Alex Conte, 21, on trial for the second degree murder of his 58-year-old mother Sarah Nickerson has been found “Not Criminally Responsible” for the killing due to a mental disorder. B.C. Supreme Court Judge Malcolm MacCaulay says the testimony of two of Conte’s treating psychiatrists shows he was in a state of severe psychosis when he killed his mother with an axe.
Earlier in this case Crown prosecutor Christine Lowe had told the court a psychiatric assessment found Conte fit to stand trial, although “marginally fit.” Lowe then agreed with defense attorney Bill Heflin that a second psychiatric assessment is needed to determine if Conte would be fit to stand trial for murder
Conte’s lawyer says the family is relieved with today’s decision. Bill Heflin says the system failed his client, and his mother’s death was preventable.
CTV News reported last year that despite Sarah Nickerson neighbors calling the case “a tragedy”, it was one they knew was coming for some time. The neighbors said police visited the home many times over the years – the last occasion was the Thanksgiving prior to the killing.
The Goldstream News Gazette reporting on the murder last year stated:
Conte had a troubled past before being arrested for his mother’s alleged murder. Last year he was found guilty on three counts of assault. He is currently charged with assault, uttering threats and break and enter from an incident on May 20, 2011.
The B.C. Review Board will determine how long he will remain at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital.
In another example where the family had sought help, Steven Heer has been found Not Criminally Responsible for killing his father by driving into him and stomping his head because he thought he was possessed by a demon.
Steven Heer, 28, had been charged with second-degree murder in the Aug. 18, 2011, death of 59-year-old Mohan Heer, however a judge has ruled that he was not guilty as a result of his suffering from a major mental disorder. Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Michelle Crighton also accepted that Steven Heer had believed he was doing what he thought was right by “displacing the demons that had taken over his father and members of his family.”
Psychiatrist Vijay Singh testified Heer has been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and said, at the time of the killing, he was suffering hallucinations, hearing voices in his head and believed his life was in jeopardy. “He believed he had instructions from God,” said Singh, adding that Heer had earlier heard the voice of God telling him of a war between a good god and a bad god. “He had a strong belief that his father was possessed and believed he had to do something to cast out the devil that had possessed his father,” said Singh.
In a second report, psychiatrist William Friend said Heer also believed that the demon possessing his father was going to torture and kill him and take his soul. As well, Heer said the devil had appeared in the SUV he was operating and took control of the vehicle.
According to agreed facts, Heer had been arguing with his father when they returned to their Riverbend home after a short drive about 9 p.m. on Aug. 18, 2011. As the dad exited to open the garage door, his son accelerated and struck him with the Nissan Pathfinder. Then, as the victim made his way to the front of the home, his son drove into him again, pinning him to the stairs.
The victim’s wife and two daughters ran outside to intervene and, as the wife was holding her husband, Heer reversed and then accelerated forward and struck his father again. He then ran out and began kicking and stomping his father in the head while shouting. As family and friends began giving medical assistance, Heer went inside and changed and then drove off. He was found later near the High Level Bridge and arrested. The cause of death was multiple blunt traumas.
After ruling Heer was not criminally responsible, Crighton remanded him into custody at Alberta Hospital and ordered that he appear before the Alberta Review Board for a disposition hearing within the next 45 days.
Defence lawyer Brian Hurley said the family of Heer – a respected home builder who was well-liked among the city’s large Sikh community – is upset that their earlier cries for psychiatric help were unanswered.
“The family saw the deterioration in his mental health and tried to get him help and the system couldn’t get it for him,” said Hurley. “And, obviously, a horrendously tragic result occurred.”
Toronto police officers checking on a domestic violence complaint made a horrifying discovery on Jan. 7, 2011, after they knocked on the door of an east-end apartment where loud music was playing. “I want to show you something,” said Annesair Balkaran, then 20, who let them inside.
Face-down on the living room floor, surrounded by blood, was the body of her mother, Zaniffa Balkaran, 59.
Ontario Superior Court Justice Ian Nordheimer has declared Balkaran, now 22, not criminally responsible for the gruesome murder because she suffers from schizophrenia, depriving her of the ability to appreciate the nature of her actions.
Her lawyer, Andrew Vaughan, entered her plea of not guilty to second-degree murder, reduced from first. A collision of factors led to the grisly killing, said Vaughan. Crown Attorney Paul Amenta, citing a psychiatrist’s report, catalogued Balkaran’s lengthy mental health history, extended hospitalization and troubled relationships with her mother and boyfriend, which often resulted in run-ins with police.
Balkaran had previously threatened to kill other family members, who were so concerned they removed knives from her mother’s apartment. Her mother called 911 after Balkaran suggested she was “on a mission from God and her family has to die.”
Balkaran endured a “nightmarish” childhood in Trinidad after her father died and her mother moved to Canada. She was kidnapped and physically and sexually abused before she was reunited with her mother at age 9. Poor and isolated, Zaniffa struggled to deal with the deeply troubled teenager — she was paranoid, heard voices and was suicidal — and the two frequently clashed. In her later teens, as her mental health deteriorated, she frequently moved back and forth between her mother’s and boyfriend’s residences, and shelters.
In September 2010, Balkaran, then pregnant, was taken to emergency at the Rouge Valley Health Centre after she was found screaming in the street. But, as she did on other occasions when hospitalized, she played down mental health issues and was released.
Three days later, she was admitted to hospital involuntarily, under the Mental Health Act, after a series of bizarre episodes. She was transferred to a shelter, where she stopped taking anti-psychotic medication fearing it would harm her unborn child.On Christmas Day 2010, Balkaran delivered a baby girl at Scarborough General Hospital and the infant was immediately apprehended by Children’s Aid Society.
Balkaran was discharged three days later but there was no follow-up counselling or support after a prolonged period of not receiving the medication she “desperately” required, Amenta told court. “The system may have fallen through,” agreed Vaughan.
A hearing will be held to determine where Balkaran will be held pending an assessment by the Ontario Review Board.
Jordan Ramsay, 27, was charged with the second-degree murder of his father, Donald Ramsay, 53, and the attempted murder of his mother, Wendy Ramsay. Jordan Ramsay admitted to the November 2011 killing, but pleaded not guilty. Both his lawyer and the Crown prosecutor said during the trial this week in Vancouver that Ramsay should not be held criminally responsible due to his mental disorder. Ramsay was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 18. The North Vancouver man who beat his father to death and seriously injured his mother has been found not criminally responsible due to his schizophrenia.
In her ruling on Friday, B.C. Supreme Court Madam Justice Deborah Kloegman found that at the time of the offence, Ramsay suffered from a mental disorder that rendered him incapable of knowing that his actions were wrong. Justice Kloegman stated Ramsay was clearly in a delusional state at the time of the attack. She said the accused was not taking his medications or at least not in the required dosages just prior to the slaying.
His parents decided to reduce the dosages and replace the medication with power vitamins and he suffered acute anxiety from moving to North Vancouver from Nanaimo, said the judge. At the time of the offence, Ramsay’s state of mind was “irrational, illogical, delusional, disorganized, disoriented, incoherent, trancelike and confused,” she said. The severity of his condition proved that it was more likely than not that his mind was so disordered that he couldn’t tell right from wrong, she concluded.
Ramsay used a hammer or a wrench to strike his father multiple times in the head. The dad was pronounced dead at the scene. His mother was also struck in the head and suffered serious injuries. She was later discharged from hospital and has returned to Saskatchewan.
During the trial Jordan Ramsay’s psychiatrist, Dr. Leanne Meldrum, testified Ramsay is fragile, in deteriorating mental health and will need long-term care in Coquitlam’s Forensic Psychiatric Institute, where he currently is a patient, before he would ever be considered safe in the community. Ramsay will be evaluated by the B.C. Review Board, which has 45 days to decide if he should be remanded in custody to a psychiatric facility, conditionally discharged or discharged outright.
LeeAnn Ramsay, the sister of Donald Ramsay, said the judge had reached the correct verdict.
During the trial this week in Vancouver, the court heard evidence that at the time of the slaying, Ramsay was off his prescribed medication and was trying to treat himself with a brand of multivitamins which is marketed on the internet to people with mental illness. LeeAnn Ramsay says the death of her brother was preventable and could have been avoided had the accused not used the vitamins produced by Truehope. LeeAnn Ramsay says the vitamins were improperly marketed as a cure for mental illness and called on Health Canada to take action. “It makes me extremely sad and a little bit angry. I just want someone to be accountable for this. It had been a “very difficult” time for our family. My parents are devastated” she says.
Bradford Stephan, the chief operating officer for Truehope, acknowledged that Ramsay was taking their vitamins but denied that they played a role in the slaying. “We’ve had over 80,000 people in North America on this program and we’ve never had a problem before.” He blamed a visit the accused made to a North Vancouver psychiatrist a few days before the slaying, saying the psychiatrist had “ripped a strip off him” for use of the vitamins. He said that Ramsay left the psychiatrist feeling “very upset” and “very paranoid.”
Health Canada said it licences the company to use several nutritional supplements but does not allow them to claim them as a cure for schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
Gary McKenna of the The Tri-City News has written a good piece detailing the journey of Blake Salemink who was recently found not criminally responsible of manslaughter in the death of his mother, Colette. She died in a intentionally set fire of their Coquitlam home in April 2010. Judge Paul Williamson has ordered that Salemink go before the B.C. Review Board, where he will be assessed, before beginning treatment at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital at Colony Farm.
MacKenna’s story, told through the eyes of Blake’s sister Erica Salemink begins at the Royal Columbian Hospital in 2004. Erica shares how suspicions about her brother are confirmed. As Blake sat in a seclusion room, watched by a security guard, she was told her younger sibling was suffering from a mental disorder and needed to be kept under observation for several days. In those early days Erica had no fear of her brother and described him as a sweetheart that would draw pictures of the sister he looked up to.
In those earlier times Erica watched as the quiet youth who had a “go-with-the-flow” attitude became increasingly agitated. The hope that its was just a faze or a kid acting out was slowly replaced by the reality that her brother was mentally ill.
After that initial stay at at Riverview Hospital (there would be many) things appeared to be OK for a time. Despite his troubles, Blake managed to finish high school and, in 2005, attended Malaspina College (Vancouver Island University).
In 2007, Erica received a call from a family Blake was staying with in Mexico City. She learned that her brother had smashed a car and had been acting erratically. Erica boarded a plane but upon her arrival was unable to convince her brother to come home. Erica recounts to MacKenna her shock as Blake hit her for the first time.
Blake was eventually taken to a hospital in Mexico, where he was treated for psychosis, and escorted back to Canada by authorities. In the years that followed, Blake had several stays at Riverview Hospital, spending anywhere from a month to two months at the facility. “They don’t keep you until you are well,” Erica says. “They keep you until they think you have the medication sorted out… They take you to a certain level and that is when they let you out.”
Erica describes Blake when he was diligently taking his medication, how the sweetness would return. She also recounts the change when he wasn’t, how he became mean, and often lash out at his family.
By the spring of 2010, fights between Blake and his mom became common, and Coquitlam RCMP officers were routinely called to Colette’s Burian Drive home to intervene in disputes. On April 13 of that year, a mental health warrant was drawn up that could have put Blake, who was still on extended stay from Riverview, back in the hospital. But when he met with his caseworker two days later, the warrant was not executed, despite the fact he appeared giddy and admitted to having auditory hallucinations. He said he heard a song that sounded like it was speaking to him, the court would later be told, but he knew the voices were not real. After the meeting, Blake was allowed to return home.
On April 17, police were again called after Blake threatened to hire a hitman from Mexico to kill his mother. When officers arrived, Colette told them she did not believe the threat was serious and Blake was not taken into custody. Erica shares how in the final days both she and her mother Colette were hopeful that despite the recent events, solutions could be found.
In the early morning hours of April 19, Blake is believed to have started fire in the house he shared with his mother. He quickly left, heading for Mexico. Colette died.
Erica goes into great detail with McKenna about Blake reaction to hearing their mother had died in a fire. His arrest and subsequent return to Canada. She also shares her conflicting emotions. Despite her anger at his reaction and indifference, Erica says that she has more of a big-sister, parental kind of love. “ The unconditional part of it is pretty amazing.”
When the trial started, the judge ordered Blake be moved to the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital at Colony Farm in Coquitlam, where he will likely stay following the court verdict.
Erica asks many questions and has few answers about what led her brother to burn down their home and what wasn’t done that could have stopped him.
- The mental health warrant that was drawn up the week of the fire yet was not executed.
- Despite a death threat, police did not take Blake into custody.
- Why her mother’s request for supportive housing was ignored, forcing Blake back into her care when the family believed he should have been in a hospital setting.
In my opinion, Gary McKenna has done an exceptional job with this story. His portrayal of Blake Salemink as both a perpetrator, and a victim is well balanced. The emotional journey of a family dealing with mental illness is realistic and heart wrenching. Even when dealing with the obvious failures of the system to intervene, McKenna seems to have provided a sense of the futility that must be felt by mental health providers.
“I think back at what could have been done differently and I still don’t have the answer,” Erica said. “I just don’t know”.