In hindsight, Const. Paul Thalhofer knows he should have waited for backup before chasing an unknown suspect on foot into the bush.
That’s what Thalhofer told a four-women, two-men jury at a coroner’s inquest into the death of Clark Edward Whitehouse of Whitehorse.
Shortly after he was arrested on September 28, 2003, Whitehouse, 34, died while in police custody.
The 34-year-old member of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation was Tasered three times, and ingested four times the minimal lethal doze of cocaine in full view of the arresting officer.
An inquest, which started Monday, is mandatory when somebody dies while in police custody.
Rather than find blame, the purpose of the inquest is to determine how, when, why and by what means the death occurred.
Whitehouse was involved in a car chase on Lewes Lake Road near Whitehorse, the inquest heard.
Thalhofer, who is a collision reconstructionist with the Whitehorse RCMP, had been investigating the scene of a fatal, motor-vehicle accident on the South Klondike Highway the day before.
He was returning to Whitehorse when he tried to pull over the driver of a black pickup for not wearing a seatbelt.
Despite repeated signals, Whitehouse ignored the officer and continued driving down the highway.
Thalhofer, a 16-year-veteran of the force, called for backup because Whitehouse’s truck matched a description the police had received a few days earlier of a vehicle possibly carrying a shipment of cocaine to Whitehorse.
Whitehouse turned off the highway onto the Lewes Lake Road, and notifying dispatch, Thalhofer followed him, at up to 50 kilometres an hour at times, down the bumpy gravel road.
When Whitehouse finally turned into a private driveway, Thalhofer blocked his truck.
This is when the officer said he wishes he’d stopped and waited for backup, because he didn’t really know where he was, didn’t know who he was dealing with and had little training in how cocaine affects people, he said.
After Whitehouse jumped out of his vehicle and started running into a treed yard, the constable drew his sidearm, turned on his audio recording microphone and followed him, the jury heard.
However, the recording system failed.
“He said, when he saw my gun, ‘Shoot me, shoot me, it’s my day, it’s my day to die,’” Thalhofer testified, adding he then suspected Whitehouse was suicidal.
As a result, the officer switched to his Taser M-26 and fired at the fugitive.
The gun-shaped weapon delivers 50,000 volts of electricity for five seconds. That’s the same voltage that travels through high-tension power lines.
The stun overrides the nervous system, causes muscle spasms and paralysis for several seconds.
Thalhofer said he was trained to use the weapon in 2002, during which he was Tasered himself.
And he has used it three times since — once before and once after he Tasered Whitehouse.
Still, Whitehouse didn’t respond, but turned around and stuffed his mouth with “a white, chalky substance” he pulled from a zip-lock bag, said Thalhofer.
The officer used his Taser again, and a third time, after which Whitehouse agreed to be handcuffed.
Several witnesses testified how Whitehouse then walked unaided to the police cruiser with the officer, and showed little signs of physical distress, although the three civilians at the scene were concerned about his mental state.
He refused to tell Thalhofer, whom the civilians described as calm and professional, what he’d eaten.
After backup arrived, Thalhofer decided to take Whitehouse straight to Whitehorse General Hospital, and asked for an ambulance to meet them on the way, just in case.
The two left the scene about 12 minutes after the arrest, and it wasn’t until a few minutes later that Whitehouse became ill, said Thalhofer.
When cocaine is eaten, Dr. Brendon Hanley, an emergency medicine specialist at Whitehorse General Hospital, told the inquest Tuesday, it begins to work after 10 minutes, peaks after 16 minutes and begins to wane almost immediately after that.
Thalhofer said he noticed Whitehouse keel over in the back seat a minute or two after they’d left the scene of the arrest.
The officer pulled his vehicle over, called for backup, dragged Whitehouse out onto the shoulder of the highway and started administering CPR.
RCMP officers are not required by law to give CPR, but if they start, they can’t stop until they are either exhausted or someone else takes over.
Other police officers arrived shortly afterwards, and 25 minutes after Thalhofer started administering CPR, the ambulance reached them.
While giving breath to Whitehouse, Thalhofer’s barrier mask ripped and some of the prisoner’s blood entered his mouth.
He was using a cheaper mask than he normally carries in his vehicle, as he’d used the more expensive one at the fatal car accident he attended the day before.
But revival efforts proved futile, and both Hanley and Stuart Huckin, a BC toxicologist, testified that few things could have saved Whitehouse with the levels of cocaine in his system.
Whitehouse had consumed 20 grams of cocaine, or slightly less than an ounce.
There is no antidote for cocaine, and at this amount, it is unlikely that even charcoal decontamination would have saved him, said Hanley.
“This is the fifth-highest level of cocaine overdose that I’ve seen out of 1,000 cases,” said Huckin.
Whitehouse’s level was nearly as high as that of drug mules whose internal cocaine packages have burst, killing them, he said.
The court also heard how Whitehouse was a known cocaine user, and had overdosed at least once before.
After Whitehouse’s death, police said there was no known link between the cocaine he ingested during the chase and the electric shock he received.
Although Huckin has given testimony at other coroner’s inquests where cocaine-using victims have been shot with Tasers, he said he was no expert on the weapons and would rather not comment on them.
No Taser expert has testified at the inquest yet, but the use of Tasers has been under much scrutiny lately due to the many deaths among cocaine-users.
After the incident, Thalhofer was supposed to go through an RCMP critical incident stress debrief, but that didn’t happen.
Instead, he saw the force’s psychologist a couple of times, and went on an intense 30-day antibiotic binge.
He did not get any diseases from Whitehouse, but he’s stocked up on the more expensive masks since the incident, and now carries at least four in his vehicle at all times.
Jack Whitehouse, Clark’s father and a retired corrections officer, is present during the inquest.
He testified he wanted to get legal representation, but since he couldn’t afford it and it doesn’t qualify for legal aid, he must represent himself.
Eighteen witnesses are scheduled to testify and the inquest is expected to wrap up later this week.