A free man—on paper

Already under fire after an inmate’s suicide, did the Canada Border Services Agency rush to release a critically ill inmate so he wouldn’t die in custody?
Valerie Akamai holds a box containing the urn with her husband Max’s ashes and his hat. Photograph by Chris Hinkle/Getty Images
Valerie Akamai holds a box containing the urn with her husband Max's ashes and his hat. Photograph by Chris Hinkle/Getty Images
Valerie Akamai holds a box containing the urn with her husband Max’s ashes and his hat. Photograph by Chris Hinkle/Getty Images

In the end, Lucia Vega Jimenez chose death over deportation. A failed refugee claimant locked inside an immigration holding centre at Vancouver International Airport—her final stop before a one-way flight home to Mexico—the 42-year-old hotel maid hanged herself from a shower stall. Somehow, none of the guards noticed her desperate act.

Unconscious and rushed to hospital, Vega Jimenez was taken off life support eight days later, on Dec. 28, 2013. Another month would pass before the public even heard about her death—from a journalist, not the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). The news outraged refugee advocates and civil liberties groups, who have long demanded independent oversight for an agency that wields sweeping authority to arrest and detain. How was she able to attempt suicide without anybody seeing? Why did the border agency not publicize her passing? Could more have been done to save her? The backlash was so fierce that the B.C. Coroners Service agreed to call an inquest, now under way, in the hopes of answering some of those lingering questions.

But Maclean’s has uncovered disturbing details about another fatality—just two months after Jimenez’s suicide triggered national headlines—that raises even more troubling questions about the conduct of the Canada Border Services Agency. Like Jimenez, Maxamillion Akamai was an illegal immigrant detained while awaiting deportation (to the U.S., where he was a convicted fraudster). And, like Jimenez, the 63-year-old was transported to an emergency room after losing consciousness (he collapsed on April 4 inside Maplehurst Correctional Complex, west of Toronto).

There was, however, one glaring difference between the two cases: As Akamai lay in a hospital bed, hooked up to a breathing tube, the CBSA requested a hearing in front of the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB)—to recommend his “unconditional release,” knowing full well that doctors suspected brain damage and the odds of survival were slim.

The IRB approved his release. Akamai died later the same day—which means, unlike Jimenez, he technically didn’t die in CBSA custody. On paper, at least, he was a free man.

“What happened just seems really, really wrong,” says his widow, Valerie Akamai, who lives in Las Cruces, N.M. “I thought: ‘Wait, what are you going to do? Drive him to the bus stop? Stick him in a cab?’ They were just covering up the whole thing, in my opinion.”

Immigration experts are equally suspicious. They say it appears CBSA—still reeling from the Jimenez fallout—scrambled to “release” Akamai in order to avoid the negative publicity of another dead inmate. Why else would the agency ask for an early detention review when a hearing was already scheduled for later that month? What was the rush? “It certainly raises the spectre of a government trying to cover its tracks,” says Sharryn Aiken, a Queen’s University law professor. “And that would certainly be very disturbing.”

“This is one of the most cynical things I’ve seen, and there is no excuse for it,” says Reg Williams, the former director of CBSA’s Greater Toronto Enforcement Centre. “It’s not humanitarian. It’s not administrative. It’s political. In the wake of what happened in Vancouver, they didn’t want that again.”

Akamai was no angel, to be sure. Born Michael Bryan Dysart in Lubbock, Texas, he later changed his name to Prince Maxamillion Akamai, claiming to be everything from a former employee of the Internal Revenue Service to a CIA agent. Arrested in 2007, Akamai pleaded guilty in a New York courtroom to two counts of wire fraud. In one scam, he told a victim he had invented a computer program that could, for a fee, make a person’s tax problems “go away.” (Another alleged scheme, ironically enough, was to tell fraud victims he was a member of the World Court in The Hague who could recover their losses. “Akamai falsely claimed that he was able to trace the movement of funds worldwide and determine their location through a database,” the indictment read.)

“All these things were false, weren’t they?” a judge asked Akamai on the day he pleaded guilty.

“Yes, sir,” he responded. “Completely false.” He was ordered to repay US$19,000 and serve 20 months in prison, followed by three years of probation.

Released in 2008, Akamai returned to his wife in New Mexico. They were married in 1999 and, as far as Valerie knew, he was a legitimate investor, not a con artist. “He was a very, very good husband,” she says. “He was a good provider and always made sure I was OK. I had worked all my life, from the time I was 12, and he didn’t want me to work.”

Following his prison stint, however, Akamai’s health rapidly deteriorated. Already a diabetic with high cholesterol and poor vision, he endured repeated gangrene infections that forced doctors to amputate his left leg below the knee and all five toes on the other foot. Yet in July 2012, barely two months after receiving his prosthetic left foot, Akamai insisted on traveling to Ontario, 3,000 km away, to meet some associates. Although he didn’t disclose all the details, his wife says the trip was motivated by money. “He told me: ‘I’m going to do this if it kills me,’ ” Valerie recalls. “ ‘It’s about money and I’m going to get the money.’ ”

How Akamai managed to cross the border remains a mystery. What is certain is that he returned to New Mexico one more time, in September 2012, before venturing back to Canada for good. When her husband of 13 years eventually stopped phoning, Valerie filed a missing persons report with her local police department. In March 2013, she even went so far as to dial a CBSA hotline, passing along the address and phone number of the Toronto-area home where she believed her husband was living. (In yet another twist that deserves an explanation, CBSA did not pursue her tip.)

A year later—Jan. 26, 2014—a woman at the same address Valerie provided called 911 to report that her boyfriend had attempted suicide. When Ontario Provincial Police Officers arrived at the home, Akamai became “very agitated” and started “tearing up,” according to the incident report. “Oh no, the police have finally caught me,” he said. “Please don’t kill me.” (Akamai told the officers he wasn’t trying to commit suicide, but accidentally swallowed too many sleeping pills.)

Unable to prove he had legal status in Canada (he told authorities he was a U.S. intelligence agent who regularly crossed the border), Akamai was handed over to CBSA for what should have been a simple removal to the United States. At a detention review hearing on Feb. 4, the agency asked that he remain behind bars pending deportation, convinced he was a flight risk with a strong desire to stay in Canada. The IRB agreed to keep him locked up, reaching the same conclusion at a second detention review on March 11.

Because of his poor health, Akamai was held at the infirmary in Maplehurst, a provincial prison. It was there, on the evening of April 4, he suddenly collapsed.

The next day, a Saturday, Valerie’s phone rang. On the other end of the line was an official with the U.S. consulate in Toronto. “She asked me if I was his wife and I said yes,” Valerie recalls. “And she said: ‘He’s here in Canada and he’s not expected to live. He has no brain activity.’ I started shaking. I was just so sad, so devastated.”

That same day, a CBSA officer also called the house. He told her Akamai was on life support with a possible brain injury—and that the agency wanted to release him from his immigration hold. Another officer phoned on Monday, April 7, telling Valerie that CBSA was considering flying her unconscious husband back to the United States. When Valerie spoke to a doctor at Milton District Hospital later that day, he confirmed the dire diagnosis: unresponsive, on life support and potentially brain-dead. “He said: ‘We can keep him alive if you come up here by tonight,’ ” she recalls.

Max Akamai

That same Monday, the border agency—well aware of Akamai’s acute condition—asked the IRB for an early detention review. “It’s my understanding he has no consciousness at this point,” Jacqueline Taylor, a CBSA representative, said during the ten-minute hearing. “Due to his medical situation, the minister is not going to be in a position to remove Mr. Akamai as of now, and it doesn’t appear as though he will be able to remove him any time in the near future. For these reasons, the minister is seeking his unconditional release today.”

Akamai was pronounced dead a short time later, at 4:15 p.m. The official cause of death was coronary artery disease.

“When you are offering a release to somebody, you’re offering them their liberty—which means to walk out of jail,” says Williams, the retired director. “So, for CBSA to go and ask for release knowing he can’t walk out of jail, then their motivation was not to give him his liberty. It was something else: to wash their hands of this case at any cost.”

Their behaviour was “unconscionable,” Williams says. “People pass away in jail; he is not the first person to pass away. But as soon as you get an adverse medical report from a doctor, you shouldn’t be running around trying to get the guy released.”

Andy Semotiuk, an immigration lawyer with practices in both Canada and the U.S., says Akamai’s case is just the latest to cast scrutiny on CBSA’s handling of immigration detainees. “If those facts are true, the deception is appalling,” he says. “It is the state deceiving us about what is going on inside the state’s facilities.”

Last week, The Canadian Press obtained a confidential inspection report from the Red Cross, which found numerous shortcomings at holding facilities for illegal immigrants, including triple-bunked cells, lack of support for detained children, and inadequate mental health care. The report also found that because many cities don’t have dedicated CBSA cells, foreigners facing deportation are often housed, like Akamai, in provincial prisons alongside convicted criminals. (On Sunday, Niagara Regional Police revealed that another CBSA detainee died after a prison suicide attempt in Thorold, Ont. Although authorities did not release his name, Maclean’s confirmed the deceased inmate was Joseph Charles Todd Dunn, 43, a Georgia man charged in the shaking death of his foster child before fleeing to Canada and filing a refugee claim.)

Kelly Sundberg, a former CBSA enforcement officer who is now a professor of justice studies at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, says the Akamai case is “highly suspect,” and only reinforces the need for some form of independent civilian oversight of Canada’s border agency. “When you put it into the context of what happened in British Columbia—the media storm that erupted around the Jimenez case—it sure does sound like this was a more politically motivated process as opposed to a legally motivated process,” he says. “There are so many questions. Why did they seek an early detention review?”

Maclean’s asked CBSA the same question. The magazine also asked the agency to respond to the specific allegation that it requested the early review to ensure Akamai was released before he died in custody. In a written response, CBSA said it “treats its detainees with respect and care in accordance with national detention standards” and that “medical care was provided” to Akamai during his entire incarceration at Maplehurst.

“Detaining someone is a serious matter,” the statement said. “Immigration legislation specifies the grounds for detention, which include: unlikely to appear for an immigration proceeding (flight risk), danger to the public, and unable to satisfy an officer of their identity. The CBSA always considers alternatives to detention and recommends release on conditions where possible. Before making a recommendation to the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) on whether detention should be maintained or the person released, the CBSA carefully assesses the situation, which may vary between one detention review to the other…In the case of Mr. Akamai, when there was a significant change in his medical condition, the CBSA could not argue for continued detention, given that he was no longer a flight risk.”

The agency also noted that a lawyer appointed by the IRB to act on his behalf “agreed that it was in Mr. Akamai’s best interests to be released from detention.” The lawyer, John D. McCrie, did not respond to interview requests from Maclean‘s.

“He was a convicted felon in their minds, so who cares, right?” says Akamai’s wife. “But he was a human being who deserved to be treated properly. He didn’t deserve that. No one does.”

Valerie could not afford to travel to Canada to see her husband one final time, but the hospital did offer to pay for Akamai’s cremation and mail his ashes back to New Mexico. The brown box arrived in June. Months later, Valerie is still too distraught to open it.

“He was not a horrible person,” she says. “He really wasn’t, or I would never have stayed with him. I loved him very, very much, and I always will.”