Brandon police investigate overdose death at home of top bureaucrat
Christine Mitchell, 30, had lived in city manager Rod Sage's house for almost 5 years
The Brandon Police Service is investigating the sudden death this summer of a Manitoba woman who overdosed at the city manager's house.
Christine Mitchell had been living at the home of Rod Sage, the chief administrative officer for the City of Brandon, for almost five years. The 30-year-old woman died in July after taking a lethal dose of purple heroin — heroin mixed with fentanyl, carfentanil or other opioids.
Police in Brandon said they investigate all sudden deaths, and won't disclose if there are any allegations of criminal wrongdoing because the case is not yet complete.
This isn't the first time a police probe has centred around Sage's home, which is situated in a quiet neighbourhood in the southwestern Manitoba city of nearly 50,000, a CBC News investigation revealed.
Neighbours, who believe there was drug trafficking going on, say police were called last year about suspicious-looking people coming and going from Sage's house at all hours. Those worries escalated when a discarded needle was found on the street.
Neighbours saw police at the house and said they appeared to be investigating, but the "suspicious activity" continued until Mitchell died this past summer.
Neighbours also said they were concerned about a possible police coverup, because Sage isn't just the city's top bureaucrat — he is also a non-voting member of Brandon's police board.
The police chief says those concerns are unfounded.
"We investigate, and we don't take any favour of any positions," said Brandon police Chief Wayne Balcaen. "We look at each case on its own merit and allow the evidence to guide us to any charges, or where the investigation will go."
The union representing Brandon police said it brought forward concerns about Sage to the chief of police and the mayor, because known criminals were seen coming and going from the city manager's house.
"I met with [the] mayor and chief separately [at the] end of August," Brandon Police Association president Darren Creighton wrote in an email to CBC News.
"And yes, concerns were related to his positions within the city."
Sage said his position with the city has nothing to do with how the investigation is being handled.
"If criminal activities are occurring and there was illegal activities taking place … which I either supported or knew of, then I would be charged like anybody," the city chief administrative officer said.
"My position is irrelevant to the police and that's why police boards are created. So you have to trust in the process and you have to trust in the law," said Sage.
"There's rules and regulations within the law enforcement of which nobody is above."
'People would bring [drugs] by to her'
Sage said he met Mitchell about seven years ago at a Tim Hortons in Brandon.
At the time, he was a general manager at the city. She worked at a nearby hotel and lived at a motel across the street. He said at some point, Mitchell asked him for help and he offered her a place to stay.
Mitchell was 25, and was struggling with mental health issues and addiction when she moved in with Sage in fall 2014.
Sage says he not only provided her a home free of charge, he also gave her spending money for necessities such as groceries, cigarettes and toiletries.
"It's the moral dilemma that I struggled with every day in trying to help somebody with a substance use disorder and knowing that if you were to walk away from the individual, their writing for their future is pretty much on the wall," Sage said in a phone interview.
A few months into her stay, a judge ordered Mitchell to serve an 18-month conditional sentence in Sage's house for a drug-related obstruction of justice conviction, court records say.
She had to remain in the home 24 hours a day, with the exception of approved appointments or work. After her sentence was served in mid-2016, friends said her anxiety prevented her from leaving the house for well over a year before she died.
Her friend Laurissa Poets said that meant the drugs Mitchell was using had to come to Sage's home.
"She had certain people she would go to for such drugs," said Poets. "People would bring them by to her."
Police searched home for guns
Despite that, Sage said having Mitchell live in his home did not affect his position as the city's top bureaucrat and a police board member, even though officers had searched the house for guns last year.
"When the police did come to my house there was no warrant. The minute I got a phone call, I was aware of what was going on. I immediately left work and let them in the house. And then they didn't find anything," said Sage.
He said no guns were found and no charges were laid against him, so he didn't see any reason to tell the mayor or the police board about the search.
When anybody asked, 'Why would you do this?' — it's because I knew the individual. I knew who she was.- Rod Sage
"If I was the individual that had the guns, or if I was the individual that had drugs, then absolutely. But, you know, that's not the case," he said about not disclosing the police search for guns.
"I'm not responsible for other people's actions. If I was, then I would be responsible for everything that went on in the city of Brandon. Which is just not possible," he said.
"The police have to do their job … and yes, as a city manager, I'm held to a level of ethical standards that would be expected with this position," said Sage.
"At the same time, I did not condone and do not condone that activity. And, you know, Christine was well aware of that. Unfortunately given … her disease and her mental health and well-being, [she] didn't always make the best decisions."
A University of Manitoba ethicist, though, says while Sage didn't feel he was doing anything wrong, as the chief administrative officer he was obligated to disclose anything in his life that could bring the city or the police board into disrepute.
"Perception when it comes to the public trust is every bit as important as the substance of what's going on," said Neil McArthur, director of the U of M's Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics.
Police board members sign a code of ethics which bars members from "acting unlawfully and/or from engaging in conduct that would discredit or compromise the integrity of the board or the Police Service."
The rules also state that a board member "shall not exercise his or her duties" if their conduct or performance is under police investigation.
"The ethics say you have to do more than just abide by the law, and simply saying 'I haven't done anything criminal' does not imply that … you have not violated the ethical integrity that is expected of your position." said McArthur.
Made aware of situation: mayor
When Sage was promoted to city manager and became a member of the police board in November 2017, he told the mayor and police chief that a woman suffering from substance abuse disorder was living with him.
"I knew about the boarder, and that she had a past and she was an addict prior to us hiring him as the city manager," said Brandon Mayor Rick Chrest.
"He made us aware that he has a situation. He's trying to help someone that was suffering with addictions, and we would find that not to be inappropriate for our city manager to have that level of compassion for other people in our community."
Chrest said he isn't concerned about Sage's abilities or how he does his job. But he is worried the optics of the situation will sully the manager's good intentions with the public.
"This feels like its kind of backfired on him, that he was genuinely helping someone," said the mayor.
Police board chair Mark Sefton found out about the police investigation into Mitchell's death three weeks ago. He said the police chief would have informed him earlier if he needed to know.
"Regarding the allegations about Rod and the details that you've provided to me, anybody would be concerned about that," Sefton said.
"If Rod has breached the ethical guidelines then that's something that we will have to deal with as a board."
'She had a beautiful soul'
People who knew Mitchell were drawn to her humour and gentle ways, her friend said.
"She was always uplifting to me," said Poets, who said she visited Christine every day in the last year. "She was a big support for me."
"A beautiful lady, inside and out, with a genuine heart of gold and a love for helping others," said Christine's mother, Doreen Mitchell, who fondly recalled her daughter's love of writing poetry and drawing.
"She had a beautiful soul."
Sage said he tried his best to help Mitchell and is still struggling with her death.
"When anybody asked, 'Why would you do this?' — it's because I knew the individual. I knew who she was, and I knew that inner person that wanted to try and have a better life, but wasn't able to find it by herself."
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With files from Riley Laychuk