Brandon police are investigating after a woman living at the city manager’s house died suddenly of a suspected overdose in July.
While acknowledging citizens may have concerns surrounding the circumstances prompting the investigation, Mayor Rick Chrest continues to defend Brandon’s chief administrative officer — maintaining he was a support for someone struggling with an addiction.
Christine Robin Mitchell, 30, had been residing at Rod Sage’s home for almost five years, according to a CBC report on Wednesday. She was taken to hospital for a suspected overdose on July 10, and later died in hospital.
Police became aware of Mitchell’s death on July 11 from a member of the public, Brandon Police Service Sgt. Kirby Sararas said, and opened an investigation immediately.
The investigation is ongoing, Sararas said, and as such BPS is unable to disclose any details, such as whether there are any allegations of criminal wrongdoing.
However, this is not the first time Sage’s home has caught police attention, Sararas confirmed, as police conducted a search of the house for guns last year after receiving information.
No warrant was issued as Sage was co-operative with police. No guns were found and no charges were laid against him.
"There was a search done on the residence that was negative," Sararas said. "When information comes to us, whether it’s a tip, information from a member or a report, we investigate it."
Sage declined an interview with The Brandon Sun on Wednesday, but he previously told the CBC he met Mitchell approximately seven years ago at a Tim Hortons.
Mitchell was struggling with mental health issues and addiction issues when she asked Sage for help, he said, and he offered her a place to stay, as well as giving her spending money for necessities such as groceries, cigarettes and toiletries.
A few months after moving in, Mitchell pleaded guilty to a drug-related obstruction of justice charge and was sentenced to 18 months of house arrest, according to court documents.
She provided Sage’s address as the residence she would be serving her sentence.
Friends told the CBC that after Mitchell’s sentence, anxiety prevented her from leaving the house, and that the drugs she was using had to come to Sage's home.
Chrest said he wasn’t previously aware police had searched Sage’s home or that his house had been under surveillance, but it was his understanding it wasn’t Sage who was under direct investigation.
The mayor added that he has never had any concerns Sage was involved in criminal activity or the drug subculture.
"If people are suffering from addictions and are not already homeless, they are staying with family, a friend or a caregiver. … If they’re addicted to an illicit substance, the people they get it from are usually illicit as well," Chrest said. "It creates a significant dilemma for anybody that’s dealing with someone who is addicted, because you’re now on the periphery of illicit activity, and I suppose (of) criminals. … The result of this person staying at his house may have been attracting people who were being watched, and therefore the surveillance was occurring."
After being hired on as city manager, Sage disclosed he was housing someone with an addiction issue, Chrest said, adding it never affected Sage’s work.
"This was in his private life. He disclosed it, he’s not making a big deal about it, and from there it was never an issue. It’s never affected his performance or his duties in any way," Chrest said. "He had a better understanding of addictions than the average person because he was helping someone who was dealing with it, so if it was affecting his job, it was affecting it in a positive light, as he was just more knowledgeable."
Concerns surrounding the integrity of the current police investigation have also been swirling, as Sage is a non-voting member of Brandon's police board.
Police board chair Mark Sefton said he doesn’t believe the investigation affects Sage’s ability to remain impartial on the board, as they don’t get involved in or receive details of any investigations.
"The decisions we make as police board are not around operational matters. The decisions we make are governance matters," Sefton said.
The chief of police has shown in past situations that BPS will not hesitate to call in the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba if at any time he believed the force could be compromised, Chrest said.
"I’m equally confident that if they believe their investigation was leading them to an area they ought not to fully handle … they’d be calling the IIU," Chrest said.
The circumstances of how the investigation was launched also spoke to BPS’s ability and desire to keep everything above board, Chrest said.
According to the Fatality Inquiries Act, sudden or unexpected deaths such as an overdose must be reported to the medical examiner, who will conduct an investigation if there are questions raised about the manner or cause.
BPS was not informed of Mitchell’s death or the circumstances surrounding it until they were advised by a member of the public, Sararas said.
BPS was also first to advise the Chief Medical Examiner’s office of the sudden death, Sararas added.
Mark O’Rourke, executive director of the Chief Medical Examiner’s office, confirmed that an autopsy was never completed, but declined to go into detail as to why.
A representative of Prairie Mountain Health did not respond to requests for comment.
The city will take no action while the investigation is ongoing, as there has been nothing presented that Sage did anything wrong, Chrest said.
"I understand that this, at face value, would be concerning and confusing for some citizens. We’re being very careful to make sure we deal with this properly and thoroughly," Chrest said. "Thus far, this is someone who has provided assistance to a person suffering with addictions. … I fully understand why citizens would be concerned, but I’m also concerned that if we start to vilify people who are trying to help people, we’re going to scare off a lot of people who might have otherwise helped somebody out. … I hope that it brings to light the need for more dialogue surrounding addictions and the stigma attached to it."
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