VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – The B.C. inmate who died from apparent COVID-19 complications two weeks ago was in prison for killing a Yukon woman 30 years ago, NEWS 1130 has learned.
Twenty-one-year-old Tina Washpan was found dead on a rural property near the Old Alaska Highway between Fort St. John and Dawson Creek in July 1990.
It would take 16 years for an arrest to be made.
In 2006, Paul Felker, who was 60 years old at the time, was arrested and charged with second-degree murder in Fort St. John, following an undercover police operation known as a Mr. Big sting. He was found guilty by a jury in 2009 and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 12 years.
In mid-April, the Correctional Services of Canada announced an unnamed inmate serving time at the medium-security Mission Institution — which has been grappling with the worst COVID-19 outbreak at a federal prison — had died from complications of the new coronavirus.
Several sources with knowledge of the situation tell NEWS 1130 Felker was the inmate who died. While neither the Correctional Services of Canada or the Parole Board of Canada would reveal if Felker had passed away, both say there is currently no offender by that name under their “jurisdiction.”
Felker, who was 73 years old and a year short of parole eligibility, is the first inmate at a Canadian federal prison to die from COVID-19.
“I am so glad he’s dead. It’s time now to face his demons,” Pearl O’Brien, one of Washpan’s older sisters, tells NEWS 1130.
Washpan was born on Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation in Yukon. She grew up in Regina as Cynthia Burk after she was taken away from her family as a baby during the Sixties Scoop, along with several siblings, and placed with a non-Indigenous family in the Prairies.
“When the welfare came to get signatures for adoption release, nobody would know how to read to [my mom] the words,” O’Brien recalls. “So they caught her, with nobody there to read the paperwork or anything and she was illiterate.”
The siblings were split up, with a few sent to the U.S.. Others, including O’Brien, ended up in group homes or the residential school system, where they were physically and sexually abused.
Eventually, most of the siblings found their way back home to Yukon as teens or young adults, with Washpan finding her birth family when she was almost 20 years old. O’Brien saw her for a few hours for one of the first — and last — times in Alberta, where she was living at the time, as Washpan made her way up north to reunite with her mom and siblings.
“She stopped on at my place in Calgary and then continued to go home,” adds O’Brien. “That’s when I told her, ‘don’t go home, don’t go home’ and then she went home, back to Carmacks.”
Washpan spent about a year with her birth family in Yukon before she was murdered. It’s believed she crossed paths with Felker in northern B.C. as she was hitchhiking back to Saskatchewan, possibly to get away from an abusive boyfriend.
“[Her boyfriend] beat her up so bad that that’s who she was running from when she was hitchhiking away,” says O’Brien.
While Washpan was reported missing by her family in Yukon the same month she was found dead, her body wasn’t identified for several months. She was initially buried in Prince George under the name Jane Doe until family paid to bring her back to Yukon for a traditional burial, after investigators figured out who she was.
Felker was first identified as a suspect in Washpan’s murder in 2004, when Mounties questioned him about the killing, but did not arrest him. The Mr. Big sting operation was launched two years later, and ended when Felker confessed to killing Washpan to undercover cops he thought were criminals.
O’Brien says Washpan’s murder deeply affected their family.
“It was really bad. I mean, I am still carrying this around with me,” she says. “This … plus the burden of residential schools and … sexual [abuse] that went on in school.”
The harm done to their family because of the Sixties Scoop, along with the toll of Washpan’s murder, which went unsolved for so long, were detailed during the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls when another one of Washpan’s sisters testified.
“It took 20 years for them to find the killer,” Diane Lilley said in Whitehorse in 2017. “When we were taken away, we were told we were going to a safer place, and my family were all split up. I never, ever knew my family, and it really broke my mother’s heart.”
O’Brien says she wasn’t notified about Felker’s passing and doesn’t think anyone else in her family was told, either.
“I am just relieved, just totally relieved. He’s dead. Now he can face his devil, demons, for things he did.”
More than 100 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 at Mission Institution — about a third of the inmate population. At least a dozen people working at the prison, many of them correctional officers, have also contracted the virus. The death of Felker has prompted a number of groups, including the BC Civil Liberties Association, to call for the provincial government, chief coroner, and solicitor general to launch an inquest.