To look at Lulonda Flett’s case and how she wound up where she is today — in jail for killing five people trapped in a rickety rooming house she torched at 288 Austin St. North in 2011 — is to consider truly human frailties which plague so many in our society.
The word ‘killer’ conjures up images for me, and many others. Hooded thugs who take lives without a thought. Remorseless predators so desperate to feel a sense of power and control they’d commit the ultimate sin to get there.
But that’s not Lulonda Lynn Flett, all things considered. And that’s the queasy irony of it all.
Ironic in that someone who’s as far from the stereotype of the common killer as she is, in the end, ends up taking more life away in one go than anyone else in my memory, including: teen gangsters armed with automatic guns or bona-fide family-loathing psychos.
People with histories like Ms. Flett’s don’t typically wind up in jail for mass slayings, at least not that I’ve seen. They usually wind up there because they shoplifted diapers, booze, or to feed a crack habit out of sheer desperation.
And it’s this dissonance, to me, that makes how she killed five people with one senseless act that much more of a mystery that’s been weighing on my mind for nearly two years now.
To her, the reason why she is where she is is simple. But I just don’t think that’s true. Maybe I’m over-thinking it.
“It was all about the drinking. That’s how I ended up here.” Lulonda Lynn Flett, to psychologist Dr. Kent Somers, early 2013
Could it be that simple? Or is it an excuse to try and dodge a potential life sentence in prison?
Lulonda Flett: The early years
The second-youngest of six siblings (a seventh died as an infant), Flett (then Harper) was born at the hospital in Norway House 41 years ago and soon brought back to her home community of St. Theresa Point.
Her mother’s doctor told her mom to give birth there because there was no appropriate medical facility in the small STP reserve, one of four which makes up the overall community of Island Lake.
A doctor visits there just once a month. Currently, of 521 Homes in STP – 463 have no water service and there’s an 83 per cent food insecurity rate.
Food prices are 50 per cent higher than average retail price — and this is today.
Who knows what it was like in 1971.
Mom was a community health worker and dad worked “odd jobs” to get their large family by.
Her folks drank, struggled with the bottle — excess Flett would ultimately came to see as “normative” behaviour in her later years.
Her parents’ parties often led her older sister to lock the younger kids in a bedroom when the adults were drinking. They’d watch TV or play music. She says dad would go on drinking “binges” to Winnipeg, sometimes staying there for months.
Flett’s older sister described violence breaking out after the drinking parties wound down. This prompted the sister to assume the role of protector to her sibings. She’d camp out on floor by the bedroom’s barricaded door to percent people from entering.
Sometimes, when her dad was on one of his city ‘trips,’ mom would go off to join him. Flett would be packed up to go stay at her aunt’s.
Sometime before she turned 10, Flett says an older relative began abusing her. She says she tried to tell her mother about what was happening, but was accused of “making it up so I wouldn’t have to sleep over there.”
She also says she tried to tell her aunt but, “nobody believed me [so] I just stopped trying to tell them.”
To this day, Flett remains curiously concerned about hurting her now 75-year-old mom’s relationship with her alleged abuser.
She says he tried to apologize to her once, but she rebuffed him. “I told him not to talk to me.” The relative was never charged.
Her mom, now 75 and caring for two of Flett’s children, ultimately quit drinking after Flett’s father got sick with stomach ulcers and suffered kidney failure.
Phase two: A portrait of Flett as a young woman
At around 14 or 15 years old, Flett was sent away from STP to start school in Teulon, at a residential school where nuns ruled the roost. Her sister — her elder protector — was also there.
Raised in a home where Oji-Cree was the main dialect, Flett had to adjust her tongue to the English language as the nuns wouldn’t tolerate a word being uttered in any other language. They “insisted,” she says.
Nonetheless, Flett got good marks and enjoyed school. She “never missed a day,” she says.
According to Dr. Somers, “school represented a refuge from the relative chaos at home, [and] she agreed.” She also enjoyed playing sports.
The sister had a bit of different view, saying she dropped out at one point but was convinced to return. She and others, she says, were treated to disparaging comments from some. “Go back to the bush where you belong,” were among the insults hurled at them.
It was around this time Flett took her first drink. She met a young man named Brian, and became pregnant. This was 1986-87.
She ventured into Winnipeg and had the baby at Villa Rosa. Wanting to return to high school, arrangements were made for her to live with a relative in Brandon to complete Grade 11. It didn’t work out as planned.
Flett says that relative’s drinking problem paved her a road back to St. Theresa.
She still hoped to finish Grade 12, and find a job at the local nursing station. But it seems the challenges of life as a new mom didn’t allow that to happen as time wore on. “I had no time for myself — I always had a baby,” Flett says.
By 18, she met her husband to be, B., a man with whom she’s had five children. He was a “nice guy,” Flett says.
But ‘Mr. Nice’ wasn’t to last.
“They used to call me raccoon eyes”
By 22, Flett and B. married, and they went to live at his parents home in nearby Garden Hill. “She was an active and supportive parent to her children,” her sister says.
Around this time things started to get ugly for her.
“She reported that her husband insisted that she drink with him, ‘forced’ her to do so,” Dr. Somers writes of his interviews with Flett.
B. and she would drink “super juice” — a noxious homebrew seen by many as a plague in the “dry” Island Lake community, given the mayhem and sickness it’s spawned there over the years.
B. also insisted Flett smoke weed and later crack cocaine.
They’d smoke up marijuana “almost daily” and come home from work over lunch to get high, Flett reported.
Their marriage and substance-sharing didn’t appear to make the bond between them stronger. Instead, she says B. became “very abusive” on a physical, sexual and emotional level. Flett also says he cheated. He couldn’t keep a job.
“According to Ms. Flett, her husband would lock her in the house, take her shoes and remove the phone so that she couldn’t contact anyone or ‘run away.’ Ms. Flett related that her husband often hit her with objects, and also burnt her with a cigarette.
“She commented, ‘they used to call me raccoon eyes’ because of the bruising from the reported assaults,” Dr. Somers wrote.
It didn’t seem to ever get better. In fact, the abuse escalated into the evil cycle of domestic violence.
“Ms. Flett recounted an incident in which he assaulted her and then dragged her across a patch of rough ground,” Dr. Somers said. He was charged and served six months in lockup — and was fully compliant.
“[W]hen he returned to live with Ms. Flett, the violence continued and it was ‘worse.’ It was a cycle, she kept going back to him, he’d apologize and convince her he’d never do it again.
Berating herself for believing him time and again, she says her in-laws “told her that the violence was ‘always’ her fault.”
Flett’s kids began begging her to not go back to B. “They said he was going to kill me one day,” Flett says.
She and B. eventually separated. He left for Thompson. She stayed in STP — for now.
Somehow in the midst of all this Flett worked at the community Northern Store and managed to acquire her certificates in Home Care support work and First Aid along the way.
But now her drinking, it didn’t stop.
It just got worse.
2009-10: a new beginning?
In 2009, Flett came into a bit of a windfall. It may have also been her downfall.
Having never claimed any federal benefits for the kids, Flett was handed a $14,000 child-benefits cheque and they moved to Winnipeg.
That year or early the next, Flett started dating C., who was 36 and from her community. They met while he was on a drinking trip to the city.
“For Lulonda, this was the best relationship she had ever known,” Flett recently told the writer of a “Gladue” report looking at her aboriginal background and circumstances.
“He never hit me, he never abused me, and he was always there for me,” Flett said. “The two were inseparable, spending all their time together,” the report states.
For a time — and bolstered by the child-tax money – Flett returned to STP, paid for her kids’ needs, helping to fix up her mom’s home.
But C. had his own troubles. An alcoholic himself, he’d panhandle or borrow cash from a relative to get by. Eventually, he started siphoning money out of Flett and the relationship took a dark turn towards an apparent cliff.
“Lulonda returned to the city to be with C. She paid for his wants — alcohol and survived on family and friends as she had no real address. C. was very controlling over money and Lulonda especially as her money dried up. C. and Lulonda were both now on welfare and were drinking constantly.”
It was reflection upon this phase which caused her to realize the power the booze had over her life. “It was all about the drinking. That’s how I ended up here,” Flett told Dr. Somers.
Not seeing the drinking as a problem, Flett never sought treatment. Her kids urged her to take it easy but “even these pleas” didn’t trigger a desire to seek change, Dr. Somers reports.
“She reported only that she has “tried to quit,” prompting hospitalizations for alcohol withdrawal. Flett subsequently relapsed (evidently quite quickly) to stifle emotional pain and because of her affiliation with others who were drinking.”
She equated the hospitalizations largely as normal, given her upbringing (see above).
It was around here that someone made a call to Child and Family Services, while Flett was in the throes of a drinking binge.
Flett’s children were taken away. One was already living with an aunt. Two others went to live with her mom. The others went to dad.
Flett “voiced bitterness toward B., expressing the belief that he had made the call to CFS in 2010 that resulted in the apprehension of her children,” Dr. Somers wrote. “I kind of don’t trust him,” she said.
The alcohol abuse only escalated after the kids were removed from her care. “I was lonely and depressed; I was angry at myself … I didn’t care about myself,” Flett said.
She was drinking up to a 26 oz. bottle of liquor daily up until the day after her arrest. She’d withdraw in hospital, get a valium prescription to ease the symptoms upon discharge. Resuming her drinking habit was “virtually immediate.”
It’s like she was living in a black hole: Drinking, blacking out from it, waking up and starting again.
“I wish it was me who died.”
“I was so out of it: I just remember drinking with C.”
This: Pretty much the only thing Flett remembers about the early morning she torched the couch on porch of 288 Austin St. N. An act of anger which would wreak havoc on the lives of so many.
Just days before, she had been cut loose from the Remand Centre after being snatched on an old warrant for an assault against a relative who stayed at the rooming house. Someone she was barred from being around by virtue of court-orders.
“She reported that (C.) had told her they had argued” on the night in question, but can’t remember what about, Dr. Somers said.
“She recalled attending 288 Austin Street North … but voiced uncertainty as to her actions, almost 20 months having passed.”
Flett was later arrested in a bar and had to be told about what she did and the “extent of harm done” by the officers who interviewed her, the psychologist said, adding:
“When asked about a possible motive for the office, Ms. Flett stated she had been angry at C’s mother, who apparently resided in the rooming house … Apparently, (C’s) mother had previously called the police complaining about Ms. Flett’s behaviour at the rooming house.
According to Ms. Flett, Mr. Harper’s mother has been concerned about the number of people in the building and the resultant noise. However Ms. Flett was clear she did not intend significant harm to others nor did she anticipate that deaths would ensue from her actions.
She commented bleakly, ‘I wish it was me who died.’
She expressed a mixture of tearful remorse for her actions tempered only by a measure of incredulity at the extent of what had occurred.”
Instead, dead are: Norman Darius Anderson, age 22; Maureen Claire Harper, age 54; Kenneth Bradley Monkman, age 49; Dean James Stranden, age 44; Robert Curtis Laforte, age 56.
Flett knew one of the men personally, and says she was related to Maureen Harper.
The wreckage of the fire was incredible to behold. I remember distinctly being there. I will never forget it.
Nearly two years sober, now
Flett today, is a “physically robust” (Dr. Somers’ words) woman living in the “Delta” wing of the Women’s Correctional Centre just outside of Winnipeg.
It’s special needs wing of the new prison, a place where she’s been subjected to intimidation by other inmates who have discovered what she did.
Dr. Somers, in his lengthy report on Flett, makes several findings about her psychological makeup and abilities, ultimately conclusing she’s a “vulnerable individual” who has serious intellectual deficits and only “modest internal controls” to help herself manage her behaviour.
“A significant aspect of these findings from intellectual testing, although notably limited at present, is that these data suggest a context for understanding Ms. Flett’s responses to events in her life. That is, her capacity for learning from prior experiences is likely to differ from that of others [whose abilities are are typical for their age.]…
“Her responses to stress or to problems in her personal life are likely to be more limited and less effective than are those of most others her age. Her actions are most likely to be directed by immediate considerations [most likely about herself] rather than anticipation of long-term consequences [those affecting both herself and others]. Her focus on her own needs and interests over those of others is not a reflection of callous self-interest, it is an expression of her limited capacity for anticipating others’ needs or reactions while being [in comparison] acutely aware of her own hurt, fear and perceived options.“
She needs help, Somers ultimately finds.
Also, she’s no psychopath.
Somers found no “compelling evidence of psychopathy” in the woman.
That is: no display of traits suggesting exaggerated self-importance, callous lack of empathy for others, multiple and versatile patterns of offending, nor frank manipulations of others. (Those are essentially his words).
He notes, however, several “historical factors” associated with Flett’s offending risk. This quasi ‘probability of future harm’ assessment includes the findings:
- Unabated substance abuse, with no intervention.
- Chronic domestic abuse with physical injuries
- Emotional neglect
- Sexual abuse which persisted despite having tried to report it.
- Disrupted schooling
- No interventions; no treatment for mental health issues in past.
The Crown wants to send Flett to prison for life for what she did, for her guilty pleas to five counts of manslaughter.
Her own lawyers want to see her serve time amounting to no more than 10 years.
You can read all about the sentencing process elsewhere. That’s not the purpose of this (lengthy) post.
See, the thing is, after considering all the factors, I just don’t know what’s appropriate here in terms of jailhouse punishment.
Let’s face it, even if she does get life, she’ll still be eligible — eligible — for parole after seven years. So really, the Crown’s bid is one for lifetime supervision. Considering the horrific double-fatal arson case of Howard Mason, the request may not be out of line. The request appears to fall a little flat, however, when considering Flett’s nearly total lack of criminal involvement.
Also muddying the mix is her comment to Dr. Somers about not anticipating deaths would result from her actions.
It has me seriously wondering: Can someone with Flett’s background — with the life she’s been through and her level of intoxication at the time — actually fire the synapses which would suggest otherwise? That she actually knew what she was doing?
I’m just not so sure.
Some parting words of forgiveness
Marie Anderson, the mother of Norman Anderson, who died in the horrible blaze, wrote Flett a simply-worded letter. The level of forgiveness expressed is unusual, and if taken sincerely – inspiring.
“I often think about you and wonder how you must be feeling.
I am writing you this letter to let you know I am not mad or angry with you and that I love you even though I never met you.
It is really hard for me to think about this person that I love so much, that was taken away from me suddenly.
I pray that things will go well for you in court and I do not want to lay charges but it’s not up to me, to make that decision.
I want you to know I want to put this behind me and move on with my life
God bless you and take care
*** Note: The factual contents of this post were largely sourced from a psychological report written by Dr. Somers in April 2013 and a Gladue report authored for Flett’s sentencing hearing. I’ve attributed where possible — most, if not all the direct quotes from Flett are from the Somers report.
Edited post-posting to clean up typos.
Not a ton to say today, but simply wanted to alert PSI followers to the fact the good folks on the inquiry staff have put into the public record in full a number of different reviews and reports which were conducted into Phoenix’s death after it was discovered.
Reading them top to bottom gives you a good sense of the serious issues Child and Family Services and their clients dealt with in the pre and just-post “devolution” phase, and, naturally, the quality of case work and decision-making conducted in Phoenix’s sad case.
What I’ve found most interesting is the marked difference in tone between the two reports.
One was conducted by a commissioned child-protection expert from Ontario, Andrew Koster, and co-written Billie Schibler.
The other, also written by a veteran social worker — Jan Christianson-Wood — was authored for Manitoba Justice/ the Medical Examiner’s Office.
Read them and you’ll see what I mean about tone. Koster’s, while insightful, appears far less blunt in assessing the quality of CFS work.
In any event, it’s fascinating stuff — rare and in[hind]sightful looks at Phoenix’s case and her interactions with the CFS system.
It also bears remembering that these reviews were not shared with workers involved in Phoenix’s case. By and large they only saw them — and then only in bits — in their preparation for the inquiry.
Virtually all, to my memory, said they wished they had been.
I tend to agree they should have been disclosed to them — and to the public too, at least in some form.
More to come on this at a later date.
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“I hear you when you say your family’s broken … what this has done to you.“ — Commissioner Ted Hughes
There was absolutely no need for the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry staff to put Karl McKay’s sons on the witness stand today.
And even having his ex-wife (a McKay domestic-abuse survivor) testifying today was questionable, save for the fact she says she notified Chid and Family Services of potential abuse to Phoenix long before the McKay-Kematch house of cards coming down on top of them in March 2006.
For the inquiry’s sake, she needed to be questioned on this point. That’s fair game.
But the fact there were few cross-examination questions for the McKay “boys” from non-inquiry lawyers [In fact not a single query for child the elder] is telling.
This is just my respectful opinion: There was virtually nothing McKay’s sons had to offer this inquiry which couldn’t have been tendered through affidavit evidence, sparing them the stress of reliving in public the horror they’ve experienced and already testified to in court in 2008.
This became clear to me pretty quickly. These are two now-young adult men who’ve been rocked to the core by what they’ve been forced to live through, through no fault of their own.
And the one likely the most directly affected, McKay son the younger — the eyewitness to a lot of the horror Phoenix went through in a supposedly “tight-knit” Fisher River community which apparently failed to notice she was even around — was clearly terrified by the prospect of being pilloried in the public eye for not speaking up sooner about what he saw than he did.
“Can I make a statement,” the 20-year-old asked at the conclusion of his hour-long direct examination by commission counsel.
Yes, said Commissioner Hughes. The young man had a message for the media in the room — of which there was more than has been usual.
Can I ask you reporters – don’t try to make me sound like the baddest guy on earth?
I read the paper, you guys make it sound bad – you guys make it sound horrible. I couldn’t help it, man.
That’s like the only thing I ask — just don’t make it sound like I’m really bad and terrible, Because I already feel bad. Now that I’m older I feel, like, so terrible and it’s bad enough that you guys are bringing this all back to me and I got all these little memories flashing in my head.
I just want to forget all that.
And without a doubt, we should be doing everything we can to help these young men get past this. Commissioner Hughes even graciously pledged to McKay’s ex to help as much as he could.
What child the younger witnessed basically ruined his life, he said.
“Where do I start?,” he asked when lead commission lawyer Sherri Walsh queried how the Phoenix incident has affected him:
“I’m a pretty fucked up person now. … used to be a good kid … all of it’s gone like that (he snaps his fingers a few times).” He said he turned to drugs, booze and crime to “block out what I seen.” “(I’m) trying to get my life back together,” he told Hughes. “(It) made me a terrible person,” he said.
His brother’s no different: “I think it made me more like my dad, because I get — when I rage, I can do some damage,” he said.
They were just kids when Phoenix died. Not paid social-work professionals or community vanguards.
Mere children who came from not very much and now saddled forever with the burden of what their odious father did.
The younger son won’t even call him his father, saying he prefers “Wesley” or “Karl.”
If there was one thing their testimony did accomplish, it was to further cement for commissioner Hughes the culture of fear they, and others in their positions, lived in.
- Fear of Karl McKay, their violent and vengeful father (their dad) — and what he might do if they ratted on him.
- Fear of the child-welfare system [both boys were apparently scared when Intertribal CFS workers turned up to 'rescue' them in July 2005]
- Fear of the media and public scorn — of being cast as villains in this horrific tale.
It’s been many torturous weeks since Rohan Stephenson testified at this now-$10-million inquiry.
But it was his words that really gave the most insight into what the major problem was when it comes to considering Phoenix’s case.
“So I was a liar, and (CFS) were incompetent and 15,000 other circumstances all came together and now Phoenix is dead,” he said Dec. 6.
The more I reflect on this, the more simple dissecting Phoenix’s pathetic voyage through ‘the system’ becomes. It really boils down to this:
CFS can’t do its job if people won’t come forward with information, for whatever reasons — including their fear of ‘the system.’
At the same time, when CFS was given information about Phoenix, it failed to rate much attention or urgency until it was too late.
Putting McKay’s sons on the stand today, in my humble opinion, takes us really no further in solving this dichotomy.
We knew all along what they had to say, and by now, we probably instinctively know what it is we’re really confronting here.
We’re no further along today as a result of McKay’s sons’ testimony.