Abdirahman Abdi was “incomprehensible” and appeared as someone “not in control of his mental health” when he engaged with an employee at the Hintonburg Community Centre minutes before his initial interaction with police at a nearby coffee shop on July 24, 2016, an Ottawa courtroom heard on Wednesday.
The comments during Ottawa police Const. Daniel Montsion’s criminal trial marked the first testimony from an individual who saw and interacted with Abdi that morning in 2016.
Montsion has pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon in the death of 37-year-old Abdi, who died the next day, after a confrontation with Montsion and another police officer in front of his apartment building at 55 Hilda St., west of downtown Ottawa.
Crown witness Caolan Cullum, a customer service representative at the community centre on Wellington Street West, told the court on Wednesday that Abdi approached him as he arrived to unlock the facility’s front doors around 9:20 a.m. that July morning.
Abdi, who Cullum said he didn’t know, was standing very close; he had a “blank stare” and his mouth was “agape” but he didn’t speak, Cullum told the court.
When he entered the centre and reached his office door down the hall, Cullum said he noticed Abdi had followed him inside. Cullum said he asked Abdi if he could assist him and that Abdi gestured to the community police depot located in the centre, which led him to assume Abdi was looking to speak with an officer.
When he told Abdi no officer was staffed there on the weekend, Cullum said Abdi began speaking to him “very incomprehensibly.” Cullum said he could only piece together the words: “government”, “corruption,” and “sexuality.”
Cullum told the court Abdi followed him into his office and began speaking “incomprehensibly” once more, saying he could understand “Paris,” “Germany,” and “stand with your brothers.” When he told Abdi in return that he was of Caribbean descent, Abdi replied, ‘Don’t lie to me,'” Cullum said.
Cullum said Abdi continued to follow him further into the office and he asked him to leave, at which point Abdi began holding out his hand and saying the words: “Shake, shake.” Cullum said Abdi seemed to become frustrated when he realized Cullum couldn’t understand him, and so Cullum perceived the offer to shake hands as “peace offering” on Abdi’s part, and he obliged one or two times.
Abdi left “peacefully” of his own volition, Cullum said, and spoke briefly with another person before exiting the building.
Asked by the Crown whether it’s possible that Abdi, a Somali-Canadian man, was speaking a language other than English, Cullum said the “mouth sounds” he heard Abdi utter had “no type of rhythm” that would have led him to think Abdi was speaking another language he couldn’t understand.
Abdi wasn’t violent or threatening, community centre witness says
During cross-examination, Cullum said Abdi never came off as violent, menacing or threatening during that 10- to 12-minute interaction. Cullum said he didn’t consider Abdi’s behaviour “out of the ordinary” or concerning because of his experience interacting with people with mental health issues at his workplace.
In an incident report he filed four days later with the community centre, Cullum wrote that it was “clear” to him that Abdi was “not in control of his mental health,” according to an excerpt of the report read out by defence counsel Michael Edelson.
Asked by Edelson if the 2016 terrorist attacks in either Paris and Germany came to mind when Abdi spoke, Cullum said yes, but that he thought Abdi could be just repeating words he had heard.
Cullum told the court he recognized Abdi as the same man he’d interacted with at the community centre on July 24 after seeing a picture of Abdi shared on social media by a news reporter the next day.
Cullum said he filed his incident report about his interaction with Abdi on July 28 and also discussed the matter with his superior. He said he decided to submit a report because of media articles published about Abdi’s arrest and death.
Judge releases two copies of surveillance footage that captured Abdi’s arrest
Abdi’s interaction with Cullum occurred just minutes before Const. Dave Weir was dispatched to the Bridgehead coffee shop, located across Fairmont Avenue from the Hintonburg Community Centre, in response to reports of multiple sexual assaults at the cafe.
Abdi ran away as Weir attempted to arrest him and Weir chased him on foot to 55 Hilda St., about 300 metres away. Weir tried again to arrest Abdi in front of the building, but court has heard that Abdi didn’t comply.
Crown counsel has argued that CCTV footage from the lobby of the apartment building shows that Montsion committed an “unjustified assault” on Abdi after arriving at the scene. The judge in Montsion’s trial released two copies of that surveillance footage late on Tuesday, following a request by the Ottawa Citizen and CBC News.
Neither of the two videos are the original CCTV footage. The video that runs 28-minutes is a screen-capture recording of the original CCTV footage, created by one SIU forensic investigator because he experienced technical difficulties with the original file. The recording appears somewhat jerky at times.
The two-minute video was exported by another SIU investigator as an mp4 file and appears smoother than the other recording. The defence has claimed the video is “slowed down.”
The mp4 version was the reason the manslaughter adjourned three days into the proceedings. Court heard it was only disclosed to the Crown and then to defence on Feb. 3, the eve of trial.
The Crown had said it only intends to rely on the screen capture version in the trial, but court has since heard some forensic experts were shown the shorter, mp4 version.
The Crown and the defence spent the last week and a half questioning and cross-examining SIU investigator David Robinson, who documented the scene at 55 Hilda St. on July 24, 2016 and created the screen-capture version of the surveillance footage.
Crown, defence disagree over trial’s next steps
Proceedings on Wednesday ended on a tense note, after Crown and defence counsel couldn’t agree on how to continue in the trial following Cullum’s testimony.
The Crown said it next wanted to call to the stand the individual who downloaded the 55 Hilda St. surveillance footage from the server and provided it to the SIU on a thumb drive — but only to have that witness authenticate the video.
Defence counsel pushed back, arguing they need time to receive an expert report on the video evidence. On top of that, the defence lawyers said they had prepared to cross-examine other witnesses they had been told would be called to the stand this week.
“Defence can’t be expected to fly by the seat of its pants,” lawyer Solomon Friedman said.
For his part, defence counsel Edelson told the judge he’s “very frustrated” at the rate at which the trial has proceeded over the last month and the “constant new disclosure” the defence team has received since early February.
“This has been a frustrating process for a trial of this seriousness and this nature,” he said.
Crown counsel Roger Shallow asked the judge not to hit pause on the trial proceedings once again.
Because of the back and forth over the contested video evidence, the judge proposed hearing next from witnesses not related to the surveillance footage. The Crown is expected to call approximately 31 witnesses. Court has so far heard from two.
The trial proceedings continue Thursday.