The future of a Kelowna man who fatally attacked his mother with a hammer two years ago will soon be decided in court, but legal resolution is unlikely to console any of those closest to the violent crime.
Conor Frederick Grossmith, 26, has bipolar disorder and lived with his parents until Sept. 13, 2012, when he entered his mother’s room as she lay in her bed and, with a hammer, repeatedly struck her in the head.
Kathleen Gilchrist, 57, died just over a week later as a result of her injuries, having never gained consciousness from the attack. Shortly thereafter, the son who she and her husband shared a close relationship with was charged with second degree murder.
“It’s always a sad situation when family members caring for people with mental illness are the ones hurt,” said Crown Counsel Frank Dubenski, outside Kelowna courthouse, Monday where the second degree murder trial is underway.
“(Harry) Grossmith has lost his wife and as you can see, he’s probably going to lose his son.”
While Conor Grossmith has admitted he killed his mother, the question before the courts is whether he committed the crime because he was in a state of psychosis related to his previously diagnosed bipolar disorder, or if he was just drunkenly lashing out.
Should his mental illness be considered the cause for his actions, and Grossmith is deemed to have been legally insane at the time of the attack, he would be sentenced to spend time in a forensic psychiatric hospital. The duration of that stay would be up to a third-party panel on the BC Review Board, the organization that deals with people found unfit for trial.
If the Supreme Court Justice Alison Beames decides self-induced intoxication was the motivator for the crime then Grossmith, whose blood alcohol level was estimated to be four to five times the legal limit at the time of the attack, would stay in B.C.’s prison system.
“Harry would acknowledge that his son Conor loved his mother,” Grossmith’s lawyer Joe Gordon said Monday. “If Kathleen were here today she would probably want to see (him found not criminally responsible due to mental disorder). The fact is he failed to appreciate that what he did was wrong in the legal sense. That’s what the psychiatrist says, so … that’s what we’re hoping the disposition will be.”
Reaching that point is scheduled to take five days of court time, and will rely heavily on psychiatric assessments.
The first of three psychiatric experts to take the witness stand was forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Shabehram Lohrasbe, who said he believed Grossmith was suffering from bipolar related psychosis on the day he killed his mother.
Lohrasbe reached that conclusion through two interviews with Grossmith, held Dec. 7 and Dec. 8, 2012. In both three hours sessions, which took place three months after the crime, he found Grossmith to be in the throes of a psychotic episode, despite being medicated and clean of drugs and alcohol.
“I was quite surprised by how psychotic he was,” said Lohrasbe. “He had a loss of contact with objective reality.”
In some cases that means having abnormal perceptions, or hallucinations. In others that can be delusions contrary to logic or it could manifest itself through thought disorder, the inability to express thoughts in a logical pattern.
In Grossmith’s case, it seemed that there were a variety of signals that he had a lost his grasp on reality.
“I’d ask a question and he’d start answering, then he’d break off and say ‘what did you ask,'” recalled Lohrasbe.
“At times he was quite calm and coherent and other times…he was abruptly emotional.”
Those emotional outbursts covered ground between extreme anger and sadness.
Grossmith also told the doctor he had unique powers to control others, indicating to Lohrasbe that he was able to manipulate the prison system by slowing the thoughts of everyone around him, and enforcing his will on others.
While Lohrasbe could immediately discern that Grossmith has Bipolar Disorder I—the stage of the mental disorder that is characterized by more severe highs and lows—and that he was psychotic on the days he met him, the challenge in his diagnosis was determining whether Grossmith was suffering from a psychotic break on the day of the murder.
For that he had to patch together his observations with comments from Grossmith’s father and old medical records.
“We have a gap of knowledge of what was going on in his head when he attacked his mother,” he said, noting later that Grossmith had mentioned a passing annoyance with something his mother did, although his reaction was wildly out of line with the irritation.
What was more telling was his history. Since 2009, Grossmith had experienced psychotic breaks every September.
For the 2009 breakdown in Alberta, which was his first, Grossmith had menaced his grandfather, taken a car, thrown a CD case at his mother, and physically assaulted his lawyer, Joe Gordon. Over the course of that lapse in sanity, he told his then-doctor that he had “heard the voice of the devil.”
In the years that followed there are few notable violent outbursts, but Grossmith had been checked into a hospital in September of 2011 after “seeing faces” and feeling a loss of control.
As another year passed the psychosis seemed poised to make a return. The court heard Tuesday that Harry Grossmith had seen his son “cycling up” and made a call to a mental health professional to say as much.
It’s unclear what help, if any, was extended to the family. What is clear, however, is that things went terribly out of control Sept. 13, 2012.
Grossmith had gone to school, then golfing and even met with his substance abuse counsellor, Giovanni Vidotto in the early part of the day. For all that he had been sober, but he had told Vidotto that he had been experiencing blackouts after drinking alcohol.
The relationship his drinking had with his prescribed anti psychotic and anti anxiety medications of seroquel and quetiapine was not sussed out in the court, although Lohrasbe said that there had been no previous links between Grossmith’s continual drunkenness and violence.
That day he started imbibing sometime after 3:30 p.m, when he arrived home. His father, Harry Grossmith, had earlier picked up a box and a 1.5 litre bottle of wine, which amounted to 5.5 litres of wine, from the liquor store at some point in the day.
In an agreed statement of fact, the court learned that Kathleen Gilchrist arrived home at around 4:30 p.m., and she and her husband had started to have wine together while the dinner was prepared.
All three sat down to dinner together and later played some cards. Wine was consumed throughout the night, and by the time Gilchrist went to sleep, all 5.5 litres were gone.
It’s believed that Grossmith had most of the bottle to himself, as it was his habit to drink a lot, very quickly.
Some time after Gilchirst had gone to sleep in her upstairs bedroom, Harry Grossmith was downstairs preparing a snack. His son went into the garage, to what he believed was fetch a soda, and then went back upstairs.
“Harry Grossmith then heard what sounded like two kicking sounds coming from the upstairs area of the residence. He thought his son might have become upset and was hitting the wall, as his son had done this in the past,” reads the agreed statement of fact.
He yelled to stop the kicking, and then went upstairs to see what was happening.
He immediately realized something worse had happened as Grossmith was holding a hammer and there was physical evidence that his wife had been seriously injured.
“Harry Grossmith looked into his son’s eyes and did not recognize the person looking back at him. The father would later describe his son as having a fierce or almost demonic look on his face as if it was someone who was not his son—someone he did not know,” reads the statement. “It was the same look he recognized when he went to pick his son up following an incident in Calgary in 2009.”
The two men struggled, and Grossmith ran to the room with a telephone and called 911. Police arrived at 9:12 p.m., and Grossmith was arrested. Shortly thereafter, the paramedics arrived to help Gilchrist.
For Lohrasbe the demonic look and the violent series of events combined with Grossmith’s medical history and ongoing struggles is quite telling.
“I have a lot of confidence that psychosis was the dominant (motivator),” he said.