Salmon Arm church shooter was allowed to have guns despite well documented mental health issues | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Salmon Arm church shooter was allowed to have guns despite well documented mental health issues

Police officers outside the church, April 2019.
July 27, 2020 - 6:00 AM

Four days before Matrix Gathergood walked into a Salmon Arm church and fatally shot his “father figure” Gordon Parmenter, the RCMP made the call that he was not a threat to public safety and the guns they knew he had remained in his possession.

"(Gathergood's psychiatrist) reported she had a discussion with the assigned officers from the RCMP and the officer relayed that the police were not concerned for public safety at that time, and did not prohibit Mr. Gathergood from possessing firearms," Justice Sheri Ann Donegan said in her judgement, referring to the conversation that had taken place four days before the shooting.

That conversation was specifically about Gathergood's mental state and an incident that prompted them to say they’d review his possession of weapons. It was a review that came too late.

On the morning of April 14, 2019, Gathergood drove his pick-up truck to the Church of Christ in Salmon Arm armed with his 12 gauge pump-action shotgun. He walked into the church where he knew Parmenter would be and shot him in the back of the head.

Gathergood left the church, but unsure of whether he had killed Parmenter, he returned a few minutes later and fired two more shots at Parmenter. One hit parishioner Paul Derkach in the leg and Gathergood was wrestled to the ground and held until police arrived and arrested him. Derkach survived his injury.

Gathergood told police Parmenter was trying to kill him and he believed his life was in immediate danger. He believed Parmenter was part of a new world order that controlled everything. He believed a tape recorder had been put in his stomach and it was recording what he said.

At one point he'd refused to speak because he thought it was too dangerous and would only communicate in writing. He was convinced people wanted to kill him and had slept on the couch with his rifle. He believed he couldn't go to the police because they were involved, and society was killing people. He had told a psychiatrist he was not paranoid, "just aware."

Gathergood, 25, pleaded not guilty and was found not criminally responsible due to his schizophrenia in the first-degree murder of Parmenter, 78.

There were multiple red flags and causes for concern in the months leading up to the shooting and police could and should have acted sooner, UBC Clinical Assistant Professor and psychiatrist Barbara Kane said.

"The police could have taken (Gathergood's weapons) if they thought there was a concern," Kane said. "The psychiatrist obviously thought there was a concern."

Kane said, as a psychiatrist, she would call the police and tell them to seize a patient's weapons if she believed the person may be a danger to themselves or others.

"They can do it right away," she added.

While plans were afoot to confiscate Gathergood's weapons just days before the fatal shooting, there were earlier instances of Gathergood's behaviour that were quite clearly very worrisome, said Kane.

On April 2, 2019, Gathergood had left a rifle on the doorstep on a girl he knew, "as he was concerned about her safety."

The police had been called to remove the rifle and called Gathergood's brother to pick it up.

"They all knew about the gun on the doorstep," Kane said. "That's a pretty big piece of information."

Kane said it's difficult to know why police came to the decision not to confiscate Gathergood's weapons.

"I don't underestimate how difficult it is for the police, but you want to err on the side of caution," she said. asked the RCMP for comment but were told they couldn't accommodate the original deadline.

When it was extended 24 hours, the RCMP replied saying "the investigators with the most knowledge of this file were presently involved in operational priorities" and are not available to assist with the request.

Signs of Gathergood’s erratic behaviour weren't just experienced in the weeks before the shooting.

His brother reported Gathergood "going strange" a year before.

In November 2018 Gathergood had given his brother his guns for safekeeping so he "wouldn't be tempted to use them, to keep him or others safe." His brother reported that Gathergood had started hearing voices in the summer of 2018. He'd started receiving psychiatric help in November 2018 and had been assigned a caseworker.

"Mr. Gathergood (made) multiple attendances to medical professions for mental and physical ailments in the months leading up to the shooting," Justice Donegan said.

"Including attendance with his caseworker, with the Early Psychosis Intervention Program in the community, his family's physician, emergency physicians, two psychiatrists."

Throughout this, Parmenter had been a key figure in his life.

Gathergood had grown up in Silvercreek not far from where Parmenter lived and he would play with the many children the Parmenters had fostered over the years. Parmenter was described as a "father figure" to Gathergood.

Church of Christ minister Doug Kendig said Gathergood had been a very likeable person, describing him as a "gentle giant."

"The whole situation was the opposite of what anyone would have predicted," Kendig said. "It's really sad to think that someone who tried so hard to help someone ended up being turned on by that person."

Kendig said one takeaway from the events was to never give up on people.

"You don't quit, you don't give up on people, you can't say this might be dangerous you can't think like that, you have to do what you can," he said.

Parmenter hadn't given up and had been paramount in trying to get help for Gathergood.

Gathergood's brother also attempted to take control of the situation on multiple occasions, Justice Donegan said in her decision.

At one point, he had taken Gathergood's weapon and kept it at his home under lock and key. Somewhere along the way, Gathergood had retrieved it. In another instance in January 2019, he'd secured his door so Gathergood couldn't leave the house after he displayed erratic behaviour about wanting to go to Penticton because people were after him.

Ultimately he climbed out of the window and fled.

The psychiatrist was called. The psychiatrist filled out a "Form 4" – an involuntary admission to hospital order under the Mental Health Act – and sent it to the RCMP.

Two days later, Gathergood was picked up by police in Kelowna and taken to a psychiatric unit. The psychiatrist said he has a delusional disorder but that he does not meet the dangerousness criteria.

Gathergood was discharged with a prescription. Still, the authorities had not instigated taking Gathergood's weapons from him.

Just two days before the shooting, an appointment had been arranged between the brother and the psychiatrist to get Gathergood to surrender his weapons.

If he wasn't willing, they'd pass it onto the RCMP. Unexpectedly, the appointment was cancelled and Gathergood's brother had said he didn't expect him to show up anyway.

Justice Donegan read out a list of events that had taken place between Gathergood and the authorities, before finally saying, "And then the events of April 14 occurred."

So why, when Matrix Gathergood's mental health had been flagged on so many occasions was he allowed to keep his weapons?

Dr. Kane said the decision ultimately rests with the police and they are not ordered to do so by psychiatrists.

Under the Canadian Firearms Act, firearms inspectors are allowed to revoke a licence if the holder has been or is being treated for mental health issues. A Vernon defence lawyer said police can apply for a warrant to seize weapons easily, it's available seven days a week, and not in an open courtroom but by teleconference.

And it does happen.

In December 2017, a Kamloops woman called police to say her husband was suicidal. The RCMP interviewed her husband who they considered to be depressed but not suicidal and the man ultimately handed over his weapons and lost his licence. However, he later appealed the decision, even though a doctor had stated, “Do not give him guns. Do not give him any weapons” and he won the case. A Supreme Court Justice overruled the decision to give the licence back after the Chief Firearms Officer of B.C. took it back to court.

Which raises the question again, why didn't the police seize Gathergood's weapon?

Coalition for Gun Control president Wendy Cukier said while Canadian law puts the onus on the individual with the weapons to prove they should keep them there was an "implementation gap" when it comes to enforcing the law and erring on the side of public safety.

"Often the failures have less to do with the legislation and more to do with the implementation," Cukier said.

"There are many, many cases we see across the country where there's a gap between what is possible in the law and what happens on the ground."

Cukier puts some of the blame on the gun lobbyists.

"We've had more than 10 years of what I would call 'gun control chill', where the police have been discouraged to appear to be heavy-handed for punishing law-abiding gun owners," she said. "And as a result of that is a real erosion of... the culture of safety, where you err on the side of public safety because it's far better to do that."

B.C. Canadian Mental Health Association CEO Jonny Morris said he wouldn't comment on the specific case but it highlighted a broader aim for the mental health system.

"The greater call to action is how do we in the province create a mental health system that prevents illnesses from getting much more severe and respond adequately when it needs to?" Morris said. "Let's not equate mental illness with violence. That just creates the problems in the system, doors start to close when we think someone with schizophrenia or an illness is going to go out and kill someone. The statistics do not support that."

Morris said mental health care had been under-resourced for many years and removing barriers to care and being more efficient would help people get help sooner.

Cukier points to more gun control to stop such tragedies.

"We have fewer controls over the sale and record-keeping (of weapons) than we did in 1977," she said.

"We need more resources, more awareness, and more accountability to reduce the chances that tragedies like this will occur."

Gathergood remains confined to a psychiatric hospital.

Justice Donegan said Gathergood still has insight into his actions and does not recognize he has a mental disorder and his actions were a result of paranoid delusions.

Matrix Gathergood's brother did not respond to our request for an interview.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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