Editor’s note: The story below includes details about suicide and domestic abuse that some readers may find disturbing.
A coroner’s inquest into the death of former RCMP Sgt. Pierre Lemaitre that began Monday revealed a man struggling with depression who spiralled towards suicide in the aftermath of Robert Dziekanski’s death at Vancouver International Airport.
Lemaitre was the media spokesperson when the Polish immigrant was fatally stunned with a Taser in October 2007, making international headlines.
Inquest counsel John Orr spoke of “traumatic incidents” in Lemaitre’s career, as well as personal and relationship problems that had escalated throughout his life.
Lemaitre’s post-traumatic stress disorder could happen “not just through traumatic events, but also through feeling unsupported at work,” Orr told the jury.
Lemaitre was 28-year veteran of the RCMP and serving in the traffic division at the time of his death.
His widow, Sheila, told the inquest that joining the RCMP had been a lifelong dream of her husband’s and that he remained proud of his job despite a tumultuous work environment that saw him transferred and demoted after reporting a sexual assault among the force.
Although Lemaitre first sought psychiatric help in the mid-1990s to help deal with a rough divorce and the ensuing estrangement of his daughters, Sheila said her husband was a happy man up until the day Dziekanski was killed.
“It was the last time I saw him pull on his uniform with pride,” Sheila told the inquest of the morning of Oct. 14, 2007, describing a morning call telling Lemaitre he was needed at YVR.
“I didn’t see that look thereafter.”
The aftermath of Dziekanski’s death
Lemaitre would give the first RCMP statement to the media about Dziekanski’s death and how four Mounties described what happened. A video shot by a bystander would emerge a month later that told a much different story.
The footage directly contradicted many of Lemaitre’s statements about Dziekanski’s “combativeness.” It also showed the Taser being fired at Dziekanski five times, more than double what Lemaitre had said.
“Pierre was very upset when he would come home after that,” Sheila said. “He was fighting to be able to correct the information.” But his superiors were stone-faced: There would be no correction.
The RCMP did not issue an apology until years later, long after Lemaitre was no longer with the media division.
A new RCMP spokesperson apologized for misleading information about how many officers were at the scene, the number of times they fired their Tasers, and Dziekanski’s attitude during the incident.
They said Lemaitre was not at fault for the inaccurate information, but was simply passing on what was told to him.
The four constables who responded were charged with perjury after the results of Braidwood Inquiry was released in 2010.
Lemaitre would later received another blow: the promotion looming in the wings for him was a no-go. The “optics” looked bad, Sheila said.
He was sent instead to the Langley traffic division, where Lemaitre told his wife of “whispers” when he entered rooms and feeling he was not treated with respect.
It wasn’t any better outside of work.
Lemaitre was no longer involved with the Dziekanski case, nor working at RCMP headquarters, but his face was still all over the news.
The Braidwood Inquiry, which looked into how police handled Dziekanski’s death, and the ensuing perjury cases, made him a household name again.
Lemaitre couldn’t handle it. He went on stress leave and began to avoid public spaces.
“He wasn’t my husband anymore,” Sheila recalled. “He wasn’t the same.”
In 2012, overhearing his own inspector call him “redundant” and seeing his police support team crumble, Lemaitre left the RCMP for the last time.
‘He would never hurt a butterfly’
The real problems were at home where Lemaitre began physically abusing Sheila.
“This man who would never hurt a butterfly. He would throw me on the ground and strangle me… bash my head into the floor,” she told the inquest.
Sheila described an incident where Lemaitre “grabbed me and threw me down the cement stairs” while helping her out of the car post-surgery.
“’I told you to stay in the car,’” Sheila described him saying. “He just looked at me, he didn’t even apologize.”
Lemaitre had been seeing a psychologist in his final months, but he was too ashamed to tell the professional about the abuse.
“’Don’t you think I’m sorry? I couldn’t help it,’” Lemaitre would tell Sheila. “’There’s a rage in my head. I can’t shut it off.’”
Lemaitre’s last days
“I actually thought he was getting better,” and making more of an effort to help her around the house, Sheila said of the weeks before his death.
There had been no mention of suicide. She would only later learn he’d been making sure she’d be OK after his death: stocking up on water and dog food, all sorts of heavy things she couldn’t do alone.
He did let his coffee – which was a “911 situation” when it got empty – run out. But the night before the day Lemaitre died was “unremarkable,” Sheila said.
On the morning of July 29, the couple had gotten up at about 8 a.m.
Sheila had gone downstairs to make breakfast, turning on the television – as was the couple’s custom – before muting it, and then turned off the channel once news of the verdict in the Dziekanski perjury trial came down.
Const. Bill Bentley, the first of four officers to be charged in connection to Dziekanski’s death, was found not guilty.
But it was too late. Lemaitre had seen it.
Sheila left with one of their dogs to run an errand, and came back to find something was not quite right.
“I couldn’t see Pierre, and the dogs weren’t acting like he was outside. … It felt wrong.”
She rushed into the home, searched the living room, the kitchen and the bedroom but could not find her husband.
“That concern, that worry I had, just got worse,” Sheila said
Sheila paused, swallowing and seeming to choke back tears as she described going into the basement.
“And he was hanging there. Still. There was no movement.”
Sheila told the inquest of the struggle to free Lemaitre from the rope, and of a frantic call to 911.
The first responders who arrived at the home told the inquest they found him with a “deep, purple ligature mark” on his neck and a blue-and-yellow dog leash hanging on an exercise machine beside his body.
They also found medication, including drugs for anxiety and depression.
Richard Ross, the coroner who assessed Lemaitre’s death, said the death was not an overdose and the pills found in the seven vials added up to correct dosages being taken.
Lemaitre was deemed to be “over-medicated,” and had been struggling with anxiety and depression for some time.
Sheila told the inquest that Lemaitre had been desperate to find medication that would help him, and had described a “rage in his head that was burning his brain.”
“I have to try something. I can’t live like this,” Sheila recalled him telling her.
The coroner’s inquest will continue throughout the week and is not meant to find legal fault, but to prevent similar deaths.