Mother says Sask. mental health system failed son who died in police-involved shooting
Warning: this story contains disturbing language and imagery
- Click here for the latest: 'Heartbreaking': Sask. NDP says province should review Steven Rigby's mental health care
The last time Carey Rigby-Wilcox spoke to her son Steven, she was standing by his driver's seat window as he pointed a gun to his head.
"'I'm done, Mom, I'm done. I can't take this anymore,'" Rigby-Wilcox remembers the 27-year-old saying between tears.
It was Dec. 22, 2018. Within the next two and a half hours, Steven was dead. Saskatoon police later said there had been an officer-involved shooting.
The exact circumstances of his shooting remain unclear to the public, but medical records legally obtained by Rigby-Wilcox show that, two days before his death, Steven was discharged from a Saskatoon mental health centre despite documented warning signs, including a recent suicide attempt.
A doctor who committed Steven noted he had recently talked of "provoking police to shoot him."
"He absolutely was failed," Rigby-Wilcox said of how the Saskatchewan health system dealt with Steven.
The Saskatchewan Health Authority has declined to discuss Steven's case "due to the patient privacy legislation," even though Rigby-Wilcox has consented to their doing so.
Rigby-Wilcox said she's sharing her son's story because she wants systemic changes — including more mental health beds, more caregivers and more guidance for the parents of out-of-hospital adults struggling with suicidal tendencies — to prevent deaths like Steven's.
"All the issues that we faced as a patient, as a family, really should be dissected," she said.
"Something positive has to come out of this."
'The first person I would call'
Steven was the eldest of four siblings. He managed a telecommunications store in North Battleford and had a second home in Saskatoon.
"He was smooth. When he sold phones, he could sell anyone anything," said longtime friend Tyler Robin.
Steven loved to play soccer and Xbox and was "the first person I would call or hang out with whenever I needed support," Robin said.
"Each morning when he came to work he stopped at my desk and we would chat for at least a half hour," said colleague Shelly Martin. "He needed to know how [my family] was. My granddaughter occasionally would video call me and ask 'Where's that guy, that Steve guy?'"
Rigby-Wilcox said the family became aware of Steven's mental health issues six months before his death. She said he was an alcoholic who suffered from anxiety and depression.
"He was on some anxiety/depression pills which amplified his suicidal thoughts," she said. "He then added more alcohol to his life to suppress those voices of suicide."
Robin said he also knew about Steven's mental health struggles, including two suicide attempts. One of those two attempts, in August 2018, was noted in the medical documents. Police took Steven to Battlefords Union Hospital, where he underwent a suicide risk assessment.
"There's a big difference between having a thought and acting on a thought. Do you think you might actually make an attempt to hurt yourself in the near future?" he was asked.
"Yes," the assessment form recorded as his response. He stayed in hospital for several days.
'No guidance from anyone'
Once out of hospital, Steven spiralled, Rigby-Wilcox said.
She said he was taken to Saskatoon's Royal University Hospital (RUH) several times, once after being picked up with a gun to his head. Run-ins with police became regular, she said.
Martin, Steven's co-worker, accompanied him during one North Battleford hospital visit.
"The doctor said, and I was there when he said it, 'This is not a mental health issue, this is an addiction problem.' No one in the health care system would listen no matter how many times he cried out for help."
During a Sept. 27 visit to RUH, a triage nurse noted he had a known history of suicidal ideation, "with multiple attempts in the past."
By November, Steven was living on and off his parent's acreage southwest of Saskatoon. One day, Steven threatened to commit suicide by cop if his family called the police again, Rigby-Wilcox said.
"We had no guidance from anyone [on] the outside," she said. "No resources, no medical, no guidance from any physician."
Robin said Steven should have been "immediately put on lockdown" after his first suicide attempt.
"He never should have been able to get the drugs the way he did, he never should have been able to walk out of care centres."
'As if they didn't believe us'
During one of Steven's visits to RUH, an E.R. doctor asked Rigby-Wilcox for proof of Steven's suicidal tendencies, she said.
"It's as if they didn't believe us. I just don't comprehend that. There were so many incidents."
Rigby-Wilcox said her son's appearance may have led people to doubt the extent of his problem. One medical document described him as "pleasant and agreeable," with a "stylish hair and clothing."
"Steven said, 'People think that I don't have mental issues, that I'm not struggling, because I can hold myself and I can look like a man,'" Rigby-Wilcox said.
Steven was also in denial about his suicidal behaviour, according to the medical records and his friends.
"He was very much the type of person to be too proud to admit his struggles or ask for help," Robin said. "He joked about it, that he would never be admitted again because they're all nuts and he's not."
Martin echoed that sentiment.
"He was really an ace at hiding it," she said. "Up until August of 2018, I don't think there was more than a handful at work who knew."
'Why would they let him out?'
Police brought Steven back to RUH on Dec. 18, following another bender.
The next day, a doctor diagnosed him with alcohol-induced depressive disorder, noted he was at "acute" risk of suicide and committed him to the hospital's Irene and Les Dubé Centre for Mental Health.
"The involuntary process is only used when it is deemed that a patient has the potential to harm themselves or others, or when the patient is likely to suffer serious deterioration," said Amanda Purcell, a spokesperson for the Saskatchewan Health Authority.
The doctor noted Steven's August 2018 suicide attempt in North Battleford and "escalating recent comments expressing suicidal intent, including provoking police to shoot him."
"We thought this was the be-all-end-all," Rigby-Wilcox said of Steven's admission at the Dube Centre. "'You're the professionals. I'm handing my love of my life to you. Please take care of him.'"
Rigby-Wilcox visited Steven on Dec. 20. Later that day, according to Rigby-Wilcox, Steven recounted what happened after his family left.
"[Staff] said, 'We have people that have no family support like you, that are on meth, that actually are worse off than you that need this bed. Are you willing to give your bed up?'" according to Rigby-Wilcox.
"Steven told me, 'Mom, what was I supposed to say?"
Only months before, the Saskatchewan NDP had complained that the 54-bed Dube Centre had been over capacity for years.
Still, given Steven's history, "Why would they let him out?" Rigby-Wilcox asked.
On Steven's summary discharge form, a psychiatrist noted he appeared "calm, coherent and organized" and planned to room with a sponsor for a few days.
"He is aware of the physical risks of alcohol withdrawal [including seizures] and is declining voluntary admission," reads the certificate revoking his committal to the Dube Centre.
Steven spent the night at a hotel.
On the morning of Dec. 21, he went to his parents' home, where he slept all day, according to Rigby-Wilcox.
Dec. 22, 2018
Steven appeared cheerful the next day, but the smartphone he left behind after his death paints a completely different picture, Rigby-Wilcox said.
"At 5:25 p.m., when he's sitting there [at his grandparents' home], joking around, laughing on the floor with the dog, watching a movie, he's Googling how to shoot himself in the head," she said.
At around 7 p.m. CST, Steven left in his car.
"I never thought to take his keys away," Rigby-Wilcox said.
Many of Steven's friends, including Tyler Robin, got a call from him that night.
"He took the time to call every single person he felt he needed to just to say goodbye," Robin said.
"Just come home," Rigby-Wilcox said to Steven on the phone.
Worried about Steven's drinking and driving, Rigby-Wilcox and her husband Rich set out to find him. They tracked him down on a dead-end grid road near their acreage, armed with a handgun stolen from his grandfather's locked safe, she said.
"He's just yelling, 'Mom I can't do it anymore. I'm gonna f-----g die,'" Rigby-Wilcox said. He stuck the gun outside the window and shot twice in the air, she said.
Rigby-Wilcox said she and Rich followed Steven's car, called 911 and told the operator about Steven's recent talk of suicide by cop. Rigby-Wilcox now regrets that call.
"I think I killed my kid," she said.
Watch a clip of Rigby-Wilcox talking about her last moments with her son:
'Officers perceived a threat'
According to a statement released the next day by the Saskatoon Police Service, "an adult male in distress ... was reported to be driving a vehicle heading toward Saskatoon while making threats to harm himself and law enforcement officers, and was in possession of a handgun."
RCMP used a tire deflation device to partially disable Steven's car on Valley Road, near the ramp to Circle Drive West. Saskatoon officers "simultaneously responded to the scene," according to the statement.
Rigby-Wilcox and Rich were about 100 yards away when Rich heard gunshots. Rich rolled up the window and turned up the car heater to try to block out any further sound, Rigby-Wilcox said.
"[Saskatoon Police] and RCMP members encountered the adult male who refused to comply with officer commands and fired his gun," according to the police statement. "Officers perceived a threat and engaged."
Rigby-Wilcox remembers an ambulance leaving the scene with its lights on, but no siren.
Waiting for answers
Steven was declared dead at RUH.
His friend Robin said he doesn't blame any of the police officers involved. He even had friends on shift that night, he said.
"I feel like it could have been handled differently," Robin said. "It says something about society that 'suicidal individual' meets such force back."
While Steven also spoke to him about suicide by cop, Robin said Steven "would never point a weapon at anyone. He was trained in gun use."
Saskatoon Police Service's major crimes section investigated the shooting. An investigation observer, typically an ex-cop, was also tapped by the province to independently oversee the police investigation.
Saskatoon police say they are waiting on Steven's autopsy and toxicology results before sending the file to Crown prosecutors, who will review it for signs of criminal wrongdoing.
If no such wrongdoing is found, Steven's shooting will likely be the subject of a public coroner's inquest — a fact-finding process that typically focuses on the day of a person's death.
- Province taps observer to review internal Saskatoon probe of fatal shooting
- Saskatoon police await final autopsy results in 2018 fatal shooting case
Brian Pfefferle, a Saskatoon defence attorney, has agreed to represent Rigby-Wilcox during any inquest.
"This is an important one for the public to be aware of," Pfefferle said.
"There was a very tragic loss of life here that involved someone who had a very supportive and loving family. We have police officers that were put in a very precarious situation. We are repeatedly hearing more and more stories of peace officers going to work every day potentially facing these sorts of situations."
Pfefferle said an inquest could focus on the key question around the incident.
"Why did it happen?"
A legacy of change
Rigby-Wilcox said she wants any review of Steven's death to encompass "all the obstacles and all of the struggles" the family encountered during his care.
She also wants changes to address the discharge policy at Dube, the need for more mental health beds in the province and the role of families when dealing with adult loved ones still struggling with mental health issues out of hospital.
SHA spokesperson Purcell said the authority takes families' health care concerns "very seriously."
"We encourage these individuals or family members to contact our client representative office directly," Purcell said. "From there, we can work together to start the confidential process into finding out what has happened, and see how we may be able to help."
One change is already underway, Purcell added.
"We currently have the ability to admit patients to the soon-to-be-opened Mental Health Short Stay Unit at [RUH], under psychiatry care, for an addition of six beds. This makes a total of 62 beds for specifically for adult patients."
Martin said government-funded, dual-treatment centres capable of treating both mental health and addictions issues are crucial.
Rigby-Wilcox is set to meet with health officials on Wednesday.
"I think that would honour him," she said of the changes she seeks. "I don't want his legacy to be tarnished by Dec. 22, 2018."
If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, help is available.
For an emergency or crisis situation, call 911.
You can also contact the Saskatchewan suicide prevention line toll-free, 24/7 by calling 1-833-456-4566, texting 45645, or chatting online.
You can contact the Regina mobile crisis services suicide line at 306-525-5333 or Saskatoon mobile crisis line at 306-933-6200.
You can also text CONNECT to 686868 and get immediate support from a crisis responder through the Crisis Text Line, powered by Kids Help Phone.
Kids Help Phone can also be reached at 1-800-668-6868, or you can access live chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca.