Salt Spring man found not criminally responsible for death of his mother

The family of a Salt Spring Island woman murdered by her son in December 2017 is relieved he will finally be getting the help he needs.

On Tuesday, Martin Vandenberg was found not criminally responsible for the second-degree murder of his mother, Heather Jones, at her Maliview Drive duplex on Dec. 6, 2017. B.C. Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Power concluded Vandenberg, 23, was suffering from undiagnosed schizophrenia and was psychotic when he killed Jones.

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“He was under the delusional belief that killing his mother would save her from a worse fate. His schizophrenia rendered him incapable of knowing his actions were wrong,” Power said. “There is no other reason or motive that emerges from the evidence. It appears he loved his mother, as she loved him. This is one of the great tragedies of this case.”

Vandenberg’s case is now under the jurisdiction of B.C.’s psychiatric review board. It must hold a hearing within 45 days.

Jones, 47, was the well-loved owner of a taxi company on the island. Her mother, Betty Jones, and sisters Tammy Large and Penny Jones were in court for the sentencing hearing. For the first time since her death, they were able to see the dark-haired, bushy-bearded Vandenberg, who appeared by video from the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital in Coquitlam.

“We’re happy Martin’s getting help because that’s really what Heather would have wanted,” said Betty Jones. “She would have done anything for her children.”

“We got to tell him we love him and that we’re here for him,” said Large. “This is what Heather has been fighting for since he was a small child. She wanted to get him help, help, help. She knew there was something wrong. Now he’s getting what he needs and deserves.”

An agreed statement of facts revealed Vandenberg beat his mother to death with a baseball bat. He dragged her body to the downstairs bathroom and covered her with towels and bed linen. Jones died of blunt force trauma to the head.

Vandenberg also killed his mother’s two pet chihuahuas. Both died of blunt force trauma to the head.

Heather Jones was found by her mother and by sister Chelsea Jackson, who lived in the other side of the duplex. When the two women arrived at Heather’s house on Maliview Road just before noon, they found Vandenberg on his hands and knees cleaning the bannister. There was blood on the floor beside him.

Jackson and her mother checked the downstairs bathroom. Jackson saw what she thought was a pile of laundry in the bathroom. Then she saw a foot sticking out from the pile of towels.

“Betty lifted a corner of the blanket and saw blood and knew that it was Heather,” said Power.

The RCMP found Vandenberg on the second-floor balcony. He appeared to be in a catatonic state. Police found a silver aluminum baseball bat, smeared with blood, propped up in the bathtub.

Vandenberg was arrested for murder and gave a statement to police at 9:30 p.m.

Initially, Vandenberg lied and said he had killed his mother because she had threatened him with a screwdriver. He then recanted and said he had been hearing voices that repeatedly threatened him.

“The voices told him that unless he killed his mother, unspeakable acts would occur. Both he and his mother would be raped and killed,” said Power.

During a second interview, Vandenberg was more emotional and had to be comforted by the police officer who was interviewing him. “He spoke about voices telling him to do stuff over and over again and that he got rid of his mother because he didn’t want her to go through a worse fate,” said the judge.

The court heard that both Jackson and Vandenberg’s grandmother had tried to get help for his mental-health issues on Nov. 2017. That day, he complained to a friend that he was hearing voices and needed help.

The RCMP had also become involved with Vandenberg when he made a complaint that a woman living in an RV on his father’s property had guns and was threatening him. The complaint was unsubstantiated.

On Dec. 2, Vandenberg told his father, Buck Vandenberg, that there were bugs or listening devices all over the house, and he believed people were listening to him.

Three days later, Vandenberg took his son to Lady Minto Hospital on Salt Spring. They saw an ER doctor and a mental-health nurse who noted Vandenberg’s slow, deliberate speech, slow gait, stooped posture and delusions that neighbours had installed listening devices in his home. Vandenberg was to return to the hospital for a mental-health referral on Dec. 8.

After leaving the hospital, Vandenberg got a ride with his mother to her home. His father assumed Vandenberg would return to the father’s home to sleep for the night, but that did not happen, said Power.

Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Shabehram Lohrasbe, who testified for the defence, interviewed Vandenberg for more than two hours. He found Vandenberg had undiagnosed schizophrenia and a cannabis-use disorder, a problematic pattern of cannabis use that leads to clinically significant impairment or distress. Lohrasbe found Vandenberg was actively psychotic from schizophrenia in the days and hours around the murder.

Lohrasbe was unable to say when Vandenberg began to suffer from schizophrenia.

“That’s one of the tragedies of this disease, that it can be simmering and building and it’s not obvious to family members and friends because it is cumulative,” Lohrasbe said in court.

“What can start off with something you just dismiss as someone having an off day, or being a little strange, starts to build up and it’s easy to attribute it to stress, or he’s lonely, or he’s broken up with his girlfriend or he’s smoking too much dope … until it breaks through and becomes obvious and flamboyant.”

Vandenberg’s schizophrenia became obvious close to the slaying. He wasn’t actively psychotic for months or years, said the psychiatrist.

“It was likely days and weeks and that’s the tragedy. It builds up, and it’s very difficult, particularly for the family, to realize what is going on.”

Outside court, Large said her mother and sister were fortunate to get out of the townhouse alive in the moments after they discovered Heather’s body.

Jackson, who had coffee with Heather every morning, said she knew something was wrong that morning when she didn’t hear from her sister. When she went to Heather’s home to drop off a key, Vandenberg told her his mother had gone on a date.

“Chelsea thought that was weird, because if Heather had gone on a date, Heather would have been giggling and come over and told her everything,” said Large.

When Jackson and Jones entered the house, Vandenberg was on the floor, cleaning. They checked the downstairs bedroom, then went into the bathroom, where they found Heather’s body.

Jones said she didn’t scream or collapse when she lifted the corner of the bloody blanket and saw Heather. Despite her grief and shock, Jones realized Vandenberg had closed the door behind her and Jackson when they came into the house.

Jones said the two stayed quiet and used hand signals to communicate.

“How we ever did it and he didn’t hear us. ... We kept cool heads going in and coming out, I’ll tell you,” said Jones. “Chelsea came toward me and whispered: ‘We have to get out.’ We were worried Martin would think we were too long in the bathroom.”

As they left, they could see his fingers tense.

“Chelsea whispered: ‘Come on, Mom.’ She was afraid he would lunge at us,” Jones said. “But out loud, she said: ‘Martin. Have a good day. I love you.’ And I turned around and said: ‘Have a good day, Marty.’ ”

Family members went to Large’s house to wait while Vandenberg was arrested.

“She touched everyone with her love. Everyone remembers her smile, her giggle,” said Large.

“Everyone remembers her. Didn’t matter if it was the young or the old,” said her mother.

ldickson@timescolonist.com

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