On Monday, November 3 of last year a fire broke out at a group home for people struggling with mental health, disability and addiction issues. One man, 72-year-old David MacPherson died and between 20 and 30 residents (depending on who you ask or what you read on what day) were left homeless. The breathless news reports come fast and furious from The London Free Press. At the centre of the spectacle was soon-to-be London’s most infamous bad guy, Keith Charles. He ran the group home and a few others like it under the auspices of an organization called People Helping People.
Keith Charles says he founded the organization ten years ago, but he can’t remember for sure and gives a different number almost every time you ask him. I soon discover this is typical of him. Trying to get a fact out of him is like trying to grab hold of a blob of mercury. I wouldn’t call Charles a liar, but he would make a terrible historian. Charles is 54 years of age, an immigrant from British Guyana, and is a proud survivor of both mental health issues and addictions. People Helping People is billed as a peer support system where everyone involved has been affected in some way by mental health or addiction issues, or both. It is neither an incorporated business nor a registered charity. But it is how Keith Charles makes his living.
Depending on who you ask, Charles is either the devil incarnate or some kind of saint. Some people tried to brand him in the press as a slick shyster only looking out for his own interests. Others sang his praises. Anyone who spends time with him can easily see the slick part; he has a certain folksy charm that puts people at ease. It also didn’t take me long to experience his manipulative side. It would take me a considerable while longer to realize what this part of him was really all about.
Reading the reports from the Free Press was an odd experience. Their coverage had a kind of bi-polar quality to it. One day they seemed to be painting a picture of a con man preying on the vulnerable. The next, every official under the sun seemed to be expressing their surprise that such huge gaps in the system existed in our picturesque city and were promising to do everything possible to help these poor marginalized people. The occasional quote from someone who supported Charles was tossed in to balance things out. Things weren’t adding up.
Right out of the gate with their very first story, the official ass-covering began. That first report began: “Fire crews were on their way Monday to inspect an apartment building for the fifth time in five days when a fire broke out in the three storey walk-up . . .” The article continued with a quote from deputy fire chief Gary Bridge. “We’ve taken this building very seriously. The concerns aren’t violations necessarily that would ignite a fire but we need to make sure if one does start, (residents) can get out”.
After the fire, they had some time for reflection. “We had some discussion about should we have done it (closed the building) two weeks ago?” Bridge told the Free Press. They had considered getting an order from the Fire Marshal to shut the place down, but out of concern for the fact that these “vulnerable” people had nowhere to go, they decided to move slowly.
The same day the paper filed another story reporting how numerous agencies had been tracking the building. Officials claimed that only recently had they heard complaints that the building was being run as an unlicensed, “dangerous” and crowded group home. Prior to that, they said, it was just garden-variety complaints.
Coincidentally, the article reported, “Health unit officials were about to hold a meeting Monday to discuss problems at the building when the fire broke out.” The words “illegal” and “unregulated” frequently peppered news reports to describe the group home, fueling a sense of urgency about this new boogeyman Keith Charles. Authorities had been prepared to act, but not yet. Everyone was just about to do something drastic. And to drive the point home, it was time to ramp up the panic with a show.
Soon another story announced the dramatic news with this opening line: “Firefighters swooped down Thursday on another unregulated home operated by Keith Charles, issuing what’s called an ‘immediate threat to life order’ for fire code violations . . .” The infractions weren’t as severe as the order might suggest. There were too few smoke detectors, a couple of holes in the interior walls, and someone sleeping in the basement.
Deputy fire chief Gary Bridge was ready to comment once again. “Essentially, where (the basement tenant) was living was not a suitable place for anybody to be living.” What he didn’t say was that save for the fact that it was a dingy, musty, unfinished basement, it was a typical basement with a stairway leading directly to the rear door.
In evidence that would surface later, a Crown brief contained a statement from one of the fire inspectors saying: “A male tenant was allowed to occupy the unfinished room in the basement with only a mattress to lay on, though not a specific fire code violation it demonstrates the inadequate living conditions that existed.” The fact that someone was sleeping in such a depressing environment seemed to bother them more than any imminent threat to life, but that’s not how it sounded in the press reports. But the fire department was now “on high alert” and had been blitzing buildings on their “radar” since the day of the fire.
What Charles would later claim bothered him the most about the “show” was the fact that there was a television crew from the local TV station there to capture the drama. The fire department shut the house down and stationed a security guard at the door while workers they summoned brought the house up to code and the bed was removed from the basement. After only a few hours, everything was up to snuff, the TV reporter was long gone, and everyone was allowed back in. The bill for repairs was handed to Charles, who passed it along to the owner.
The burnt out building was ordered shuttered by the fire department until repairs could be made and the place brought back up to code. Kind of unnecessary, since everyone had already been displaced and scattered throughout the city and there were no immediate plans for either restoring the building or having anyone return. Charles was slapped with a number of charges under the fire prevention act.
The province was opening the new Parkwood Institute in the city that week, the just completed long-term care facility for the mentally ill. Everyone who was anyone with a stake in the happy news of the shiny new facility was there. Despite all the fanfare, no one seemed keen to point out the new hospital had fewer beds than the old one and cuts to and problems with the system were ongoing.
What they all did, though, was express their shock and horror at recent events, claiming all this came as a big surprise to everyone. London NDP MPP Teresa Armstrong said, “Londoners are shocked that those with disabilities, addictions and mental health problems have to choose between being homeless or living in unsafe housing”. Deputy Premier and London MPP Deb Matthews said housing for these people was the government’s top priority. “This story is shedding a light on part of our community that hasn’t had the attention that it should have had,” she told the Free Press. “I’m determined to do everything we can do to make sure people living with mental health and addiction issues are housed properly.” In fact, that light had been shining bright for the last couple of years with story after story about the crisis the mental health system in London was facing.
But now I want to tell you about the Keith Charles that I got to know and what People Helping People means in the real world. I didn’t have to sell myself to Charles at all. He was sure I was the guy to do the
story right, without knowing anything about me. That was probably for the best, because I didn’t actually have a sales pitch prepared for him. I had no idea what “the story” was about, I just had a gut feeling something wasn’t right.
The original plan was to make a television documentary. So I showed up at the Charles group home with my camera and gear. Not only was Charles ready to go, so were the residents of the home. I was introduced as some guy from the university making a “biography” of People Helping People. It was nearing dinnertime and Charles was preparing the evening’s meal. I turned on the camera and tried to interview him as he cooked. He was quite honest about his troubles. He had been a drug addict and an alcoholic with mental health issues. He had been in jail and “lost everything” and lived in homeless shelters for a time.
The environment was quite noisy. The television was up loud and many people were talking at once, trying to get my attention. Many of them had no teeth and were borderline unintelligible when they spoke; all those missing teeth made for a constant stream of indiscernible noise. It was stressing me out. I made an excuse to leave and cut the day short. A few days later Charles called and asked if I was ready to come by again. He picked me up in his beat up, brown 2004 mini-van. I opened the door and a tsunami of junk started pouring out – old coffee cups used as ashtrays, food wrappers, cigarette packages, every kind of paper and packaging you could imagine. There was nowhere for me to sit until he scooped up a pile of crap and threw it in the back seat.
As we started to drive away, the motor was making this clunking sound and I could see the engine light was on. He asked me to take a pen and piece of paper and write down the address he was going to play for me from his voicemail messages. There were all kinds of people calling from hospitals, shelters, rehabs, and a collection agency about an overdue payday loan he had taken out. Then he got to the one he wanted. It was some guy telling him the address where he could pick up a sofa he wanted to donate. Without asking, I had been recruited as his moving man. I would have said yes if he had asked. But this was that manipulative side of Charles I mentioned before. He told me to help him heave it on top of the van and he would tie it down with the ‘rope’ he bought. It was more like thread and I thought the thing would never hold. “Don’t worry about it,” he told me, “I’ve done this before.”
As we started to drive away, Charles began talking in a very animated and enthusiastic kind of way. He wasn’t paying attention to his driving to begin with, then he got on that phone again. He was calling ahead to the house to try to get a couple of guys to remove the old couch. No one wanted to help. They were all like children, he told me; they wouldn’t do anything without an incentive. Two of the men were promised five dollars each if the thing was gone by the time we got there.
Charles told me the furniture in the second house needed to be replaced because it was infested with bed bugs, a problem he was constantly struggling with. This was my first visit to the second house. It was just two doors down and all three of the houses in the row were owned by this old lady who was the landlord to the tenants of the group homes. As the boys handled the sofa, Charles took me around the back way. Standing out there was this rather large young man with glossy pink eyes. Charles and I both knew what that meant. Charles explained that Tony has a serious drug problem – the hard stuff – crack and crystal meth, mostly. He’s also schizophrenic with a history of violence. Charles’ preference is for zero drug use, but in this case he was trying to do harm reduction by keeping it to marijuana. This didn’t sound good to me. I know enough to know that psychosis and drugs don’t mix. Add a person with a volatile temper and you have a recipe for disaster, which is exactly what had already happened. Charles gave me his full name and told me to look him up in the papers.
We entered through the rear door and my senses were immediately overloaded. I was instantly accosted by this yappy little dog who got in my face and wouldn’t stop barking and snarling at me. The television was blaring as well as loud stereos in some of the bedrooms and several people in the common area who all wanted a piece of Charles. Some wanted their meds. Others wanted to know when dinner was coming. Some wanted cigarettes. He handled them like a pro, speaking calmly to one person at a time. I, on the other hand, wasn’t so calm. This bedlam was getting to me. I did my best to stay focused. I was there to observe. The kitchen, dining room and living room could only charitably be described as a dump. But it was clean. There were no dishes or garbage piled up. But the air was thick with cigarette smoke despite the fact that no smoking signs are plastered everywhere. It’s a duplex with four bedrooms, three on the main floor and one on the second floor, each as messy and cluttered as the next. It looked like a bunch of teenagers had been running amok with their parents on vacation.
“I’m only responsible for the main part of the house,” he told me. “Their rooms are their own and I can’t help it if they want to live like pigs.” Fair enough. Nobody tells me to pick up my socks in my place, either. He then showed me the basement – unfinished, dark and dreary beyond imagination. One guy lives down there and sleeps on an old couch. This is what seemed to offend the fire department so much when they said it was no place for a person to be living. But the guy who lived there considered it a palace compared to a cardboard box on the street.
Charles said we should go to the other house so he could start dinner. He stopped me en route and suggested we have a smoke and talk. My aggressive approach the other day rattled him. He was worried about what I would say in any work I produced. He’d found it hard to endure all the bad press. He was particularly concerned about his kids and didn’t want to embarrass them further. This I understood. But then out came Keith Charles the boss. I got a precise outline of all the points he wanted me to make and what he didn’t want to see. Then he said he was nervous and maybe he should back out. I explained I had no idea what I was going to say because I don’t know enough yet to form any clear opinions. I tried to reassure him that no matter what, I’d be fair. This wasn’t enough to calm him down and he needed to vent for a good half hour while I stood outside in the frigid cold freezing my butt off so he could feel better. This became something of a routine for my next few visits.
The first house is nicer than the second house. It’s brighter, has nicer furniture and is a bit calmer. Again, the common areas and kitchen are clean and tidy. He offered to take me through the place. Karen was sitting in the living room with her husband Brian and overheard us talking. She wouldn’t let him show me their room because it was a mess. He politely agreed, but then snuck me in anyway. It was a mess. But three of the four bedrooms were neat, if stark in their bareness. Two of the beds had neither sheets nor pillows. Then we went to the basement. Again, it was unfinished and depressing. There were three beds in one large room where three of the male residents all slept. It wasn’t dirty, but it was messy. Charles took me to the storage room in the back, which was full of junk piled up half way to the ceiling. He said it’s all basically garbage, but these people have few belongings and this stuff is important to them.
Charles told me it was Karen and Brian’s 25th wedding anniversary. I asked him to tell me a bit about them. They met in the old psychiatric hospital here in London. Brian is schizophrenic and Karen is manic-depressive. Brian is also developmentally disabled. Charles told me they are good examples of the kind of people he deals with, which is to say people no one else wants. He said they’ve both been kicked out of numerous hospitals, government run housing programs and nursing homes. “It’s behavioral issues,” he told me. “They are non-compliant with the rules.” Especially when it comes to smoking. Nothing will stop them.
I had my camera and Karen asked me to take an anniversary picture. I was happy to do it and they were tickled with the photo. Later, Charles told me Karen was a drug addict with a fondness for Tylenol. She’d overdosed repeatedly and one time Charles had to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while waiting for the paramedics to arrive. He told me she spent a good deal of time living on the streets in Toronto, “with all that comes with”. I understood what that meant.
When I sat down with her some time later, she denied most of what he told me. She said she was the mother of six children, none of whom she has seen since the youngest was three years old. She suspected they lived in Toronto, but really didn’t know. She told me repeatedly how much she loved Charles because he took such good care of them. He called her the queen of the house, and she took the title seriously. Without him, she didn’t know what they would do. She especially didn’t want to try another “old folks home” because she couldn’t stand the fact that people were constantly dying. It depressed her.
Even the men living in that awful basement were happy to be with Charles. One some level they all know they can’t make it on their own and are dependent on him to care for them. They know they are one heartbeat or one fire code violation away from homelessness. I spent a bit more time with Charles as he prepared dinner for the eight residents in house number one, and the seven in house number two. The population changes often with some people drifting in and out, some only crashing for a few days. I met this kid, probably no more than 20-years-old, who was hiding out in the basement to get away from the crack dealers he owed money to. Charles let him stay for a bit, fed him and cleaned him up before he moved on.
On this night he was making beef teriyaki with rice. It smelled delicious. Charles told me trained as an executive chef at George Brown College and once prepared a meal for Prince Andrew. He insisted I eat, too, because no guest in his home leaves without a meal. I saw numerous unidentified persons come and go for a night, all of whom he fed and kept warm at his own expense. Charles provided a safe refuge if you needed it and he hated turning people away, regardless of whether they could pay or not.
A man then came into the kitchen and made a few grunting noises and was speaking with sign language. Charles told me he was deaf and began to converse with him in sign. I said I didn’t realize he knew sign language. Turns out he really doesn’t, he just knows how to communicate with this particular guy. He handed him a two-dollar coin and told him to set the table. That was his job; he was paid two dollars a day to set the table for every meal. Not much of a job and not much money, but it was important to him. He had no cash and this meant he could go for coffee at Tim Horton’s if he wanted to. It’s also $60 a month out of Charles’s pocket.
This is how he kept things running. He pays a man in house number two ten dollars a day to clean and do the dishes. He also had Lucas as weekend help. Lucas was the big Charles success story. After years of living in the group homes addicted to drugs and alcohol, he was now 29-years-old, clean and sober, has his own place and is headed off to college in the fall. He cooked on the weekends for a small honorarium and enjoyed hanging around with the people he considered family.
A few bucks here and a few bucks there all add up when you do the math. Charles has a deal with the government to care for his people. They’re all on disability pensions and most have a provincial trustee who handles their money. Roughly $475 of their cheques goes directly to the landlord for rent, which includes all utilities, cable TV and basic Internet. Charles does not receive any money in the form of rent from anyone. He is paid about $14 a day per person to provide three square meals and basic personal necessities. This money also comes directly out of their cheques and is sent to Charles from the government. He is not contracted to do anything else. Whatever he does in addition to that, like drive people to appointments, give them their meds, take them to AA, move sofas or feed the dog, are all on a volunteer basis.
The average total most residents pay is around $900 dollars a month for food and lodging. That’s out of the typical $1098 disability each single person in Ontario receives. Fourteen dollars a day isn’t much to feed and care for a person and still make enough money to pay yourself a sufficient salary to survive. Added on top of that is all the freebies he pays for out of his own funds to the drop-ins, and the money he uses to encourage a little bit of help to keep things running.
The Free Press repeatedly used the term “illegal” and “unregulated” to describe what Charles does. It’s true they are unregulated, but the government stopped licensing and funding new Homes for Special Care, as they’re called, a few years ago. You can’t get a license today. If they are “illegal” it is only in the sense that they violate city by-laws in terms of zoning restrictions. Charles has been charged with having the two group homes too close together and worries he may have to shut one down because of it. If Charles is breaking the law, then the government of Ontario should face charges as well because his contract is with the province – the Office of the Attorney General and Public Trustee, to be specific.
He said more than once he was struggling financially and would be better off going on disability. He would have more money and more time for himself and his family. I also heard a message from the gas company saying the bill at his own house was overdue and headed for collections. But he can’t stop. His whole reason for living is to take care of those people. He says they’re the only reason he’s been sober for ten years; they give him a purpose. Charles and Lucas told me the same thing. The only way to get clean is to get out of yourself and find something meaningful and productive to do. Charles once asked me: “What more good can I do on this Earth than take care of these people no one wants?”
He’s talking about people like Tony. I did look him up in the newspaper archives when I had a chance. He once had a bright future in the Ontario Hockey League and maybe even bigger things. But tragedy struck at an early age. His father, mother and unborn sibling were killed in a car crash while the father was driving them to the hospital to give birth. His behavior became a problem in his teens and he was dropped from the hockey team and soon developed schizophrenia and depression combined with an over-powering addiction to serious drugs. One night while high on crack, he put a knife to the throat of a cab driver and robbed him of $40 so he could buy more drugs. He was soon caught and brought before the courts. The judge called his “a sad case” but had little choice but to sentence him to jail time in the mental health ward at Kingston Penitentiary. Charles is one of the few stabilizing influences in his life. No one else wants a guy like this, and that’s what Charles does. He takes the people no one else will have anything to do with.
I often got calls from Charles telling me I missed one sort or drama or another. On one occasion, a clearly upset Charles called to say that Karen had overdosed on Tylenol again and nearly died. She was in intensive care at the hospital. Apparently, she pulled her usual M/O, crying and moaning to anyone she could bully into buying her drugs. This time it was her husband Brian. He was already distraught by Karen’s overdose, but Charles wanted to make sure this didn’t happen again. In addition to the paramedics, the police responded to the 911 call. Charles pulled one cop aside and asked him to scare the crap out of Brian. The officer gave Brian a stern warning: if he bought Karen drugs of any kind again, he would be arrested and sent to jail for five years.
A couple of weeks later I got a frantic call first thing in the morning from Charles. Karen had been found unresponsive in her bed. The 911 operator gave him directions on how to resuscitate her. The police arrived quickly and immediately determined she had been gone for a while. She was dead and there was no bringing her back. Charles had wondered the night before if Karen had taken some Tylenol again because she was acting stoned and out of sorts, but she denied it and no one would admit to having given her any. In retrospect, Charles says he can’t be sure what killed her because she had just been discharged from the hospital again, this time for pneumonia.
The day of Karen’s funeral Charles was making an appearance before the courts on the charges he faced. He tried to get out of it, but ended up missing the funeral entirely. Brian and three others rode with me in a borrowed car. Several others from the two houses wanted to come, but without Charles, they had no ride. Karen’s casket was a simple plywood box with a barcode and yellow rope for pallbearers’ handles. The landscaping crew carried her body to the gravesite. There were about 20 people there, including people from Brian’s church. A minister, who didn’t know Karen or Brian, said a few prayers and the service was over in ten minutes. Brian held up well and we all caught up with Charles for coffee and muffins in the Tim Horton’s parking lot.
Charles always wanted me to phone ahead to tell him I was coming so he could be there. This was in keeping with his controlling nature. I showed up one day unannounced when he wasn’t there and discovered that while residents followed the no-smoking rule when Charles was present, otherwise they smoked whenever they felt like it. The air was blue with everyone puffing away. Theoretically you were in big trouble if you were caught and might even get kicked out but the cat and mouse game went on forever. If residents heard someone pull into the driveway, the cigarettes were snuffed, the ashtrays got stashed under the table and out came the air freshener. It was all totally obvious and could hardly have surprised Charles who knew full well that these people were with him because they didn’t follow the rules in the first place.
But it was a real problem for Charles. It was why he was in trouble. The fire at the other building had started because of careless smoking, and the lack of smoke detectors was because the residents were constantly taking them down, either because they always went off or because they wanted a battery for something or other. Now it was time for him to answer for what happened. He asked me to come to court with him because, he said, it would be good to have the media present. It was Charles trying to use me to intimidate the courts.
When I arrived at the Ontario Court of Justice and we were summoned in, I was introduced as a member of the media and promptly ejected. While Charles may be a scheming pain in the backside, he isn’t stupid. He correctly pointed out to the Justice of the Peace that the fire code specifically stated that it was the owner of the building who was responsible for maintaining fire standards and that he not only wasn’t the owner, he didn’t receive rent money from anyone. He told me afterward that he was optimistic because the Justice seemed sympathetic to him.
A day or so later Charles phoned to say I needed to grab my camera and get to the house right away. A resident had entered a full-blown episode of acute psychosis and needed to be hospitalized. Charles wanted me there before he called the paramedics and came to get me. It was clear from the moment I got into the van that I was being set up once again. Charles said that in mental health calls like this, the police also responded. In his experience, when the police were confronted with a floridly psychotic patient, things could sometimes get ugly. He wanted the “media there” to make sure the cops “didn’t handcuff her and throw her to the ground.”
He made the 911 call as soon as we got in the driveway of the house. When asked by the dispatcher if she was violent, he responded, “She could present that way, yes.” I started filming as the police got out of their cruiser and to my surprise, Charles tried to stop me. After all the trouble to get me there, he didn’t actually want me to capture the event on camera, he just wanted a journalist there to make sure the police didn’t escalate the situation. He was using me to protect the resident, not further the story. Despite being told to stay outside, I followed them in and kept filming. The resident was completely freaking out and the cops looked like they wanted nothing more than to get out of there. Again, Charles told me to stop recording. Not this time, buddy, I thought to myself. You’re not the boss of me. I kept right on shooting through the entire encounter. It ended abruptly after a nurse showed up and gave her an injection of heavy-duty anti-psychotic medication. The resident quickly calmed down and the police and paramedics went away.
It was typical of Charles to pull a stunt like this, but also very smart. I came to realize what I previously regarded as manipulation was really more of a management style. He deals with completely uncooperative, difficult and unwell individuals every day. The only way he can hold it all together is to get people to do what needs to be done one way or another. His main concern was for his people, and if I could help with that, he was willing to use me as a tool.
The next call from Charles was also a surprise. He had received a letter from the prosecutor’s office saying she was dropping the fire code violation charges from the house where the fire occurred. Charles was thrilled. It seemed his own research and defense of himself without a lawyer had succeeded. There was a note at the bottom of the letter saying the charges could be re-instated at some point in the future but we all thought that unlikely.
My second surprise of the day happened when I arrived at house number two to continue my filming. Suddenly, no one wanted to participate anymore. Shocked, I went to house number one where I was greeted with the same reception. They told me to turn off the camera and leave them alone. I went up to Charles and he had a question for me. He wanted to know when my work would be released. When I told him probably not for several months, he began to think out loud. Since the charges had been dropped and the rest would likely be beaten as well, did he now want publicity down the road to stir things up again and antagonize the authorities? It looked like he had concluded that he no longer needed me.
I went into panic mode. I was planning to spend months more researching and filming and now it looked like it was coming to an abrupt end. I decided that if I couldn’t use the camera, I would get out the tape recorder and corner everyone I could for some last minute fact-gathering. It worked. They were willing to talk. It was a total smash and grab at this point. In fact, now that the charges had evaporated, Charles was prepared to talk about what happened with the fire, something he had steadfastly refused to do on camera. I finally found out what was supposed to have happened from his point of view.
David MacPherson was apparently a problem from the day he arrived. A long-time smoker with severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, he needed to be hooked up to oxygen. But because he refused to stop smoking for any reason, the hospital wouldn’t send him home with a portable oxygen tank. Right from the beginning MacPherson was making constant trips back and forth to the hospital because he couldn’t breathe. They would get his oxygen levels up and then send him home. He would continue smoking, have difficulty breathing again, and be right back at the hospital.
Charles saw that his sheets and mattress had burn holes in them. Too weak to get up most of the time, McPherson would smoke in bed and instead of putting the cigarettes out, would just toss them on the floor still lit. Charles did what he could to control him, taking away his cigs and lighter and only allowing him to smoke outside. But Charles would quickly lose control when MacPherson went out and panhandled for money to buy his own smokes. Finally, Charles realized “this guy is going to kill my people” and decided to act.
It was October 31st, three days before the fire, that Charles said he reached out to everyone he could for help. He tried to get McPherson committed to the psych ward but they didn’t want him because he smoked in the hospital. Next, he called one of the community nurses who told him, “Stop talking and get him out of there.” He also called the police non-emergency number to ask what he could do. The officer asked him if the man lived in the house. Charles said yes and the officer told him, “Well, then, if he lives there, he stays there.”
He also had the card for a man from the fire department and tried to ask for his help. Charles says the fire official told him it was a mental health issue and to call the psychiatric hospital for help. Eventually, I was able to pry that business card out of Charles. The name on it was Gary Bridge. The very same Gary Bridge who had been so vocal in the media about everything. And here, in the moment where he was needed the most, Bridge apparently blows him off. Charles felt like he was going in circles. Next, and finally, he called the mental health crisis team who sent out two people. They tried everything they could to find a solution, and couldn’t.
Charles said it came down to one final option: pick the man up and physically put him out on the street. He said the guy was so sick and frail that if he’d done that, he “would have been up on a murder charge, guaranteed.” Lucas was there to witness everything Charles said he did, and backs him up one hundred percent in terms of verifying his story. Partial phone records provided to me by Charles do indeed show that he called the number on Bridge’s card on the day in question. But that number goes to a switchboard for the city, and neither Charles nor I can prove he dialed Bridge’s extension and spoke to him. But the optics are bad. The only person who can tell us what Bridge did or did not say is Bridge, and he doesn’t have a lot to say.
A few days later, MacPherson’s careless smoking started a fire, he was killed, the building was burnt out, and scores of people left homeless. Then came all the bad publicity portraying Charles as the bad guy. Charles and his lawyer tried to tell their side of what happened and a reporter from the Free Press was willing to listen. In an email provided to me by Charles, the reporter asked for a meeting with the lawyer and a chronology of what Charles did and any records he could provide to back it up. Charles insists he handed over all the information about the events, including the phone records and a list of actions he had taken that day. But all that reporter said in his article soon after about Charles’s attempts to get MacPherson out was a brief line stating: “He was trying to find him other accommodation when the fire broke out Monday . . .”
If there was any follow up to Charles’ allegations about deputy chief Gary Bridge, it was never reported on. That journalist skipped a scheduled appointment for a telephone interview with me without notice or explanation, and did not respond to an open invitation to reschedule. I soon get another call from a very upset Keith Charles. The fire department had decided to re-charge him with the code violations. He asked me to come right away to be there.
When they arrived, the one guy did all the talking. He asked who I was, and I said I was a journalist who did not intend to turn off his camera. “I don’t have a problem with you filming,” he told me. Then he and Charles got into it. Charles repeated that he didn’t understand why he was being held responsible. “Keith, I’ve heard this many, many times before,” the inspector said to him.
Charles was presented with a summons to appear in court. He is being charged with failing to have operational smoke detectors in three units on October 28th, the same as before. Charles pleaded with them to help him and to work with him in the future. “Keith we’ve helped you out a lot . . . you’ve said it all for the camera, which I’m sure you’ll use,” the inspector told him. At one point, I interjected that maybe Charles was making a good point and tried to ask a question of the one inspector. He cut me off and said tersely, “I’m not talking to you, thank you.” The two men left for a few minutes and then came back to talk to me specifically. “Joseph . . . just want to let you know that without written consent you can’t use our image,” he told me. Then he added a bit of a threat. “It will be against you personally if my image shows up on something I didn’t consent to.”
I managed to speak with deputy chief Bridge. He was quite willing to answer my questions about Keith Charles up until the point it dawned on him that I was really more interested in what he did or did not do. In response to my repeated question as to whether Charles contacted him three days before the fire asking for help, Bridge insisted he simply could not remember if he had or not. When I persisted in a somewhat aggressive line of questioning, Bridge said he needed to caution me because these matters were before the courts. I said I didn’t care, that he had been quite willing to talk up until now and continued peppering him with questions I don’t think he was expecting. I asked him if the fire department had been so concerned about the apartment building to the point that they had been inspecting it every day, why did they not issue their famous “immediate threat to life” order on that property and bring it up to code themselves? He responded by telling me that they had ordered the building closed. I reminded him that that order was issued after the fire event and was a bit late.
I think he had had enough by this time and told me that my questions were very specific and that he would prefer to reference his notes before answering anything further. We agreed to an interview the next day after he had a chance to review his notes. That interview never happened. Instead, I got an email from Bridge first thing in the morning saying that since the matter was before the courts, he would not be able to provide any more information to me.
He attached his credentials and the fire department’s philosophy statement to the email. It read, in part: “OUR MISSION: Be Caring . . . Be Safe . . . Prevent Harm. OUR VISION: First in Life Safety . . . Prevention, Education, Response and Protection” A few days later, several envelopes of disclosure evidence arrived in the mail to Keith Charles’s home. Most importantly, it contained a “witness statement” from my old friend the fire inspector who threatened me with legal action if I used his image. It recounted how he had a conversation with Charles on the morning of October 31st, three days before the fire, about David MacPherson’s problem smoking. Charles asked him what to do about the situation. The inspector’s advice: take away his lighter and accompany him outside to smoke. He essentially tasked Charles with the role of babysitter and police officer of this man 24/7, when Charles had dozens of people under his care.
The notes in the disclosure refer to this conversation no less than four times. So if Gary Bridge has a case of amnesia about whether he discussed the fire risk posed by MacPherson, at least two of his inspectors made note of their own conversations about it in their records. I remind you of what Mr. Bridge told the media after the fire. “We’ve taken this building very seriously,’” he told the Free Press. “The concerns aren’t violations necessarily that would ignite a fire but we need to make sure if one does start, (residents) can get out”.
Not true, Mr. Bridge. Throwing a lit cigarette on the floor in your bedroom not only can start a fire, it did. And what did you do about it, sir? Had you or your officers acted swiftly and definitively at the time, we wouldn’t be here right now.
So what did I learn here? The only black and white in this whole mess was in the newspaper and it wasn’t to be trusted (notwithstanding that the handful of reporters who worked on the Keith Charles story were nominated for an award in “investigative” journalism that they didn’t win). Keith Charles is a complicated man, but he’s not a bad man. He’s in a whole lot of trouble. But he’s keeping it together as best he can. He won’t stop taking care of his people no matter what they say or do to him. He has to. It’s his reason for living.
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