took 7 months

Bertrand said he worked on his review for at least seven months, interviewing witnesses again and talking to experts. In the end, he believed there was enough evidence to charge Savoie and forwarded the case to the Crown. 

Savoie was charged with criminal negligence causing death and was later acquitted.

But the decision to charge Savoie in the first place bewildered another former Mountie, who had also reviewed the case and concluded a charge wasn't warranted.

In an interview earlier this month, now-retired inspector Gerry Belliveau pointed to what appeared to be the suspicious timing of the decision to charge Savoie.

After the original investigation and two reviews concluded Savoie hadn't been negligent, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson was briefed on the case. 

Then, less than a day later, the Mountie who conducted the original investigation informed Belliveau in an email that the case was being forwarded to the Crown, meaning a charge was recommended.

Mountie mistake?

Bertrand believes that this email, by Cpl. Gabriel Deveau, is the source of confusion about how the case was handled in its later stages. 

He said Deveau was mistaken when he wrote that the case was being forwarded to the Crown.

"That's not how it happened because, really the file didn't go to the Crown for almost seven or eight months after I took over. ... I got the file to kind of look at the whole thing and make sure all aspects — all evidence available — was put to paper, presented in the proper format and given to the Crown."

Attempts by CBC News to contact Deveau were unsuccessful.

​Deveau, of the major crime unit in northern New Brunswick, did not recommend charging Savoie. Nor did two reviews of that investigation, by H Division in Halifax and by Belliveau, who was the acting superintendent for southeast New Brunswick at the time.

Handled like 'cold case'

However, Bertrand, working with another inspector and criminal analyst, came to the opposite conclusion.

"We kind of handled the case now as a cold case," he said.

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The reviews by H Division and Belliveau were "paper reviews" of the original investigation and might not have picked up on anything that was missed, Bertrand said.

The snake escaped through a ventilation pipe in the ceiling of its enclosure, then fell through the ceiling into the adjoining living room, where it killed the sleeping brothers.

Witnesses had told investigators of a previous escape attempt by the snake through the same pipe, with the snake getting stuck partway through the pipe before Savoie returned it to its enclosure.

A dryer-like vent cover was supposed to cover the pipe's opening but the cover wasn't affixed by screws or any other method after the first escape attempt. To Bertrand, the failure to secure a cover over the 3.5-inch-diameter pipe was key.

'This could have been prevented'

"What tips the scale is could this have been prevented?" he said. "In criminal negligence you have to look at was it a marked departure?

"We felt it was. We felt that this could have been prevented by a simple action that anybody could do."

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To establish criminal negligence, a person's actions have to be proven to be a marked departure from those of someone in a similar situation and shown to be reckless in putting others' safety at risk.

But Bertrand said Savoie's long history with snakes meant his actions had to be compared to someone with similar experience, not to a person with none.

"Mr. Savoie is not somebody who found the snake the day before," said Bertrand. "He had years of experience working with snakes."

Bertrand said he talked to people with snake experience who told him they would have made sure the entrance to the pipe was blocked to prevent the snake from escaping into it.

"We had no evidence talking to all the witnesses — and we did interview everybody we could find, people who do maintenance and so on — there was no attempt by Mr. Savoie or anybody else that he would have directed to repair to prevent this from happening again," he said.

"That was the tipping point, I believe, for this case."

Found not guilty

A jury found Savoie not guilty in November 2016, and the Crown did not appeal the verdict.

"I have no issues with that whatsoever," said Bertrand.

"I truly believe we have the best system there is. Mr. Savoie was found not guilty by his peers."

Bertrand said police investigate incidents to try to make people accountable and to create public awareness and deterrence.

"Other people in the circumstances like Mr. Savoie now understand there can be ramifications for doing, or not doing something, or not caring properly for animals," said Bertrand. 

"Or in this case, he didn't care properly for children."