Gay rights activist beaten to death in Halifax
Warning: story contains strong language
Death of gay rights activist ruled a homicide
Police in Halifax are investigating a homicide after a well-known gay rights activist was beaten to death as he was leaving a bar early Tuesday.
One witness tells CTV News the man accused in the assault yelled homophobic slurs at the victim.
"He was consistently using the word ‘faggot,'" says Wolf Engelberg, who says he could hear the commotion from his bedroom, just above where the incident took place on Gottingen Street. "That's what drew my attention to the situation in the first place."
Police responded to the assault call in the 2100 block of Gottingen Street in Halifax's north end at 2:39 a.m.
Investigators say 49-year-old Raymond Taavel was leaving Menz Bar when he tried to break up a fight between a man whom he was with, and a second man who was yelling at the pair as they left the bar.
"There was a blatantly homophobic slant to the things in which he was saying and it was very clear that his primary issue was with the man's sexuality," says Engelberg.
A witness alerted police to the assault after he noticed a man lying in the street, bleeding. He tried to help Taavel, but he died at the scene.
The witness also provided investigators with a description of a man who was seen fleeing the area.
"Our canine unit made an arrest a short time later in a nearby alleyway of a 32-year-old man who is presently in police custody," confirms Sgt. Jeff Carr.
Police have ruled Taavel's death a homicide but they have not confirmed whether he is the victim of a hate crime.
They say the man accused in Taavel's death was out on a one-hour pass from the East Coast Forensic Centre in Burnside. He left the facility at 7:30 p.m. but he failed to return an hour later.
He was reported missing at 8:47 p.m. and officers were dispatched to look for him around 9 p.m., but they were unable to locate the suspect.
"We had officers that had gone out and were looking for him," confirms Const. Brian Palmeter. "Unfortunately we didn't locate him until after the assault took place."
Suspect has violent history
The man accused in the case, 32-year-old Andre Noel Denny of Membertou, has a history of violence and mental illness.
Denny became a patient at the East Coast Forensic Hospital after he was found not criminally responsible for a violent episode on the Membertou First Nation last year and he was granted a conditional release in February.
Health Minister Maureen MacDonald said Tuesday she is shaken by the death of Taavel, whom she describes as a friend and political supporter, but she had few answers about how Denny came to be out on a pass from the hospital.
"At this stage we're gathering information," MacDonald tells CTV News. "It's a horrific situation and I knew the deceased."
RCMP officers were forced to use a Taser on Denny in June, 2011 after an incident on the Membertou First Nation. After they had him under control they arrested him, brought him to the psychiatric unit of the Cape Breton Regional Hospital and he was subsequently charged with aggravated sexual assault, unlawful confinement and uttering threats.
But he was found not criminally responsible and was sent to the facility in Burnside. He was granted a conditional release in February.
Denny also got into trouble less than three years ago when he was charged with injuring a dog, uttering threats and breach of probation on a previous conviction.
A court-ordered psychiatric assessment by Doctor Brian Foley determined that Denny was "grossly psychotic" and had a history of aggressiveness, impulsivity and unpredictability.
"Why was this individual put on an unsupported leave? Those are details that we're going to be looking for," says Liberal MLA Michel Samson.
Peter Lederman, the chair of the provincially-appointed federal criminal code review panel, says the panel grants a conditional release based on the advice of psychologists and psychiatrists.
He says Denny is schizophrenic but hospital officials could not discuss details of his diagnosis.
Denny remains in police custody and he is due to appear in Halifax provincial court Wednesday to face a charge of second-degree murder.
John Gillis, a spokesperson with the Capital Health District Health Authority, says the organization plans to conduct an internal investigation into why Denny was allowed to be released.
Tributes pour in from gay and lesbian community
Taavel was a well-known activist in Halifax's gay and lesbian community and tributes poured in along Gottingen Street from people wanting to remember him.
"He was such a great pride activist and such a beautiful person in so many ways and this is just so horrifying," says Ingrid Cottenden.
"I certainly think that people are going to continue to exercise caution and be looking out for their personal safety," says Kevin Kindred, a spokesman with the Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project. "On the other hand, it's also got a lot of people talking today about reclaiming our right to feel safe on the street."
Taavel was also the assistant circulation manager at the Shambhala Sun, a bimonthly Buddhist magazine and his friends say they will remember him as a kind and gentle soul.
"He was a sweet, committed, positive, warm person and really, we can't believe what happened," says Taavel's boss, Melvin McLeod.
"He was a great member of our community and he's a friend of mine, a friend of my team, and yeah, it's very, very, very sad news," says MP Megan Leslie.
Hundreds of people also attended a vigil held in Taavel's memory Tuesday night in front of Menz Bar.
With files from CTV Atlantic's Kayla Hounsell and Rick Grant