Terri-Jane Yuzda


A Sleuth Among Engineers

Allegiance to the Facts Keeps his Phone Ringing


Freelance Columnist

Ross Cheriton, P.Eng., in his Edmonton lair.

If CBC-TV moguls consider a follow-up to the hit show Da Vinci's Inquest, they could do worse than present the true-life adventures of W. Ross Cheriton, P.Eng.
Mr. Cheriton is an urbane, courtly gentleman of the old school. Corpses and blood-curdling screams at midnight aren't really his line. But when he sorts out the circumstances that led to an industrial explosion or fire, he combines the sleuthing instincts of Nero Wolfe with the tenacity of a Missouri mule.

His sole allegiance is to the facts: "The key is to keep an open mind,"
the 81-year-old forensic engineer explains to one of the uninitiated. "In forensics, pre-conceived ideas can colour your thinking. I just call things the way I see them."

Somewhere in small-town Saskatchewan, a once-destitute truck driver
remains eternally grateful that he does. As Mr. Cheriton tells it, the man's modest home burned and five sets of investigators -- including the RCMP, the provincial fire commissioner and Saskatchewan Government Insurance experts -- concluded the place had been torched. Charges didn't result -- but the insurance claim was rejected.

Two years after the fact, the man's persistent denials finally won over
a local lawyer. He placed a call to an immaculate second-storey office
in Mr. Cheriton's Edmonton home.

Once at the scene, Mr. Cheriton detected gasoline fumes in the basement. With Sherlockian care, he gathered debris samples in sealer jars. Tests proved the samples contained "new" gasoline, never exposed to open air.

The trail led to a massive spill from a bulk gas station, less than a kilometre from the site. Clearly, seepage had contaminated the cellar.Mr. Cheriton told the lawyer the insurance company would be wise to settle up.

"But they didn't. They hauled us into court," Mr. Cheriton says. The judge listened first to the expert testimony of a geotechnical engineer, produced by the government insurance company. Then Mr. Cheriton testified.

After 15 minutes of recess, the judge ruled in favour of the trucker. Then he complimented Mr. Cheriton for conducting the only proper investigation in the case.

"That made me feel good," chuckles the methodical sleuth. "Made me feel like Perry Mason."

Mr. Cheriton's painstaking and logic-driven analyses have kept him in demand as a forensic consultant at an age when most professionals have long since taken down their shingle. Yet he remains the unofficial dean of a tiny Canadian fraternity of about 50 forensic engineers who solve fire and electrical apparatus problems.

Being long in tooth is a no disadvantage in his business. Successful forensic engineering draws on experience, as well as a sound grasp of engineering principles. "This line of work is a good opportunity for any retired engineer, providing he has the suitable personal traits, to market his experience."

Still, it's not a career direction Mr. Cheriton came into by design.

Originally from Assiniboia, Sask., Mr. Cheriton trained as an electrical engineer, receiving degrees from both the University of Saskatchewan and the University of British Columbia, before embarking on his sparkling half-century career.

During the early 1960s, while managing his successful Edmonton company, Cheriton & Associates Ltd., a lawyer friend asked for his input regarding a problematic car accident.

The case wound up in court. And Mr. Cheriton acquitted himself so ably as an expert witness that his phone began to ring.

It hasn't stopped.

In 1979 he began to concentrate on forensics full time. Today, he continues to juggle up to five consultations at a time.

Most often, he's summoned because unusual complexities have arisen surrounding an insurance claim or lawsuit. In one case, the financial stakes stood as high as $100 million.

Mr. Cheriton considers his work particularly well done when his investigation leads to an out-of-court settlement, which happens in 24 of 25 cases.

But should the disputants insist on a day in court, he'll oblige. He's acted as an expert witness in dozens of cases.

Nor is he concerned which side wins - as long as truth wins the day.

"I don't take sides. A lawyer is in an adversarial position to do the best possible job for his client but that's not my role."

Mr. Cheriton's written reports are models of concise erudition. Take, for example, the paper he'll deliver to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in Chicago next February. (He's an elected fellow.)

It's his analysis of a perplexing tragedy in New Sarepta several years back. A rural gasoline tank exploded, killing several onlookers.

"Now Hollywood is great for exploding gas tanks but it rarely happens in real life. Yet it did in this case," Mr. Cheriton murmurs, the way a master detective teases his slow-witted assistant.

How did it happen? Why? His professional colleagues can look forward to a rip-snorting good yarn.

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