BURNABY, B.C. – The distraught mother of a prison inmate murdered by a calculating serial killer in their shared cell told a coroner’s jury on Tuesday the officials who bunked her son with the convict should be fired.
“I keep asking myself and believe so should everyone else how (corrections) and their staff could put something so evil as Michael Wayne McGray in the same cell with my son or any other human being,” said a tearful Lela Phillips.
“I would expect whoever did this has lost their jobs, not just transferred to another jail where they could do the same thing again. No other family should ever go through what we are going through,” she said in a strained voice.
Jeremy Phillips, 33, was found dead in his cell at the medium-security Mountain Institute in Agassiz, B.C., in November 2010, about one week after he was put in the same cell as McGray.
The 45-year-old McGray was serving a life sentence for six murders, while Phillips, from Nova Scotia, was incarcerated on a six-year sentence for aggravated assault.
Phillips’ mother, who was the final witness called at the two-day inquest, wiped her eyes while describing her son as a jokester who was always smiling, enjoyed camping, fishing and hiking, and who called home from prison often to express love to his father, who was dying of cancer.
“Jeremy has his flaws, just like me and everybody else in jail, but he had a big heart – bigger than most,” she read to the jury from a note sent to her from one of his prison friends after he died.
The coroner’s jury can’t find fault in Phillips’ death, instead its members are tasked with examining the safety of inmates in the prison system by making recommendations towards preventing similar deaths in the future.
They began deliberations on Tuesday afternoon.
During the day’s proceedings, the three men and two women heard that federal corrections officers who assessed the violent killer before transferring him from B.C.’s only high-security prison believed the man was repentant.
An assistant warden at Mountain Institute explained the rationale behind the move, and why McGray was paired with Phillips.
“He indicated he was committed to his correctional plan … He was performing very well,” Brenda Lamm said.
“I believe he was making a sincere effort. I don’t believe that he manipulated the staff.”
McGray confessed to police that he bound Phillips with bedsheets and stuffed a sock in the willing man’s mouth as part of an elaborate hostage-taking ruse they concocted together.
But McGray admitted that he had planned to turn on Phillips all along, gratifying his own murderous urges.
In a raw and unnerving interview with police, McGray called himself a sociopathic killer with mental health issues and he promised to stack up more bodies before he died. He told them authorities should never have moved him to a lower-security prison.
McGray repeated the same story when he pleaded guilty to first-degree murder a year later, was handed another life sentence and placed in another maximum-security prison.
Lamm told the inquest McGray had been compliant with rules and regulations and hadn’t been charged for any violent behaviour during the nine months prior to his transfer, during which he was living with other inmates, but had his own cell.
McGray had been kept mostly isolated during his incarceration since about 2000.
She said the transfer happened as part of a long, drawn out process that began with McGray’s voluntary application.
“There were no surprises that when he got to Mountain (Institute) that he was going to be double-bunked,” she said, noting he was aware and accommodations had been discussed with his case manager.
He had asked for a single-cell, but was placed on a waiting list, although he and his soon-to-be cell mate were interviewed about sharing a cell and both suggested they were fine with it, she added.
But the inquest also heard he refused the transfer twice after gaining approval on learning he would have to share sleeping quarters.
The testimony came after another former prison inmate told the inquest he warned corrections’ staff they should not place the pair together.
Brian Murray, who was an inmate representative at the time, told staff McGray told him he shouldn’t have a cell mate at all.
Murray said McGray even lied to him hoping to win support, saying that he had murdered cell mates in the past.
Murray added the murder victim himself expressed concerns about the shared bunking, and so he had given the junior convict some paperwork to initiate a cell re-assignment.
A lawyer representing the coroner asked Murray, who testified by teleconference, if he was surprised by the murder.
“If you put a pot on the stove and turn the heat on, are you going to be surprised when the water boils?” replied Murray, who is no longer in the prison.
An internal investigation into Phillips’ death by the prison led to discipline for five guards who failed to notice the man was dead in his cell for hours before the killer himself alerted them.
It also generated several recommendations now in place, including for wardens to report on progress of high-profile inmates transferred from segregated, “special handling units.”