Cellmate of Jayden Bennell, who died in custody, says 'suicide note' wasn't genuine

Cellmate says note purportedly by Indigenous man who died in Perth prison was not written in his handwriting

The cellmate of Indigenous man Jayden Bennell, who died in custody in Western Australia, does not believe Bennell’s alleged suicide note was legitimate and believes he would not have died if he had been allowed to move to another unit, a coronial inquest has heard.

Craig Scortaoili, who lived with Bennell in Perth’s Casuarina maximum security prison, said he and Bennell were being “hassled” over a drug debt and that prison officers did not make adequate efforts to find Bennell after he was recorded missing at muster.

Bennell, a 20-year-old Bibbulmun Noongar man, died some time between 1.30pm and 3.45pm on 6 March 2013.

His death was ruled an apparent suicide after an initial seven-day investigation by homicide detectives and handed over to coronial investigators, three-and-a-half years before being set down for inquest.

At Perth magistrates court on Monday, Scortaoili, speaking via videolink from prison, said Bennell made numerous requests to move to another unit of the prison where his cousin was housed.

“I still think today that if they had have moved him this would not have happened,” Scortaoili said.

Scortaoili said he blamed himself for Bennell’s death. They had been friends for years, he said, tagging buildings together as children in the industrial suburb of Kwinana.

In February 2013, when Scortaoili’s cellmate was sent “down the back”, a prisoner term for Casuarina’s detention unit, they requested to bunk together. That was about five weeks before Bennell died.

Soon after, Scortaoili said, Bennell started playing one particular song in the cell.

“He actually said to me and someone else that he wanted this song playing at his funeral so I sort of blame myself, because the day [Bennell died] I walked into the cell that song was playing,” he said.

“I didn’t think nothing of it when he said it to me at first. I thought he just liked the song and that. I didn’t think … I didn’t think anything would happen.”

On that day, Scortaoili said, he had left for his work detail peeling vegetables as he did every day, immediately after the morning cell inspection. Looking back, he told Toby Bishop, the counsel assisting the coroner, their morning routine had varied in one significant way.

“When I used to go to work he would never – like, we would say ‘bye’ and shit – but this morning he shook my hand and hugged me and said, ‘love you my brother, I’ll see you later’,” he said.

Scortaoili said he returned to the unit about 1.30pm and made a phone call.

The court earlier heard Bennell had attempted to phone his brother from the same phone block at 1.26pm. The call hadn’t gone through but is marked in the coronial brief as the last evidence of Bennell being alive.

About 10 minutes later, Scortaoili said, he walked towards his cell. The door was open and the song was playing on repeat.

The room was a mess, which was unusual, he said, because Bennell kept things clean. On top of the stereo was an exercise book.

“I grabbed the book and opened it and on the first page there was a letter to his mum,” he said. “I read the first line and then I stopped. I wish till today I had’ve kept reading it.”

The letter is alleged to be a suicide note. Bennell’s family, through their counsel Steven Castan, have expressed doubt about its validity, saying it appeared to be written in two different hands and should have been subject to forensic analysis, including handwriting analysis.

Under cross-examination from David Leigh, counsel for the Department of Corrective Services, Scortaoili said he did not read it properly until Bennell’s body had been discovered and he had been locked in his cell.

“The reason that I know Jayden is because we used to graffiti all the time,” he said. “The handwriting I seen in that book, I can be 100% sure now it was not his handwriting.”

The writing, he said was “like someone who had been to school”, which was not like Bennell: “Certain letters that Jayden would do he could only do one way.”

Coroner Sarah Linton said the statements on Monday were the first suggestion someone other than Bennell had written the note, though Scortaoili said he had raised it earlier with the coronial investigator, detective sergeant Alex West. It also allegedly contradicted what Scortaoili told Bennell’s cousin in a recorded phone conversation the day after the death.

The note remains in evidence at the Perth forensics lab. Senior Sergeant Pete Broekmeulen, the forensic analyst who attended the scene of Bennell’s death, told Linton it would be possible to test it for fingerprints and to conduct a handwriting analysis, if ordered to do so by the court.

The note was considered by police investigators to have been written by Bennell, Linton said, because of it’s final line: “I’m going to see Keegan.”

Keegan was Bennell’s twin brother, who died at birth. It was a loss still keenly felt; he did not talk about him.

Outside court, Maxine Bennell, Jayden Bennell’s mother, said she was still angry about her son’s death and what she saw as an inadequate investigation.

“They’re our children and they should be coming home to us.”

The inquest continues.


Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

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