Canada
Cell neighbour of Ashley Smith speaks about Smith's last hours for first time

Michelle-Lynn Erstikaitis, a diagnosed psychopath, and long-time offender, poses for a photo in downtown Toronto, ON.

Credits: ERNEST DOROSZUK/QMI AGENCY

MICHELE MANDEL | QMI AGENCY

TORONTO -- Laughing with mischievous glee, Ashley Smith knocked on the wall they shared of the segregation wing of Kitchener's Grand Valley Institute for Women.

"I just stole the guard's sweater!" the 19-year-old triumphantly proclaimed.

Michelle-Lynn Erstikaitis smiles for a moment, recalling how she cackled with laughter at Ashley's audacity.

"What are you doing with it?" Erstikaitis yelled back.

"I'm wearing it," Ashley chortled with a high-pitched giggle that she can still hear to this day.

Twelve hours after stealing that navy top through the meal slot of her prison door, Ashley would be dead, with Erstikaitis convinced her friend's final ligature was ripped from the guard's sweater before it was wrestled away from her.

She suspects Ashley hid it until the next morning, when she tied it tightly around her neck, just as she'd tied so many other hidden pieces of cloth in the past. But this time, no one rushed in to cut it off -- until it was too late.

Recently released from a Quebec prison, Erstikaitis, 33, watched the news a few weeks back when the airwaves were filled with horrific new video footage of the inhumane treatment Ashley endured during her year in federal custody. A wide-ranging inquest into her incarceration and suicide is scheduled to get underway next year.

Seeing those shocking prison videos, Erstikaitis said she "flipped" and decided she finally had to speak out.

"They tortured her. No wonder she killed herself," she says angrily. "She was just a kid. She was a child. She had troubles, so what? Everybody in prison is troubled. She probably should have been in a psychiatric facility. These people failed her."

Erstikaitis is a troubled woman herself, a diagnosed psychopath and designated dangerous offender who's enjoyed making headlines in the past as a fan of Paul Bernardo and has a rap sheet for arson, assault with a weapon and uttering death threats against the mother of Bernardo victim Leslie Mahaffy.

So perhaps she's not the most reliable witness. But Kim Pate, an inmate advocate and executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, confirmed Erstikaitis was one of the three other inmates in that secure area with Ashley on Oct. 19, 2007.

"The women who were in segregation at the time she died, I can only imagine the kind of trauma they feel with their impotence to intervene," Pate says.

Erstikaitis would only know Ashley for a few days but would see a side of her few of us have heard about until now. As the newbie on the range, Ashley told her she'd have to stop singing her annoying Guns ‘N Roses. A few traded expletives later, they were soon chatting about their favourite musicians and actors -- she says Ashley loved Nickelback and Leonardo DiCaprio -- and making plans to go shopping when they were released. Erstikaitis said Ashley, dressed in a suicide prevention smock they called the "oven mitt," was bored and wanted to talk.

"She told me she was getting out in a month," she recalls. "She talked about her mother out east and how much she loved her."

"She was very adorable, demanding and annoying. But so cute, you couldn't help but laugh at her obstinacy. And what she did with that sweater was the funniest thing -- until it ended so badly."

After she heard the guards storm in and take it back, Erstikaitis knocked on the wall and asked if she was okay. Ashley was no longer the bubbly, mischievous child, but the subdued and broken girl trapped in a cage. "She said, ‘Michelle, I'm fine. I just want to go to sleep right now.'"

She would never hear her voice again.

Erstikaitis says she was woken the next morning by loud kicking and banging on her friend's cell door and guards yelling, "Ashley, stop it." After about half an hour, she says it got deadly quiet. She'd learn later that by the time they finally went in, Ashley was gone.

"It's morbid to me that they watched her kill herself and they videotaped the whole thing. It's like a horror show," rages Erstikaitis. "They should have gone in, forcibly gone in and stopped her. That's their job."
Read Mandel Wednesday through Saturday.

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