Was Peter de Groot shot from the back or the front?
This question dominated medical evidence presented to a Coroner’s jury in Nelson on Oct. 5 and 6 during an ongoing inquest into de Groot’s death after he was shot in a cabin near Slocan in 2014.
De Groot allegedly fired a shot at police on Oct. 9, 2014, at his home in Slocan when officers responded to an argument between De Groot and another person. De Groot then fled into the bush, and three days after the initial encounter was shot and killed by then-RCMP officer Brian Burke after an extensive manhunt.
Burke’s bullet lacerated de Groot’s superior vena cava, the large vein that carries blood from the head, neck, arms and chest to the heart, according to Dr. Gilles Molgat, an anatomical pathologist who performed an autopsy on Oct. 17, 2014, four days after de Groot’s death.
Molgat told a Coroner’s jury in Nelson on Oct. 5 that he found 1,175 ml of blood in de Groot’s chest.
De Groot would have needed immediate open-chest surgery to save his life, Molgat said, and there was no chance of this given the remote location of the death.
“Within minutes he would have been unconscious and probably dead,” Molgat said.
Not so clear, however, was whether de Groot was shot from the back or the front. Four pathologists are split on this question.
Molgat performed the autopsy at Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops. The body had been handcuffed and hogtied since the day of de Groot’s death and he had been moved to the hospital in that state.
Molgat said he found a bullet entrance wound on de Groot’s upper right back and an exit wound on his chest near his neck, leading him to the conclusion that he had been shot from the back.
The difference between an exit and entrance wound can be determined by the nature of the bullet hole and the surrounding skin, he said.
At the time of the autopsy Molgat knew nothing about the circumstances of de Groot’s death including the type of firearm or bullet.
“My assessment was based on the autopsy, not on the scene or any other evidence,” he told the Coroner’s jury on Oct. 5.
The job of a coroner’s jury is not to find fault but to make recommendations on how to prevent future loss of life in similar circumstances.
After de Groot’s death, the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) investigated the death. In its 2018 report the IIO stated Burke did not use excessive force when he shot de Groot, was therefore not at fault and no charges would be laid against him.
A conclusion that de Groot was shot from the back could have meant that Burke committed murder, the IIO report states.
Burke, now retired, chose not to speak to the IIO investigators, and the only other person present at de Groot’s death was now-retired RCMP officer Robert Courcelles, who testified at the inquest, along with Burke, on Oct. 1. They explained how they had pushed open the cabin door to be confronted by de Groot aiming a rifle at Burke, who fired one shot into the cabin, killing de Groot.
Pathologist Lisa Steele, who also worked at Royal Inland Hospital, told the Coroner’s jury that on the day of the autopsy, Molgat asked for her opinion on the matter of exit and entrance wounds in de Groot’s body. She examined those wounds and agreed with Molgat as to the direction of the shot.
But in her testimony she presented a caveat. She said Molgat’s conclusions were made with no knowledge of what happened in the cabin and what kind of weapon was used.
She described this lack of context as “dangerous,” adding that the doctor doing the autopsy should know about the circumstances of the death including the type of weapon used, and should not be “doing it in the dark.”
In addition to the two bullet holes in de Groot’s body, Molgat testified that he found abrasions (scrapes) and contusions (bruises) on de Groot’s forehead and front neck, as well as abrasions on his upper back and left arm. He said all of these happened at or near the time of death.
Molgat said the wound on de Groot’s head had been caused by “blunt force trauma,” either by something hitting his head or by his head striking something.
The inquest is being live streamed at https://bit.ly/3AmEI5T and is expected to end on Oct. 7 or 8.
The path of the bullet
Also on Oct. 5, the Coroner’s jury heard from Joseph Prendergast, a firearms expert who had visited the cabin on Oct. 21, 2014, and concluded that the bullet that killed de Groot was shot from the front door (as described by Courcelles and Burke in their testimony earlier in the week) from a Colt M-16 rifle.
He said it travelled roughly horizontally through de Groot’s body about 82 centimetres from the floor, then struck a stove, then ricocheted into the cabin wall, from which Prendergast retrieved it. He said he was informed by the IIO that there was tissue identified as de Groot’s at the impact point on the stove and on a piece of cardboard through which the bullet passed.
The jury also heard from Dennis Chimich, a biomechanical engineer who did not visit the cabin but used various information given to him by the IIO including Prendergast’s report.
Chimich said that given the height of the bullet path and the angle of its path through de Groot’s body the bullet could have entered the body from the front or the back. Chimich said de Groot would have been kneeling and hunched over, either facing the door or away from it.
Two more pathologists
The IIO, faced with the contradiction between the account of Courcelles who witnessed the shooting and said de Groot was shot from the front, and the testimony of Molgat and Steele who said the shot entered from the back, decided to hire another pathologist for a further opinion.
The forensic pathologist Dr. Matthew Orde did not examine the body but was given all photographs and X-rays from Molgat’s autopsy, as well as an account of the circumstances of the shooting according to Courcelles, and the reports of Chimech and Prendergast.
Orde testified that after examining the photos he concluded that de Groot was shot from the front, and that Molgat’s assessment of this was incorrect. He said the appearance and nature of an entrance and exit wound depends on the type of weapon and ammunition used, and that de Groot was killed by a high-powered weapon with a muzzle velocity of 3,000 feet per second. He said that Molgat, when he performed his autopsy, did not know this, and in fact had no other information other than a body in front of him.
Don Sorochan, the lawyer for the de Groot family at the inquest, pointed out to Orde that Molgat and Steele had seen the body within days of de Groot’s death and Orde had never seen it.
“You have relied on a lot of information from other people that has nothing to do with pathology,” Sorochan said.
Relying on information outside of a physical examination of the body introduces possible bias, he said.
Orde said he was aware of this possibility, but said that in his experience knowing the circumstances surrounding the death produces more reliable results.
Sorochan asked Orde why, when the IIO had already had the opinion of two pathologists, they needed him.
“Did you ever feel,” he asked, “that they were trying to get the RCMP off the hook?”
Orde responded that his job was to get to the truth.
Following de Groot’s death, his family hired an additional expert, the forensic pathologist Dr. John Butt, who examined the body on Oct. 24, 2014, in a funeral home. In the IIO’s report on de Groot’s death, it is stated that Dr. Butt disagreed with Molgat and Steele, saying that the wound was front to back, for reasons similar to those of Orde’s. Butt testified at the inquest on the afternoon of Oct. 6.
Following the testimony on Oct. 5 and 6, the inquest began hearing about the details of the IIO investigation.