Officially, it’s a murder trial. Unofficially, the court case against Tyler Vandewater is a raw look at gang life inside Saskatchewan’s only all-male federal prison.
Vandewater, 31, is on trial for the killing of his 37-year-old friend and cellmate Chris Van Camp at Saskatchewan Penitentiary. The two were involved in a brief but brutal fight inside their cell in the early morning hours of June, 7, 2017, after lockdown.
Vandewater pleaded not-guilty to a second-degree murder charge. During his judge-only trial at Prince Albert Court of Queen’s Bench, he’s testified he stabbed Van Camp with a homemade prison shank only because Van Camp came at him with his own weapon.
“I don’t want to die in prison,” Vandewater said Monday. “I don’t understand what else I was supposed to do.”
Vandewater’s account of his fatal encounter with Van Camp was just the tip of the iceberg. He and other witnesses have testified about many aspects of life at the prison.
Here, on the eve of the trial’s closing arguments on Wednesday, are some of the highlights from that testimony.
‘A nice razor’s edge’
Located just on the outskirts of town but only a short drive from Prince Albert’s West Flat neighbourhood, Saskatchewan Penitentiary opened in 1911. The facility houses minimum-, medium- and maximum-security inmates in different areas.
Vandewater and Van Camp lived together in a cell on Unit 6, Range C of the maximum security wing — the range set aside for members and affiliates of the Terror Squad gang, as well as some inmates serving life sentences.
Other maximum-security ranges house members from other gangs like Indian Posse and Native Syndicate.
“They don’t all get along,” said guard Robert Nye of the rival organizations.
Sometimes members from different gangs accidentally bump into each other in common areas, so “you don’t want to come out and get caught slipping without your blade,” Vandewater said.
Weapons are a perennial problem, to judge by the testimony of Vandewater and some guards.
“I’d say 99 per cent of max inmates will have a weapon at any given moment,” Vandewater said. “Any metal you can get your hands on, people will sharpen it.”
“It always amazes me how they’re able to take a piece of steel, a piece of wire, and get such a sharp point on it,” guard Rod Frank said. “I’ve seen razor blades melted into the end of a toothbrush. The top of a soup [can] lid makes a nice slashing weapon. You can get that to a nice razor’s edge.”
Not all weapons require such dedicated grooming, Frank added. Some are even indirectly issued by the prison.
“If you wanted to, you could stab someone in the neck with a pencil,” Frank said.
Despite cell searches, minor and major charges are regularly laid against maximum-security inmates found to have hidden weapons, Frank confirmed.
Fellow guard Nye agreed it’s a constant battle to stop the crafting and hiding of shanks. Officers sometimes have to look pretty hard to find them, he said.
‘I sleep with it’
Several weapons were involved in the cell fight between Vandewater and Van Camp.
Court heard from Darren Nilsson, the inmate in the next cell, that Van Camp — who was back in prison because he broke his parole conditions — was asking for his “pick”, or shank, back. Submitted as a trial exhibit, the pick consisted of a long piece of metal wire with a sharp tip and a bundle of brown shoelace for grip.
Vandewater said he turned the safeguarded weapon over to Van Camp, but Van Camp became threatening and attacked Vandewate, who then drew his own shank, which he had hidden under his desk.
In the melee that followed, Van Camp’s body suffered more than 60 wounds and lacerations, including 26 wounds to the head. Circular wounds were also found on Van Camp’s body, which could have come from a blue pen also recovered from the cell, forensic pathologist Shaun Latham testified.
The back of Vandewater’s hands and arms bore no defensive wounds, Ladham added.
Even after the killing of Van Camp, “I keep my weapon on me all the time,” Vandewater said. “I sleep with it.”
‘Like a tomb’
One of the mysteries of Van Camp’s death is how his brief but bloody altercation with Vandewater escaped detection by the guards, despite several safety practices.
Sound can travel under the small gaps between the range floor and inmates’ cell doors, court heard. That’s how inmates talk to each other when locked in their cells, Vandewater and Nilsson said.
“You can be lying on the bed and talk to the guy next door,” Vandewater said.
Guard Rod Frank said that Unit 6 — which has five ranges — “is like a tomb.”
“It echoes. Brick walls. It really carries sound well,” he said. Frank tucked his six-inch-long brass keys in his pocket during “punches” or counts so the jiggling didn’t wake up sleeping inmates, he said.
Cells on the range need to be checked at least once an hour, Frank said.
“We look for a very minor amount of breathing,” he said of peering through each cell door’s window. “Rabbit breathing.”
Calling for help
There are several ways for inmates concerned for their safety to notify guards. Each cell has an emergency call button, for example.
“Typically when I’m doing punches, they’ll even just yell right from the cell and then we can hear yelling from anybody in the ranges right into the dome” — the guards’ central cub, Frank said.
“I could put you in the dome and enter any cell in Unit 6, close the door and I’d be able to get your attention.”
“That includes if you’re walking [down] the range?” asked Justice Brian Scherman.
Another guard, Vince Gawryliuk, offered conflicting testimony, saying that someone in one range would not be able to communicate well with someone in another range.
Vandewater’s defence lawyer, Brian Pfefferle, asked if guards ever do nothing in response to a call from help.
“We always do something,” Gawryliuk said, adding, “We would only know what an inmate tells us or what we observe.”
Passing a ‘kite’
Van Camp was placed in his shared cell with Vandewater around 11 p.m. CST, which is when inmates are locked in their cells for the night. That can be a noisy time, Gawryliuk said, with inmates talking at each other or playing their music and watching TV.
Vandewater estimates his fight with Van Camp happened at around midnight. Nilsson said he heard some brief yelling and fighting next door.
There were three to four guards standing watch over all of Unit 6 — approximately 80 to 90 inmates — that night, guard Robert Nye testified.
More than one guard testified that during their counts between midnight and 6 a.m. CST, they saw Vandewater watching TV from his top bunk and Van Camp seemingly asleep in his bottom bunk.
In fact, Van Camp was dead. Vandewater said he cleaned up the bloody scene and tucked Vandewater in his bed, between a prison-issued, fire-retardant blanket and garbage bags.
Guards found Van Camp’s body shortly after 8 a.m. CST when he didn’t get out of bed for morning count.
On Monday, Crown prosecutor Lê asked Vandewater why he didn’t use yet another option for alerting guards about the situation: passing a note, or “kite”, under his cell door.
That’s when the trial turned into a lengthy and tense discussion of “snitching.”
‘They don’t do well’
Generally speaking, inmates and guards don’t talk much, Vandewater said.
“Besides asking for toilet paper, you don’t have too many interactions with them. It’s not in your greatest interest to,” he said.
Doing so would lead other inmates to label you a snitch and potentially get you stabbed, Vandewater said. So could passing a note or pushing the emergency button of your cell.
“You wouldn’t look at any note or stop long enough to give any indication somebody’s given you anything,” guard Rod Frank testified. “You wait until you’re off the range. You don’t want to make it obvious for that inmate. You can place them in further danger if you do.”
If the note indicates a threat to an inmate, a guard will take action, Frank said.
‘I have to live in this prison’
Vandewater wrote no note after his fight with Van Camp. Instead, he watched TV and stayed silent about the dead body lying in the bunk beneath him, he said.
“Snitches, they wouldn’t be living in our ranges,” he said. “Because they don’t do well. The same with sexual offenders. They’d be in the hospital pretty quick.”
Giving out information that could lead to someone being charged is forbidden by the gangster code, Vandewater said. Talking about a dead person like Van Camp in court? That’s okay. They can’t be charged.
“I know it sounds crass,” Vandewater said.
What about the Terror Squad code that Vandewater described during the trial — including the ritualized beatings, or “minutes”, administered to fellow gang members in their cells?
Vandewater had permission to talk about that from a fellow gang member nicknamed “Slim”, he said. But Vandewater wouldn’t give the real name to Prosecutor Lê, even after further prodding from Justice Scherman.
“I don’t want to have any issues coming back on my range,” he said in a minute-long ramble. “It could put my life in jeopardy. I’m not going to be labelled as a snitch.
“I have to live in this prison.”