Dispatcher error led police to release man who went on to commit 'merciless and savage' sex assault
VANCOUVER -- On an early spring day in 2015, just after noon, Caleb Heaton brutally attacked an East Vancouver woman inside her own home.
An agreed-upon record of the criminal case between Crown and defence reveals how the 25-year-old bound, gagged, and raped his victim, his behaviour so vicious, the judge referred to Heaton’s crime as “merciless and savage.”
Heaton was only stopped, court records show, because a witness on the street heard the victim’s screams and intervened.
Heaton was arrested minutes later, and in June 2015 pleaded guilty to aggravated assault, unlawful confinement, and breaking and entering.
In 2018, a judge classified Heaton as a “dangerous offender,” a term reserved for Canada’s most violent criminals, according to Public Safety Canada.
But the story of what transpired on March 26, 2015 begins some four hours before the horrific crime, when Caleb Heaton called 911.
A complaint later filed against the Vancouver police officers involved in the response to that 911 call referred to it as Heaton’s “cry for help” that was “ignored.”
Court records: police officers may not have believed Heaton’s story
At 8:33 a.m., Heaton called 911 from a payphone in downtown Vancouver near Robson and Homer streets, court records show.
Heaton told the 911 operator he had committed two break-and-enters earlier that morning, including at a furniture store near Granville and Broadway, and a church near the Commercial-Broadway Skytrain Station.
Records show Heaton said he wanted to turn himself in for his crimes.
At 8:47 a.m., two Vancouver police officers responded to Heaton’s call.
Records show the officers handcuffed Heaton, searched him, and placed him in the side of a police wagon with the door left open, while they investigated his story.
But it seems the officers had doubts.
One of two officers believed “mental illness was a factor,” the agreed-upon record of the case shows, and the officer “questioned whether (Heaton) was fabricating the details.”
The officers called a second team of patrol officers for backup, an investigation by the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (OPCC) into alleged misconduct by the responding officers shows.
(While published OPCC documents related to the investigation are partially redacted and do not mention Heaton by name, a source close to the investigation confirms to CTV News the reports are related to the Heaton 911 response.)
But before the second team of officers arrived at Robson and Homer, the OPCC documents show, the first team waived them off.
One key reason, the investigation revealed: one of the responding officers had checked with a police dispatcher whether Heaton’s story matched any crime reports.
The dispatcher told the officer there were no reports of break-and-enters in the areas where Heaton said he committed the crimes.
The OPCC documents show officers from each of the two VPD teams exchanged the following text messages:
Officer: “all good”
Response: “ran him and saw his (criminal record) entries…so he pretty (emotionally disturbed person) then”
Officer: “no BNE’s reported as of yet so he may be crazy”
Response: “copy we checked with info seems like it per his (criminal record check)”
Officer: “ya or has quite the imagination”
Response: “I got it”
Officer: “we owe you thanks”
Heaton had a lengthy criminal record in Ontario, including armed robbery, and had previously served jail time.
The OPCC documents refer to an “outstanding warrant for his arrest,” but the details are redacted.
Court records also show Heaton has a history of mental health issues and substance abuse and addiction.
The officers ultimately released Heaton.
“There was no report of any break in at the time, no evidence of a crime scene and, although he was acting strangely, the officers had no grounds to detain him pursuant to the Mental Health Act,” the OPCC investigation into their actions reads.
But it turns out the information the officers had obtained from the dispatcher was wrong.
OPCC: Error by dispatcher led to Heaton’s release
When a call is made to 911 in Vancouver, it’s routed to an agency headquartered in a non-descript, low-rise building just off Highway 1 known as E-Comm 911.
E-Comm, which is owned by the municipalities and agencies it serves, handles the vast majority of police, fire and medical calls in British Columbia.
It’s the first point of contact for most 911 callers, and in 2019, its operators, known as “call takers” fielded over 1.8 million calls.
E-Comm also employs people known as police dispatchers for some jurisdictions, including the City of Vancouver.
A dispatcher uses a radio and computer system to communicate with emergency personnel.
Their job is to help first responders co-ordinate a response and to be the “eyes and ears,” according to E-Comm, of the police officers on the ground.
They also act as the “main source of information,” E-Comm told CTV News, by providing police outside of their vehicles with information in criminal and police databases via radio.
Most dispatchers work 10 to 12 hour shifts, four days on and four days off.
The morning of March 26, 2015, when the Vancouver Police officers who responded to Heaton’s 911 call contacted E-Comm to inquire about the break-and-enters he told them he’d committed, the OPCC investigation reveals the dispatcher gave the officers incorrect information.
While the break-in to a church had not yet been reported, the break-in near Granville and Broadway had, in fact, been called into police by the store manager before 4 a.m.
But that report was never conveyed by E-Comm to the officers.
“During a shift change of dispatchers,” the OPCC investigation reads, “it appears one dispatcher failed to advise her replacement of the report. When Constable (redacted) and Sergeant (redacted) requested information about possible break-and-enters the replacement dispatcher advised them she had no reports.”
The OPCC adjudicator, a retired judge named David Pendleton, then writes in his September 2019 report: “Had the correct information been given to the officers, I am satisfied (Heaton) would not have been released.”
911 agency says call handled 'accurately' but was unaware of dispatcher error
It’s unclear how such a critical error could have been made.
When CTV News reached out to E-Comm, the agency was unaware of the dispatcher error and said they would look into it.
They later told CTV they had reviewed audio files related to the Heaton case, including his 911 call and their dispatcher’s communication with police.
“We have determined that our staff handled this file accurately and as per police policy,” wrote Jasmine Bradley, E-Comm’s director of corporate communications.
But Bradley also added that because the case dates back more than five years and forms part of an official OPCC investigation, E-Comm was limited to the records and files it could access.
Bradley also declined CTV’s requests for an on camera interview.
And when asked what the dispatcher’s error could mean for public confidence in a system with public safety at its core, she wrote, in part: “It would be inappropriate for us to speculate.”
Bradley directed further questions to the Vancouver police and added: “E-Comm reached out to (VPD) to emphasize that, if the department has any call-taking or dispatch concerns related to this file, we would like to be made aware and work with their team to address those issues.”
The Chair of E-Comm’s Board of Directors, Doug Campbell, reiterated what he called E-Comm’s commitment “to providing the highest level of service to our emergency service partners and members of the public,” and had no further comment.
Another E-Comm board member, Paul Mochrie, who represents the City of Vancouver, deferred to Bradley.
And a spokesperson for the Vancouver Police Department directed a question from CTV News about the dispatcher’s error, back to E-Comm.
“If there are concerns, our E-Comm liaison will connect with our partners at E-Comm to address any issues that should arise,” Const. Tania Visintin wrote.
OPCC: Two VPD officers lied to protect their colleagues
The revelation about the dispatcher, which was made public in August 2020, followed years of inquiries by the OPCC into the conduct of both pairs of Vancouver Police officers who responded to Heaton’s 911 call.
Records show all four officers were investigated by the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner for what’s known as neglect of duty.
None of the allegations were substantiated.
Andrea Spindler, the OPCC’s deputy police complaint commissioner, told CTV News that the action or inactions of each of the four officers “did not meet the threshold for misconduct.”
Without addressing the Heaton case specifically, Spindler went on to explain officers facing neglect of duty allegations are judged against what a similar officer with similar experience would do, which she referred to as a “reasonable officer test.”
However, an OPCC investigation found the two VPD officers who were called as backup after Heaton’s 911 call that March morning both committed what’s called “deceitful misconduct.”
According to retired judge David Pendleton, who adjudicated and wrote the OPCC decision dated Sept. 25, 2019, the officers lied when they told independent investigators they had gone to search for break-and-enters in the areas Heaton claimed to have committed the crimes, when their police car GPS data proved they did not.
(The OPCC decision also revealed there was “no clear or convincing evidence” the officers were ever ordered by the first pair of officers who responded to Heaton’s 911 call to go look for evidence of break-ins. Pendleton asserted he believed the officers lied to protect their colleagues, who were at the time, facing neglect of duty allegations.)
CTV News has learned from a source close to the investigation that the officers in question are constables Trevor Skates and Matthew Gagliardi.
In his discipline decision dated Nov. 21, 2019, Pendleton wrote that both constables were good officers who made a bad decision.
“A fully informed reasonable member of the public would agree that dismissing these otherwise good police officers in not necessary,” Pendleton wrote.
Both Skates and Gagliardi were given 20-day suspensions without pay.
The OPCC’s Spindler confirmed this week that the deadline for the officers or the Commissioner to ask for further review of the decision had passed.
In a statement, Vancouver police spokesperson Const. Tania Visintin wrote: “The OPCC process was thorough and comprehensive and resulted in discipline for the members involved. We trust the process and oversight provided.”
When asked for a second time for comment from constables Skates and Gagliardi regarding the finding by the OPCC, Visitin reiterated the same statement.
Visintin also added: “The case involving Caleb Heaton was horrific. We’re pleased that he was declared a dangerous offender.”
Heaton’s mother: Failures mean lives have been altered forever
When asked to respond to the OPCC findings and the revelation an E-Comm dispatcher had made a crucial error, Caleb Heaton’s mother, Jennifer Tuckwood sent CTV News the following statement:
"I am appalled by the lack of mental health awareness and blatant disregard for someone who was in need of police protection."
Tuckwood went on to write: “ A 911 call for help ended in tragedy mere hours later. This being after a failure in communication, by a (dispatcher), and disparaging text messages regarding a vulnerable person,” referencing the exchange between officers which speculated Heaton was “crazy.”
“The poor judgment (of the officers), lack of integrity and the misconduct of deceit have altered the course of lives," Tuckwood wrote.
Five-and-a-half years after the horror of that late March morning, Caleb Heaton remains behind bars.
His classification as a dangerous offender means he can be incarcerated indefinitely.