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Man shot by Windsor police needed help and a hug, not bullets, says brother

Matthew Mahoney was a little boy with platinum-blonde hair and bright blue eyes who lived life with his arms wide open — offering a hug to anyone who needed it. On Wednesday, as a 33-year-old who struggled with schizophrenia and other mental health battles, he died in a barrage of police gunfire.

Family says health care and legal systems failed Matthew Mahoney

Michael Mahoney looks down at a photo of his brother, Matthew as a child. The 33-year-old was shot and killed in a confrontation with Windsor police on March 21, 2018. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Matthew Mahoney was a little boy with platinum-blonde hair and bright blue eyes who lived life with his arms wide open — offering a hug to anyone who needed it.

On Wednesday, as a 33-year-old who struggled with schizophrenia and other mental health battles, he died in a barrage of police gunfire.

His family is struggling to cope with his death, but Michael — his older brother by just 18 months — blames a lack of resources in healthcare and limits to the legal system for failing his brother, not police.

"Our police aren't trained to deal with people who are suffering the way my brother is. That can make it really hard when they encounter someone like him. You're not sure  if this person is dangerous or just needs a hug. I think my brother needed a hug that morning," he said through tears. "I wish I could have been there."

The Mahoney family remembers Matthew as a brilliant and loving man who would listen to anyone about their own struggles. (Michael Mahoney)

Michael was at work in Toronto when family members started calling. They had seen news of a shooting in downtown Windsor and photos of a man who looked like Matthew lying on a stretcher, receiving CPR.

Police shot Matthew 'multiple times'

The older brother was on a plane and back in Windsor within hours, where he tried to comfort his distraught family and struggled to understand how this could have happened.

Ontario's Special Investigations Unit (SIU) has dispatched 10 investigators to do the same thing. On Friday they provided a small update — confirming Matthew was shot by two officers and "struck multiple times."

Windsor police have reported two officers were injured in the confrontation that led up to the shooting, but are barred from commenting further on the shooting until the SIU completes its investigation. On the morning of the shooting, yards of yellow police tape surrounded almost an entire city block surrounding the McDonald's near the corner of Goyeau and Wyandotte streets.

A butcher block was resting in the restaurant parking lot, surrounded by scattered knives.

A butcher block was on the ground in the McDonald's parking lot, surrounded by scattered knives. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

"We definitely want to know what my brother was going through that morning. We want to know how the police became involved and we want to know that they did everything they could to deescalate the situation," said Michael. "Right now we're just trying to focus on remembering Matthew the way we remember him and we're trying not to think about that morning because your mind just races and there's no answers right now."

The system just isn't set up right to help people with extreme needs like my brother.- Michael Mahoney

The Mahoneys noticed a change in Matthew sometime in his mid-teens.

"Matt was the kind of kid, who it didn't matter what he had to do to make someone smile," said Michael. "If he had to embarrass himself, or tell a bad joke, he could come into a room and my dad says 'He'd have his arms wide open and run to anyone who needed a hug.'"

Matthew Mahoney was known for his bright blue eyes and beaming smile as a kid. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

But that brilliant boy who could fix anything and used to steal Michael's girlfriends with his charming smile suddenly began going through long, dark periods. The family knew it was more than typical teenage withdrawal, but they refused to stop fighting for him.

Medication helped that loving boy come back at times, but as he grew into an adult and was able to refuse medical treatment, he spent more time confused.

"Being in the health care system can be extremely terrifying, extremely dangerous and he did everything in his life to try to avoid going back to hospital," said Michael. "Every decision he made was to try to avoid interactions with police or mental health services. They were his biggest fears."

Family tried everything to help

The family explored legal means of forcing Matthew to get help. They spoke with police and healthcare officials, but ultimately there was little they could do.

"The system just isn't set up right to help people with extreme needs like my brother."

Childhood photos of Matthew Mahoney litter a table at his parent's Windsor apartment. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The last time Michael saw Matthew was Christmas. The family was driving along the E.C. Row Expressway when they passed the plastic flowers of a roadside memorial to someone who died in a crash.

"My brother was worried about the family that must have been in that accident and that was what he was always like," said Michael. "That's all he talked about for the rest of the car ride over, worrying about if the family was OK."

'This didn't need to happen'

Now it's the Mahoneys who are not OK as the realization that Matthew is gone starts to sink in, along with the worries their good memories about him will start to fade.

It's not easy for Michael to talk about his brother's constant battle with his mental health. He said Matthew often called police when he was hurting and "lots of good police showed him a lot of patience," but the family always worried about what would happen if he ran into officers when he was in a bad place.

They fear that's what happened on Wednesday.

"We're struggling to understand all of the places were people that could have helped my brother had their hands tied and couldn't," said Michael. "There were so many opportunities where we could have helped. This didn't need to happen."

About the Author

Dan Taekema

Dan Taekema is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email: daniel.taekema@cbc.ca