Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tormented by mental illness

In 2004, Vincent Li began to hear voices and then descended into grip of schizophrenia

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Monster or misfit?

Thanks to testimony and court documents filed this week, we know more about Vincent Li than we did before. But do we really know who he is and why he killed Tim McLean?

A judge will decide today whether Li can be held criminally responsible for McLean's death last summer on a Greyhound bus.

Li is a man who was notable only for his lack of notoriety, who struggled to make a new life for himself and his wife in Canada, and whose descent into mental illness was so gradual, few could comprehend what was happening. And fewer still could believe what ultimately happened.

* * *

Li was born April 30, 1968 in Dandong City, in northeastern China. His father was a custodian and his mother a math teacher. He has an older brother and a younger sister and his family life presents as unremarkable: No history of abuse, chronic illness or dysfunction. Save for one maternal uncle, there was no history of mental illness.

Li was born one month premature but given the rustic Chinese health-care system, he was not incubated. His family reported he was "very fragile," and sickly until his early teens. His father, Hongwen Li, told one of the psychiatrists who assessed his son, that Li was about two years late in developmental milestones such as talking and walking. As a result, he started school at age nine, two years later than normal China.

Even so, he did well in high school, and went on to study automotive engineering in central China. He graduated with a four-year bachelor of science degree. He went to work in a factory in Beijing, where he met a woman he would later marry. Li and the woman, known in court documents as Ana, were married in June 1995.

In an interview with Ontario psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Rootenberg, Ana said life in China was simple: "Going to work, eating and sleeping, mostly just working." Both his family and his ex-wife said Li displayed no clear signs of mental illness. His father reported he was restless, "always moving around." His wife said he was "stubborn and nervous." Everyone said Li never demonstrated any violent tendencies, or problems with alcohol or drug abuse.

The couple immigrated to Canada in 2001. Li and Ana's new life in Canada was typical of the kind of experience many immigrants face -- over-educated and under-employed. Despite having a post-secondary education, Li was never able to find more than menial jobs. Over a four-year period, Li worked at a McDonald's restaurant, then at a warehouse as a general labourer. He would eventually take a position as a custodian at Grant Memorial Baptist Church, where he also worshipped.

In 2004, Li's life began to take a turn for the worse. Li told psychiatrists he began to hear voices. Ana noted that in the summer of 2004, Li would go several days without sleep or food. "He cried a lot and told me he saw God and I thought he was so tired so I bought him sleeping pills from Shoppers Drug Mart but that didn't work too well."

Ana said Li admitted he was hearing voices. Li recalled that in those early days of his illness, the voices provided him with "direction and guidance." Friends urged her to get Li to a doctor as soon as possible but Ana said Li was stubborn and fearful of Western medicine. "When he doesn't agree with people, he doesn't listen, even to me, and I'm important in his life."

Stress on the marriage culminated in the spring of 2005 and the couple separated in March. Shortly after that event, Li moved to Thompson.

Li would later claim that he left for the north because he wanted to buy land, but upon arriving in Thompson, he realized he had no money and took a job. Over the next four months, he worked at the Thompson Wal-Mart performing overnight maintenance.

He returned to Winnipeg in June 2005, where he pumped gas for Domo and worked part time at Tim Hortons. It was during this period that he suffered his first mental breakdown.

In September 2005, again without warning, Li set off for Toronto. "I thought it would be easy to find a job in Toronto," Li recalled. "I failed to find a job, then God's voice told me to go back to Winnipeg. I'm not sure if God's voice told me to walk back, so I started walking on the highway; I threw out my luggage after God told me to do that."

Ana would receive a call from police in September 2005 indicating that Li had been picked up walking along Highway 427 north of Toronto, completely disoriented and appearing as if he had not eaten or slept in several days. He was taken to a psychiatric facility in west Toronto. Doctors suggested Li remain in the facility for at least a month for a full psychiatric assessment.

The circumstances surrounding Li's release from the Toronto hospital are unclear. Li claimed he "escaped" and there is no discharge note on his chart. It is now believed he refused treatment and left against the advice of his doctor. He was prescribed medication for his condition, but he was never formally diagnosed with a mental disorder.

Upon his return from Toronto, Ana said Li "looked horrible, so skinny, like a homeless person." Li asked Ana to buy him a one-way ticket to China.

In China, Li's parents sent him to a physician who, his father recalled, declared that he was fit. Despite this, his father indicated Li was irritable and combative. Li could not find steady work in China because it seemed he could not do any one job for more than a few days. Ana would rejoin Li in China for a short time, but only to divorce him. She later returned to Canada.

Li would return to Canada about one month after his wife, taking up residence in Toronto. Ana received several emotional calls from her ex-husband, in which he expressed great sadness at the dissolution of their marriage. He also complained he couldn't find work. She invited him to live with her, which he did.

Less than a year later, however, Li moved to Edmonton. Ana told psychiatrists that several weeks after he went West, she learned he had not been able to find a job and had been living in his car. She sent him money and then moved to be with him in July 2007. During this period, Ana said Li seemed reasonably happy, working at Wal-Mart and delivering newspapers.

In the summer of 2008, his state of mind rapidly deteriorated. Li purchased a plane ticket and returned to China to see his family but stayed only one day. Li's father said his son claimed to be visiting to "find a wife."

Back in Edmonton, Li continued his descent into mental anguish. In late July 2008, returning home from a graveyard shift, Ana found a note from Li: "Don't look for me. I wish you were happy." Ana was not initially worried. "When he felt stressed, he went somewhere for a few days and then came back."

Two days later, Li called Ana to tell her he was leaving again, which angered her. "I thought we were a couple, the most important people in each other's lives, and even though I'm also not a people person, I opened up to him and didn't have any secrets from him, but he didn't open up to me and I was so mad and thought, 'why do I always have to be here waiting for you?' I asked him what he wanted and he said he'd call me after he settled down, nothing else."

Later that morning, Ana went to the parking lot of her apartment building and saw Li's car. "I panicked, because he loves his car and always took it with him when he went away for a few days, so I had a bad feeling and thought something would happen."

On July 30, Ana was contacted by the RCMP just before her night shift started and told that Li had been arrested in Manitoba.

 * * *

 The first time Dr. Stanley Yaren met Vince Li in August 2008, no words were spoken. Li was heavily medicated and still adjusting to his new surroundings at the Health Science Centre's psychiatric unit. Notes from that first meeting indicate that Yaren, attempting to open the lines of communication, gave Li a pad of paper and a pencil. Li eventually wrote a note to the psychiatrist:

"God will kill me."

Notes from Yaren's sessions with Li show a man still firmly in the grasp of his mental illness. Li described how God had talked to him and indeed, how God talked to him even with Yaren in the room. Several times, Li became animated at the thought that perhaps Yaren could hear the same voices.

There were revelations: Li nearly attacked a man in Erickson the day before he killed McLean. The man had been driving around the bus station, and God told Li the man had come to kill him. He pulled out his knife in case the man tried to enter the bus station. The truck drove off.

Li also revealed his greatest concern is that he disobeyed direct orders from God. It was God who told him to leave Edmonton and stop in Erickson to live "forever." But the same voice also warned him the man in the truck was going to kill him. Against God's advice, he left Erickson.

It was on this leg of the Greyhound bus trip that the voices in Vince Li's head began to tear him apart. God was angry that he had not remained in Erickson, and was warning him that another man, Tim McLean, was going to kill him.

"It's not my kill," Li recalled. "God kill him. God choose me to kill him. God angry at me because God asked me to stay in Erickson forever. God choose my hand to kill, I truly believe that."

Later, Li claimed there were good gods and evil gods and it was the latter who commanded him to kill McLean, who was also a threat. It was kill or be killed, according to the God talking to Li, although he now acknowledged there were good and evil gods in his head.

"I don't think about God every day," Li told Rootenberg in one of their final sessions. "But sometimes I ask God why he picked me to do these things. I'm an average person. I still trust God. God is 90 to 99 per cent good."

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

 

 

Life of Vincent Li

Born in Dandong, China on April 30, 1968.

Graduated from the University of Wuhan Institute of Technology with a bachelor of science (computers) in 1992.

Immigrated to Canada in 2001 with his wife, Anna.

Graduated from CDI College (computer programming) in 2002.

Became a Canadian citizen in 2005.

Lived in Winnipeg until 2006, then moved to Edmonton.

Divorced his wife in 2006, but the couple continued to live together at times.

Was unable to find employment in his chosen career field.

Held a number of menial jobs in Canada, including church caretaker, assistant manager at McDonald's, sales assistant in the parts department at Canadian Tire and newspaper carrier for the Edmonton Journal.

Described by several co-workers as a devoted employee, but somewhat "unusual."

His ex-wife described episodes of bizarre behaviour, including sudden and unexplained absences, bus trips to unusual locations with no apparent purpose, and rambling talk.

Has no criminal record in China or Canada.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 5, 2009 A3

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