Friday, February 10, 2017

Not Criminally Responsible: of Vince Li and an unusual (former) friend of mine

Disclaimer: I did not know Tim McLean or his family. McLean lived in BC at some point, I gather; I remember reading that he worked for a time at the PNE. Still, I doubt our paths ever crossed. I first encountered the story of the Manitoba bus beheading like most people, in the mainstream media. 

I also do not know Vince Weiguang Li, the man who cut off McLean's head and ate bits of him on that bus. He's interviewed here; he was subsequently diagnosed as schizophrenic, treated, and now has been granted an absolute discharge - meaning he is free from checking in with doctors, free to contact the McLean family, free to go off his meds, free to do whatever he likes. He's changed his name to Will Baker - not a bad idea, I guess; who recalls Karla Homolka's new name? He seems very remorseful in that interview; indeed, he may be a very nice guy, now that he's on meds, I don't know.

However, I do know a man who, in the grips of mental illness, killed someone. His name is Neil, and we roomed together for a time, back in the mid-1990's. We were both taking a (somewhat culty and intense) class called Life Skills Coaches' Training, being run by a private college that, on the verge of closing for good, was renting space in a disused office building in Whalley, in the heart of junkie central. It ran like a sort of day-long group therapy, with a dozen or so of us digging deep into ourselves and each other, talking about our pasts, our feelings, our failings, and coaching each other how to come to terms with our "stuff." It was strikingly intimate and somewhat spiritual, with sweatlodges and smudges and other rituals. There were also random bits thrown in, from shiatsu-like massage that released torrents of tears when certain points were pressed to an all-night session on the head coach's property, a technique which had been described by a competing school as "sleep deprivation." It's a bit sensationalistic but not exactly off the mark; but frankly, I think they borrowed techniques from wherever they could, from Scientology to gestalt therapy to Reich to whatever they thought worked. I don't recall if there was any primal screaming, but there could  have been. There wasn't much of a safety net, and I'd heard stories at the time - which I can't substantiate - that a past trainee had killed himself as a result of the emotional pressures he was subjected to. It seems entirely believable.

Needless to say, the people who were part of it got to know each other very, very well during this course. If people were abused as a child, we heard about it (some people had been). If they'd been raped, we heard about it (some people had been). If they had committed crimes or done things they felt lifelong guilt and shame over, we heard about them (we all had; there were some sad stories indeed in the class, and a few pretty lame ones, including my own). People screamed, people cried, people bullied each other, and occasionally people mutinied, comparing the workings of the class to the Stockholm syndrome and challenging the head coach on her methods. We emerged all feeling a lot healthier, however, with odd bonds having formed, including at least one couple.  

Anyhow, I didn't want to have to commute from Maple Ridge to Surrey, didn't want to be walking between the school and Gateway Station at all if I could help it, especially in the evening, so I offered to sleep in the building and serve as their unofficial security guard. They were fine with it, so I moved in my sleeping bag and had a few nights to myself before a few other commuters in the class decided that it sounded like a pretty good idea. An electric wok for cooking got moved in, and at least four other people ended up, at different times, spending the night there, sharing communal, often vegetarian stir fries and bullshitting into the evening. There were enough of us staying there that the space became known as "the Stellar Hilton."

And one of them was a Newfie named Neil. He was one of the first people besides me to move his foamie onto the floor. He was a man of considerable integrity and intelligence, but who came from a lower class background, spoke coarsely, and, as I recall, had had troubles with the law (not the only person in the group who had).

It was one of the more unusual friendships I have ever formed - and a valued one, I think for both Neil and I; I haven't had many friends from a totally different class background than myself, and I learned a lot about life from talking with Neil, and profited from his advice and insight on more than one occasion. He was incisive and honest and kind of fearless; and I took to looking forward to decompressing with him after class, when Neil, myself, and another Hilton occupant who later became a close friend would talk and play chess - which I rarely won at. Neil was masterful. I looked up to him, as someone a bit older, much tougher and with some very potent life experiences behind him - though I had to make excuses to myself for him occasionally (because, like I say, he was coarse, particularly in how he talked about women and sex).

Years after the class was over - after I got back from Japan - I ended up sharing an apartment in Kits with said other friend from the Stellar Hilton, and occasionally, when Neil was in town, he would visit and crash with the two of us. It was around that time - 2005, maybe - that we began to notice that Neil was starting to seem a bit, well, paranoid. Neil was on a disability comp claim, having sustained a head injury on the job decades previously, and was certain that he was being spied on. He may well have been - he'd talked about WCB spies even back into the 1990's, when we were first getting to know each other, and it didn't seem entirely impossible or unreasonable; but by 2005, it was starting to seem a bit of an obsession, something that came up more and more often, was affecting his life in deeper and deeper ways.

As I recall, we tried to convince him that it might just all be in his head. See, we theorized - I certainly theorized - that it was all stemming from a bad conscience on his part. He didn't want to go back to work, was happy to keep receiving benefits - but it was, as far as we could see, a bit of a scam. He was pretty high-functioning, and surely could have held a legit job of some sort. He just didn't want to give up the free ride (we thought). We certainly saw no reason, hanging out with him, to think of him as brain damaged; he was incredibly sharp, and mostly incredibly rational. So maybe his guilt at not being a productive member of society was expressing itself as a sort of paranoia - that it was his own conscience that made him feel afraid he would get busted...? The alleged "WCB spies" were really his own guilty conscience?

Neil's paranoia sometimes got a bit out of hand, however. Even before I went to Japan, in 1999. I remember an episode where Neil, visiting me and this mutual friend where I then lived in Port Moody, got a bit drunk and seemed to become suspicious that maybe *I* was spying on him for worker's comp (as I recall, it was more me than my friend he suspected). I don't remember exactly what was said, but I remember the way he looked at us. Both my friend and I were scared; there was a violence in him, a hostility that flickered behind his eyes, and an unsettling, vicious quality to the way he smiled. Coming from a bit of a tough-guy past, he had been around violence more than either of us, was more comfortable with it, I guess you could say. But we had never felt it DIRECTED at us before, not even in the slightest. That night - just in the way he spoke, laughed, looked at us - we were both afraid of him.

But it passed: we took it as a sign not to be around Neil when he was drinking, and not much more. After I got back from my time in Japan, on more than one occasion, between 2002 and 2005 - during which time my friend and I shared this apartment in Kits - Neil was our guest, crashing on our couch, telling us stories about a plan he had to buy a boat and live on it with his dogs off the BC coast - something I think he actually tried for a few months, to no success. He was certainly more attuned to the possibility of WCB spies watching him, by this point - and we thought his worry excessive - but I don't remember being as scared of him as I was that one night.

Then he fell out of touch. That wasn't that unusual - he would come and go, with connections in Newfoundland and elsewhere in the province. I wasn't around the last time my friend ran into him, but it must have been around 2005, and Neil, as I recall the report, still seemed pretty much like Neil. They talked, and - I heard later - he told him about his ill-fated experiment with living on a boat, and how sad he was when he had to put one of his dogs down.

Then Neil fell out of touch completely, and over a year passed. No word at all. It got to be unusual.

Sometime in 2007 or so, my friend, wondering what had become of him, tried a Google search, where we read two articles online in the Western Star and became rather terrified. Because the articles I'm linking seem to be buggy - directing you after a minute to a malware site - I'm going to copy them in part into this piece of writing, so you don't have to click on them to read them. Also, because I don't want this piece of writing turning up on certain Google searches, I'm going to do what might seem an odd move, of removing Neil's last name, the last name of his daughter, and the name of his victim. (Fuckit, I will leave the lawyers in there). It's not that his name is any big secret - you can click the link below if you want, his photo is there too (he's considerably heavier than when I knew him). I just - Neil might have access to a computer, you know? I don't really want to make it easy for him to find this, for reasons that will become clear.

The first reads thus:
While both the Crown and the defence agree that Neil L. killed his daughter's boyfriend in February 2006, L's lawyer intends to show his client should not be held criminally responsible for the death of Frank M.
The trial against L, who was charged with second-degree murder after Frank M's lifeless body was found in his girlfriend Penny L's residence on Farmdale Road in Corner Brook Feb. 27, 2006, began in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador in Corner Brook Thursday. 
CORNER BROOK - While both the Crown and the defence agree that Neil L  killed his daughter's boyfriend in February 2006, L's lawyer intends to show his client should not be held criminally responsible for the death of M. 
The trial against L who was charged with second-degree murder after M's lifeless body was found in his girlfriend Penny L's residence on Farmdale Road in Corner Brook Feb. 27, 2006, began in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador in Corner Brook Thursday. 
After reading an agreed statement of facts signed off on by L and his lawyer, Peter Ralph, Crown prosecutor Jennifer Colford managed to wrap up the Crown's case by the end of the jury trial's first day. 
In the agreed-upon statement, the 12-person jury and presiding Justice Richard LeBlanc heard how M, who lived at another residence, and his girlfriend had woken up around 8:20 a.m. of the morning in question. Neil L, who also had other accommodations, had also spent the night at his daughter's home. 
The couple heard Neil L talking with Ms. L's two young daughters - aged 4 and 6 - out in the living room. In fact, L and his granddaughters were on the couch watching cartoons. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, although the court was also told L had worn out his welcome by staying two nights and that Penny and M had "ignored him the second night." 
In the morning, M "winked" at his girlfriend, who at that point was in the living room with her father and children, as he left the washroom and proceeded to the kitchen. Ms. L then went to the washroom herself and, upon leaving, heard what she described as a "weird noise." 
At that point, she saw her father and M fall through a blanket which had been draped over the kitchen doorway. Neil L was on top of M, who was pleading for help. Penny was trying to separate the two when she saw a knife in her father's hand. After a short struggle, the knife fell to the floor and Neil L screamed at his daughter. 
Penny saw her boyfriend was bleeding moments before her father punched her in the face. 
After recovering from the punch, which she later testified knocked her unconscious momentarily, Penny went looking for a cordless phone to call the police. Unable to find the phone, she decided to grab her two daughters, who were by now screaming in the living room, and get out of the house. 
By then, the struggle had moved into the living room. When Penny returned to that room, she saw  M leaning over the arm of a love seat with Neil  L standing over him, stabbing him repeatedly in the neck and screaming "You're going to f*** with me." 
M fell face down to the floor and a pool of blood came from his body. Penny told police one of her daughters was screaming "Poppy, stop, Frankie is bleeding." 
Penny grabbed her children and left the house to get help and was able to get a neighbour to make a 911 call. 
When police arrived, Penny was in the street screaming that her father had just murdered her boyfriend. 
Unable to enter 
The responding members of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary were unable to enter the residence at first, but could see a man covered in blood standing in the porch. The police eventually forced their way in and arrested  L. 
M, who died at the scene, had been stabbed 19 times in the back and neck area. 
When she took the stand, Penny L told the court her father had been suffering from severe paranoia and delusions that he was being spied on for cheating the workers' compensation board in British Columbia, even though there were no real grounds of suspicion that he might have been doing so. 
The court heard a piece of heavy machinery had accidentally rolled over L in 1989, resulting in an injury to the left temporal lobe of his brain. 
These abnormalities were recorded on medical tests conducted at the time of the accident and again in 2006. 
During her testimony,  L's daughter explained how her father thought spies were planted virtually everywhere. He even refused to communicate indoors, for fear the house was bugged; took apart light switches to check for listening devices; and even resorted to writing notes to his daughter so no one could listen to their conversations.
Penny told the court that she tried to get help for her father, but could not find the help she sought. She went to a counsellor at College of the North Atlantic, who told her to go to the police. 
She went to the police six times, but said she was told nothing could be done until L hurt himself, someone else or property. 
She said she went to the psychiatric department at Western Memorial Regional Hospital and also could not get anyone to do anything for her father. 
Penny said she was told she could lose her children because they were in a dangerous situation. 
She also told the court how her father had deep suspicious of M being a spy planted to expose  L as a fraud. 
"Sorry to burst your bubble, sweetheart, but Frank is one of them," she said her father told her. 
 L told his daughter he was going to buy a tape recorder and get M angry enough to admit he was a spy. Penny said this really upset and worried her and she tried to tell her father he was wrong about  M. 
Two days before M died, Penny  L said her father showed her a tape recorder he had. 
Penny, who said she believed her father's conspiracy theories at first but had grown to question them more and more as they became more bizarre, said she doesn't know why her father stabbed M that particular morning. However, she did tell the court that her feelings for M took precedence over how she felt about her father and this may have further frustrated her dad. 
She explained that her husband from a previous marriage had always played second fiddle to her father. 
Most of Thursday afternoon was taken up with a two-hour videotaped statement  L gave to police following his arrest. During a period of about 10 or 15 minutes when he was left alone,  L sobbed and moaned loudly and occasionally uttered statements to himself consistent with the story of his paranoia. 
"Watch my grandkids. Watch my daughter. Watch 'em," he muttered repeatedly.
While he acknowledged having stabbed M in the statement, L refused to provide an answer as to why or how it happened.
"I don't mean to be ignorant, but I can't say nothing," he repeated, telling the police interrogator to contact his psychiatrist in British Columbia and to tell her he killed someone, implying she might be able to offer police more information. 
L also repeatedly asked about his grandkids and urged the officer to obtain and preserve blood samples from himself and the oldest grandchild, an allusion to earlier testimony from his daughter that he suspected he had been poisoned. 
The trial resumes with the start of the defence's case Monday morning.
The second article - which also redirects you to a Malware page, and which I'm also omitting last names from - explains the reasons put forward that Neil should not be held criminally responsible, because of EXACTLY the brain injury that he had first filed a worker's comp claim for, that he was receiving disability payments for. Copying a portion of that: 

Last week, Justice Richard LeBlanc and the six men and six women of the jury heard that  L readily admits he stabbed M 19 times. However, they also heard that  L, who suffered a serious brain injury in an industrial accident in 1989, had been enduring severe paranoia and delusions that the workers' compensation commission in British Columbia was spying on him and trying to expose him as a fraud. 
The delusion got to the point that  L even thought M was a spy planted by the commission to infiltrate his family, even though there was never any real suspicion  L had been cheating the commission to get disability benefits. 
When the trial resumed in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador in Corner Brook Monday morning, defence lawyer Peter Ralph called his only two witnesses - Dr. David Craig and Dr. Nisar Ladha of St. John's - both of whom testified as experts in forensic psychiatry. A report from a third psychiatrist, Dr. Lisa Ramshaw of Toronto, was also read into the court records. 
All three of the psychiatrists came to the conclusion that  L was suffering from symptoms of a mental disorder at the time of the murder and should not be held criminally responsible for M's death. 
Craig, who has conducted psychiatric assessments of inmates in this province's adult and youth correctional facilities on numerous occasions, first met  L at Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's in May 2006. During a third visit about a month later, Craig said  L was upset over memories of the offence and overwhelmed by what he had done and what the consequences might be.  L even told Craig he wanted to change his lawyer and change his plea to guilty. 
Based on conversations he had with  L's daughter, and a letter from her, Craig - who said he immediately contacted Ralph - learned that  L was even suspicious that the court system was part of the conspiracy against him and he would get a lengthier sentence if he pleaded not guilty. 
Since his incarceration,  L has been treated with anti-psychotic medication and drugs for depression. Craig said  L's level of suspicion has been generally resolved since then and, although he is still reluctant to say much, he is no longer worried that almost everyone around him is out to get him and is fit to stand trial. 
Craig said there is a difference between being fit to stand trial, or being able to understand court procedure and co-operate in his own defence, and being held criminally responsible of an offence, which involves the state of an individual's mind at the time the offence was committed. 
Craig said it is quite clear  L was in the deepest throes of his mental illness the morning he killed M, launching a vicious attack moments after he had been sitting between his two granddaughters watching cartoons. He said  L incorporated the belief M was a planted spy into his progressing delusional system and that  L would either have to kill himself or kill M to remove the threat he perceived to himself, his daughter and her two children. 
That opinion, said Craig, is backed up by the videotaped statement  L gave to police in the hours after the killing, in which a distraught  L admits to killing M, but still urges the police to protect his daughter and grandchildren. Craig said  L is clearly distressed about some sort of continuing threat, more than he is about the fact he has just killed someone. 
Ladha, a forensic psychiatrist in this province since the 1970s and who conducts psychiatric assessments at the Waterford Hospital, diagnosed  L as being schizophrenic. Although the exact cause of this particular kind of mental illness is typically unknown, Ladha said  L's case is different in that it can be pinpointed to a specific medical condition, namely the injury to the left side of his brain. 
"After his injury, Neil  L changed as a person," said Ladha. "He was not the Neil  L he was before. He was not the father he was before."

Ladha said an examination of  L's life since his accident in 1989 shows a steady progression of his disorder. He said his illness continued to affect more parts of his life and also began to include more people, as shown through his ever-intensifying insistence that spies were following him and bugging his house.

Unfortunately, said Ladha,  L's irrational thought processes got to the point where Frank M became the biggest threat to him and the family he loved. In  L's mind, said Ladha, killing M was the right thing to do to protect his family.

"It was this distorted psychotic rationale that led to Frank's death," he said.

Both Ralph and Crown attorney Jennifer Colford will present their closing arguments to the jury this afternoon.

Justice LeBlanc is not expected to give his instructions to the jury until Wednesday morning, at which time they will begin deliberating  L's fate.
There's some scary circular logic at work in this story - that the brain injury leads to a comp claim; that the comp claim leads to a paranoia that he's going to be booted off the comp claim; that he kills someone out of that paranoia; that he is then found not guilty of murder because of the very brain injury that started things off. Indeed, Neil did end up in an institution for the mentally ill - was found not criminally responsible, same as Vince Li (or that other infamous cannibal killer who roams free in the world, Issei Sagawa).

There's a whole lot in the stories about Neil that is disturbing, precisely because it is familiar and recognizable to me. It would be one thing to read about these acts and think they belonged to a total stranger, but - they don't. Reading the Western Star stories online was the first time I heard about fears of wiretaps - clearly his paranoia accelerated considerably over time - but most of the story reminds me of things that Neil said, and I can easily connect his violent outburst in my mind with that scary night in the late 1990's, and the way he looked at us when he suspected we might be spies, too. I wonder if Vince Li's friends felt the same sort of recognition, reading about what he did? If any of his behaviour in the past looked to them in hindsight like it foreshadowed his crime? It brings to mind a very interesting graphic novel called My Friend Dahmer that shows how Jeffrey Dahmer seemed to his "friends" in high school, including the author of the book - who in no way was surprised when the news broke about what Dahmer had been up to. (I gather it's being made into a movie).

But there's another disturbing element to the story, for me, besides the familiarity of it. What if, after some time, given budgetary considerations, years of exemplary behaviour, and apparently successful regimes of meds lead to the institution where Neil is being kept deciding he is no longer a threat, and setting him free? He has ties in BC. His MO in the past had been to just drop by unannounced. What if I get a call or a ring on the door some day - "hey, bye, they let me out!"

Eek. (Scary too that a Metro News article from last year suggests he was found in breach of protocol at the institution where he is held; they surely would say, if they meant he had escaped, right?).

The thought that Neil might show up in my life again, if released, was mainly what has kept me from sending him a care package these last ten years. It did occur to me that at the very least he might appreciate a note and a chess set, you know? - Just so he knows that regardless of what he's done he isn't totally despised and forgotten and alone, which surely is how a man in his position must feel from time to time. But there's no way I can send him anything, no way to say hello, without increasing the likelihood, even marginally, that he's going to turn up on my door again someday. As much as I want to be compassionate, as much as I believe Neil was NOT responsible for his actions, as much as I'm sure he too suffers from the effects of what he's done - I really don't want to see him ever again: not because I judge him or hold anything against him, but because there's a point beyond which I can't have someone in my life, a point beyond which I cannot put the OTHER people in my life at risk. I don't much care what chemicals he gets put on, don't care what some hospital bureaucrat decides about him: knowing what he is capable of, I can't afford to let him back into my life at all. Maybe other people out there are strong enough, brave enough, fearless enough not to distance themselves from a friend after he does such a thing, but... it ain't me.

It would all be different if I had more faith in the institutions we have in place. I don't. WCB was aware of Neil's injury. His daughter was aware that he was having problems. Repeated attempts were made to get him help. Nothing happened. And even after a crime has been committed - how many times have you read stories in the news about people regarded as high risk offenders being released into the community? Don't you always wonder why, if they're deemed high risk, they're being released? Nevermind punishment, nevermind rehabilitation: isn't part of the purpose of our legal system to protect the community from people it deems dangerous? Sure, sometimes there are screw ups - Issei Sagawa's freedom has as much to do with conflicting laws in France, where he committed his crime, and Japan, where he was deemed sane - but it sounds like the people in charge of Vince Li have very deliberately, knowingly decided that he poses no threat to the community, that he can be safely reintroduced into it.

It's a pretty big "BUT WHAT IF THEY'RE WRONG" to hang over our heads, you know?

I can't really speak of Vince Li - Will Baker, now. He's a stranger to me. But I can say of someone I actually know and liked, a lot, that I hope he stays inside for the rest of his days, for the good of everyone else in the community. I hope he's got a chess set there, hope there's some good company, hope he isn't too miserable or wracked up over what he's done - that there are some moments of peace and pleasure for him, in the institution where he lives, because he's human, because he wasn't responsible for his actions, because he deserves at least some compassion, too. But - sorry, Neil, I hope they never, ever let you out. 

Kinda makes you wonder what Vince Li's friends and family feel about his "absolute discharge," doesn't it?

To say nothing of the rest of us.  

2 comments:

Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

I gather the recidivism rate for violent crimes resulting in federal time is 14%. 7-1 odds. Much higher odds than those for non-violent crimes resulting in federal time. Statistics regarding cannibals returning to the table for more in Canada are unavailable at this time. Sounds like grist for a screenplay in the offing however.

Pete Campbell said...

Riveting reading.....and a reminder that things look different up close...as much as I love your music journalism, Allan, your personal writings are always moving and insightful and even more affecting...to bring some sincerity and truth to a touchy-feely cliche: Thanks for sharing!