Bizarre antics possibly 'psychotic': doctor

Arenburg's strange behaviour in court could signal illness, psychiatrist says

Lee Greenberg, The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Friday, May 23, 2008

TORONTO - Jeffrey Arenburg's former psychiatrist says the schizophrenic killer's behaviour at a two-day assault trial in Buffalo, New York, this week indicates he might have slipped back into the grips of mental illness.

"It sounds like a symptom of a psychotic illness, if he truly believes that," Dr. Robert Sheppard said when told about some of the themes Mr. Arenburg pursued while unsuccessfully defending himself against the felony count.

They include Mr. Arenburg's belief that his thoughts are being broadcast by radio stations on a "drug channel" or "microwave channel" and that a major movie studio is turning his thoughts into films. He also told a 12-member jury that radio stations call people in his neighbourhood and "tell them what to think and how to treat me."

Mr. Arenburg's history is dotted with increasingly violent attempts to silence those tormenting voices.

They culminated in 1995, when he shot dead CJOH sportscaster Brian Smith as the popular former professional hockey player left the station after work. Mr. Arenburg was subsequently found not criminally responsible for that act.

One decade later, when Dr. Sheppard became his attending psychiatrist in 2005, Mr. Arenburg's illness had stabilized, largely through treatment and the anti-psychotic drug olanzapine.

He was granted an unconditional release in 2006 after a treatment team led by Dr. Sheppard unanimously concluded he no longer posed a significant threat to public safety.

Almost exactly one year after that release, on Nov. 29, 2007, Mr. Arenburg punched a U.S. border guard in the mouth as he attempted to cross into Buffalo on a two-day shopping trip. On Wednesday, he was found guilty of felony assault for that incident. He now faces between four-and-a-half and six years in prison.

Meanwhile, there are contradictory signs surrounding Mr. Arenburg's mental state.

In April, the 51-year-old former scallop fisherman and railway worker satisfied a U.S. judge that he was competent to fire his court-appointed lawyer. During a two-hour exchange with Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder, Mr. Arenburg answered a host of questions, ranging from his personal history to his understanding of legal concepts and U.S. law.

The judge ultimately declared him to have made a "knowing and intelligent" decision and allowed him to take charge.

Once he took the stand in court, however, Mr. Arenburg baffled jurors and witnesses alike by focusing almost exclusively on paranoid conspiracy theories unrelated to his case.

"What is the reason behind the microwave channel that you hear in the background?" he asked the prosecution's first witness, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent Kelly Pinkoske, in a typical exchange.

"I'm not familiar with a micro...I'm sorry, what did you call it?" Ms. Pinkoske replied.

"Microwave channel. It's a channel that you ever hear in the background for the last 20 years. It went out in I think February the 6th, I think, it went out of this year that people never heard it in the background."

Mr. Arenburg's mental state today appears far removed from his condition two years ago, when he was granted an unconditional release from provincial custody following a gradual re-entry into the community.

"No, no," Dr. Sheppard said when asked whether Mr. Arenburg expressed any of the same delusional thoughts prior to that hearing.

Indeed, Mr. Arenburg's bizarre behaviour at trial this week has raised anew questions about the circumstances of his release into the community.

Alana Kainz, Mr. Smith's widow, said this week that Mr. Arenburg "should never have been released in the first place." She called him a dangerous man who has become more dangerous in the past number of years.

Rhonda McMichael, a former colleague of Mr. Smith's, says the decision to release psychiatric patients like Mr. Arenburg is a balancing act that has to take into account personal freedoms and the safety of the community.

"It's complicated," says Ms. McMichael, who left the CJOH parking lot half an hour before Mr. Smith was killed. "I don't know that I can sit in judgment of people who make really difficult decisions in cases like this."

At the same time, she says hearing Mr. Arenburg's name in the news prompts a lot of painful emotions.

"You sort of feel anger, sadness, a bit of frustration," she said.

Dr. Sheppard said he didn't know enough of the facts to judge whether the Ontario Review Board, the provincial agency that oversees the province's roughly 1,350 criminally insane patients, made a mistake in releasing Mr. Arenburg when it did.

The board must decide a patient poses a significant threat to public safety in order to keep that individual detained.

"I mean, he wasn't released on somebody's whim, he was released because the evidence at the time pointed to him not being a risk to public safety. They obviously look at decisions like that very carefully, and that was their view of it. I don't know anything that's happened since then, so (I can't) comment on whether it was the right decision or the wrong decision."

Others were not so sure.

"Obviously, it wasn't the right call," said Dr. Robert Dickey, a forensic psychiatrist at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. "Having said that, wisdom in retrospect is easy. And this guy didn't reoffend in the worst way possible.

"If you wanted a system that was right all the time, the only way science would allow that is to keep everybody in indefinitely. And no society is going to like that or will tolerate that."