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Inside the Little-Known Mental Health Program that Treated Vince Li

In 2008, Vince Li killed and cannibalized Tim McLean on a Greyhound bus. In 2017, now known as Will Baker, he was granted full release.

On a warm July day in 2008, Vince Li says he heard the voice of God.

Li—now known as Will Baker—was sitting on a bus making a 14-hour journey from Edmonton to Winnipeg when the voices came for him. A few seats away from him sat the sleeping figure of a young carnival worker named Tim McLean who was on his way home to Manitoba.

While Baker sat there the voices in his head continued to speak, telling him that McLean was the man he must kill. Baker, following these orders, shuffled over to sit next to McLean's sleeping frame and pulled out a large knife.

What happened next was one of the most horrific Canadian crimes of the last decade.

Now, nine years after Baker killed, dismembered, and cannibalized McLean on that Greyhound bus outside of  Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, he has been granted full release. Baker at the time was suffering from undiagnosed schizophrenia and plead not criminally responsible to the charges.

The court accepted his plea and he was sent to the Selkirk Mental Health Centre to start what would be nine years of treatment. Over time, Li was granted more and more freedom as the treatment progressed, this culminated in his full release on Feb. 10. Prior to his full release, Baker was living on his own but supervised when he took his schizophrenia medication. With the full release, that supervision has been lifted.

Will Baker, formerly Vince Li, pictured in Portage La Prairie on August 5, 2008. Via John Woods/The Canadian Press.

In their written decision the Manitoba Criminal Code Review Board, who were in charge of this decision, wrote that they had considered all the evidence and testimony carefully and trust fully that Baker will continue to take the medication that holds the voices at bay.

In their decision the review board said they are "of the opinion that the weight of the evidence does not substantiate that Mr. Baker poses a significant threat to the safety of the public."

It's a decision that, while may have infuriated a large portion of the public, has the support of many who work in the mental health field.

"From what we can see from this case, is that he does have one of those illnesses that is fully treatment responsive so that the risk goes away when he receives treatment,"  Dr. Alexander Simpson, the chief of forensic psychiatry at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, explained to VICE. "Despite the horrendous nature of what he has done, his ongoing risk to the public as seen by the review board is seen as being low."

The Not Criminally Responsible (NCR) program, which Baker went through, is not one that's well known by the Canadian public, unlike the more straightforward justice system for non-mentally ill patients. While each case is treated differently, in general, the NCR program is a long, carefully thought-out process, which begins with the acute treatment of the illness while the trial is still ongoing.

"Then there is a long and careful process of understanding what occurred and why," said Simpson. "This is not simply understanding that one becomes unwell, but the particular way in which illness manifests in this person that gives rise of this very particular risk occurring and what are the things in life that have given rise to that situation."

"It's a complex and nuanced process," he added, "working at many levels with the person, observed by multiple people in multiple ways and multiple settings and putting all of that together over years is the process for recovery in something like this."

The program looks at broader issues in the offender's life like the nature of someone's lifestyle, their attitudes towards the illness, and their stability to live well and safely. The patient will be treated by psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists and social workers slowly and progressively. Over time the patient, if responding well, will slowly be allowed more freedom.

Perhaps the thing that Canadians know least about in the process is the slow, careful, and complex moral journey that comes with rehabilitation.

"Rehabilitation involves not simply getting well and understanding your illness, but it's a moral journey of one's own accountability of wellness, that 'I cannot live my life ever again in a way that gives rise to risk occurring to others,'" said Simpson.

The CEO of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada, Chris Summerville, has worked with Baker for the majority of his treatment. Summerville told the CBC he is confident that Baker will remain on his medication and engaged in his treatment.  

"We're confident he is going to stay engaged," said Summerville. "He has expressed a desire to stay engaged with his doctor, with me and with some other mental health organizations."

Many, including McLean's family members, have spoken out against his release. On Facebook McLean's mother released a statement asking people to contact elected officials and shared a petition to overturn Backer's release.

"How do I feel? I feel that a great injustice has occurred. I feel most people agree. I'm grateful that Timothy's death has shed light on the issue," she wrote.

"It's time for all people to take care of each other or what kind of a world are we leaving for our children. I'm one voice, I used it, please use yours."

In the political sphere, Li's treatment and McLean's death have become tokens for a cheap pop from a party's base—Rona Ambrose, the interim leader of the federal Conservative party, in particular, has been very vocal on Baker.

"In 2008, Tim McLean was brutally murdered by Vincent Li on a Greyhound Bus. He is now free with an absolute discharge," reads a Facebook post by Ambrose. "Tim's mother has to live with this hell for the rest of her life and that just doesn't seem right".

The severity of someone's crime while suffering from mental illness is not a direct correlation to the severity of the ongoing risk. While that correlation may be true for non-mentally ill offenders, it's not the case for those who offend on the basis of mental illness. That said, Simpson said he sympathizes those who oppose the release of Baker.

"When something is as horrendous as his offence was, understandably people will struggle to understand how and why somebody like that will truly recover," he said. "The hideousness of what they did colours people's judgement going forward."

"It's also hard to give up that punishment paradigm from the accountability paradigm and I think that's what some commentators and people experience from it. I don't agree with it but it's an understandable reaction to the situation."

Furthermore, the way the NCR program handles victims is not ideal. The formal outlet that the victims have is through a victim impact statement and all other participation is voluntary.

"Somehow the NCR process needs to be informed by, and offer an ability for, the victims to have a voice and involvement that is more effective than the victim impact statement process that exists at the moment," said Simpson.

Tim McLean. Photo via MySpace

Simpson says that the process lacks in many ways and at times can leave the victims fearful and could benefit from a directional move towards restorative justice—a justice theory that focuses on cooperation from all impacted and works to rebuild what has been broken by the criminal act. This would increase drastically the inclusion of the victims in the process. The system is far from perfect, in general many aspects of the way we deal with and treat mental health in Canada is lacking drastically.

"The mental health system is under-resourced here and in Vincent Li's case, and many others, people who commit criminal acts while mentally ill have often been failed by the general health system and better care earlier has to be the long-term answer to reduce the number of these cases," said Simpson.

In the end, while Will Baker's treatment and release may seem to be the right decision, it's hard to view this in any way as a "good thing" or even a "success" because of the positive connotations that come with the words.

It cannot be forgotten that while Baker was let down by Canada's mental health system, in a far larger way, so was Tim McLean.

Lead Image: The bus on which Vince Li attacked and dismembered fellow passenger Tim McLean. Via The Canadian Press/John Woods

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