Andy Fiore, an award-winning documentary filmmaker with paranoid schizophrenia, is threatening to sue London Drugs after he was wrongly accused of theft last week.
Fiore won B.C.'s Courage to Come Back award last year, in recognition of his courage in overcoming a heroin addiction on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, before going on to successfully manage his mental illness and become a documentary filmmaker.
But when he tried to pay for food at the London Drugs store on East Hastings Street at Penticton Street last Wednesday, he says the clerk accused him of stealing cigarettes from there a few days earlier.
"It's ridiculous. I'm there, I've been there so many times. There's no excuse for that person mistaking me for the cigarette thief," said Fiore, who said the clerk didn't even look him in the eye.
Fiore, who doesn't smoke and has been clean for 10 years, said the clerk then called the store manager, who made no effort to discuss the matter with him and, according to Fiore, circled him "like a shark" while calling the police.
'I feel scared, paranoid. What else is going to happen to me?'—Andy Fiore, wrongly accused of theft at London Drugs
"It's such a horrifying experience, because in the throes of my illness, that's one of the hallmark symptoms, is that you think people are following you or looking at you or persecuting you," said Fiore.
Fiore said the incident triggered a relapse of his mental illness, which had been tightly controlled and medicated. His anger boiled over and he lost control, swore at staff, punched a computer monitor and left.
"I'm not proud of the way I handled it, but it's been a really tough go for me these past six months," said Fiore, who had seen a film project fall through and whose recent dental work had made it painful to speak.
His partner, Sue Pitura, later called the store and police about the incident, and police interviewed him at his home. But Fiore said that when he decided to go back to the store to demand an apology, police had barricaded his driveway.
"I had to get by them, and then on my way to London Drugs, I noticed a different cop car was following me," he said, "The cop car intercepted me and pulled me over."
Fiore was arrested, handcuffed and is now facing a charge of uttering a threat. He said the whole incident has made him relapse and he feels mistreated.
"I was treated like a criminal. I felt they treated me like an animal. I feel that I didn't deserve that kind of treatment and now … I feel scared, paranoid. What else is going to happen to me?"
London Drugs: It was a terrible mistake
London Drugs general manager for loss prevention Tony Hunt said he has apologized for the wrongful accusation on the phone and in person on Saturday, when he visited Fiore's home. However, Fiore declined his offer of three bags of free groceries.
"Clearly we insulted him and we wrongfully accused him of stealing," said Hunt. "It was a terrible mistake on behalf of our staff member who didn't follow our processes."
According to Hunt, the London Drugs protocol dictates that staff members relay their suspicions to the security team or manager tactfully and not to accuse customers outright.
"The staff member realized they made a mistake straightaway and feels terrible about it," he said.
Hunt said the worker is suspended while the incident is being investigated, and the company will be looking further at its staff training.
"We'll revisit with the rest of our staff and make sure that we review the training with them and ensure everyone understands the expectations."
Hunt said he understands Fiore's mental health issues make things especially tough for him and that he would be happy to discuss the matter further with him.
'He's not the same person'
Pitura said it's been devastating to watch Fiore try to deal with the incident.
"He's not the same person.… it's heartbreaking really," she said. "It's moment by moment to see where he's going to be in his mind."
Pitura said Fiore had made a lot of progress in the seven years she has known him but it will take a lot of therapy to help him heal.
"The way his mind works, he cannot just let something go … it's relived over and over again. It's like a broken record, and that can be maddening for anyone."
Pitura said Fiore deserves to be treated with respect, and the person responsible for the incident should be held accountable and apologize personally to him.
For his part, Fiore said he's ashamed of the way he reacted, but London Drugs' apology and their offer to pay for his groceries, abandoned during the incident, isn’t good enough.
"I wish I was more in control and I wish it hadn't happened … but I just don't feel like the same person right now," he said.
"What they did was not just wrong, but it put my life in turmoil. I wouldn't wish this on anybody, not even my worst enemy."
Fiore said he had previously been symptom-free for a long time, but has had to increase his medication and is constantly paranoid.
"This one incident has just shattered all of that. I just don't know what's going to happen," he said.
Fiore said his relapse has left him unable to work, putting his career in jeopardy, and he wants London Drugs to compensate him for the financial loss.
"I hope that they can realize what they've done to me. I hope they could properly apologize.… My whole future gone, because of one stupid incident."