Toronto mayor wants independent review after man deemed a threat flees Canada

Toronto Mayor John Tory is calling on the Ontario government to launch an independent review of the case of Zhebin Cong, the man found not criminally responsible in a 2014 stabbing death who was able to leave the country this month.

Police launch 2 probes in case of Zhebin Cong, who was being held at mental hospital

Zhebin Cong, 47, who had been found not criminally responsible of murder, boarded an international flight from Canada on July 3 — the same day he went missing. (Toronto Police Service)

Toronto Mayor John Tory is calling on the Ontario government to launch an independent review of the case of Zhebin Cong, the man found not criminally responsible in a 2014 stabbing death who was able to leave the country this month.

In a letter Thursday addressed to Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, Tory wrote that an independent review would bring together the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), which reported Cong missing before he fled the country, and the Ontario Review Board, which in April of this year found him to pose "a significant threat to the safety of the public." 

A review would look at Cong's disappearance from CAMH and his success in leaving the country, Tory said. "But there are other questions which go well beyond that and which require answers if the public is to be confident that this kind of thing won't happen again," he wrote.

Tory said the review should answer questions such as when and what police were told about Cong's disappearance, how police responded, whether Cong had a valid passport and how he obtained it and why he wasn't picked up by airport or airline security.

"The case of Zhebin Cong based on the facts reported publicly so far is very troubling," Tory said in the letter. "I believe everyone involved in this case should be as transparent as possible with the public about this situation as they get answers."

Cong, 47, was charged with second-degree murder in the death of San Tai Yuan at a rooming house. Two years later, he was found not criminally responsible because of a mental disorder.

On July 3, he got on an international flight, according to Toronto police, who wouldn't disclose where he went. 

On Wednesday, CAMH said Cong had been on an unaccompanied pass to the community — in accordance with the terms of his Ontario Review Board disposition — on the day he went missing. When he didn't return, CAMH said, it notified police at 6:50 p.m. ET.

"CAMH takes this incident very seriously," the centre said, adding it has launched an internal review into this "specific and rare incident."

As recently as April, Cong was found to pose a "significant threat to the safety of the public," according to Ontario Review Board documents.

The documents say Cong has schizophrenia and was living in a general forensic unit at CAMH. 

Police launch 2 investigations

At a press conference alongside Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders Thursday afternoon, Jones said the Ontario's PC government would look at possible legislative changes to deal with NCR patients.

Saunders announced Thursday that the force has launched two simultaneous investigations: one into whether Cong received assistance, a passport or money from anyone that helped him leave the country; and another, an internal review, to identify any gaps "from the police side."

In a statement, Saunders said CAMH informed police on July 3 that Cong was missing and was a "'low risk' to public safety and to himself." According to Saunders, an investigation was started with "several officers" checking in with CAMH, as well as known addresses, shelters and hospitals over the following 11 days. 

Police then made a public appeal for information on July 14 and 15. On July 16, police learned that Cong "arrived at an airport, cleared all security checks and boarded an international flight," Saunders's statement said.

Toronto police said Wednesday they are working with international law enforcement agencies to track down Cong, who is originally from China, according to records.

'The cheese has slipped off the cracker'

Earlier Thursday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said the federal government "has some explaining to do" about how Cong managed to leave the the country.

In a statement Thursday, Ford called Cong's case "disturbing and outrageous.

"The fact is, a person who murdered someone using a meat cleaver was deemed low risk to the public and was out on the street for two weeks without the public knowing. Furthermore, he was allowed to get on a plane with law-abiding citizens and fly out of Canada and escape."

There is nothing "low risk" about Cong's actions, Ford said in Thursday's statement.

"Protecting law-abiding citizens and families should have been the top priority of everyone involved. Clearly that was not the case."

The Toronto Police Services Board "needs to get to the bottom of why the public was not informed sooner" about the fact Cong was missing, Ford's statement went on.

"Finally, the federal government has some explaining to do. How could this person have been allowed to get on a plane with the public and leave the country?"

Later Thursday, Ford's office released three letters he has written pertaining to the case: one to Toronto Police Services Board chair Andrew Pringle, asking that a police review explain why the public wasn't immediately informed of Cong's disappearance; another to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, asking that his department review how Cong was able to leave the country; and one to CAMH president Dr. Catherine Zahn, demanding an "immediate review" not just of internal policies, but also how threats to public safety in "exceptional cases" are communicated.

Ford's language was less measured when he called in to a talk-radio program earlier Thursday, saying he will talk to police, the review board and CAMH.

In an interview on Newstalk 1010, Ford referred to Cong as a "nutcase" and decried allowing "crazy, crazy people that want to go around chopping people up" to walk free.

"The cheese has slipped off the cracker with this one," Ford said.

Asked by host Jerry Agar when he intends to get answers over what happened, Ford said he plans to speak to the various agencies — CAMH, the review board and Toronto police — "today."

He also questioned whether, if Cong went to China, the Chinese government will track his whereabouts. Agar pointed out that would be a question for the federal government.

In response to Ford's comments, Zahn said in a statement Thursday that in addition to its review, CAMH is implementing "immediate additional precautions."

"The mental health system has moved from resignation to recovery, and from institutionalization to integration," she said. "Nevertheless, it is clear that there is still work to do to address misperceptions surrounding mental illness, as well as the prejudice and discrimination faced by those who live with mental disorders."

'No specific rules'

In an email to CBC News, a spokesperson for the federal Justice Department said he could not discuss the specific case. He noted that Canada does not have an extradition treaty with China.

Ian McLeod said "there are no specific rules" in the Criminal Code that pertain to travellers to and from Canada, including those found not criminally responsible (NCR) due to a mental disorder. He said such issues fall under the Canada Border Services Agency. 

"Someone found NCR could not be extradited for violating a condition of their Review Board arrangement, as it is not a criminal offence," McLeod said.

A spokesperson for the federal Ministry of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness would also not speak to the specifics of Cong's case. Under the Entry/Exit Initiative, Canada will soon begin recording all departures from the country. Data is being collected at land border crossings now, and will be collected for air travellers starting in the summer of 2020.

There are circumstances under which a passport can be denied: when someone is charged in Canada or abroad with an indictable offence; when someone is imprisoned or otherwise forbidden to leave Canada, or imprisoned abroad and forbidden to leave that country; or when someone is subject to conditions imposed by a court that prevent them from having a passport. 

Ford told Agar on Thursday that "somebody is going to be answering."

"We don't want this to happen again."

With files from The Canadian Press, Lisa Xing, Kate McGillivray and Shanifa Nasser