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Answers Sought in Woman's Death in Vanier Jail

Answers sought in woman's jail death
47-year-old died her first night in Vanier cell
Husband says he's been told guards ignored 2 seizures

Jim Rankin
Staff Reporter, The Toronto Star
January 6, 2005

Len Landry came home after a midnight run to the store for cigarettes and a stop for a beer to discover his common-law wife gone and a note stuck on the fridge. It was in her handwriting, and explained that she'd just been arrested at their Scarborough home on an old warrant for theft-related charges she had skipped out on.

Within a day, Mary Fraser, a 47-year-old mother with four children from a previous marriage and a grandmother of five, lay dead in a cell at the Vanier Centre for Women, on the grounds of the Maplehurst Correctional Complex in Milton.

When guards came to collect her for court on the morning of Dec. 10, she had no vital signs.

Fraser's family was told she died in her sleep, and assumed she went peacefully.

Then, just before Christmas, a different account of the death, relayed to Landry by an acquaintance of a Vanier inmate, emerged. It alleges Fraser suffered two seizures over 4 1/2 hours, did not have immediate access to asthma medication and, despite calls for help from other inmates, did not receive any.

"Something's wrong here," Landry, a construction worker, said in an interview. "We woke up together, and went to bed together every night for 10 years. Her first night in jail? It can't be a coincidence. Somebody was neglectful."

Police, the coroner's office and the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services are investigating the circumstances surrounding her death, as they do with any in-custody death in Ontario. Whether neglect was involved will be the subject of a mandatory coroner's inquest, and left for a jury to decide.

The Vanier Centre directed inquiries to ministry spokesperson Tony Brown. He confirmed the case is under investigation, but said he could not address specific allegations.

An autopsy was performed but no cause of death has been established yet, said Dr. Jim Cairns, Ontario's Deputy Chief Coroner. Microscopic examinations and toxicology tests have yet to be completed, he said.

"The pathologist said that his information was that she had had two seizures, and that neither of those were (responded) to," said Cairns. "Obviously, we try to establish the cause of death, and then there will be a mandatory inquest into both the cause of death and whether the appropriate response was made by the various people who were looking after her."

Cairns wouldn't discuss any other details, saying investigations are continuing and the findings and evidence will be heard by the inquest jury.

Alcohol has been a factor examined in past inquests into in-custody deaths. Left untreated, acute alcohol withdrawal can cause seizures and lead to death. But Fraser, said Landry, was not a heavy drinker, and had gone for periods of a month or more in the past without drinking a drop.

He said she was in good health and, other than needing an inhaler for her asthma every now and then, had no serious health problems. "She gets inhalers once a month and she uses them once in a while when it's dry or humid. Sometimes she'll wake up and she's out of breath, and she'll do the inhalers and she's fine."

Family members have been told Fraser had access to medication before she went to sleep.

Landry said the acquaintance of the Vanier inmate told him inmates banged on cell doors to get the attention of guards, but none came to help.

Landry wasn't home when Toronto police, responding to a call about a disturbance early on Dec. 9, knocked on the door of their apartment, mistakenly believing, said Landry, that the problem was in their unit. They asked Fraser her name, ran a check and found an outstanding warrant for failing to appear in court on year-old theft charges, Landry said.

Fraser had had minor problems in the past with police, but she'd never told him about these charges, Landry said. He later learned they related to stolen goods taken to a pawn shop.

Police had no discretion that night; they are required to hold a person wanted on such a warrant for a bail hearing.

Landry isn't sure when his wife was taken to Vanier, but he said he is certain she would have had her asthma medication with her. Landry said neighbours told him that the police allowed her back into their apartment to retrieve her inhalers and some medicine for her stomach.