A Headingley Correctional Centre guard faces criminal charges in the 2021 death of inmate William Ahmo.
On Friday, Manitoba RCMP arrested Robert Jeffrey Morden, 43, of the Rural Municipality of Rockwood, following an 11-month investigation. He was charged with criminal negligence causing death and failing to provide the necessities of life.
The allegations have not been proven in court.
It is believed to be the first time a guard has been criminally charged for the death of an inmate at a provincial correctional institution.
"This has been an incredibly hard time for our family. Knowing that we may see the people who took Will from us held accountable gives us hope," mother Darlene Ahmo said in a written statement Friday.
Ahmo, 45, was a member of Sagkeeng First Nation. His family has requested privacy at this time, saying they are "cautiously optimistic" and "ready to assist prosecutors however they may be able."
The RCMP was called to the Headingley jail around 7 p.m. on Feb. 7, 2021, after receiving a report of an unresponsive man.
The incident that led to Ahmo’s death began with a standoff between the inmate and corrections officers in a common area of the jail, police say.
Eventually, the centre’s critical emergency response team was called in and a physical altercation ensued. Ahmo was airlifted to hospital in critical condition. He died Feb. 14.
The Manitoba Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled the cause of death a homicide.
The RCMP major crimes took on the investigation, interviewing guards and inmates and reviewing video footage. The Mounties’ investigative file was later sent to Manitoba Prosecution Services for review.
MSP then sent the file to Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General for an outside opinion. Based on those consultations, RCMP moved forward with criminal charges Friday morning.
The Free Press has obtained an email Greg Skelly, executive director of custody corrections for Manitoba Justice, sent to provincial jail staff Friday, after news of Morden’s arrest broke.
In the email, Skelly appeared to back Morden and other members of the jail’s critical emergency response team involved, claiming the inmate "was armed and posed a significant threat to staff."
"Although there was a tragic outcome, we believe staff were acting in good faith to control the critical incident," Skelly wrote. "We recognize the impact of this tragic incident on involved staff, as well as our team more broadly, and we continue to support our staff in dealing with it."
Corey Shefman, a human rights attorney representing the Ahmo family, told the Free Press in May 2021 the "level of violence and aggression" used against Ahmo was "utterly disproportionate" to any threat he could have posed.
Both Manitoba Justice and the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union — which represents provincial corrections officers — declined comment Friday in written statements, citing the fact the case is before the courts.
Sagkeeng Chief Derrick Henderson thanked the RCMP for its work on the case, saying he was relieved investigators determined "someone had to be accountable for this."
"It’s about providing justice for our people. How many times have we had to have dealings with our Indigenous population regarding issues of this nature? People that are dying. Deaths where nothing comes of it," Henderson told the Free Press. "Now, it’s for the justice system."
Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs also praised the RCMP for an "innovative investigation," and for the way in which they kept the Ahmo family and First Nations leadership in the loop.
Dumas told the Free Press the "gross negligence" demonstrated by the accused "tells a greater story" about the systemic racism present in the corrections system.
"If you take a look at the number of individuals who have died in custody, everyone should be shocked — everybody. Keep in mind what a prison is supposed to be: it’s supposed to keep you incarcerated and safe," Dumas said.
"But for whatever reason, there seems to be a revolving door of death that is happening in these institutions."
Manitoba RCMP Sgt. Paul Manaigre said the investigative team took this case seriously from the moment the criminal probe was launched, which is evidenced by the fact charges were laid less than a year after Ahmo’s death.
"A homicide investigation is not just several folders in thickness. These papers are collected in boxes — boxes and boxes and boxes. The amount of work that goes into this stuff is incredible," Manaigre said.
"This isn’t going to bring him back but, hopefully, it’s a little bit of closure. We’re at the beginning of the next step now, and perhaps this is the start of the healing process for the family."
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.