Vince Li, soon after his arrest in 2008, via.
After sawing off a man’s head with a Rambo knife six years ago, Vince Li will soon be able to leave the psychiatric unit behind for short periods of time and take a bus around the nearby Selkirk community on solo visits.
We all remember Li as the well-documented public transport nightmare from our not too distant past: the Greyhound bus killer who murdered, decapitated and mutilated his seat mate – a sleeping 22-year-old man named Tim McLean – during a bus trip from Edmonton to Winnipeg in summer 2008. Police later discovered that Li pocketed Tim’s nose, ear and tongue. It goes without saying that the incident takes top prize for the worst things that have ever happened on Greyhound buses.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the idea that Li’s eventual reintegration will inevitably result in him leaving his meds in the dust and going on a killing spree has been dominating comment sections on many Canadian media outlets. Carol de Delley, Tim’s mum, told the Winnipeg Sun that she’s concerned of what might happen if Li chooses to stop taking his meds once he is out for good and becomes violent.
“The system will go ‘oops, this was not statistically supposed to happen. He’s been a model patient,'” de Delley said.
I called up Chris Summerville, CEO of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada, executive director of the Schizophrenia Society of Manitoba, who also considers himself a friend of Li’s. Chris conducted the only interview Vince Li himself has ever given to media. We talked about his relationship with Li, whether the general public should fear that Li will go off his meds once he’s free, and trying to explain mental illness to people who believe that if you kill someone, you should be locked up for life, regardless of mental health issues.
VICE: Describe your relationship to Vince Li.
Chris Summerville: It’s been a relationship of rapport and developing a friendship, providing self-help services to him, peer support services and helping him understand his mental illness. Basically, being a non-therapeutic person for him. Everybody’s asking him therapeutic questions, he needs somebody that can just talk to him as a personal one-on-one.
Vince Li’s psychiatrist from the Selkirk Mental Health Centre, Dr. Steven Kremer, says Li runs a low risk of reoffending once back in the community. What does that mean?
It means the psychiatrist does risk assessment. What they evaluate is whether or not he has insight into his illness. And he does have insight into his illness. They also evaluate whether he is compliant with his medication and understands the need to take the medication, which he is and does. Also, [assessing whether] he has any addiction problems, which he doesn’t. Does he have any sociopathic traits? He doesn’t. He’s an ideal patient, he hasn’t had any altercations with any of the patients since he’s been [at the Selkirk Mental Health Centre] for six years, so he’s really an ideal patient.
How can psychiatrists be sure that Li will not kill again once he’s back in the community?
They do that risk assessment and they do the best they can. We know that recidivism rates are very low, and they do psychological exams. His chances of reoffending are less than one percent. On average, people who are released from the forensic unit who are found not criminally responsible (NCR), their recidivism rates are about seven and a half percent. Mr. Li’s is less than one percent. Because he’s doing so well.
When Li is reintegrated into the community, what kind of a system will be in place to ensure he is taking his meds?
He will probably be released conditionally, which means there will be conditions on his discharge. That means where to live, who to hang out with, who to meet, staying away from the victim’s family. He’ll be monitored in terms of his medication through regular appointments.
What happens if Li stops taking his medication after he’s released?
He’s learning how to monitor that. Just like how at the Schizophrenia Society of Canada we teach patients how to know when there’s warning signs, that they might be deteriorating, where there’s beginning signs of psychosis. You don’t just become psychotic in a moment, or overnight. There’s warning signs that build up to it. He will learn those warning signs, just like people who learn how to manage their chronic illnesses. People who have other chronic illnesses – Parkinson’s, epilepsy, MS – they learn their signs and symptoms. Mr. Li will learn that. He has learned that, and he’ll know when he needs to check with his doctor. He won’t be psychotic at that point, he’ll just realise he needs additional help.
Should members of his soon-to-be community be afraid of Li?
No. I don’t think people in the community should be afraid of him. I have a brother with schizophrenia, and if he was doing as well as Vince Li that’d be great [laughs].
Why has the public responded so negatively to the idea of Li’s release?
The primary reason they are up in arms about it, or alarmed about it, is because of the brutal nature of how Mr. Li killed Tim McLean. If he had just shot him, we wouldn’t even be talking. It was a unique, one-of-a-kind, first-ever-type murder in Canada, in which Li ate Tim McLean’s body parts.
Secondly, the public is concerned about his release because, well they say ‘how do you make sure, how do you guarantee, that he’ll stay on his medication?’
What does the public’s response to the idea of Li’s potential release say about how we, the public, treat people with mental illness?
It tells us that the Canadian public, number one, is not informed about the review board; what it does, and the risk assessment. [They are not informed] about the statistics about recidivism rates, that those statistics are very low.
It also tells us that many people do not believe in NCR. In other words, they don’t believe in such a designation. They believe that if you kill somebody like Tim McLean, the way that Vince Li did, that it was a criminal act and that you are criminally responsible. They don’t believe in the designation NCR because of a mental disorder. That perpetuates stigma, so it buys into people’s fears and their own social prejudice. It confirms their stigmas that they’ve seen on television or Hollywood movies, because most people portrayed as mentally ill in Hollywood movies or even children’s cartoons, most are portrayed as being violent and untreatable. People watch television and it simply confirms to them that these people are looneytoons, crazy psychos that do not recover.
On Cracked, for example, you will only see one side of the picture, oftentimes they show a sick person when they’re sickest, but they hardly ever show when a person is well.
Tim McLean’s mother, Carol de Delley, told Global News, “I don’t think it should matter whether you’re mentally ill or not mentally ill. If you kill someone you should lose your freedom, period.” How do you explain mental illness in the context of the law to people who feel that way?
You’re not going to explain mental illness to people like that, who don’t understand the science about mental illness. It’s fruitless to try to convince them.