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A sweet boy’s spiral, a mother’s life lost

Colette, Blake and Erica in a family photo taken in 2007. - TRI-CITY NEWS FILE PHOTO
Colette, Blake and Erica in a family photo taken in 2007.
— image credit: TRI-CITY NEWS FILE PHOTO

Last month, Blake Salemink was found not criminally responsible, by reason of mental disorder, of manslaughter in the death of his mother, Colette. She died in a fire he set in their Coquitlam home in April 2010. Judge Paul Williamson ordered that Salemink go before the B.C. Review Board, where he will be assessed, before beginning treatment at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital at Colony Farm.

 

At Royal Columbian Hospital in 2004, Erica Salemink’s suspicions about her brother are confirmed.

Blake sits in a seclusion room, watched by a security guard, and she is told her younger sibling is suffering from a mental disorder and needs to be kept under observation for several days.

She walks into the room, where Blake sits on the floor, eating. They talk for a few moments until, suddenly, in a jerking motion, he drops his food.

The guard quickly reacts, believing Blake intends to harm his sister. But Erica waves the man away, assuring him she is not in any danger.

“My brother would never hurt me,” she says.

 

A SWEETHEART

As a youngster, Erica Salemink recalls, her brother was a sweetheart. Ten years her junior, he would draw pictures, adding inscriptions telling her how much he cared about her. “Best sister in the universe” is written across the bottom of one of the more brightly coloured pieces, which Erica has framed and plans to hang on the wall of the Port Coquitlam home she recently purchased with her husband. The couple are expecting their first child together this fall.

Blake was just a teenager when Erica first saw signs that things were not all right with her younger sibling.

The quiet youth who previously had a “go-with-the-flow” attitude disappeared, replaced by a teen who would argue with everyone over everything.

Erica hoped she was just witnessing a kid acting out but she recalled one moment in which she could see in his eyes that something was seriously wrong.

“Afterwards, someone told me there is something with the dilation of the pupils,” she said. “I looked at him and started crying and I said, ‘He has a mental illness.’”

In the week leading up to Blake’s first stay at Royal Columbian Hospital, Erica was no longer able to make excuses for her brother’s increasingly strange behaviour. He would speak long sentences of gibberish and respond to comments with words that did not make sense.

Blake went to school that week but when teachers found him wandering the parking lot in an agitated state, they drove him to Royal Columbian. There, he was handcuffed to a bed and placed in a padded room for several days before he was assessed and sent for what was to be the first of many stays at Riverview Hospital.

 

PEACE, PROBLEMS

For a while, things appeared to be OK.

Despite his troubles, Blake managed to finish high school and, in 2005, attended cooking school at Malaspina College (today known as Vancouver Island University). The family believed that being away from home might help Blake gain some independence and, as he completed the one-year program, he began to take an interest in travelling.

But the positive feelings would not last.

In 2007, Erica received a call from a family Blake was staying with in Mexico City. She learned that her brother had smashed a car and had been acting erratically.

“You need to come get him,” someone on the other end of the phone said to her in broken English.

Erica boarded a plane but upon her arrival, she was unable to convince her brother to come home. Then, during a heated argument, Blake punched her.

“I was in shock,” she said. “We ended up having to leave him there. You can’t make someone get on a plane.”

Blake was eventually taken to a hospital in Mexico, where he was treated for psychosis, and escorted back to Canada by authorities.

In the years that followed, Blake had several stays at Riverview Hospital, spending anywhere from a month to two months at the facility.

“They don’t keep you until you are well,” Erica said. “They keep you until they think you have the medication sorted out... They take you to a certain level and that is when they let you out.”

When Blake was diligently taking his medication, she said he could once again be sweet, like the boy who used to draw her pictures. During those periods, it was difficult to talk to him about his mental problems, she said, because the family was so relieved he was feeling better.

But when he wasn’t following his regimen, he could be mean and difficult to deal with, and would often lash out at his family.

By the spring of 2010, fights between Blake and his mom became common, and Coquitlam RCMP officers were routinely called to Colette’s Burian Drive home to intervene in disputes.

On April 13 of that year, a mental health warrant was drawn up that could have put Blake, who was still on extended stay from Riverview, back in the hospital. But when he met with his caseworker two days later, the warrant was not executed, despite the fact he appeared giddy and admitted to having auditory hallucinations. He said he heard a song that sounded like it was speaking to him, the court would later be told, but he knew the voices were not real.

After the meeting, Blake was allowed to return home.

On April 17, police were again called after Blake threatened to hire a hit man from Mexico to kill his mother. When officers arrived, Colette told them she did not believe the threat was serious and Blake was not taken into custody.

Despite all the problems, however, Erica said her mom seemed to be feeling better when they spoke on the phone the next day. Blake had asked Erica to accompany him to a doctor’s appointment that week and Colette was formulating a plan to limit the amount of time he could spend at the house.

“She felt good and I felt good,” Erica said. “We said, ‘It was a mess of a weekend but we will get this sorted out.’

“There just wasn’t enough time.”

On the day Erica and Colette spoke on the phone, Blake bought a bus ticket to Tijuana, Mexico.

In the early morning hours of April 19, he is believed to have piled some old recipes on the floor of a downstairs room and set them on fire.

He quickly left the property in a taxi cab, crossed the U.S. border and began to make his way south.

 

FAMILY TIES

“Blake, there’s been a fire.”

Erica remembers talking to her brother on a cellphone standing outside the family’s home a few hours later as firefighters were finishing knocking down the blaze.

“Were you cooking last night?,” she asked.

“No. Is mom OK?”

“No,” she replied.

Then he asked about his inheritance, his voice cool and emotionless.

“I was even shielding him at that time,” Erica said. “Anyone who hears that is obviously going to think he did it. But I was thinking, who with a sane mind was really going to say, ‘Oh, that is too bad. What about my inheritance?’”

The inheritance is one of Blake’s many fixations and is a part of his mental illness, Erica said. He still talks about it, which infuriates his sister, who is reeling from the loss of her mother.

She said she wants to see remorse and contrition. She wants him to be ashamed and show compassion. Given his mental condition, however, Erica does not know if he fully understands what he has done.

And despite her grief, her anger and frustration, pulling away from her brother is difficult.

“Because of our age gap, I have more of a big-sister, parental kind of love,” she said. “The unconditional part of it is pretty amazing.”

Even now.

When she is fed up with her brother’s calls, she tries to ignore him. But when the voice on the other end of the phone sounds drugged and she knows he has spent time in the isolation room at the hospital, she can’t help but feel bad.

“You feel horrible that anyone has to do that,” she said. “All he has to do is say, ‘Erica, can you come visit me’ and then I melt.”

 

‘I DON’T KNOW’

Blake was arrested in Salem, Ore., on the afternoon of April 19. He was taken into custody and held at an American hospital before being turned over to Canadian authorities.

Upon his return home, he was sent to Port Coquitlam’s North Fraser Pre-trial Centre, a provincial jail, where his condition severely deteriorated, according to Erica.

When the trial started, the judge ordered Blake be moved to the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital at Colony Farm in Coquitlam, where he will likely stay following the court verdict.

While his immediate future is settled — custody, treatment — more than two years after her mother’s death, Erica still has many questions and few answers about what led her brother to burn down their home and what wasn’t done that could have stopped him.

She wonders why the mental health warrant that was drawn up the week of the fire was not executed.

She asks why police would not take Blake into custody, even after he threatened to kill his mother.

She also wonders why her mother’s request for supportive housing was ignored, forcing Blake back into her care when the family believed he should have been in a hospital setting.

“I think back at what could have been done differently and I still don’t have the answer,” she said. “I just don’t know.

“Sometimes, when bad things happen, you think, ‘If only I had done this, if only I had done that.’ I don’t even think about those things. I just don’t know.”

• Requests for information from the Provincial Health Services Authority were not returned by deadline. A spokesperson for PHSA said the organization does not comment on specific patients, due to privacy issues.

gmckenna@tricitynews.com

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