Canada

RCMP mistakes stroke victim for drunk, leaving him half-paralyzed in jail cell for hours, lawsuit says

Alan Ruel's life changed forever the day he was arrested by RCMP for being drunk in a public place even though he says he hadn't had a drink.

Officers put the Crossfield, Alta., man in a jail cell for more than 18 hours — virtually ignoring his deteriorating condition as he suffered a massive stroke, according to a lawsuit.

RCMP surveillance video from the Airdrie detachment, obtained by Go Public through Ruel's lawyer, recorded the 18 hours and 18 minutes he was in the cell.

It shows in disturbing detail how he repeatedly collapsed, sat slumped in the corner for hours, and was left lying helpless on the concrete floor, half naked, one side of his body twitching while the other side was paralyzed by the stroke.

"It was probably one of the worst days of my life. I was absolutely terrified. I was scared. You're alone. You're cold. You don't know why you're there. There's people that are supposed to help you … I actually thought I was going to die at one point, and the thing that scared me is that I was going to die alone," Ruel, 73, told Go Public.

Ruel is suing RCMP, the government agencies that run it, and the officers involved for $6 million. He was arrested for public intoxication but says he wasn't drinking that day. (Julie Debeljak/CBC)

An expert in policing says the evidence "speaks strongly" to violations of the RCMP's standard operating procedures.

Curt Griffiths has been hired by Ruel's lawyer as an expert in a $6-million civil case against the police force, the government agencies that run it, and the officers involved.

"I think there are some major lapses here, beginning with how Mr. Ruel [was] classified as a severely impaired person," said Griffiths, who has studied police policy for decades and now works as a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University in B.C. 

"[RCMP] kept with that assumption for the next 18 hours in spite of evidence that there is a person undergoing a medical crisis," a mistake the RCMP has made before, he said.

On July 16, 2015, Ruel suffered a small "disorienting event," according to the lawsuit, likely an initial stroke, causing him to slur his speech and be confused.

In that state, he entered a bar to visit the owner, who was a friend. His clothing was dishevelled, his pants undone and his vehicle was parked on the sidewalk.

According to police reports, a bar employee assumed he had arrived drunk — since Ruel had only had a glass of water at the bar — kicked Ruel out and called police. The arresting officer reported smelling alcohol on Ruel's breath.

Ruel says he told officers he wasn't drunk and asked for a breathalyzer test but was denied.

WATCH | Disturbing video of Ruel's confinement:

DISTURBING VIDEO: Key moments from Ruel's time in a jail cell that show, according to the lawsuit, the Alberta man was virtually ignored by police while having a stroke.

"I don't blame the RCMP for picking him up. He probably did look like he was intoxicated," said Ruel's lawyer Mathew Farrell.

"[But] if they had been paying attention and if they had breathalyzed him or had him examined before he went into that cell, or even if they had just been watching him when he was in there, they would have noticed that something wasn't right, something wasn't adding up."

Instead, RCMP put Ruel in the drunk tank after his calls to his wife for a pick-up went unanswered. She was out of the country visiting family in Scotland, but a confused Ruel had called his home number, according to police reports.

Over the next 12 hours, the surveillance video shows no one entered Ruel's cell to check on him.

"When you lock them up and they seem to be getting worse instead of better, you need to be asking questions," Farrell said.

When Ruel first entered the cell just before 7 p.m., the video shows he was able to walk around. According to a neurologist's report submitted to the court, at 10 p.m. he likely suffered the more severe stroke.

Criminologist Curt Griffiths says Ruel's case shows that problems persist with how the police handle prisoners. (Skype)

As the hours passed, the video seems to show his condition worsening. At one point, he drags himself to the door and bangs on it in. Ruel says he was attempting to get the guard's attention.

The surveillance video has no sound. "I begged for a glass of water at one point, and nothing. I just thought, 'This is it, your life is over.' Little did I know that it really is over to a certain extent. I'm still breathing, but what I know of my life before this is gone," Ruel said.

In court documents, the RCMP dispute he was denied access to water while in the cell. The video shows no water was given at any time.

Officer spends 8 seconds in cell

In court documents, RCMP deny Ruel suffered a medical problem before this arrest, saying he was clearly intoxicated when officers pick him up.

Those documents also say guards were instructed to observe Ruel at least once every 15 minutes and that members "observed and communicated" with him four times while he was in custody.

The first was more than 12 hours after he was first locked up.

An officer opens the door, pokes his head inside for eight seconds then leaves without entering or doing a physical assessment.

Five hours after that — and 17 hours after Ruel was first put in the drunk tank — another officer enters several times within a few minutes, lifting Ruel's arm and dragging him around in a failed attempt to get him to stand so he could be released.

According to police records, that's when officers and guards realized something may be wrong. Paramedics arrived and transported Ruel to hospital about an hour later.

No 'obvious signs' of distress

RCMP's national headquarters wouldn't answer Go Public's specific questions about what happened to Ruel saying: "Our colleagues in Alberta have advised us that this case is currently before the courts and therefore we cannot provide comments or information specific to it."

But in its statement of defence, the RCMP says officers were justified in arresting Ruel for being drunk in public. The department denies all the allegations and any responsibility for what happened to Ruel, saying there were no "obvious signs" he was in medical distress and that he never complained of any medical distress while in custody.

The RCMP's own operational manuals, provided to Go Public by the headquarters in Ottawa, advise officers not to "attempt to determine the degree of responsiveness of a prisoner who appears less than fully conscious… [to] seek immediate medical assistance… [and] never assume a prisoner is 'sleeping it off.'"

Another manual says officers and guards are required to look for signs of drowsiness that, "may be an indicator of serious illness or injury," including stroke.

Lawyer Mathew Farrell is representing Ruel in his lawsuit. He says if the RCMP had been watching his client, they'd have realized something was wrong. (Julie Debeljak/CBC)

"If in doubt," the manual reads, "call for immediate medical assistance." Griffiths, the police policy expert, case shows that problems persist with how police handle prisoners, despite high-profile cases shedding light on the issues.

Almost nine years ago, 43-year-old Raymond Silverfox was ridiculed and mocked by RCMP officers during the final hours of his life in the Whitehorse detachment's drunk tank.

A coroner's inquest found Silverfox vomited dozens of times in his cell during the 13 hours he was in custody, but officers assumed he was drunk and didn't get medical attention until someone noticed he wasn't moving.

Silverfox died hours later in hospital of acute pneumonia. "There have been several high-profile deaths in cells in recent years, so this is not a kind of a shadow issue that's just now emerging," Griffiths says, referring to Silverfox, Robert Stone, and Debralee Chrisjohn, all of whom died in police custody.

WATCH | Disturbing video of Raymond Silverfox in the Whitehorse RCMP lockup:

DISTURBING VIDEO: The 43-year-old died of acute pneumonia after 13 hours in RCMP custody in 2008.

Suffering financially

Ruel says his life will never be the same. The neurologist's report says early medical intervention may have changed that outcome.

"I noted that during the video there does not seem to be any nourishment or fluid provided. One of the cornerstones of stroke management is sufficient hydration to improve perfusion of the affected area of the brain," wrote B.C. neurologist Dr. Steven Dommann.

Dommann also says it is difficult to know exactly how much difference, if any, hydration and earlier medical attention would have made.

Four years after the stroke, Ruel still struggles with using the left side of this body. (Julie Debeljak/CBC)

Four years after being arrested, but not charged, Ruel's mind is still unclear, he walks with a limp. After more than a year of physical therapy he has regained some use of the left side of his face and body but still has decreased function.

The former offshore drilling consultant had no plans to retire before his stroke, says no one will hire him now, and says he and his wife of 36 years are struggling financially.

"I was a big-time skier. I can't ski anymore. My hunting, my fishing, my motorcycle trips I used to do, I can't do that no more … as far as I'm concerned, they stole four and a half years of my life."