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Signal Hill cliff where man allegedly tried to kill his friend was 'steep slope,' expert testifies

An image captured from a video taken by RNC investigators of the area of Signal Hill where a MUN student is alleged to have attempted to kill his friend in April 2017.
An image captured from a video taken by RNC investigators of the area of Signal Hill where a MUN student is alleged to have attempted to kill his friend in April 2017. - Contributed photo

Potential for injury was high, says firefighter who rappelled down cliff

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

When talking about a high angle rescue, "going over the hill," could refer to an actual hill or a vertical drop for emergency personnel, firefighter Stephen Erbland explained Tuesday.

In the case of the area of Signal Hill where a man is alleged to have attempted to push his friend to his death, the "hill" was something in between, but dangerous.

"How would you describe it?" Crown prosecutor Jude Hall asked Erbland in Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court in St. John's Tuesday.

"I'd describe it as a steep slope," the firefighter replied.

Erbland was testifying as an expert witness on topics of terrain measurements, slope analysis and potential injuries at the attempted murder trial of a MUN student.

The student, who cannot be named by order of Justice Vikas Khladkhar on Monday, is alleged to have tried to throw himself and a fellow student over the edge of a cliff around Ladies' Lookout in April 2017.

Crown prosecutor Jude Hall (left) and defence lawyer Mark Gruchy discuss an element of the case of a MUN student charged with attempting to murder his friend by pushing him off a cliff on Signal Hill, before the student's trial began Monday. - SaltWire File Photo
Crown prosecutor Jude Hall (left) and defence lawyer Mark Gruchy discuss an element of the case of a MUN student charged with attempting to murder his friend by pushing him off a cliff on Signal Hill, before the student's trial began Monday. - SaltWire File Photo

Police said in a media release at the time that the men fell about three feet and the complainant had suffered minor injuries.

RNC investigators visited the site first with the complainant, who pointed them to specific locations, and, 17 months later, with Erbland and four other members of the St. John's Regional Fire Department. The firefighters conducted a rappel exercise down the side of the cliff, obtaining measurements, making observations and taking photos.

Erbland, who told the court he has participated in about 20 high angle rescues over the course of his career and previously worked as a paramedic, explained how he and his team members set up the necessary safety equipment to allow him to be lowered down the side of the embankment.

Erbland said he measured two specific waypoints: the first was 21 feet down at a 42-degree angle from the top. The second was down a further 16.5 feet, at an angle of 88 degrees. About 20 or 30 feet past that, the slope dropped off on an angle Erbland estimated to be near vertical.

Erbland said a person falling from the starting location to the first waypoint would likely suffer cuts and abrasions, particularly to exposed skin like their hands and face. A fall to the second point would likely result in something more serious, he said, including broken bones and other internal injuries.

"Could it include death?" Hall asked him.

"Yes," Erbland replied.

Falling to the bottom, the firefighter said, would result in certain death.

Defence lawyer Mark Gruchy focused his cross-examination on the vegetation growing on the cliff, referring Erbland to the photos taken by investigators that day and asking him if the foliage was indeed thick.

Erbland acknowledged it was, with branches and bushes a person could grab onto if they were falling.

"We're talking about a 42-degree slope with vegetation on it, that's at least 21 feet long?" Gruchy asked.

Erbland said yes. A person at the starting point would be able to see that slope, but not the steeper ones beyond that, the firefighter explained, though he said it would be obvious from the lack of view that the cliff becomes steeper at that point.

The trial is expected to move to the site so Khladkhar can view it first hand later in the week.

The complainant in the case is expected to take the stand at the end of the week.

On Monday the court heard evidence from RNC Const. Karen Reynolds, lead investigator in the case, who said the complainant had indicated in an initial statement to police that the accused had come quickly toward him while they were on the cliff, wrapping him in a hug. While later making clarifications, the complainant said he believed his friend had not wanted to kill him, but had wanted him to be there when he took his own life and "went to the other world."

The complainant spoke of having kissed the accused after they had fallen down the cliff, telling police he had done it in an effort to keep the accused calm and unsuspicious, Reynolds said.

Twitter: @tara_bradbury


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