Vince Li, in 2008. Photo via Flickr user httpoldmaisonblogspotcom.
Anne Marie Hagan is the last person you’d expect to be advocating for the release of Vince Li—the man who decapitated his seatmate on a Greyhound bus in Winnipeg.
It was a sunny Sunday afternoon in 1979 when Ron Ryan, Anne Marie’s next-door-neighbor, barged into her family home in St John’s, Newfoundland and viciously murdered her father, Thomas, delivering 16 blows with an axe. Like Vince Li, Ryan was suffering from a schizophrenic episode, he heard the voice of his dead mother telling him to do it.
Anne Marie, who was 19 at the time, saw the whole thing: the axe marks on both floor and ceiling, and her father’s hand separating from his arm when she knelt beside him on the floor, trying to take his pulse after Ryan ran away.
Like Vince Li, Ryan was found not guilty, by reason of insanity, and he stayed locked in a psychiatric facility until Anne Marie and her family met with him in June 1996.
In spite of what she saw and lived through, Anne Marie came to want one thing for her father’s killer, and now, for Vince Li, too: a second chance. She sees in her father’s story, and now that of Tim McLean, something bright: an opportunity for Canadians to learn about mental illness and the potential for those who suffer from it to recover. Really, she’s one of few anti-hate, "let’s-not-discriminate" voices that are drowning in the company of those who want Vince Li, the greyhound bus beheader/cannibal, to stay locked up forever.
When I wrote about Vince Li’s upcoming release, hundreds of readers’ comments poured in on the original VICE story and our post about it on VICE’s Facebook page. They ranged from “deport this fucking lunatic,” to “just shoot him in the head!” There were, of course, comments expressing that we, the public, are gravely misinformed about mental illness, but the aforementioned ‘get rid of him’ types seemed to outnumber the others. And that’s the trend when it comes to the Vince Li story on every comment section from the Winnipeg Free Press to The Huffington Post.
While politicians have not outright said we should send Vince Li back to China (probably because he’s been a citizen since 2006) or keep him locked up forever and beyond in Canada, the recent scuffle between the federal government and the province of Manitoba suggests some are not happy with the idea of reintegrating him into society. Manitoba MP Shelly Glover called the decision to allow Vince Li unescorted passes to the Selkirk, Manitoba community “wrong” in this statement.
At the heart of this polarizing issue is the idea of people with mental illness, like Vince Li, being not criminally responsible (NCR) for their actions. Right now, the Conservative government is trying to make it tougher for people with mental illness to be released from psychiatric care through the Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act. The Harper government introduced the act in February 2013 under the name Bill C-54. It passed in the House of Commons in June, and was reinstated as Bill C-14 last November. The bill is now under review in the Senate.
Anne Marie is opposing the Bill, and the changes it will create in the Criminal Code. She says it’s a “sneaky” way for policy makers to keep the mentally-ill-turned-mentally-well locked up for as long as possible (more on that later).
I called up Anne Marie to talk about Vince Li, how she ever found it possible to forgive the man who murdered her father, and what we can learn from her experience. Here’s what she had to say.
VICE: In a column published in the King’s County Register/Advertiser, you are quoted as saying “I was absolutely determined that this man [Ron Ryan] would never, ever regain his freedom.” What did Ryan’s imprisonment mean to you when you felt that way?
Anne Marie Hagan: In 1979, I had no concept of violence. I felt protected in the world. If he got out, to me what they were saying was that what happened to us didn’t count. My father didn’t count.
There has been a lot of resistance to the news of Vince Li getting released. One point that comes up is that Li’s been in the hospital for only six years. What are your thoughts on that, considering Ron Ryan was in hospital for almost 17 years?
You can’t compare them in terms of length of time. It depends on how the patient responds to treatment and medication. Back in 1979 when Mr. Ryan went in, the medications weren’t what they are now. Today they work far better at treating the symptoms of schizophrenia.
When the psychiatrists, in Mr. Li’s case, went to the Manitoba Board of Review and recommended more freedom, what everybody seems to forget is he’s been observed now by psychiatrists for almost six years. When a psychiatrist goes to these review boards and recommends more freedom, that doesn’t happen lightly. Think of it another way: This is a career-ender for a doctor. When you’re the psychiatrist who’s recommending that Vince Li get more freedom, you can’t afford to be wrong.
I became educated about schizophrenia and the fact that it’s a completely treatable condition; that recovery is possible and happens to all kinds of people. We all know people who suffer from schizophrenia, we just don’t know who they are. With the proper treatment and medication, they’re functioning well in society.
Another point of concern when it comes to Li’s release is possible recidivism. Did you worry about Ron Ryan hurting someone else after he was released?
Before I was educated about schizophrenia, yes.
You see, part of it, and I hear some of this through some of Tim McLean’s mother’s comments, is being concerned that the person found NCR will hurt someone else. As a victim, I felt that was my responsibility; I knew what Ron Ryan was really capable of so I had to work to make sure that he stayed locked up. That was the only way to be certain he wouldn’t do it again. The recidivism rate is less than eight percent for people who are found not criminally responsible. We can’t lock people up indefinitely on “maybe.” This is Canada.
What’s happened with the minister of public safety, Steven Blaney, who was unhappy with the decision and said it was an insult to the family and Tim McLean, well how does Blaney know? What are his qualifications? How much time did he spend interviewing Mr. Li? All these people are making this political. It’s cruel. They’re missing the opportunity to remind Canadians that mental illness is treatable. They’re missing the opportunity to point out that this happened as a result of an illness. I didn’t hear all these politicians making comments when Karla Homolka was released. I didn’t hear them saying “be careful, other young kids could be at risk.” Now I’m not saying she shouldn’t have gotten out, I’m saying you didn’t get the same reaction.
Making this issue a political football is contributing to public fear. And the way I see it, it puts Mr. Li more at risk for physical harm when he’s out.
What happened with Ron Ryan was that, in getting out, he was really concerned. He wanted to go to his doctor and take his medication because he knew what was possible if things went wrong. He’s been out for almost 18 years. He’s a model citizen, he’s rebuilt his life, he works, and he does post-secondary education. He’s a law-abiding, productive member of society.
Do you keep in touch with him?
I haven’t talked to him in about two years. Every time he would see me he would say “I’m so sorry,” and I’d always say “Ron, we forgive you. You have to forgive yourself.”
A screenshot of Anne Marie Hagan's website.
Do you think people are right to be concerned about Vince Li reoffending? Why or why not?
Sure, it’s natural. First of all, this crime was so brutal and there were witnesses. That makes the situation more sensational. But what the concern shows is a lack of understanding about mental illness.
Take us back to how you came to the decision to forgive Ron Ryan. What was that process like?
To begin, I was absolutely furious that Mr. Ryan had the comfort of a hospital. I knew that in time, he would respond to the medication. I knew eventually they would try to release him. The thing was, I had to be ready. I was also on high alert because it’s always on your mind. It becomes the filter through which you see the world. I became a very angry, nasty, negative person. Nobody else’s pain mattered; if your suffering did not involve an axe it was inferior to mine.
I get a call that they’re going to release him. I called a family friend, a lawyer, within two days I had a letter written to the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. Two days after that I get a call from a justice official. So in an attempt to put out a fire, if you like, the justice official asked “Would you like to meet with Ron and his doctor?” Well, I didn’t... but it was the perfect opportunity to sabotage his release.
My mother was never against Ron, by the way. In the driveway the day he killed my father, as we were waiting for the ambulance, she said, "Poor Ronnie. He’s somebody’s child.” As the years went by, I thought she was too weak to hate. My sisters were against him, but not the way I was. My intention was to incite public fear, just what’s happening out in Manitoba with the Vince Li case.
My mother, my two sisters, and I met Ron Ryan on June 7, ’96. I had become an aunt, and I had two nieces. Emily had just turned four the week before. I lived nearby Emily, and I’ve never had children, so Emily and I were close. She was an old soul.
I’m in the meeting, at the end of the table, and I’ve got the autopsy report by my left hand. I absolutely believed Mr. Ryan would not remember any of the incident because he was so psychotic. The other thing was, I never believed that my father was afraid to die. It sounds contradictory because how can you be axed to death and not frightened to die? But my reasons were my father never cried or screamed. He had enough presence of mind as he was staggering out of the kitchen, down the hallway, to stop, look over his shoulder, and call my younger sister by name, telling me to save her.
So in the meeting, the door opens, and in Ron walks. The doctor starts to talk about how new medications were released in the early 1990s, he’s been responding well. So, then Ron starts to talk. He begins by saying “I’m very sorry. What I did to your lives was terrible. I was a very sick man.”
Then Ron starts to talk about his life. He tells us he was four when his mother died, and his memory of it was her laid out on a table in the parlor, and him and his little brother, who was three, were tickling her feet, trying to wake her up. Automatically I thought of [my niece], Emily. I started to think about how much I loved Emily. How I’d never turn my back on Emily, how I’d always stand by Emily. Then I started to think about Ron Ryan: You’re four when you lose your mother. You develop mental illness when you’re 20. You become schizophrenic, you murder someone, then he’s sitting in front of me at 47 looking for a chance. Really, it’s his first chance. He hasn’t had much of a chance in life, and who am I to take it?
I said to him, “Do you remember killing my father?” “Oh yes,” he said. “But Tom wasn’t frightened to die.” I said “why do you say that?” He said “I could tell by how he was looking at me when I was chopping him.” Right away, I understood what he was living with every day.
Tell me about the point when you actually decided to forgive him.
Ron remembered how he left my father for me to find.
My father was face up, eyes open. His neck was hanging open, there were 16 axe cuts with seven to the neck and face. I picked up his left hand to take a pulse, and the hand started to separate from his arm. There were axe marks on the floor all around him, the ceiling was covered in axe marks too, and blood.
In the meeting, Ron starts to cry, saying: “I’m to blame, I’m to blame.” I couldn’t take it anymore, and I thought of Emily. So I went around the table, hugged him, told him I forgave him.
Do you think the family of Tim McLean, Vince Li’s victim, would benefit from forgiving Li the way that you forgave Ryan?
It’s not a matter of benefit, and I’m not saying that anyone should forgive. Right now, in my experience, it’s a little early for that with regards to Tim McLean’s family. But a way that might be able to give another perspective is what if the situation were reversed? What if Tim McLean had killed Vince Li? What if Tim McLean had been suffering from schizophrenia?
Do you think Vince Li deserves the same second chance as Ron Ryan?
Absolutely. We all deserve second chances, don’t we? What are we going to do, are we going to throw everybody away? Yes, public safety is paramount. I agree. But just because Mr. Li’s crime was as brutal as it was, doesn’t mean that he’s predisposed to violence. It doesn’t mean he’s any more likely to kill again than you or I. He’s getting the help he needs. With mental illness, we stigmatize, we ridicule. We see it as a character flaw, a weakness.
Why do you think the Canadian public is so resistant to the release of Vince Li? What do you think they could learn from your experience?
I think the graphic nature of the crime and the fact that there were witnesses [contributes to the outcry]. This was like a Halloween movie, when you get a beheading and cannibalism. People need to calm down, and slow down and say, “Hang on, he’s gotten help.”
People like me have incredible power in these stories, and as we go, usually so goes the world. If I’ve forgiven Ron, and I don’t have one thing against him, it’s pretty hard for others to have it.
The McLean family, maybe with time, has a fantastic opportunity to help educate Canadians about mental illness. There’s an opportunity here for good to come of this. When I forgave Ron, I realized nothing had changed. All the time I’d been consumed with hate and revenge, my father was still dead. I see Ron as this beautiful bright spot in a midst of devastation. He’s a testament to the strength of the human spirit, having rebuilt his life. If he had continued to be detained because of my need for revenge and hatred, who was that helping?He’s proof that when a person with schizophrenia is getting the proper medication, the proper help, they can lead a productive life.
What was the public’s reaction to the release of Ron Ryan?
Very little. I don’t remember any negative reaction. In 1996, we didn’t have the mass media. I doubt it was even noted anywhere else in the country.
If Bill C-14 passes, those found by the court to be high-risk NCR could potentially have their review periods extended up to three years. Additionally, those designated high-risk NCR would be held in custody and not considered for release by a review board until that designation is revoked by the court. Why are you opposing this?
It’s a really sneaky way to delay the possible release [of those found NCR for a crime]. If you’re making progress, things are well, and you’re stable, but you’re being reviewed every three years, that means you’re going to be kept longer, even if you’re well. It’s an underhanded way that policy makers are using to do it through the back door.
Also, the designation of high-risk NCR seems to be something that will be attached to someone who is not criminally responsible for a crime of a brutal nature. Right away, they seem to be saying that if you commit a crime of a brutal nature you’re more likely to commit another crime of a brutal nature. They’re connecting the nature of the crime to the likelihood of brutal crime and that’s discrimination. They’re reinforcing the stigma of mental illness by making people unnecessarily afraid of the mentally ill. Mental illness itself is being treated as a crime.
How do you explain mental illness to those who think the Selkirk Mental Health Centre should lock Li up and throw away the key?
What we need here is education. When a person develops psychosis and their actions are affected, it doesn’t mean their brain is damaged. The [mentality that Vince Li should never get out] is an exaggeration of the way mental illness is perceived by most people in society. Vince Li needs help. He needs understanding and acceptance.
Also, the Crown, [Susan Helenchilde], did not oppose Mr. Li getting extra freedom because she was satisfied with the medical evidence that Mr. Li will not pose a risk. There was no ambiguity; the team of psychiatrists and the Crown were unanimous in their decision.
What part of mental illness do you think the public has trouble grasping?
I think they have trouble grasping a lot. The biggest problem for the public is what if Mr. Li was their brother, son, or nephew? Mental illness takes us out of our comfort zone and causes fear because the only requirement to become mentally ill is to have a brain. If you suddenly become mentally sick, unless I blame it on you, unless it’s a character flaw—that means suddenly I could become mentally sick, too.