Angela and Clayton Erickson say they have no doubt their son burned their house down. They’re just not sure whether he hoped they were inside it at the time.
He knew their animals were there. The rural dog breeders lost two mothers and 16 puppies in the fire. One puppy, named Cinder, escaped.
The couple says their son Colton went on a rampage on March 16, 2022, the night he torched their house. He’s been charged with burning down his family home, two other vacant homes and the administrative office in Alida, a village 250 kilometres southeast of Regina.
The Ericksons had left Colton home alone on their farm property that morning, fearful of what the 29-year-old might do to them if they stayed with him.
Angela said the destruction could have been prevented. They knew their son’s mental state was deteriorating and had been trying to get him help.
“People feel like ‘why didn’t she do anything?’ I tried, but the people don’t know that. They don’t know that. They just know that our son tried burning down the town,” Angela said.
They say that less than 48 hours before he burned down his parents’ home, Colton terrorized them there during an apparent psychotic episode.
The parents called the police. Colton was taken into custody under the Mental Health Services Act and transported to a nearby health centre, but he was free to go just a few hours later.
Now he’s back in custody, but his parents are worried he will again be released before getting treatment for his mental illness.
“I’m so scared that they’re going to put him into jail and nothing will change, and he’ll come and kill us. I want him to get the help.”
Jekyll and Hyde
As a young child, Colton was diagnosed with several mental health conditions, including bipolar disorder.
His parents say he was a sweet baby, but experienced trauma in his early years. When he was about three years old, he was severely mauled by a dog and required surgery to heal. He also experienced a series of intense seizures around 18 months old. Angela isn’t sure whether these experiences paved the path he would walk in life.
Angela sought extra help in Colton’s school and in their family home to deal with his outbursts. She says he was violent with his siblings to the point where it “wasn’t safe.” They said the extra help for him wasn’t enough.
By age nine, his parents felt putting him in a group home for kids with mental health issues was the only safe option.
Angela said he aged out of that system at 16 and his parents lost control of his care. He left the home but returned to Oxbow, Sask., to finish Grade 12. His family said they had immense support from the principal and staff, who helped Colton secure accommodations and get his diploma.
Before he turned 20, Colton headed to Alberta. He ended up working on the rigs, started a relationship and eventually became a parent. His ex-girlfriend says she ended their relationship because of his violence against her and his erratic behaviour. She worried for their daughter’s safety.
Over the last decade, he moved between Alberta, B.C., and Saskatchewan. When he wasn’t stable, he’d cycle through the justice system, the streets and brief stints in mental health facilities.
His parents, ex-girlfriend and aunt say they have been frustrated, put at risk and let down by systems apparently unequipped to help troubled adults like Colton. They’ve tried to have him assessed and treated, but he’s never been held long enough.
“Catch and release, like with fish. That is what they do with mentally ill people in Canada,” Angela said.
The Ericksons aren’t alone in feeling like the system is failing. Dwindling numbers of psychiatric professionals coupled with an increased need for mental health care has led to long wait times for people in crisis, according to the Canadian Psychiatric Association.
Angela said the family has been particularly powerless to help Colton in adulthood.
Colton’s family says that when he is stable he is loving, quick-witted, artistic and kind. His dad said Colton can be “nice as pie,” especially when he’s being evaluated.
But other times he becomes unpredictable and dangerous, like “Jekyll and Hyde,” his mom said. His family believes he is facing other mental illnesses that have gone untreated and unmanaged. They aren’t allowed to access his records, so are unaware of further diagnoses.
Before this past Christmas, Colton called his parents from Maple Ridge, B.C., and asked for help. They agreed to bring him home to their acreage as long as he saw a psychiatrist. Angela said she called the health centre in Oxbow to get a doctor’s referral, but was told there were no openings until the end of April.
The centre has experienced two service disruptions in 2022 because of nurse and doctor shortages. There are three doctors on staff.
Colton’s parents say that as they waited, Colton became more agitated.
“The voices in his head seemed to be accelerating,” Angela said. “He would sit there and you could see his eyes darting around like he was following something, but there was nothing there, and then he would start giggling or laughing, and he would mutter like he was having a conversation.”
Catch and release, like with fish. That is what they do with mentally ill people in Canada.
This wasn’t the first time he displayed this type of behaviour. In adulthood, Colton showed extreme paranoia and talked about hearing voices in his head, more than once.
In the fall of 2019, he was living in B.C. and called his aunt, Amanda Townsend, for help.
“Auntie Mandy” had often travelled to Saskatchewan to try to help her sister Angela work with Colton when he was a child.
Townsend said Colton told her he was hearing voices, so she brought him to Alberta, where she lived, and tried to take him to a mental health facility for assessment. She said they let him go after a brief visit.
She was devastated.
“I was really angry and [felt] that you have got to be kidding me, you’re sending him home to my home when he’s telling me he’s hearing voices and you’re telling him that there’s nothing wrong,” Townsend said, adding this emboldened Colton to believe he didn’t need help.
Colton left a menacing message for his ex-girlfriend after the visit, saying he went to a clinical psychologist in Ponoka, Alta., ‘ just to hear him tell me, there’s nothing wrong with me.’
His aunt, mother and ex-girlfriend tried to get him help through the court system after that, but Colton soon took off back to B.C.
Waiting for a psychiatrist
Angela’s own psychiatrist agreed to see Colton at the end of March with a referral. Angela tried to convince her son to see a doctor in a different town to get that referral, but she says Colton was paranoid about a change in plans. He worried about COVID-19 and microchip conspiracies.
Around 2 a.m. CST on March 15, Angela and Clayton were getting ready for bed. They had already tucked in Colton’s daughter down the hall. She lives with Colton’s ex-girlfriend in Alberta, but was there for a visit.
The couple said they heard someone storm into the house and that in that moment, Angela questioned if someone was with Colton. She heard screaming in an “evil” voice, but there was also another voice that sounded like a little boy. They were both Colton.
Angela recorded the “demonic” voice on her cellphone. She said Colton was yelling that his mother and daughter “were going to kill him. That he would have to kill us first, that he would have to slice our throats and kill us in order to live.”
Colton had previously expressed fears that his mother was messing with his head and body by transferring her heart condition to him, and that his daughter was doing the same with her asthma.
Angela choked up as she described the second voice emerging from her son.
“It sounded like just a little child [who] started crying and saying ‘no,no, no, don’t kill my mom and daughter. I’ll kill myself first before I let you kill my mom and daughter.’”
Fearing for her granddaughter’s life, Angela snuck into the room and crawled under the covers with her, placing hands over the child’s ears. She stayed as quiet as possible as Colton paced through the home.
Clayton called the police at 2:48 a.m. CST on March 15. Angela called her sister, whispering “I want you on the phone when I die.”
Angela then ran with her granddaughter to the main bedroom closet, stacking luggage cases around them for protection.
Taken into custody
RCMP eventually showed up with multiple vehicles and Colton was taken into custody.
“I told them he needs a psychiatric evaluation, he needs to be committed,” Angela said.
She told them his lengthy criminal record spanned three provinces and that they needed to contact the mental health facility in B.C.
The police turned Colton over to medical personnel under the Mental Health Services Act. They reassured the family that the hospital would take it from there.
Angela felt optimistic that Colton would be transported to a facility in a city for a psychiatric evaluation.
The phone rang just hours later. It was Colton demanding a ride.
“To me that sounded wrong, that that was not true, like there was no way that he could have been doing all of this stuff through the night and threatening to kill us in such a psychotic state, for them to be letting him go,” Angela said.
She wondered if Colton, who is six feet four inches tall, overpowered the staff and called in to ask about his release. Angela was told her son was in the clear, and that the local doctor had released him.
According to Angela, the doctor said “‘maybe it was meth” that caused the psychotic episode, but Colton was calm now and “fine to go.”
Colton does have a history of hard drug use, but Angela doesn’t believe what happened on March 15 was a drug-induced breakdown. She said he had actually been frustrated that hard drugs weren’t available in Alida.
A spokesperson for the Saskatchewan Health Authority would not explain why the doctor did not take the steps that would trigger a psychiatric assessment in a secure facility for Colton, citing patient confidentiality.
The staff booked Colton a psychiatrist appointment for later that morning. The Ericksons were told it’s not up to the police to transport him there, so they had to go pick him up.
When Colton was released, RCMP contacted a school near the hospital and placed it in hold and secure, advising the school to lock its doors.
“Carnduff RCMP had received two reports of Mr. Erickson being in the area around both the school and the hospital. There was no risk to anyone at the school. Officers wanted to limit people’s access to the area while they attempted to locate Mr. Erickson,” an RCMP spokesperson said.
Angela doesn’t understand why Colton wasn’t held by the hospital.
“[Police] knew he was dangerous enough to lockdown the school in Oxbow, and they made us come and get him,” Angela said.
She also doesn’t know why he didn’t face charges for threatening to kill her.
“These threats were perceived not to be a direct threat and to be part of a mental health crisis. As a result, Mr. Erickson was apprehended under the Mental Health Services Act and transported to hospital for treatment,” the RCMP spokesperson said.
While Clayton took Colton to the psychiatrist, Angela took his daughter to her other son’s home. Colton was prescribed medication, but no other concrete plans for him were made.
When Colton arrived back home, he was angry with his mother.
“I was ‘the effin’ bitch’ that did this to him,’ and I was going to pay for this,” Angela said.
“I was scared, especially when he came in the house. He was angry and I just turtled.”
Later that day the medication appeared to take effect on Colton. He seemed sedated and the night passed without issue.
The next morning, March 16, RCMP called Clayton to check in about Colton. Clayton said his response was essentially “so far, so good.” Despite his threats and anger the day prior, Colton had still appeared quite sedated.
Angela and Clayton went to their other son’s home, where Colton’s daughter was staying, for the day. That evening, they received word there was a fire at their home.
As the Ericksons rushed back to their property, someone lunged out of the ditch at them. It was Colton. Angela yelled at him to get in the car, but instead he attacked his dad, who was in the driver’s seat. Angela said it seemed like Colton was trying to choke Clayton with the seatbelt.
“My husband stomped on the gas — we just left him in the dust.” They sought refuge at the local Enbridge plant and waited to hear that their son had been apprehended.
Colton was arrested and charged with four counts of arson, one count of assault and two counts of breach of probation. None of the charges has been tested in court. CBC News tried to contact Colton’s legal aid lawyer, but had not heard back at time of publication.
Before the court process can move ahead, Colton is supposed to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. But the family has been told there’s no room at the psychiatric facility in North Battleford, Sask., so he’s waiting in a jail cell. Half of the 96 beds inside the secure wing for inmates are not operational at the psychiatric hospital due to staffing shortages, according to the Saskatchewan Health Authority.
His parents, who didn’t have home insurance, are trying to move forward with nothing. There’s an online fundraiser underway for the couple.
For now, their focus remains on Colton.
Colton’s family is fearful that he will once again spend a short amount of time in custody and be released without receiving any substantial treatment for his mental illness. They want him committed to a psychiatric hospital.
They insist their request is coming from a place of love for their child, who they have been unable to help.
“As parents, you want to protect your child, but you also want to protect yourself and society.”