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Man killed by police in ‘severe mental health crisis’ hours before shooting, mother says

Speaking publicly for the first time, mother of 37-year-old Nathan English — who was shot several times by a city police officer — says her schizophrenic son struggled with ‘demons’

It was approximately 2:40 a.m. on Mother’s Day when Cathy Lebreton awoke to the worst phone call a mom could possibly get.   

Her son had been pronounced dead following an interaction with police in Sault Ste. Marie that ended with him being shot by an officer in a west-end parking lot. The Special Investigations Unit (SIU) — an independent government agency that investigates the conduct of police that may have resulted in death, serious injury, sexual assault and the discharge of a firearm at a person — is now looking into the circumstances surrounding the fatal shooting. 

SooToday has confirmed the victim of last Saturday’s gunfire was 37-year-old Nathan English, who had relocated to the Sault from the small town of White River, Ont. just weeks before he died. His mother is now breaking her silence, speaking publicly for the first time since her son was killed.     

“I never, ever thought what happened would’ve ever happened,” said Lebreton, speaking with SooToday from her home in White River. “Basically, all I ever thought was if he didn’t smarten up, he was going to get into big trouble with his probation officer and he’s going to go back to jail. I never thought this would ever, ever happen.” 

The SIU said the incident began at a Circle K variety store in the city’s west end May 11, where members of Sault Police were dispatched to respond to a disturbance call at approximately 10:30 p.m. “Officers encountered a 37-year-old man in the vicinity of the store and offered to transport him to another location,” the SIU said in a news release issued on Sunday

Later in the evening, police had a second encounter with the man at the Westside Plaza, at the corner of Second Line West and Peoples Road. 

“When the officers searched the man, they located a handgun," said the SIU. "An interaction ensued, and one officer discharged his firearm. The man was struck.”

The man was pronounced dead after being transported to hospital. 

In a brief news release issued Sunday, Sault Police said “officers were flagged down by people” who said an individual was harassing them.

“Officers began an interaction with the 37-year-old and were in the process of getting them to leave the area,” the news release said. “The interaction escalated and an officer discharged their firearm.”

English is survived by Lebreton, his 10-year-old daughter, two sisters, his grandmother and his niece. “We’re all in shock,” Lebreton said. “I’m barely holding it together until I get this all straightened out.” 

English was formally diagnosed with schizophrenia just weeks prior to the fatal shooting, and had been living with bouts of extreme paranoia for years. English was known to Sault Ste. Marie Police Service after being transported to hospital following a mental health crisis he had suffered just a couple of weeks before his death.  

Lebreton is now questioning the use of deadly force given his previous brush with police, especially after she says she was informed by the coroner at Sault Area Hospital that English had been shot “several times” and had “bled out” before paramedics arrived.   

“He was very sick,” Lebreton said. “At the time, he was in a severe mental health crisis.” 

English was extremely angry when Lebreton last spoke with him on the morning of his death.  

“Nathan can be very scary. Like, I was terrified of Nathan, but he’s my son — I know he’s not going to hurt me. But he has these outbursts, and the things he talks about are very scary,” she said. “His demons, devils and windigos. He really believed in all that.” 

Lebreton said her son would usually carry knives around — not to hurt people, but to fend off the demons in his mind that he’d been running from for some time.  

“The last text I got from him was, ‘mom, they’re getting closer, they’re getting closer.’ He says, ‘can’t you hear it? Ding, ding,’ and he says, ‘they’re coming, they’re coming to get me. They’re getting closer.’ That’s his demons — whatever he seen in his head, they were coming to kill him,” his mother said. “That’s what his fear was.”

Despite repeated efforts to get English help for his mental illness over the years, Lebreton said hospitals were always quick to release him. During a recent trip to the hospital about a month ago, Lebreton advised a doctor that he had been refusing to take his medication for months.

She said the doctor suggested a community treatment order, a provision under the Ontario Mental Health Act that’s intended to prevent further mental health deterioration when someone refuses their medication. The order basically allows a physician to impose supervised treatment on a patient after they are discharged from hospital. 

That community treatment order never materialized. “He would be alive right now. He would be on his meds — no f—ing choice whatsoever — and he would be alive,” Lebreton said.

To make matters worse, English had been heavily self-medicating with crystal methamphetamine in the absence of his medication during what would be the final year-and-a-half of his life.    

“I was never afraid of him before — only when he was on meth, because all his demons and all the things he’d see and all that would come out,” his mother said. “I was just scared of not so much him, but just what he talked about.”  

Angry outbursts consisting of violent threats and name calling were commonplace when English was on meth. A proficient guitar player and visual artist, English began creating disturbing paintings that depicted the demons that, in his mind, were chasing him down as his use of crystal meth intensified. 

“It’s really strange stuff, but that’s what was in his head,” Lebreton said. 

English had relocated from his mother’s home in White River to Sault Ste. Marie about a month-and-a-half ago, after suffering a mental health crisis that resulted in police apprehending him and placing him in hospital. He decided to relocate to the Sault after being transferred to hospital here, eventually getting his own apartment just three weeks before his shooting death. 

When Lebreton last visited her son a couple of weeks ago, English had been clean for awhile and was taking his medication. 

“He was perfectly fine,” Lebreton recalled. “We went out and did groceries. I was surprised, because he bought oatmeal — all healthy stuff, because he told me he was going to stop doing meth. He was withdrawing pretty bad.”

But soon after that last visit with his mother, English stopped taking his meds altogether. “I told his friend, just really watch Nathan within the next two weeks — I said all f—ing hell is going to break loose,” said Lebreton. “And sure enough, it’s been almost two f—ing weeks.”

The fatal shooting that claimed English’s life wasn’t his first brush with police. Just two years ago, the Ontario Court of Justice in Sault Ste. Marie heard that English had a lengthy criminal record dating back to 2005.

More recently, English was handed a 12-month jail term and two years’ probation for an incident in Wawa, Ont. where he chased his then-girlfriend with a hatchet and threatened to kill her in December 2021 because he believed she was stealing from him.  

One of his friends from up in Wawa, Angel Fillimchuk, distinctly remembers that incident. She was taken aback when she first learned of English’s death through word of mouth, only because he was off meth and doing “okay” when the two spoke over the phone about a week-and-a-half ago. 

“He was a good person, it was just that he was also mentally ill. Very mentally ill,” said Fillimchuk. “When he’s off his meds, he needs to be locked away in an insane asylum. But when he’s on his meds and he’s sober, he’s the sweetest thing ever.” 

Lebreton would also see her son’s gentle side come out when he would spend time with his young daughter by taking her out fishing on the lake or playing video games with her as a “loving, normal father.” She said the change in him was like “night and day.”  

“It was just unbelievable the way he was,” Lebreton recalled. “When he was around her, he was like a totally different person.”

In the wake of such a profound loss for English’s family, the shooting victim’s mother is left with burning questions that have no easy answers or quick resolutions.   

Lebreton said If the police knew it was English on the night of his death, officers should’ve been aware of all the times he had been in a state of crisis over the years due to his ongoing mental health issues. By law, police services cannot comment on an active SIU investigation.

“They’ve had to tase him before,” she said of English’s past interactions with police officers. “They’ve tased him twice — why do the police have to shoot him?”

James Hopkin

About the Author: James Hopkin

James Hopkin is a reporter for SooToday in Sault Ste. Marie
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