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”.