Nova Scotia·Opinion

Harley Lawrence remembered in Berwick encounter shortly before death

CBC journalist Phlis McGregor recalls meeting Harley Lawrence shortly before he was murdered in October 2013.

'I felt sick,' Phlis McGregor recalls after hearing about homeless man's death

CBC journalist Phlis McGregor saw this photo of Harley Lawrence, which prompted her to go to Berwick and speak with locals about him before he died. (Courtesy of Debbie Saltzman)

I met Harley Lawrence — the homeless man who was murdered in Berwick by two men who set him on fire — just before he died, in October 2013.

It started with someone who sent me a photograph of a man wearing an oversized worn out winter coat. He was propped up on a bag of clothes, leaning against a flower box on the main street of the Annapolis Valley town of Berwick.

The person who sent the photo told me the man had been in Berwick all summer, and was sleeping on the street. During the day, he often sat near the Tim Hortons or the Royal Bank. At night, he slept on the concrete floor of the bus shelter, wrapped in a sleeping bag.

They asked me to look into the situation. Was the man OK? Why was he there? Was the town doing enough to help him? Did he have a mental illness? What would happen to him when the weather turned cold?

The next day, I drove to Berwick. The man was not hard to spot. He was sitting in a shaded corner of the Royal Bank. I remember it was a warm, sunny autumn day, the Friday before Thanksgiving weekend.

I thought it a bit gloomy that he chose the shadows and cold, instead of basking in the last warm rays of the season.

'Be sure to follow up'

I walked up to him and commented on the foot long hot dog he was eating, saying something like, "That looks like a nice lunch."

But he didn't want to make conversation with me. He grumbled at me and told me to get lost.

So, I turned away and stood outside of the bank wondering about him.

I asked people who were walking by what they knew about him. Many of them were concerned about his well-being. Some had seen him having animated conversations with no one around. They didn't know where he had come from. Others didn't think he was getting the support he needed. They were worried about him, especially with winter coming.

Some men standing in front of the Tim Hortons said they knew him well and were worried he was going to die of hypothermia unless someone found him a warm place to stay. They were concerned the town was coming up with a new bylaw that would make it illegal for him to be there. 

Just before I got into my car to drive back to Halifax, one of the men called out to me, "Be sure to follow up."

"OK. I promise," I responded.

'We were all shaken'

It was 12 days later that I woke up to the news Harley had died overnight. The bus shelter where he'd been sleeping had gone up in flames. I felt sick.

I drove back to Berwick that day. It felt like what I needed to do. I had promised to follow up. His friends were in front of the Tim Hortons. Some hugged me when I arrived. We were all shaken and it felt surreal.

There were rumours that the shelter where he had been sleeping was purposely set on fire. I pushed those thoughts aside, hoping the rumours weren't true.

It wasn't until later that night, when I was home in Halifax, that I heard my colleague Jack Julian's report that a young man had been seen buying gasoline on the night Harley died.

I broke down in tears, overwhelmed by the thought that someone could have killed him on purpose.

I'll never forget Harley's piercing blue eyes. His desire to be left alone. I attended the vigil for Harley in Berwick. Over the course of the investigation, I met some of his family and heard about their pain and grief. I admire Harley's brother Ron's dedication to his brother, and Ron's willingness to tell others about Harley's challenges with mental illness.

I hope something better will come from this for everyone who struggles to make a good life while living with a mental illness. I hope it will help us, as a society, do a better job of protecting people who might not have the tools to look after themselves.

For Ron and the rest of the Lawrence family, I hope today's sentencing in the murder will help them feel some peace.

About the Author

Phlis McGregor

Journalist

Phlis McGregor is an award-winning journalist with CBC's Information Morning Nova Scotia where she digs into stories ranging from systemic racism to forestry issues. Phlis has a B.Sc. in environmental toxicology and a master's degree in environmental studies. Story idea? phlis.mcgregor@cbc.ca or follow her on Twitter @phliscbc

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