Englishman spends five days in St. John’s jail when friend’s ashes mistaken for drugs
He came to Canada to help fulfil a friend’s dying wish.
Russell Laight of England is still upset about having spent five days in a St. John’s Lockup, having been arrested for trying to import drugs into Canada. The substance was actually his deceased friend’s ashes.
Instead, Russell Laight ended up in what he described as a place from hell — five nights in a St. John’s jail.
“I’ll never forget it,” the 41-year-old Englishman told The Telegram Friday about his ordeal last week. “I still find it hard to believe what I went through.”
It started on Wednesday, March 2.
Laight — who lives in the West Midlands region of England — was travelling from London’s Heathrow International Airport to Halifax for a holiday and to bring some of his deceased friend’s ashes to friends of theirs.
“He had spent a lot of time in Canada before he died,” Laight said of his longtime friend, Simon, who died Dec. 31, 2015, after battling cancer.
“One of his dying wishes was that some of his ashes be spread by his friends here (in Halifax).”
However, due to poor weather in Halifax that day, the plane was diverted to St. John’s.
Once inside the airport, Laight was stopped by Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) for a check of his luggage.
Officers immediately saw a baggie, which Laight had filled with his friend’s ashes and placed in plain view on top of his clothes inside his suitcase.
Suspicious of the substance inside, officers seized the baggie and began the process of analyzing it, using a NIK test, a portable kit which tests for narcotics and controlled drugs.
The test involves placing the substance in a vile and shaking it. If it turns purple, it’s determined to be narcotics.
The ashes in Laight’s bag were tested and CBSA officers concluded that it was ketamine, a Schedule 1 drug that’s banned in this country.
Laight was immediately taken into custody and charged with trying to import a prohibited drug into Canada.
“I couldn’t understand what was going on. I was in shock,” said Laight, who said he initially thought someone had planted drugs in his luggage.
“I couldn’t talk, my mouth was wide open. I just sat there, stunned.”
Laight was permitted to make two phone calls on his iPhone — one to his family in England and one to his friends in Halifax — and was then taken to the St. John’s Lockup.
“What a horrible place … and they treat you like a dog there,” he said. “It’s like, you’re a criminal now. You deal with what you’re offered. It was unbelievable.”
Laight suffers from irritable bowel syndrome, having undergone several surgeries in the past, and wasn’t feeling well, “but the guards certainly didn’t want to hear it.”
“If you have health problems, it seems, you get ignored,” he added. “Whatever you have to moan about is not important to the guards, so you just shut up and put up with it because they get annoyed.”
When Laight made his first appearance in provincial court on Thursday, the Crown was opposed to releasing him.
“It’s like no one believed me,” said Laight, who maintained his innocence.
He said if he had any chance of getting released, there was a possibility he would need to pay up to $10,000 to get bail — something he wasn’t prepared to do.
He said it wasn’t until he spoke with duty counsel Catherine Boyde that he got some satisfaction.
Boyde spoke with Laight’s friends in Halifax and his parents in England, who explained the situation to her.
Boyde had to obtain a death certificate for Simon, as well as medical documents from his wife, listing the pain meds he had taken before he died.
Boyde then discussed the situation with Crown prosecutor Trevor Bridger.
Bridger agreed to have the substance sent to a Health Canada lab in Ottawa for a more in-depth analysis. While such tests can take weeks, the Crown put a rush on it.
Laight remained in the lockup awaiting results.
“I go into robot mode when things get too much to handle,” he said, “but I’ll admit, there were times when I got quite emotional there, especially talking to family and friends on the phone,” he said.
“It was a horrible situation.”
Late Friday afternoon, March 4, the results were couriered to St. John’s and by Monday, March 7, the Crown confirmed it — negative for narcotics, with a zero per cent chance of it being ketamine.
When Laight returned to court that afternoon, the Crown withdrew the charge.
Relieved to finally be free, Laight was on a plane to Halifax shortly afterwards.
“I’m certainly glad it all worked out in the end,” Boyde told The Telegram Friday. “The Crown was very reasonable and we all did what we could to get the situation sorted out.”
Bridger admits it was an unusual case, but said his concern in such cases is that the out-of-country accused person is a flight risk.
And while the NIK tests may not be 100 per cent positive, “they are reliable enough that they give us probable cause (to hold him),” Bridger said.
He said it usually takes a significant amount of time for tests to be completed at the Ottawa lab, “so, given the circumstances, we put a rush on it. We put pressure on the lab to get this done as quickly as humanly possible.”
When asked about his concerns about relying on NIK tests in the future, Bridger would not comment, only to say that the CBSA and police are investigating.
“I want to know why that tested positively the way it did,” Bridger said.
Looking back on the ordeal, Laight is annoyed that such an unreliable drug test could be used by the CBSA.
“If this test has the power to take away someone’s freedom, they should be 100 per cent sure it’s accurate,” he said.
Laight, who said he’s dyslexic, said he didn’t realize the rules and regulations, as well as paperwork, involved in transporting ashes from human remains into the country, and encourages anyone doing so to do their homework first.
Meanwhile, he is still waiting to have the ashes returned so they can fulfil their friend’s wishes before he returns to England next month.
When asked if he’ll ever visit Newfoundland again, he replied, “I’m guessing, no.”