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Violent random attack on Courtenay senior sparks call for more mental health supports

Accused found not criminially responsible, thought victim was a ‘lizard person’ because of gold purse
The 2019 attack took place in the area near 3rd Street and Menzies Avenue. Photo by Mike Chouinard

The daughter of an elderly woman attacked in broad daylight on a Courtenay street two years ago hopes the woman responsible gets the help she needs.

The incident has left Denise Henley’s mother, who already had dementia, traumatized. She is also hopeful the attacker, who was experiencing a strange psychotic episode, will get enough support to avoid doing this again.

The attack took place on Aug. 27, 2019, only weeks after a brutal attack with a machete on an elderly man was dominating headlines in the city. In that case, no one has been charged.

However, the assailant in that case was male. The woman accused of attacking Henley’s mother, now 80, was put on trial last fall in provincial court but was found not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder (NCRMD). Henley’s mother did not testify at trial.

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“She was absolutely not able to,” Henley said. “It would traumatize her.”

More recently, the NCRMD matter went before the B.C. Review Board for a determination of risk. The BCRB document that Henley received lists only her mother’s initials. As her mother has endured enough, she asked that her mother, who has a different last name, not be identified in a story.

The BCRB document notes the accused woman’s background. The Lower Mainland women, 34, had experienced mental illness, though was trained as a peer support worker in mental health. She had a long history of mental health issues and was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder in Grade 12.

She also had a tendency of not following prescriptions and also experienced substance abuse, which contributed to periods of mania. However, the document notes she had enjoyed a prolonged period of mental stability and had been able to stay employed prior to the 2019 attack. She told the BCRB she understood the importance of the medications.

“If this were the 1900s, I’d be locked away,” she was quoted as saying in the decision. “These medications allow me to live my life.”

At the time of the attack near Menzies Avenue and 3rd Street, the woman had come over to Vancouver Island for a music event but missed a dose of her medication and reported experiencing psychosis. She believed the elderly woman was disguised and was really a lizard person because of a gold purse the woman had. The attacker, who thought lizard people were attracted to gold or the colour gold, pushed the elderly woman to the ground, punched her repeatedly in the face and took the purse. The accused woman’s psychiatrist reported she was subject to grandiose delusions about saving the world and having special powers.

“It just turned out to be so bizarre, her whole story,” Henley said.

The BCRB decision notes the Crown’s position was that the accused is still a threat to public safety. Though the board’s position was that it should make an absolute discharge unless clear an accused remains a significant threat, it clarified its ongoing jurisdiction in this matter is warranted through a conditional discharge.

The decision ends with the board expressing some optimism about the accused’s “developing insight and her stated commitment to safeguard her mental health.”

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Henley, who works as a nurse, said her main reason for wanting the story out is to draw attention to the need for better mental health supports to help people like her mother’s attacker. There have been recent political moves such as the appointment of a specific mental health and addictions minister, Carolyn Bennett, in the new federal cabinet, as the issue has been increasingly complex in recent decades.

She feels the court system did its job in this case and provided some closure in letting the family learn what happened. She also wanted to acknowledge the help offered by some bystanders, especially a man in a red truck and another woman. They provided comfort and tracked down the attacker, which helped limit her mother’s injuries to a black eye.

From her own experience as a nurse, Henley knows the need for more help for people like her mother’s attacker.

“My only hope is that she’s being monitored,” she said. “We need mental health supports.”

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