‘It bothers me to this day’: Officers testify about fatal shooting
November 22, 2023 By Andrew Bates, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Nov. 22, 2023, Saint John, N.B. – One of two RCMP officers who shot Ryan Nowlan while responding to a domestic violence call at his house said they weren’t planning to arrest him until the next day. Then, he emerged from a side room holding a utility knife.
A coroner’s inquest into the death of Nowlan, 39, began Tuesday at Saint John Law Courts. Six witnesses testified about the events of Dec. 31, 2021. The five-person jury heard Nowlan’s partner had gone to Hampton RCMP after he had choked and slammed her head into a door.
The then-31-year-old woman and two officers returned to the Kingston Peninsula home to pick up one of her children and her belongings, the inquest heard, when Nowlan came out of a small room with a utility knife, was shot twice during a confrontation with police and was pronounced dead at the hospital in Saint John.
In May of 2022, the Nova Scotia Serious Incident Response Team found no grounds to lay charges against the officers, Cst. Monique Sears and Cst. Christian Cunningham. On Friday, it was announced chief deputy coroner Michael Johnston would hold a four-day inquest to determine the facts of the man’s death.
On Tuesday, the woman testified she had been in an on-again and off-again relationship with Nowlan, with whom she shared three children, for about 14 years, with a year-long restraining order at one point.
“It was just like walking on eggshells with him,” she said. She called it “not much of a relationship,” and that he would stay downstairs in the house his stepmother owned while she and the kids were upstairs most of the time.
In the early hours of Dec. 31, as her preteen daughter went to the bathroom, the woman said he “barrelled” upstairs, complaining he had been woken up. The woman said Nowlan grabbed her out of bed, started choking her and banged her head against a door, before taking her and her daughter’s phones and going back downstairs.
The woman said she made her escape with her daughter, but didn’t have time to collect her son, under the age of 10, who was sleeping inside. Their third child was staying with her parents that night.
“When I started the car, he opened the basement door and said if I went to the police, he would burn the house down,” she testified. She drove to the Hampton RCMP detachment and called police, distraught, from the phone outside.
Sears, a now-retired Hampton RCMP officer, told the inquest she and Cunningham, a Sussex RCMP officer there to cover a shift, were just finishing their night before 4 a.m. when they were notified by dispatch. Sears said she found them in their pyjamas in socked feet in the snow.
Sears said she knew Nowlan, and that he was known as a “runner” who would flee into the woods when officers tried to serve him with notices to appear.
“Knowing his demeanour, which can be quite erratic, the risk level was quite high,” Sears said.
Inside the station, the two officers planned to go to the residence with the woman to pick up her son and return the next day to arrest Nowlan, Sears said.
At the house, the woman woke her son up, but told officers they needed to go downstairs to get his jacket. They also needed her and her daughter’s cellphones, and she told officers she believed they may be inside a small basement room where Nowlan had a TV.
When the woman unlocked the door, she said she could feel a person holding the doorknob. She stepped back, the door swung open, and Nowlan was inside holding a utility knife. The woman said she took the family dog and ran upstairs.
“He was screaming at us, ‘What are you doing in my house, get out of my house!’” Sears said. “Christian said, ‘What’s in his hand?’ Within seconds, he took out his Taser and said, ‘Put down the knife!’”
Cunningham said after Nowlan refused to drop the knife, he dropped him to the ground with the Taser. But Cunningham said Nowlan rolled around and got back up, and the device didn’t work a second time, likely because the contacts were pulled out.
Cunningham said he told Sears to shoot Nolan, and she hit him once in the right shoulder. He said Nowlan stood back up against a mattress, and Sears testified he punched her in the right eye with the handle of the knife.
“The impact really stunned me,” she said. “I could feel wetness, water, as though I was sweating.”
A photo taken by a paramedic shows Sears with blood running down her face from a cut to the eyebrow, as well as a laceration on her cheek.
Cunningham said Nowlan was advancing on him, so he drew his pistol and fired, taking the man down. Nowlan threw up twice and asked for a glass of water, Sears said, and they told him to wait for paramedics.
Primary care paramedic Nathan Archibald said they got the call at 4:45 a.m. and arrived in about 12 to 15 minutes. Nowlan had a wound in his right shoulder and a pair of wounds in his abdomen, and had signs of internal bleeding, he said. He said later it was clear he had a collapsed lung.
On the way to Saint John Regional Hospital Nowlan was “getting worse very fast,” Archibald said. Advanced care paramedic Caleb Cummings said Nowlan had no pulse for 20 minutes by the time they delivered him to the ER. At 6:03 a.m., RCMP Cst. Mike Halward said the emergency doctor came out of the operating room and pronounced Nowlan dead.
Cunningham said he was “floored” to hear Nowlan had died. Sears said they both thought he would end up OK because he had been talking.
“I was quite hysterical, and it bothers me to this day,” said Sears, who choked up on the stand, saying Nowlan was “very soft spoken” when sober. “I never went back to work. I retired.”
Johnston told the jury pool an inquest is not a trial, but an inquiry into the events surrounding a sudden death in order to generate recommendations on how similar deaths can be prevented in the future.
The inquest, scheduled for four days, continues Wednesday.
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