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'White-hot angry': Eby vows investigation of Chinatown stabbing suspect's release

SURREY, B.C. — British Columbia Premier David Eby says he is "white-hot" angry over the day release of a man from a forensic psychiatric hospital before he was arrested for a triple stabbing during a community festival in Vancouver's Chinatown.
British Columbia Premier David Eby says he is "white hot" angry over the day release of a man from a forensic psychiatric hospital before he was arrested for a triple stabbing in Vancouver's Chinatown. Eby speaks during a news conference in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, September 11, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

SURREY, B.C. — British Columbia Premier David Eby says he is "white-hot" angry over the day release of a man from a forensic psychiatric hospital before he was arrested for a triple stabbing during a community festival in Vancouver's Chinatown.

Eby promised "an independent person" will look into the specifics of the case, including the decision-making process, and said that work had already begun.

Blair Donnelly, 64, has been charged with three counts of aggravated assault and remains in custody after Sunday's attack at the Light Up Chinatown! festival, which left three people with severe wounds.

"I am white-hot angry that this person was released unaccompanied into the community to have a devastating impact on all the hard work of all of these community members," the premier said Tuesday in Surrey.

Donnelly was found not criminally responsible on account of a mental disorder for stabbing his teenage daughter to death in 2006 and sent to the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital in Coquitlam, B.C.

In 2009 he committed another stabbing while on a day pass, Eby said.

A disposition order by the B.C. Review Board, dated April 24 this year, again allowed Donnelly to have escorted or unescorted time in the community for as many as 28 nights in a row, "depending on his mental condition" and at the discretion of B.C.'s director of adult forensic psychiatric services.

The decision also said he was not to possess, or use "any firearm, explosive, or offensive weapon."

In 2008, a B.C. Supreme Court judge said Donnelly, a devotedly religious man, believed that God wanted him to murder his wife and daughter and interpreted multiple innocuous events leading up to the girl's killing as signs. They included his dog playing with a certain chew toy, and a friend choking on a cup of tea.

He was ordered to be detained at the Coquitlam hospital, a 190-bed secure facility that treats people found not criminally responsible for a crime or unfit to stand trial due to a mental disorder.

After a judge finds an accused person is not criminally responsible or unfit for trial, it's the B.C. Review Board that decides on the person's care including where they will stay and under what conditions they could be allowed out in public.

Each case is reviewed periodically until the review board either discharges the person completely, or finds that a previously unfit person is now fit to stand trial and should be returned to court.

"I cannot fathom how someone who murdered his daughter was released in 2009, went out and stabbed somebody else, would then be released again, unaccompanied, somehow able to go out and buy a knife, go to Chinatown and stab three people. How is that possible?" Eby said.

Eby said he wants to assure the victims, their families and all others affected by the stabbing that his government will determine how it happened and do everything possible to make sure it doesn't happen again. 

A man and woman in their 60s and a woman in her 20s suffered serious but non-life-threatening injuries in Sunday's attack. 

Musicians who had just wrapped up their performance before Sunday's attack described how the scene in front of the stage swiftly turned from one of joyous crowds to shock and disbelief, as police and other first responders converged.

Bass player Rob Thomson said the set with Hong Kong singer Kristina Lao had finished when the mood of "excitement and joy" turned to "shock, disbelief and sadness." 

Thomson said he was on stage to gather his equipment then he noticed "a commotion" in the crowd.

"I could hear sirens and I can see lots of people running around, lots of cops coming," said Thomson.

Drummer and guitarist Daniel Lew was waved over by people in the crowd to alert him to the stabbings. Lew said ambulances arrived and he saw two of the three victims sitting up on stretchers. 

"They were conscious and I know they were obviously aware of what's going on," said Lew. 

Singer Lao said the "violent and senseless attack is devastating."

"By the time I looked up, I saw that VPD officers were already attending to those involved, seated about 25 feet away from the stage. Within minutes, I saw first responders arriving," Lao wrote in an email. 

In a statement, the festival organizers say the annual Light Up Chinatown! festival "served as a beautiful and vibrant celebration" of the neighbourhood.

"The senseless act that transpired is nothing short of devastating and heartbreaking." 

Blaine Bray, the provincial executive director for forensic psychiatric services, which manages the Coquitlam hospital, said in a statement that "public safety is always at the forefront of the hospital’s decision making."

Bray said he couldn't comment on this specific case but that generally before granting time in the community, the treatment team considers facts such as the patient’s progress, and mental status.

He said a review process is followed, which requires the approval of the B.C. Review Board and its program and privileges committee.

Public statistics from the review board show that the total number of accused under the board’s jurisdiction has declined over the last four years and sat at 256 people in 2021-2022. There are slightly more accused in custody at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital than under supervision in the community.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 12, 2023.

Ashley Joannou and Nono Shen, The Canadian Press