Hughes family seeks answers in son’s death
By Jenn Watt
Oct. 29, 2018
Six years ago, a collision between an ATV and a metal gate left a 19-year-old dead and his family has been left with questions ever since.
Welland resident Jake Hughes was visiting a cottage north of Haliburton on Aug. 20, 2012 when he and another young man decided to take an ATV out for a drive. They rode the vehicle along a beach and then up a laneway, which ended in a metal gate.
Police concluded that Jake was driving the ATV and when he hit the gate, sustained major injuries. He was pronounced deceased at the scene by emergency responders. The other person on the ATV received minor injuries.
However, in the time after the accident, Jake’s parents Pearl and Sam Hughes started to hear accounts that made them question the results of the investigation.
“We never questioned the OPP. They told us that Jake died instantly ... it was only when the witnesses went to great lengths to contact us that we had more questions that weren’t being answered,” Pearl Hughes said in an interview.
She said there were inconsistencies in what people were saying about who was driving, which made the Hughes family wonder if Jake really was the one in control of the ATV as was concluded by the police.
They took their concerns to the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, which had the Peel Regional Police Service conduct a review of the initial OPP investigation.
That process resulted in a disciplinary hearing with a charge of neglect of duty on the part of OPP Constable Tyler Johnson of the Haliburton Highlands detachment. Johnson pleaded guilty and was found guilty of one count of neglect of duty contrary to the Police Services Act on May 15, 2018.
The OPP has since requested an American police service review the circumstances of the collision and review the investigation.
The OPP discipline hearing document details several gaps in the way the investigation was conducted as well as procedural issues.
Those gaps have led the Hughes family to continue seeking answers and further examination of what happened to their son that day.
The hearing officer was acting Superintendent Richard Hegedus of the Toronto Police Service. According to the hearing document, there were as many as 13 witnesses available to be interviewed when Johnson arrived at the scene of the collision on Aug. 20, 2012. While some witnesses were interviewed that day, it took two months for the remaining witnesses to be interviewed. Contact information was not obtained from all witnesses before they left the scene and Johnson was not aware that he could interview witnesses outside of the OPP jurisdiction.
Despite being asked to re-interview the other young man on the ATV two months after the collision, that was not done. It was also alleged in the notice of hearing that Johnson “failed to follow-up or investigate the possibility of collusion between the parties.”
Johnson, who had been on the job for 19 months, was named primary investigator because at the time, the OPP’s practice was to assign roles based on who arrived at the scene first. The hearing document details how he went about conducting the investigation, which includes interviews with witnesses on the beach, those who attended the collision, and others who were at the cottage when Jake and the other young man decided to take the ATV for a drive.
Some people interviewed stated that the second teen was driving the ATV, but at some time during the ride, he and Jake switched seats. Others said they did not see this happen and indicated they only saw Jake on the back of the ATV.
“PC Johnson was aware that there were other individuals on or around the beach or cottage who may have had information about this matter but did not take immediate steps to locate or interview them,” the agreed statement of facts reads.
“There were numerous inconsistencies and conflicting accounts amongst the witnesses,” the hearing document later states, “Those inconsistencies should have been apparent to PC Johnson and led to further investigative actions. Notwithstanding those inconsistencies, PC Johnson did not ask any questions to determine if any of the witnesses were colluding or speaking with other witnesses about the information they wished to convey during their interviews. After completing the interviews, he did not review the statements carefully to determine whether he needed to follow-up on any inconsistencies or seek any necessary clarity.”
Johnson contacted the other young man in the collision to advise him that he would be in touch on Oct. 25 or 26, the document states. “PC Johnson decided not to conduct a further interview with him.”
As public complainants in the hearing, the Hughes family had asked for a penalty of dismissal for Johnson.
The judgment was “a forfeiture of 48 hours off” – a penalty submitted jointly by the defence and prosecution. The document noted “specifically, he is required to work an additional 48 hours and this will be completed at the earliest opportunity…”
It was noted that in similar cases, 48 hours would be in the high range of penalties for a neglect of duty charge.
The prosecution submission outlined in the document states that the incident damaged the reputation of the OPP.
“This incident has tarnished the reputation of the OPP in the eyes of the Hughes family and others who are aware of this. There must be proportionate sanction in this matter to ensure the community understands that the OPP takes this type of misconduct seriously,” the statement reads.
The prosecution noted that Johnson’s performance since the incident in 2012 had been exemplary.
Supervisors over the years that have passed since the incident noted Johnson was committed to learning and “is first to take a call and volunteers for any subsequent call for service. He could often be found at the detachment on his own time getting caught [up] on various tasks.”
He was called energetic and hard working.
“In regards to specific and general deterrence, there is a need for Constable Johnson and all OPP members to understand that death investigations need to be treated seriously and that there are consequences to conducting a poor investigation. The prosecutor discussed the effect on [a] police officer and indicated that a forfeiture of 48 hours will have an impact of financial significance,” the prosecution submission in the document says.
In her statement to the hearing, Pearl Hughes said her family had been deeply affected by Jake’s death and the subsequent investigation.
“I can no longer work at my job of 25 years as a community business manager due to the trauma of losing our son, Jake,” she said in her statement, which was provided to the Echo. “I have horrible nightmares and have lost 44 pounds. Seeing those pictures of Jake at the scene, reading how he choked on his blood for 38 minutes, listening to the 911 calls was something no parent should have to endure.”
She said Jake’s sister and brother had suffered greatly, as had other members of the family.
Many thousands of dollars have been spent over the years on the investigation, she said.
The defence submission stated that the neglect of duty hearing is an employment hearing.
“A number of officers were involved at the time and it was not just Constable Johnson’s case as a number of police officers were involved in the fatal collision investigation,” the hearing document reads.
“When the OIPRD [Office of the Independent Police Review Director] reviewed the PRPS [Peel Regional Police Service] investigation, they identified some misconduct on the part of Constable Johnson and on the part of some others who are not before this tribunal.”
The defence stated that Johnson accepted responsibility for not fully interviewing all witnesses in a timely fashion.
“At the time of this incident he was an officer for one year and seven months as a third class constable. It was OPP’s policy at that time in 2012 that directed that the lead investigator for any incident was based on proximity and availability to attend a scene,” the summary of the defence submission says.
In his decision, Hegedus noted that Johnson had accepted responsibility and not attempted to shift blame elsewhere.
He “has taken steps to improve his job performance by delivering a higher level of customer service, working beyond what is required of him, working on his own time to complete assignments, and seeking additional training. All of those actions demonstrate that Constable Johnson has recognized the seriousness of his misconduct and has taken steps to preclude him becoming involved in similar misconduct in the future,” the decision says.
Hegedus noted that there was a systemic factor at play.
“When the fatal collision occurred in 2012, OPP procedures dictated that the first officer on scene was assigned primary responsibility for the investigation,” he wrote. “In this case it was a junior officer who was assigned responsibility for a serious investigation. Due to the nature of policing in remote areas, that requirement was understandable because the first officer on scene might have been the only officer to attend. In this case however, there were other officers who were more qualified to assume the responsibility for the investigation and ensure it was completed in the thorough manner.”
Following the hearing, Sam and Pearl Hughes said they met with OPP Commissioner Vince Hawkes, who told them that an independent investigation would be happening.
OPP communications staff confirmed that “the Missouri State Police will be conducting a third-party investigation of the case.”
“They will review the circumstances of the collision and provide a review of the entire investigation,” Carolle Dionne, a spokesperson for the OPP, said via email.
The report from the Peel Regional Police Service is not available to the public, however Dionne said the PRPS investigator did not determine who was the driver and who was the passenger. She wrote: “The report indicates: ‘It is my (PRPS investigator) opinion that in all likelihood Hughes was seated in the rear passenger seat. This opinion cannot be more positive than being likely.’”
“The pathologist also did not determine that Hughes was trapped in the rear cargo seat. ‘It is not his (pathologist) jurisdiction as the forensic pathologist to determine who the driver was and who the passenger was.’”
Regarding the practice of assigning the first officer to respond to be primary investigator, Dionne said: “A review was recently completed by Highway Safety Division regarding the investigation of serious traffic related incidents. As a result of recommendations from that review Major Case Management of ‘benchmark collisions’ is being formally introduced in all areas of the OPP and is already being practiced in many areas with appropriate oversight.”
She also said that following an audit on the Collision Reconstruction program in 2010/11, “in 2012, there was the introduction of a three-tier review process for all Collision Reconstruction investigations. This review process provides the OPP with multiple levels of analysis and accountability. The final review is conducted by an independent reviewer. This independent review step had not been introduced at the time of this collision.”
The Echo contacted the Haliburton Highlands OPP detachment for comment and was asked to direct questions to Dionne. She did not respond to the email and phone message left regarding a request for comment from Johnson or the detachment.
The Hughes family said they are thankful that another investigation is taking place, but are frustrated by the process.
Pearl said she has been left heartbroken.
“It’s been enough to deal with the loss of our son and he died a horrible death. A horrible long death and to think that you go through all the steps set out by the government to only be ignored,” she said.
Sam and Pearl said after the finding of neglect of duty, they thought the OPP would re-investigate their son’s death, but that hasn’t happened.
“Our question is, why does the government have these procedures in place and then nothing is done?” Pearl said.
The Hughes family has kept Jake’s memory alive over the years with fundraisers and other events, raising $100,000 for various charities, including the Special Olympics.
Pearl said she intends to follow the investigation done by the Missouri State Police closely.
“Jake deserved better,” she said. “We will do whatever it takes to get justice for our son.”