FORTUNE, N.L. – The sky has opened and the heavens are crying.
It’s Thursday, July 12, and outside, a post-tropical storm is making its way across eastern Newfoundland as Donna Foote Matthews sits at her dining room table in Fortune pouring out a broken heart.
Nearby, the ashes of her son, Jeff Matthews, are on a shelf in a cabinet below a picture of his seven-year-old daughter, Jada Lynn Matthews.
Foote Matthews has one thing on her mind – justice.
Matthews, 38, died in a Calgary hospital on Sunday, June 24, following an altercation at a bar in Medicine Hat in the early morning hours of June 21.
Foote Matthews invited The Southern Gazette into her home to share details of the investigation into her son’s death based on information she has learned from the Medicine Hat Police Service. In a news release, the police called the death “suspicious.”
The investigation, she feels, has begun to lag, and she isn’t sure why.
“I just feel that it’s being halted for too long, I feel that it’s being halted for some reason, and that reason, I don’t know what it is, but to me, it’s not something that they should be letting go,” she said.
Foote Matthews said she’s been told a blow Matthews received at the bar ultimately caused his death.
The result was a cracked skull and internal bleeding.
The police, she says, have spoken to witnesses and have identified four British soldiers as suspects. They were training at Canadian Forces Base Suffield, 50 kilometres northwest of Medicine Hat.
Under a leasing agreement between the British and Canadian governments, the British Army Training Unit Suffield was established at the base in the early 1970s, an arrangement that was extended indefinitely in 2006.
The soldiers were apparently wrapping up their training in Canada and they departed for the U.K. on June 25, during the early stages of the police investigation — just hours after Matthews was declared deceased. They may have been unaware of everything that transpired following the altercation.
Foote Matthews said she’s been told there are issues with forcing the soldiers to come back to Canada to speak with investigators, but that the Medicine Hat Police Service can send officers to the United Kingdom to interview the four men.
“So, the Medicine Hat police, to me, should make that trip. They should make that call to go to the U.K.,” she said.
Devastating phone call
Foote Matthews’ phone rang at nearly four in the morning, Newfoundland Time, on June 24.
It was a nurse from the intensive care unit at a hospital in Medicine Hat. Matthews had arrived there on his own earlier and was now non-responsive. She was told he was on life support and required brain surgery immediately.
“It was Jeff’s phone that she used because his name came up,” she said. “I couldn’t even figure out what she was saying for the longest time because I was just out of it.”
Foote Matthews got ready to go to Alberta, arriving that night to find her son surrounded by hoses and tubes. An hour after she arrived, she was told he was brain dead. Foote Matthews said she spent the next two days with him.
“I lost it. It was just like I was in a fog for three days. I just didn’t know how to get my head around it. I didn’t know how to deal with it. I didn’t know what to do, really,” she said.
“It was kind of a helpless feeling that was at a loss completely. Nothing could be done at that point, but I couldn’t leave him right away. I just had to have so much time with him.”
Matthews, who grew up in Grand Bank, headed out west in his early 20s, working there for 12 years before returning to Newfoundland to live for a time in Kilbride.
He returned to Alberta and was recently working for an oil company, Foote Matthews said. When that finished, he went to Medicine Hat for some roofing work and had only been there for a short period when the incident that would take his life occurred.
He was planning to move back to the Grand Bank-Fortune area to be closer to his daughter, his mother said, going so far as to look for a house.
“His goal was to make a certain amount of money before he arrived home,” she said. “He didn’t get to settle and turn it all around like he had started to do. He didn’t get to do that.”
It’s hard for Foote Matthews to swallow.
“Of all the years that he was gone away, I often told him that I wanted him to come home, and we wanted him to come back and be with family and live, but I didn’t want him home like that,” she said, gesturing to the nearby shelf. “This is not the way we wanted him home.”
It took some time to get Matthews’ body back to the Burin Peninsula. A memorial service was held in Grand Bank on July 5.
“It’s been quite an ordeal, quite an ordeal,” Foote Matthews said.
It’s been overwhelming for the family, she added.
“It’s hard for us to try and explain to a seven-year-old little girl why she can’t call Daddy,” she said.
“To her, her Daddy hung the moon. To her, her Daddy was everything. It just makes it that much more emotional and hard to deal with every day. It’s heart-wrenching, really. It’s just got the guts ripped right out of all of us.”
Matthews had friends from coast to coast, Foote Matthews said. Some of them started a GoFundMe campaign to help cover the costs to bring him home.
Foote Matthews said the support has been humbling.
“The amount of support we have received has been tremendous and phenomenal. I could never thank everybody enough for the support that we’ve received,” she said.
Determined to get justice
As the rain continued to sheet outside, Foote Matthews’ pain is visible and tears streamed down her cheeks.
“I will stop at nothing until justice is served for Jeff,” she said.
She’s determined that her son won’t be another statistic.
“My son was a human being and a damn good guy at that, and he doesn’t deserve this to be halted and be let go,” she said.
Foote Matthews said she’s still going through the motions, and the only thing keeping her strong is that she’s her son’s only voice now.
She said she will go through whatever channels necessary to make sure the wrong done to her son is addressed.
“I feel then that he will rest and I will rest, and I’ll feel that justice is done for him. I’ll feel better when someone is brought in to pay a price for what they’ve done to him,” she said. “They took a life. They shouldn’t be out living their life freely as if nothing happened. A life is gone, and it’s my son that’s gone, so justice will be served. Whether I go to my grave doing it, justice will be served.”
Staff Sgt. Chad Holt of the Medicine Hat Police Service spoke with The Southern Gazette about the investigation on Friday, July 13.
According to Holt, Jeff Matthews’ case is still classified as a suspicious death investigation, and said it hasn’t been confirmed that what happened in the bar on June 21 caused his death either.
“We haven’t classified it as manslaughter or anything. We need some information back from our medical examiner, the person that does the autopsy,” he said. “All we can confirm is that we’re looking into what did cause the death of Mr. Matthews. We know that he was involved in more than one altercation on June 21 at one of the local bars here, and we know there were several people involved in two different incidents.”
Holt said attempts have been made to get information from everybody that witnessed anything on the night in question or were party to what happened.
“Then that, combined with what the medical examiner will eventually provide us from their separate investigation, and autopsy result and toxicology and all those things, then we’ll be able to make a better decision at that point. We wouldn’t be in a position to say exactly what we have at this point,” Holt said.
Holt did confirm there were “four or more” British soldiers in or outside the bar on June 21, who either witnessed or were part of the altercations with Matthews, and have since left the country.
“We’ve had great difficulty in trying to speak with them as they are no longer here,” he said.
Holt said the Medicine Hat Police Service has been in touch with the Royal Military Police at the British Army Training Unit Suffield and are trying to work out how best to speak to the soldiers.
“We have made a request to see if it’s possible that they be brought back here, and we’re just waiting to hear back from that,” he said.
Holt said the investigation is not halting or lagging.
“Everyone that we’ve been able to identify has been spoken to, like that we’ve been able to speak to, but it’s just being held up at this point because we haven’t been able to interview the soldiers,” he said.
Holt acknowledged the fact that the soldiers are from another country and them being gone before police could ID and speak to them has resulted in some obstacles they are not normally used to.
“That’s created some barriers for sure, and how far they are away and sort of the logistics of being able to sit down and talk to them and find out what they did see or what they were part of,” Holt said.