Englishman spends five days in St. John’s jail when friend’s ashes mistaken for drugs

Rosie Mullaley
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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) personnel 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 vial 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 it was ketamine, a Schedule 1 drug that is 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, March 3, 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 medications 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 concerns about relying on NIK tests in the future, Bridger would not comment, only to say 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

  • John
    March 14, 2016 - 16:46

    I wouldn't think of bringing a bag of Cream of the West flour back to nan in Oshawa now.

  • Lonewolf
    March 14, 2016 - 14:09

    Why was he treated like a dog before he had a trial? Aren't we supposed to be innocent until proven guilty?

  • Fred
    March 14, 2016 - 09:31

    There are specific forms and special containers intended for just these sorts of cases. He had the remains in a baggie? Seriously? What did you expect?

  • Cathy
    March 13, 2016 - 10:02

    Not a surprise, I had a bad experience with these CBSA agents in St John's recently.

  • Darryl
    March 13, 2016 - 09:17

    This man will be laughing to the bank, as he should. If i were in his shoes id have had the staff and cops terrified of losing their jobs and homes because id sue the crap out of them once they realized their mistake. Honestly id find the most aggressive lawyer available and sue every single person that was involved along with every group involved. By the time it was done id be a millionaire. People involved in crap like this should lose their jobs, they are clearly incompetent

  • Ches
    March 12, 2016 - 13:57

    It is truly unfortunate .He could have avoided this mess just by declaring that he was transporting human remains for burial.So yes maybe they could have retested sooner but he should have done his own part right to begin with.

    • John Q
      March 14, 2016 - 07:50

      So what he didn't declare human remains on a piece of paper. Why can't he say OOPs and now state it was human remains. What changes here? Why do the officilas have to have a GOTCHA moment? The real issue is the officers failed to analyze the remains properly and later confirmed no drugs... meanwhile the person spent time at the lock up with our version of hardcore local rift raft for no reason.... Makes me wonder..

    • John Q
      March 14, 2016 - 07:56

      So what he didn't declare human remains on a piece of paper. Why can't he say OOPs and now state it was human remains. What changes here? Why do the officilas have to have a GOTCHA moment? The real issue is the officers failed to analyze the remains properly and later confirmed no drugs... meanwhile the person spent time at the lock up with our version of hardcore local rift raft for no reason.... Makes me wonder..

  • david also
    March 12, 2016 - 13:49

    the only good thing about this is he didnt resist or he could have ended up like the polish man who landed in Vancouver a few years ago.

  • Dee
    March 12, 2016 - 11:22

    @david what did you expect border services to do he had a Baggie of something as far as they were concerned,no death certificate or paper work to show that he was carrying human remains.he says he's dyslexic I don't know what that has to do with making sure he has paperwork dyslexic people are not stupid.Far as I'm concerned he did his job and if he don't want to visit no well don't.

  • DRoche
    March 12, 2016 - 11:10

    This is almost too hard to believe except im a frequent flier and see for myself that some of these CBSA officers have not a clue!!! And to be using such an unreliable test ??? Well , they may just as well lick their finger and stick it in the bag a have a taste!!! Pass it around and have a snort !! These people should be better trained and someone should find a more reliable test . Shame , shame , shame

  • NerillDP
    March 12, 2016 - 08:25

    Ok, I can grant this guy a little sympathy for what he endured. But, the fault IS mostly his: his dyslexia is really no excuse. Imagine yourself wanting to bring remains to a foreign country (in a baggie no less). I would suspect you would at least make a quick check for regulations (esp for airline travel). A simple search, first result, brought me to http://www.catsa.gc.ca/cremated-remains-0. Very easy to understand rules. He's just lucky he didn't try this somewhere else like Singapore. Five days in a Canadian Cell would be a holiday in comparison.

    • Paul
      March 14, 2016 - 08:12

      @ paul. don't but that. even if he declared the ashes properly it doesn't mean CBSA won't test the ashes. Please remember that drug smugglers can use ashes to bring contraband into the country. The resulting first test for drugs would have shown drug material in the ashes and of course would have been sent to Ottawa for retesting meanwhile the man is placed in a local jail sale for days.. The man is a victim of the times and inadequate drug testing facilities in this province. Why place him in a jail cell?? the man could have been detained in a reasonable humane way

  • EDfromRED
    March 11, 2016 - 22:48

    Welcome to Newfoundland. A Province run by idiots and nincompoops. And where bullies lazy dolls and morons prosper thanks to nepotism and corruption.

  • david
    March 11, 2016 - 18:59

    1) Border agents....the otherwise unemployable. 2) Great everlasting memory of this poor man for his friends. 3) Welcome tourists!

  • Errol
    March 11, 2016 - 17:23

    What individual was responsible for administering the drug test...and determined it was ketamine. Ketamine looks nothing even closely resembling human ashes. The crown said there was zero chance it was ketamine. Who was this incompetent dolt who administered the test and detained Mr. Laight? Surely these names need to be published and disciplinary action taken for such egregious errors! We have completely spineless administrators! No one is accountable for anything.

  • Ken
    March 11, 2016 - 15:29

    Dear Mr.Laigh, I truly hope you sue every last person and department in Newfoundland and Canada involved in this fiasco. What a disgrace.