‘Nobody calls me back’
Grieving mother seeks answers in the absence of a coroner's inquest
By Sam Strangeways
The grieving mother of a young heroin addict who died a year ago is still waiting to find out why from the authorities.
Lynn Spencer has been given no official cause of death for her son Christopher, 25, and no indication of whether a coroner's inquest will take place.
She told The Royal Gazette she'd made countless calls without success to try to obtain toxicology results which would show what was in Christopher's system when he collapsed on October 27, 2012.
Ms Spencer said she'd also been left in the dark about the outcome of police inquiries into her son's death, after giving officers the name and address of his suspected drug dealer and asking them to investigate whether he and others could have suffered overdoses due to a “bad batch” of heroin.
“It's very, very difficult,” she said. “Everybody wants me to just move on, forget it, go forward, but I can't. I can't have a death certificate until I have an autopsy result. You can't settle anything. Emotionally, it's not an easy place to be.”
Commissioner of Police Michael DeSilva told this newspaper that the police inquiry into Mr Spencer's death was still open because the Government Laboratory had yet to share toxicology results.
He insisted his officers followed up on Ms Spencer's claims regarding the alleged drug dealer, searched the property in question and found no illegal substances.
He added there was no evidence to suggest multiple victims had been affected by a “bad batch” of heroin.
The delay over the toxicology results means a file has yet to be passed by police to Coroner Archibald Warner, who will decide if an inquest should take place.
Ms Spencer said she wanted an open hearing to allow her to ask questions of police and medics, but she has been given no indication by coroner's officer Sergeant Travis Powell if that will happen.
This newspaper revealed in 2008 that Mr Warner, the Island's Senior Magistrate, had decided to reserve open inquests for “special interest” cases, dealing with all other sudden deaths on a “file review” basis, meaning no public hearing is held.
The Coroner's Act 1938 gave him the discretion to do that, but it means only a tiny number of inquests are held each year and the circumstances surrounding hundreds of sudden deaths are never made public, including many drug overdoses and road traffic accidents.
Mr DeSilva said in a 2011 interview that key lessons could be learned from holding public inquests, adding that he was “very keen to straighten out the process around inquests” because “we have to do a better job of providing closure for bereaved families”.
Ms Spencer said she hadn't been able to get any closure on her child's death and had struggled to get any information about how inquiries were proceeding.
“Nobody calls me back,” she said. “I hound and they don't call back. I don't over-hound because I don't want them to really not take my calls, but every couple of weeks I don't think is hounding.”
She told how she called Mr DeSilva a few weeks after Mr Spencer died with information about the man she believed may have sold him heroin. She gave the same details to the police constable who attended her home when her son collapsed.
“I called the Commissioner on November 19, in the morning, and left a message,” said Ms Spencer. “He returned my call and said he wanted to remain neutral and would have the Deputy Commissioner call me, which never happened.
“He said if this was to become of anything, he needs to stay neutral. What does that mean? I just thought that was insane. That was three weeks after Chris died.”
The bereaved mother-of-two believed she knew who may have sold her son his final bag of heroin because she had, on occasion, gone with him to a property to purchase the drug.
Her son, she explained, was a heroin addict for about four years and was trying to kick the habit. “Christopher would get to the point where he would say ‘I need fifty bucks, I need to get my heroin. If I don't, I'll get withdrawals'.
“He would say ‘I can wean off it with this one little bag'. I would go with him so he could prove what he was doing with the money.”
She accompanied Mr Spencer a couple of times to his alleged drug dealer's headquarters, where she watched the transaction from her car.
Ms Spencer said the police officer investigating her son's death told her he was refused permission from his superiors to visit the property or conduct a search. “He told me he was told to leave the house alone,” she claimed.
But Mr DeSilva said: “Mrs Spencer has provided a statement to investigators and the Bermuda Police Service is aware of comments that she has made publicly. The police followed up on allegations regarding a local drug dealer and I can confirm that multiple search warrants were executed against an individual and his property.
“Although a quantity of cash was seized during the searches, no illegal drugs were found.”
He said that when Ms Spencer first called him, he misunderstood the purpose of her call and thought she wanted to make a formal complaint against an officer.
“I don't get involved with police complaints when they are made so that I can remain neutral for adjudication later: that's why I suggested she speak with the Deputy Commissioner.
“Once I understood the nature of her call, there was no need for her to speak with the Deputy. The Superintendent in charge of the matter was put in touch with her.”
The Commissioner added: “At the time of her son's death, the Bermuda Police Service expressed condolences to Mrs Spencer for her tragic loss. A family liaison officer was appointed to assist her and other police officers have also been in contact with Mrs Spencer on multiple occasions.
“The police investigation into the sudden death of Christopher Spencer is still active and is pending receipt of the toxicology report from the Government Laboratory.
“Accordingly, it is not appropriate for me to comment more fully on the circumstances of his death. Once the report is received and the investigation is completed, a file will be presented to either the Director of Public Prosecutions or the Coroner, as appropriate.”
Ms Spencer told police she thought her son's death and three other sudden deaths, of two young men and one young woman, late last year could have been connected.
“I think it was a drug that was either tainted or bad,” she speculated. “They put all kinds of stuff in heroin. They put powder which can kill you if it gets in your veins.”
Mr DeSilva said: “The Bermuda Police Service works closely with the Department of Health and the Department of National Drug Control and to date we have not been made aware of any evidence to support the hypothesis of a ‘bad batch' of heroin affecting multiple victims in Bermuda.
“It is worthy to note here though, that drug use itself — particularly of the drug heroin — is an inherently dangerous practice that presents significant risks to one's health. The police encourage anyone who is suffering from a drug addiction to use the available government and community services to assist them in a safe way.”
The Department of Health, which is responsible for the Government Lab, did not respond to questions from this newspaper about the toxicology report by press time.
The Department contacted Ms Spencer, after asking this newspaper how it could get in touch with her, but it has yet to share the toxicology report with her or properly explain the delay.
Coroner Archibald Warner holds less than a handful of public inquests every year, after deciding in 2007 that most sudden, expected deaths could be dealt with by way of a “file review”.
He did not answer questions put by The Royal Gazette last week on how many deaths had been reported to him so far this year and in the preceding five years and how many inquests they resulted in.
And Attorney General Mark Pettingill did not respond to a request for comment on whether the Coroner’s Act 1938 needed updating to ensure more public hearings were held into unexplained deaths.
Commissioner of Police Michael DeSilva said in a January 2011 interview that bereaved families were having to wait too long to find out if there would be an inquest into the death of their loved ones.
He described a “concerning backlog” in the number of open files and said about 25 families hadn’t been told if an inquest into the death of a loved would take place, including 13 road traffic fatalities and deaths dating back to 2002.
Mr DeSilva said key lessons could be learned from holding public inquests, particularly into road fatalities.
The interview with the Commissioner in the Bermuda Sun revealed that just two public inquests took place in 2010 and research by The Royal Gazette suggests there have been very few since.
The last inquest reported on by this newspaper was in 2012, into the death of prisoner Kino Outerbridge, who died at Westgate.
Mr Warner is required by law to hold a public inquest when a person dies in custody or in a facility providing treatment for mental disorder.
But section nine of the Coroner’s Act allows him, in other cases, to dispense with an inquest if he deems one unnecessary.
We asked Senior Magistrate Mr Warner if there would be an inquest into the death of heroin addict Christopher Spencer, who died on October 27 last year, and ten other people, who died in recent years in varying circumstances. We received no answer by press time.
Justice Minister Mr Pettingill did not answer a request for the same information or questions about whether he would like to see more public inquests held or had any plans to amend the Coroner’s Act.
Shadow Attorney General Kim Wilson also gave no comment when asked for her views.
Mr DeSilva answered questions about the police investigation into Mr Spencer’s death but a spokesman said questions about the inquest process and outstanding cases should be put to the Magistrates’ Court.
* Are you waiting for the inquest of a loved one to take place? Do you think more public inquests should be held? Share your views by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 278-0155.