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Sask. mass killer Myles Sanderson died of 'acute cocaine overdose': pathologist

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A forensic pathologist told a Saskatchewan coroner's inquest on Tuesday that the man who killed 11 people and injured 17 others in a brutal stabbing rampage died from an "acute cocaine overdose."

Sanderson's September 2022 mass killings in the communities of James Smith Cree Nation and the village of Weldon triggered a three-day manhunt that gripped the province through a series of jarring emergency alerts. He went into medical distress minutes after being taken into RCMP custody.

The inquest, which started on Monday in Saskatoon, is expected to rule on Myles Sanderson's cause of death and offer recommendations to prevent similar incidents in the future.

On Tuesday afternoon, the inquest heard testimony from Dr. Shaun Ladham, who performed the autopsy on Sanderson. 

Ladham said there were very high levels of cocaine in his body, and a lab technician later confirmed it was the highest level of cocaine she had every seen.

"This was a very high level," said Ladham.

The pathologist also noted some signs of atherosclerosis — the shrinking and hardening of arteries in the heart — which may or may not have contributed to his quick death.

But Ladham said the amount of cocaine he found in Sanderson's body would potentially be enough to cause heart failure, even without pre-existing issues.

“There was so much cocaine there. What it could have done to the heart itself — he didn’t need to have heart disease there as well — but it could have made it quicker to go into cardiac arrest," he said.

The pathologist ruled out "positional asphyxiation" as a possible cause of death — when someone suffocates because of pressure on the lungs during an arrest.

Dash cam footage of the arrest played Tuesday morning showed Sanderson was up and alert for several minutes after RCMP officers pulled him to the ground to cuff him.

Sanderson's last words

Minutes before losing consciousness, mass killer Myles Sanderson told his arresting RCMP officers "you should have f**king shot me."

The coroner's inquest saw more dash cam footage of Sanderson's arrest on Tuesday, and heard the last words he spoke.

Sanderson went into medical distress immediately after his arrest and died shortly after in hospital. The coroner's inquest is expected to determine the cause of his death.

Saskatoon Police Service Detective Ken Kane oversaw the police investigation into Sanderson's death in police custody. He gave a minute-by-minute account of the arrest up until the point Sanderson lost consciousness.

After he was pulled from the vehicle - around 3:33 p.m. on Sept. 7, 2022 - Kane testified that Sanderson said "nobody even shot at me man."

"You should have f**king shot me, man," Sanderson was heard saying in the video. "No f**king balls."

In the grainy dash cam video, the inquest also heard Sanderson tell police he was "ready to die now."

"How many bodies are on me," Sanderson asked police, which Kane interpreted as him asking how many people he successfully murdered.

According to Kane, Sanderson's condition quickly deteriorated from there.

In the video, the inquest heard his breathing get heavier, and could see his coordination was off. One RCMP officer asked another to call paramedics.

Kane testified that Sanderson started convulsing and bleeding from the nose shortly after. When asked if he took anything, he told the officers he took meth.

Police found a rolled up $20 bill and a bag of white powder in Sanderson's possession, Kane said.

Kane said he believed Sanderson was sniffing cocaine during the police pursuit, and the bag was still in his grip when he was pulled from the vehicle and arrested. He testified that police later confirmed the powder was cocaine.

With their suspect's condition quickly worsening, an RCMP constable with experience as a paramedic started administering naloxone in a desperate attempt to help.

Less than 10 minutes later, they began chest compressions. Paramedics arrived and Sanderson was taken to Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon, where he died.

Kane testified that his investigation into the conduct of the arresting officers found the RCMP's actions did not contribute to Sanderson's death.

Kane said Sanderson was wearing his seatbelt when RCMP forced him off the road in what he described as a well-executed pit maneuver, and Sanderson sustained no injuries as his vehicle hit the ditch.

Darryl Burns, whose sister was killed in a September 2022 mass killing, speaks to reporters outside of a coroner's inquest in Saskatoon. (THE CANADIAN PRESS / Liam Richards)

'A surge of emotions': James Smith survivor reacts

For Darryl Burns, learning what caused the death of the man who killed his sister Lydia Burns felt like an important step in his grieving process.

"For myself, I can start on healing now," he said.

Burns says learning the cause of death wasn't exactly a surprise, but seeing the last moments of Sanderson's life in the police dash cam video elicited a response he couldn't describe at first.

"I had a surge of emotions … I didn't know whether it was anger or relief," he told reporters outside the inquest.

"You'd never want to wish death or anything bad upon another person. But at the same time, looking back on it, we wanted a sense of safety," he said.

Burns, who works as a community support worker in his home community of James Smith, said these two inquests have underscored the devastating ongoing effects of colonization on First Nation communities.

"All this anger and pain and turmoil was never ours. It was forced upon us. So now we have to start dealing with it."

In January, a prison psychologist testified that Sanderson was diagnosed with PTSD, which was a major factor in his issues with anger and addiction.

"Where did he get that from? From his upbringing, and knowing that it affects every one of our native people," he said.

Burns said his focus now is to help his community find peace.

"That sense of safety, that sense of healing, that sense of power within ourselves to do as we choose."

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