Ten months before George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, crying "I can’t breathe," those same words rang out at James Richardson International Airport as Nathan Lasuik lay helpless on the ground, his neck pinned under the knee of a Winnipeg Mountie, a court has heard.
"I was pleading for air, for somebody to get off me and for somebody to film this," Lasuik, 44, testified last week. "I was fearful I was going to die. It felt like it was forever I was being choked out for."
Lasuik, who is from Fort McMurray, Alta., is on trial, accused of assaulting a man following a dispute in the arrival area and assaulting two Mounties who responded to the incident. Lasuik is arguing police officers breached his Charter rights by using excessive force to arrest him.
Court heard Lasuik, his wife and their young children flew to Winnipeg for a funeral and to visit family August 1, 2019, when Lasuik became embroiled in a dispute outside the terminal with a man angry that Lasuik’s father would not move his car.
Lasuik told court he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and "self-medicated" with four drinks on the plane and a shot of tequila in the airport bar while his wife and kids waited for their luggage.
"This is the terrible mistake I made and I take full responsibility," he testified. "I drank as a way to calm my nerves to get on the flight."
Lasuik alleged a man waiting to load his car in the arrival area "got quite perturbed" about where Lasuik’s father had parked and, during a subsequent exchange, threatened his family and children.
Lasuik said he "snapped and lost control" and approached the man "quite aggressively... to keep him away from my children."
“My reaction was, ‘Holy crap ‐ he just sucker punched me. I was somewhat angered. More shock than anger. I’ve never seen somebody move so fast.” — RCMP constable Eric Gerein
Lasuik testified he kicked the man in the thigh and shoved him in the face, knocking his glasses off. Airport security video provided to court shows Lasuik approaching the man with his arm extended, as if he were about to shake hands, before striking the man in the face in what Crown attorney Thomas Boult described as a "sucker punch."
RCMP constables Slobodan Dukic and Eric Gerein, who responded to the assault, testified Lasuik was in an agitated state, shouting one moment and calm the next.
Security video shows Lasuik at one point standing with the two constables and an airport manager when, Lasuik alleges, Gerein "became the agitator. I felt he was trying to scare and intimidate me."
Security video shows Lasuik striking Gerein in the face, knocking him backward, before quickly jumping into his father’s car.
"My intentions were to create space (between us)... an attempt not to hurt him, but to protect myself," Lasuik testified.
“I remember my head slamming the ground... I immediately had someone snap my neck.” — Nathan Lasuik
Gerein told court he didn’t remember saying anything to Lasuik before Lasuik hit him.
"My reaction was, ‘Holy crap — he just sucker punched me. I was somewhat angered. More shock than anger. I’ve never seen somebody move so fast."
The two officers tried to pull a resisting Lasuik from the car and delivered several blows to his hands, face and body before Lasuik gave up, Dukic testified.
Minutes later, while standing handcuffed, security video shows Lasuik kicking at Gerein’s thigh area, a kick Gerein testified connected with his groin.
"It hurt," Gerein said. "I was a little pissed off that he was keeping on, keeping on. I was a little angry that he kicked me and wouldn’t stop."
Moments later, Dukic was leading Lasuik away when Lasuik lunged at Gerein and the two officers took him to the ground.
A cellphone video recorded by Lasuik’s father, Timothy Lasuik, shows Gerein pinning the side of his neck to the ground with his knee, while Dukic pinned his midsection, and the airport manager held his legs.
"I remember my head slamming the ground," Lasuik testified. "I immediately had someone snap my neck."
"I’m gonna die," Lasuik can be heard screaming on the video. "Let me breathe."
"You’re breathing," Gerein shouted in response. "When you’re talking, you’re breathing."
Lasuik continued to plead for Gerein to remove his knee from his neck, to which Gerein responded: "Please nothing. You opened your mouth one too many times… Aw, now you’re a tough guy, aren’t you?"
Gerein initially testified he held his knee to Lasuik’s shoulder, as he was trained, and only admitted to the neck pin when shown the cellphone video under cross examination.
“In our training, we are taught to put our knee into the upper shoulder, and if for some reason your knee gets into the neck area, then it is what it is." — RCMP constable Eric Gerein
Before he saw the cellphone video, Gerein balked at defence lawyer Mitch Merriott’s questioning of "vascular restraint techniques," saying: "I’m not someone who knows all the ins and outs of the use of force on the neck. I don’t know where this comes, because I never used that technique on anything here."
Gerein later said his knee must have "rolled" to Lasuik’s neck while he was struggling.
"There wasn’t much pressure," he said. "I could feel him wriggling round under my knee... He was absolutely not choking. He was clearly able to breathe and yell."
Timothy Lasuik testified Gerein’s knee didn’t move from his son’s neck until Winnipeg police arrived nearly five minutes later to arrest him.
"He was not moving, he was not causing any resistance, I had no clue why they were doing this," he said. "It was heartbreaking."
Gerein said he kept his knee in place because he was afraid Lasuik might free himself and pose a danger to others.
"In our training, we are taught to put our knee into the upper shoulder, and if for some reason your knee gets into the neck area, then it is what it is," he said. "It’s situational; you have to do at the time what works and what doesn’t injure somebody."
At the end of the video, Dukic can be heard demanding Timothy Lasuik turn over his phone.
"I knew as a Canadian citizen that wasn’t right," he said. "I said ‘No, you’re not getting my phone,’ and he grabbed my arm and said: ‘You are under arrest.’"
Timothy Lasuik said he kept his phone after a Winnipeg police officer intervened.
An RCMP spokesperson would not comment on the case directly, but said if a complaint of excessive force was filed against an officer it would be forwarded to the province’s Independent Investigation Unit.
Independent Investigation Unit civilian director Zane Tessler said he was unaware of any complaint being filed in the case.
George Floyd died May 25, 2020 after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pinned his neck to the ground for more than eight minutes. Floyd’s death sparked looting and protests and a worldwide movement to defund the police. Chauvin was later convicted of murder and sentenced in June to 22.5 years in prison.
Lasuik’s trial is set to resume Aug. 30 with defence testimony from a use-of-force expert.
Someone once said a journalist is just a reporter in a good suit. Dean Pritchard doesn’t own a good suit. But he knows a good lawsuit.