Saskatoon·Video

Family hopes Steven Rigby shooting inquest will spark change in Sask. mental health system

Steven Rigby died in a police-involved shooting in December 2018 after a struggle with mental illness. His death is the subject of a coroner's inquest beginning on Monday in Saskatoon.

Warning: this story contains content some readers may find disturbing

Carey Rigby-Wilcox (left) says her mentally ill 27-year-old son Steven Rigby was failed by the Saskatchewan health system. (Hailley/Furkalo/CBC)

Steven Rigby died more than two years ago in a police-involved shooting on the outskirts of Saskatoon. 

While Rigby's family still has questions about the encounter, they believe his experience as a patient in Saskatchewan's mental health system in the months prior to his shooting also demands scrutiny during the coroner's inquest into his death this week.  

"The only sense of closure our family has is to help change be made," said Rigby's mother, Carey Rigby-Wilcox, of the health system.

"I am hoping and praying."

Beginning on Monday, a six-person inquest jury will hear from approximately 17 witnesses at the Saskatoon Inn and Conference Centre. The inquest is not a criminal trial; it is meant to publicly establish how Rigby died and how deaths like his may be prevented in the future.

Rigby was the eldest of four siblings. He managed a telecommunications store in North Battleford and had a second home in Saskatoon. (Submitted by Carey Rigby-Wilcox)

The 27-year-old was shot on the southwest edge of the city at about 9:20 p.m. CST on Dec. 22, 2018. He died after being taken to the hospital. 

According to a Saskatoon Police Service news release, Rigby had a handgun and was threatening to harm himself and officers. After refusing to follow officers' orders, Rigby fired his gun.

"Officers perceived a threat and engaged," the release said.

Andrew Babey, Rigby's friend and former boss, said that account barely scratches the surface of Rigby's months-long fight with addictions and mental health issues. 

"It was such a long struggle," Babey said. "Man, was there way more to this."

'A broken spirit'

'My brother was absolutely more than his mental health,' says Melanie West, pictured here with Rigby when they were young. 'He was funny and wonderful and his reputation should never be [based] on the final night.' (Submitted by Melanie West)

Rigby was the eldest of four siblings. He managed a telecommunications store in North Battleford and had a second home in Saskatoon. 

"I was always jealous of Steven's personality," said his younger sister, Melanie West. "He was able to walk into any room and make friends with anybody."

His mother Rigby-Wilcox said the family became aware of Rigby's mental health issues six months before his death. She said he was an alcoholic who suffered from anxiety and depression.

Rigby's veneer of success belied a deeper insecurity, Babey said.

"He said to me, 'I have more money than anybody else around me. I was the coolest kid. I had whatever I wanted. And I'd wake up the next day and I felt empty.'"

Co-worker Shelly Martin, second from right, stands next to Rigby at the wedding of another colleague. 'Steven was always smiling and laughing, always happy and having fun,' she said. (Submitted by Shelly Martin)

After Rigby's death, Rigby-Wilcox obtained his medical records from the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA).

The documents span Rigby's stay at Battlefords Union Hospital after a suicide attempt in August 2018, his compulsory admittance to a Saskatoon medical health centre in December 2018 and his being discharged from that centre two days before his death, after a doctor noted Rigby had recently threatened to commit suicide by cop. 

Throughout his experience in the health system, "he felt no one heard him," Rigby-Wilcox said. 

"He had a broken spirit and he needed that to be mended," West said. 

The SHA has previously declined to discuss Rigby's case "due to the patient privacy legislation," even though Rigby-Wilcox has consented to their doing so. 

The health authority declined again last week, saying no comment would be made while the inquest is underway.

Rigby spent time at Battlefords Union Hospital in North Battleford after a reported August 2018 suicide attempt. (CBC)

'He cried out for help'

The family's list of concerns about the SHA is long. They say staff at Battlefords Union Hospital, where Rigby was hospitalized after his suicide attempt in August 2018, lacked compassion and empathy. 

Shelly Martin, Rigby's co-worker, accompanied him during a different visit to the hospital in North Battleford. 

"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 one of Rigby's many visits to Royal University Hospital (RUH) in Saskatoon, an E.R. doctor asked the family for proof of his suicidal tendencies, Rigby-Wilcox said. 

"It's as if they didn't believe us. I just don't comprehend that. There were so many incidents."

Babey said Rigby spoke of being shuffled from doctor to doctor.  

"To me, the fault of the system is if you're in this state, you need one wing man or one wing woman that stick-handles your medicine," Babey said. 

Police brought Rigby 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 a patient has the potential to harm themselves or others "or when the patient is likely to suffer serious deterioration," the SHA has previously said. 

A doctor noted Rigby's previous suicide attempt that resulted in hospitalization in North Battleford and his "escalating recent comments expressing suicidal intent, including provoking police to shoot him."

Staff at the Dube Centre checked on Steven every 30 minutes, according to a nursing progress report. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Rigby complained to his family about being allowed to leave the Dubé Centre during the day, Rigby-Wilcox said.

He also said he felt pressure to give up his bed, she said.

According to her account of what Rigby said, "[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?'" 

"Steven told me, 'Mom, what was I supposed to say?'" 

The doctor's note, warning of past talk of suicide by cop, on the form committing Rigby to the Dube Centre for mental health in Saskatoon. (Submitted by Carey Rigby-Wilcox)
 

He declined continued voluntary admission and was released. Two days later, Rigby died in the police-involved shooting.

Rigby-Wilcox said she wants her family's experience to bring about positive change: more mental health beds, better-trained staff and more guidance for the parents of out-of-hospital adults struggling with suicidal tendencies.

"All the issues that we faced as a patient, as a family, really should be dissected," she said.

Police put in a 'very precarious situation'

Coroner's inquests typically hone in on the day of a person's death, but the witness list for the Steven Rigby inquest includes several SHA health professionals, including doctors who treated him at the Dubé Centre. 

Lawyers for different groups, as well as the jury, will be able to question each witness. 

Scott Spencer — the defence lawyer known for successfully representing Gerald Stanley, the man acquitted of second-degree murder in the death of Colten Boushie — will represent the health authority.

Brian Pfefferle, another defence attorney based in Saskatoon, is representing Rigby-Wilcox. 

"Why did it happen, is the ultimate question," Pfefferle said of the shooting. "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."

Saskatoon-based defence lawyer Brian Pfefferle will represent Rigby's family during the coroner's inquest. (CBC News)

The Saskatoon Police Service will also have its own lawyer at the inquest. 

Deputy Chief Mitchell Yuzdepski said mental health is a factor in "a great deal" of calls handled by Saskatoon police officers.

Calls that go bad take a toll on officers, as the 2019 inquest into the death of Joshua Megeney heard. Megeney barricaded himself behind a bedroom door and pointed a rifle at Saskatoon officers, prompting them to shoot. One of the bullets fatally struck Megeney.

"This one broke me down afterward," a patrol officer testified. "It took me some time to get back to being somewhat normal."

The union representing Saskatoon police officers said patrol members can expect to encounter people dealing with mental health issues every day.

"Although most encounters would not be considered dangerous to the public, our officers get called as a last resort to assist these people when they are in crisis," said a statement from the Saskatoon Police Association. "There are limited medical and social supports available to help the individuals dealing with mental health issues.

"The additional call load puts a strain on resources and also on the responding members' own well-being."

A Saskatoon Police Service officer monitors the area the morning after Rigby's shooting on the outskirts of Saskatoon in December 2018. (CBC)

Yuzdepski said the wait for inquests, which take a "microscopic look at what happened on that day," is also tough on officers.

"I think members at times are worried or concerned that they're going to face some potential criticism for what they could have done or should have done or did do," he said. "When something tragic happens, right from the get-go, I think a lot of members probably go, 'Could this have gone differently? What could I have done differently? 

"In many cases, that's beyond their control."


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.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Saskatoon

Story tips? guy.quenneville@cbc.ca

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