‘It was a horrible situation’

Rosie Mullaley
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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.

Submitted photo
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.”



Twitter: TelyCourt



Organizations: Canada Border Services Agency, Heathrow International Airport, Health Canada

Geographic location: Halifax, England, Canada West Midlands London Ottawa Newfoundland

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Recent comments

  • Paddy
    March 13, 2016 - 16:25

    That cute sad ..buy him a newfie t shirt from walmart

  • Observer
    March 13, 2016 - 07:08

    A baggie? Not even a jar with a lid? No wonder they didn't believe him.

  • M. Atkinson
    March 12, 2016 - 17:29

    Too enthusiastic border guards perhaps? My cousin brought her mother's ashes back here for burial from the US without a hitch. Cremated remains do not look like drugs. Quite different. Check out that test methodology and those doing the testing on-site.

  • Mr. Tourism
    March 12, 2016 - 16:46

    What a horror story! Please go on all UK media and tell this story. Shocked a lawyer has not contacted you yet to do pro-bono should you wish to sue for emotional or long lasting health issues related to this fiasco. All the best.

  • Mike
    March 12, 2016 - 16:06

    There must have been a more professional way to handle this. For god's sake, folks in the NL and Canada Justice System should smarten up.

  • Glenn Stockley
    March 12, 2016 - 13:48

    i travel frequently and the worst most ignorant Canadian Border service personnel by far are those at Torbay.... typical NEWFIE attitude.....

  • Denise
    March 12, 2016 - 12:00

    The article states that the results were couriered to St. John's late Friday, March 4 and that on Monday, March 7 the Crown confirmed that there were no drugs present. Why was this man forced to stay in that hell hole all weekend? It would have taken all of 5 minutes to make the call to have him released Friday evening with a BIG apology. This is ridiculous and unnecessary. No excuse. Mr. Laight would be completely within his right to sue the pants off the CBSA and the Department of Justice for their inadequacies.

  • bill
    March 12, 2016 - 10:46

    No wonder newfies get attention all over the world

  • Jason
    March 12, 2016 - 09:56

    It is not the fact that the gentleman was arrested that bothers me. It is the actions of our the guards.

  • Should accept HE made a mistake
    March 12, 2016 - 09:53

    Why can't he accept HE made a mistake and move on? Our officials were just doing THEIR job and following OUR regulations. Anyone should realize travelling with human remains-ashes needs special arrangements. Being detained in no fun ANYWHERE I'm sure.

  • cornergirl
    March 12, 2016 - 09:41

    considering he was heading for Halifax in the first place, why would he visit NL anyway.

    • Paddy
      March 13, 2016 - 16:19

      Corner girl ..the reason why he stopped in nl was that the weather was to bad in halifax to land so they flew to st johns

  • carogers
    March 12, 2016 - 08:44

    Held for five days, no medical attention, no legal advise, and the border control is using an unreliable test to charge people with drug smuggling? Is this an episode of Republic of Doyle? Our people tend to make fools of themselves with little effort now even our science is bogus. Really? How many times has this test been wrong? How can we possible know?

  • Terrible Ordeal!
    March 12, 2016 - 07:56

    To say that this is a terrible ordeal is certainly an understatement! So very sorry you had to endure this kind of torture.....wishing you safe travels for the rest of your journey and stay in Canada and condolences on the loss of your friend.

  • James Power
    March 12, 2016 - 07:34

    Do some research and you will find from the drug testing companies that those rapid tests are up to 25% false results. This is another example of the "evil drug" mentality that persists in justice and law enforcement, yet you can kill someone while impaired by alcohol and you are not likely to go to jail at all or at most get a few years. Yes, this gentleman should sue!

  • Bob Strong
    March 12, 2016 - 07:31

    My flight was also diverted when attempting to land in Halifax last Wednesday, but our flight was sent to Montreal. I thought we had it bad!

  • Darlene
    March 12, 2016 - 07:21

    Now I know how all the drugs get through...WOW arrested for Kat...and they were ashes...HOW STUPID IS THAT...TELLS YOU HOW WELL TRAINED THEY ARE...NOT...

  • Jim Bennett
    March 12, 2016 - 07:21

    False arrest, Unlawful confinement. Negligence. A SLAM DUNK for some lawyer!

  • Tom
    March 12, 2016 - 07:19

    I would be looking for something out of this. A false positive on a test that can be used to lick you up with out any real proof? But he does have some role to play too. If he had done his home work on transporting human remains, ashes, he would of had the right papers to have avoided the whole mess. But it still shows the lousy attitude he was shown by the guards. More cameras with microphones in all work areas at our jails should be used. See how guards are then when they know they are being recorded.

  • Rhonda
    March 12, 2016 - 07:17

    Please don't let our justice system stop you from visiting our beautiful province. I too was disgusted to read this today about how you were treated at HMP but unfortunately when bringing unmarked goods into any country there is going to be questions.... We are trying to keep drugs off our streets and bringing human remains in a "Baggie" was your decision to make... Personally I would have used common sense!

  • JParsons
    March 12, 2016 - 06:48

    I wonder if this same incident would have happened in Halifax? I think the answer is yes because of the standardized test. Maybe carrying a copy of the death certificate or having the remains sealed and labled by a crematorium might have gotten him some leeway. Drug dealers are a crafty bunch so authorities must be vigilant

  • Sharon
    March 12, 2016 - 03:26

    If the results of the test was couriered to St. John's on Friday, March 4th, then why did it take until Monday, March 7th, to get this man released from the lockup, or as he called it "a place from hell"?

  • Joe
    March 11, 2016 - 23:28

    It's one thing to treat actual convicted criminals that way, what with the horrible conditions and guards who ignore health problems. It's an entirely different level of evil when we're doing that in our holding cells, to people who are presumed by the law to be innocent until proven guilty. They should be treated like citizens, not criminals.

  • Gethen
    March 11, 2016 - 23:00

    That is some shocking in the day and age my son we cannot put up with this arbitrary abuse by the authorities

  • Me
    March 11, 2016 - 20:07

    Never coming back?? Don't blame him, I wouldn't either.

  • Henry
    March 11, 2016 - 19:13

    What a joke, I know for fact that this fella did not complain of anything while in the lockup. He was quiet and kept his mouth shut the whole time. Inmates always seem like there's something wrong with the justice system to try and get some kind of lawsuit.

  • Cheb
    March 11, 2016 - 17:59

    Wow. What an embarrassment for the province, nobody should have to go through that

  • Jason
    March 11, 2016 - 17:53

    I think you mean vial not vile

  • Townie
    March 11, 2016 - 17:07

    What does dyslexia have to do with having proper paper work,how would CBSA know what he was carrying in a Baggie,how would they know it's Hunan remains without a death certificate or anything else that should be with it.Law suit my ass they were doing their jobs.

  • Pierre Neary
    March 11, 2016 - 16:57

    I've been left speechless after reading this story.

  • Rob
    March 11, 2016 - 15:49

    One word, LAWSUIT!!

    • Kim
      March 12, 2016 - 09:22

      Why "Lawsuit"?? VERY unfortunate circumstances 100%.. but as stated "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." If he had done the required paperwork, etc.. he wouldn't have had an issue.

    • George
      March 12, 2016 - 13:35

      He can't file a lawsuit for his own stupidity. A very sad situation but this sentence says it all, "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." In today's world of high flight security anyone with any sense would find out if there was a procedure to follow prior to flying with a bag full of white powder.

  • fogNL
    March 11, 2016 - 15:47

    Its unfortunate that this happened to this guy, however, using dyslexia as a reason for not knowing laws and properly filling out paperwork is not an excuse. I feel that very important piece of information was buried too far in this article, and doing so just aims to sway the opinions of readers. This is not proper journalism.

  • Sad!
    March 11, 2016 - 15:34

    Wow! Another Newfie joke.

  • mad as hell
    March 11, 2016 - 15:29

    yes come on a sad vacation get side tract to St'john's and get treated like a friggen dog.There was no need for that kind of treatment.That border patrol officer should be fired!! so sorry you had to endure this but not all newfie's are like this.

  • EDfromRED
    March 11, 2016 - 15:12

    Welcome to Newfoundland. Run by ignorant bullies who get away with it because of prolific nepotism and corruption.