It took just nine minutes to destroy the life John Smith spent decades building.
He was walking his daughter to school April 1, 2016, with her backpack slung over his shoulder.
“We had literally just stopped holding hands after crossing the road and he got us,” said Smith, who asked to use a pseudonym for this article, due to ongoing fears of his assailant.
Using the backpack, a man who has since been identified by the courts as Marc Andrew Fines, pulled Smith toward him and repeatedly punched him in the back of his head. Smith turned around at some point and incurred countless more shots to his face.
Eventually he was overcome by the weight of the attack and fell to the ground where the beating continued.
“I don’t remember any of it, but I know what I’ve been told,” he said.
“My daughter watched the whole thing… it was about nine minutes. They call it an attack on me, but I call it an attack on her. She was put in a position where she was helpless.”
As Smith was pummelled, his 8-year-old daughter stood silently in the middle of the street, fearing the attack would worsen or turn toward her if she said anything.
She wanted someone to stop and help, and eventually they did.
Some ladies came out of the Ellis Street Bliss Bakery and tried to chase him down.
Fines got into a grey Ford sedan, and tried to run them all down.
Mounties got wind of the attack and started to look for Fines. A Mountie who had been at the Queensway bus loop drove toward him and Fines allegedly rammed into his cruiser, accelerating before impact.
According to a press release from Cpl. Jesse O’Donaghey the day of the attack, Fines then allegedly advanced on the stunned police officer from the open driver’s side window of his cruiser.
“Nearby construction workers were quick to jump into action to assist the police officer,” said O’Donaghey. “They aided the officer in controlling the suspect who was subsequently taken into police custody.”
The story made headlines across the city, largely for the violence against the Mountie and related heroics from nearby construction workers. What was lost in the police rendering was how significantly injured Smith was, and what it really means to survive a life-altering assault.
“They made what happened to me sound like two kids fighting over a toy,” said Smith, referring to police continually referring to his attack as a backpack theft.
“(From the attack) I lost my memories of my daughter as a baby and lost my memory of my dad and family. So now that I have a brain injury and mental illness where does that put me if he got off? I am happy one day and depressed the next. I just want my life back.”
Mark Fines was found not criminally responsible for his violent rampage through Kelowna.
The Criminal Code explains that while he did commit the acts he was accused of, it was “while suffering from a mental disorder that rendered him incapable of appreciating the nature or quality of the act or of knowing that it was wrong.”
Next Tuesday the matter will be before a three-person panel from the B.C. Review Board at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital in Coquitlam, where Fines is being held.
Meanwhile, Smith just finished the victim impact statement that will be read at that hearing and it’s caused him to look at his life more closely. For one thing, he doesn’t like being called a victim, but given his helplessness in the situation the title fits.
Not long after the incident, Smith was asked to speak at an event about victims of violence. He told his story, and someone in the audience said he should be ashamed for taking his daughter out downtown so late in the evening.
When he told her the attack they suffered was at 8 a.m., in a neighbourhood surrounded by high-end condos the crowd went silent.
“‘Anywhere, anytime, anyplace, anyone — that’s basically how I look at attacks now,” he said.
“It’s now an odd thing. I notice (potential safety threats) all the time. I saw a lady while I was walking downtown the other day and she was leaning into her car with her back facing the street and I thought, ‘you know, what an easy target.’”
In addition to continually identifying where problems could arise, he doesn’t enjoy walking around his neighbourhood. That, however, is just the tip of the iceberg.
Smith doesn’t bear the physical scars of his attack, and is pleasant to speak with. There are no strange tics or behaviours that send up red flags.
But that doesn’t mean he’s OK. In fact, surface level normalcy is almost a disadvantage.
“I cry a lot. I get emotional easy,” he said, explaining that he’s overwhelmed by the volume of tasks his brain has to sort through to do the simplest of things, like making coffee.
In the time since his injury he’s created plans that allow him to function, but if something goes awry it’s hard to recover.
Not long ago, as an example, he needed to get gas. The station he usually uses was too far away so he had to go elsewhere.
There the digital screen on the pump didn’t allow gas to flow until he answered whether he wanted a car wash, and he couldn’t process how to move forward.
As he felt the pressure mount he went into a car and Googled what to do on his smart phone, rather than speaking to the teenager in the store who would likely have been confounded by the simplicity of the questions.
It would have frustrated them both. This is why Smith actually has sympathy for his attacker.
“I can see why people who have brain injuries get tasered,” he said. “You get used to independence, and as an adult you should be able to do certain things. It’s frustrating when you can’t do it and when people try to help it’s even more frustrating.”
AFTER THE HEADLINES
“People have often asked me why I’m not angry at the guy who did this,” Smith said.
“I mean, there is some anger there, but I’m not mad at him. I’m more mad at the system.”
For people dealing with invisible barriers like brain injuries or mental health problems, it’s hard to find the right kind of help.
He has a counsellor funded through victim services limited, but there’s been little to help with the life expenses that have piled up since the incident.
He didn’t have a job at the time, so he can’t get any wage loss supplement. Also, it will take a couple of years before it’s clear whether his brain injury is permanent, so he can’t get any assistance from that. He could get social assistance, but then he’d lose his rental assistance. While he treads water, he’s having a hard time finding a path forward.
“The attitude of service providers is, ‘if you don’t come to us we’re not coming to you,’” he said.
Trouble is, he doesn’t know where to go because he’s starting life anew.
“People think, ‘oh, he looks normal,’ so I must be high-functioning,” he said. “The less normal I look the more help I’d get, but then you get treated like that and I’m never going to get any help in that way.”
Someone once told him he’d be better off if he’d committed a crime. Then the system would wrap around him. The shortcomings of the system are why he’s sharing his story.
Roughly 80 per cent of Canadian prison inmates have sustained a brain injury, said Marcie McLeod, director of client services, for BrainTrust Canada, in Kelowna.
It’s no coincidence, she explained. Once a person suffers a brain injury they have to deal with everything from a change in personality to memory impairments, which can cause more problems.
“But the biggest one is impaired judgment and inability to control impulsivity,” said McLeod.
“We’ve had clients who are in a store, who think, ‘I want some cheese’ and they don’t think of the consequences of taking the cheese.”
In some cases people are quick to anger or don’t have good control or emotional management, and that causes even more side effects, like turning to drugs and alcohol, and the downward spiral can continue from there.
“We talk about brain injury being an invisible disability,” she said. “Nobody can see you are struggling in your brain. All of our clients say, ‘if you go in with a wheelchair, they would know what your disability is or what your challenges are.’”
Trying to explain how your cognitive deficits play out—that’s an invisible problem.
For their part, BrainTrust just tries to support clients as they navigate a new world.
“Even if it’s just a personality change, people maybe don’t have the patience to deal with other agencies or maybe feeling overwhelmed or over-stimulated by dealing with that many service agencies,” she said.
While Smith tries to navigate his world, his family is doing what they can to help him get the financial support he needs. They recently started a GoFundMe titled A Daughter’s Wish for Her Daddy where they further describe the challenges ahead of them.