Public transport can be a hit or a miss — the body odour of dozens of people trapped in a metal tube; psychotic seat mates telling you their life story while blinking once or twice max; 12 year old chavs blasting music from their phones at the back. It only takes one of these things to turn an otherwise pleasant journey into a living hell.
But I guarantee you, no matter how bad your worst public transport experience was, it’s nothing compared to what some Canadian passenger had to endure back in 2008. These unlucky souls were witnesses to the infamous Greyhound Bus Beheading.
Just to clarify, ‘Greyhound’ is the name of the bus company — today’s episode is not about the public murder of a beloved family pet. Although, while no animals were harmed in the making of this episode, one human definitely was (in perhaps the worst way imaginable)…
The Siege of Bus 1170
At 8:30pm on the 30th of July 2008, a call came in to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Station in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba: a report of a stabbing on an intercity bus out on the TransCanada Highway, just out west of town. It was nearing sunset as Corporal Ken Barker and his colleagues turned on the sirens and made the short drive out to the scene.
Those first responders pulled up to find Greyhound Bus 1170 parked by the side of the road, and its 30-odd passengers standing outside on the grass. The crowd were distraught: some of them were bawling their eyes out, others throwing up on the floor, and three of them — men armed with a crowbar and hammers — were pushing their weight against the bus door like their lives depended on it.
Because actually, their lives depended on it. That was thanks to the blood-spattered individual currently pacing up and down the aisle inside, with a long hunting knife in his hand. Nobody knew who this hulking figure was, only that he had boarded the bus in Erickson earlier that evening, and none of them had paid him much attention. But from that day forward, they would struggle to forget his face for the rest of their lives.
Behind the tinted windows, that same face stared out with emotionless eyes, at the Mounties approaching from their squad car. The cops asked a bystander where they could find the driver, and they pointed over towards the trio at the door.
He was the big guy with the hammer in his hand. The driver explained what was going on. Just a short while ago, out of nowhere, this budget Rambo chap on board flipped a switch, and stabbed his sleeping seatmate in an unprovoked ambush. Nobody knew why; the men seemed like perfect strangers up to that point.
Meanwhile, all of these terrified people on the roadside had fled the bus on the instructions of the driver, who then engaged the emergency immobiliser to stop the killer from fleeing the scene. Bus 1170 was then his de-facto holding cell, while they waited for the cops to come take over…
Highway to Hell
The Mounties cordoned off the area around the vehicle, and called in assistance from special negotiators and a tactical team. The suspect showed no signs of backing down, so a stand-off ensued.
Meanwhile, the passengers were herded a safe distance away, then driven to a local police station. Officers there interviewed them one by one, to find out how the hell their pleasant, uneventful bus journey descended into this slasher film nightmare.
The story began almost 24 hours ago. At 12:01am that morning, the bus stopped off in Alberta, making its way east towards Winnipeg. There a young guy called Tim McLean hopped on board, returning home after working a carnival gig in Alberta.
Waiting for him back home were his mother and father, and his girlfriend, who was about 4 months pregnant with their first son. His friends and family described him as a sociable, athletic guy, with a love of meeting new people. The 22-year-old sat near the back of the bus, one row ahead of the bathroom, and slept as best he could through the night.
After many miles without incident, the bus pulled up in Erickson, Manitoba at about 6pm the same day. It was there that our amateur executioner boarded: a tall, strongly-built man who seemed a bit distracted — fidgety and irate — as he stepped on board. He would later be identified as 40-year old Vince Li: a resident of Edmonton. The newcomer sat down by himself near the front of the bus, and they took off for the final leg of the journey.
About 50 minutes later the bus pulled into a roadside services for a rest break, and Vince Li stepped off for a cigarette. The passengers were given half an hour to stretch their legs and grab some food, but an exhausted McLean chose to stay on board and rest. Then, for some reason, when Vince Li got back on, he decided to switch out his old seat for the vacant spot next to the young carny.
As the bus engines fired up again, with Zorro playing on the video screen up front, the younger man nodded and smiled at his new neighbour, before putting in his headphones and leaning against the window to sleep. No insults, no provocations, only the most basic common courtesy between strangers. But regardless, something in Vince Li was about to snap.
Around an hour later, the quiet was broken by a blood-curdling scream. The passengers turned all at once to see where it was coming from. One of them, Garnet Caton, got a horrific front-row view of the carnage unfolding: “I turned around and the guy sitting right [behind] me was standing up and stabbing another guy with a big Rambo knife […] Right in the throat. Repeatedly.”
In total shock, Tim McLean tried to push his attacker away as the knife was driven into his neck and chest over and over. But blood was pouring from the wounds, and the strength was draining from him. Tim was powerless to escape.
Seconds after the attack began, the driver screeched the bus to a halt and flung the door open. The rest of the passengers piled forward screaming, tumbling out onto the roadside. They could only watch through the window as Li continued stabbing his dying victim almost sixty times in total.
The most chilling part was that the killer didn’t even seem angry — in fact, he didn’t show any emotion at all. Caton added: “There was no rage or anything. He was like a robot, stabbing the guy.” The murder was as mechanical as it was brutal.
It was then that a passing truck driver called Chris Alguire, noticing the panicking crowd gathered on the roadside, stopped to see what all the commotion was about. He provided the weaponry for a daring rescue mission, even though that window of opportunity passed about four dozen stabbings ago (but full marks for bravery, guys).
He grabbed the hammers and crowbar from his truck cab, passed one to the driver and the other to a passenger. Together they opened the door to the bus, and shouted at Li to drop the knife and sit down. The killer was still in a world of his own, looming over the lifeless, mutilated body of his victim.
As the three men started approaching, Li’s head snapped up. He charged down the isle at the three would-be rescuers, slashing wildly with his massive blade. Judging by the state of the body, the risk reward ratio was near rock bottom. So rather than engaging Vince in a medieval-style duel, the three musketeers leapt back down the steps, hauled the door shut, and threw their weight against it just as the murderer crashed into the other side. He started slashing and stabbing at the glass just inches from their heads.
Eventually Vince Li tired himself out, and returned to his main objective — the body at the back of the bus. With his expression as straight as ever, Li continued slashing at the body, just out of view of the passengers gathered below. Seconds later, he leaned over towards the window, and raised his hand in the air — the victim’s severed head hung from his fist by the hair, staring out with frozen, terror-stricken eyes.
So now you understand where all that crying and vomiting came from earlier on. This robotic killer was not only mutilating the corpse, but making a show of it for the traumatised crowd gathered below, like some deranged Roman gladiator.
The witness Caton added, “I got sick after I saw the head thing. Some people were puking, some people were crying, some people were shocked. He just looked at us and dropped the head on the ground, totally calm.”
Are you not entertained?
A Grisly Sight
That was the situation when the armed policemen arrived on the scene, surrounding the bus. After dropping the head, Li had returned to the dismembered body and continued cutting away pieces of it as he pleased. Several witnesses (those who still had the stomach to look) even reported seeing him consume pieces of flesh from the victim.
Negotiators tried communicating with the suspect, but bus cannibals aren’t always the easiest people to reason with (believe me, I’ve tried), so for the most part Li just ignored them. He spent the following hours either pacing up and down the bus, or busying himself by cutting away at the corpse in a horrible display of overkill.
At one point, officers from the RCMP heard Vince Li saying, “I have to stay on the bus forever.” But his convictions waned around the four hour mark. At 1:30am, Vince Li decided to take his chances outside. He noticed the emergency exit signs at the back window, and struck the pane with his knife, sending glass shattering outwards.
He then tossed out his knife and a pair of scissors (safety first), before jumping out himself. Just after he landed, officers rushed in and tasered the bloodstained cannibal — it took two charges to bring him to the ground. Then they leapt on top of him, and twisted his arms behind his back, into handcuffs. The ordeal was finally over.
Or so they thought. But the scene that awaited the police on board that bus would impact them so much, the mental images from that day would never fully leave them. Corporal Barker pressed the emergency unlock, and was the first one to step on board since the suspect spent those long hours butchering the body.
He met with a hellish scene: pieces of flesh lay scattered over the seats and floor, and the remains on that seat near the back barely even resembled a human any more; Li had cut the innards out of the body, and left dozens of puncture wounds in the torso.
As the cops approached what was left of the young man, the blood soaked carpet squelched underfoot. Lying in the centre of the aisle was the head — the bulk of it, anyway. It appeared that Vince Li had actually cut away almost all of the facial features. Curiously, these were nowhere to be found among the grisly aftermath on bus 1170. An eagle-eyed investigator would have noticed that the nose, tongue, eyes, and an ear were missing completely. The job of recovering those fell to the unlucky arresting officer who was about to search Mr Li.
Pressing him face first into the hood of the police cruiser, the cop patted the suspect down, and felt a soft lump inside his pocket. (Incidentally, that’s also the first line to my debut adult film script, but the two stories diverge pretty considerably from there).
Wrapped up in a plastic bag in his right pocket, was a limp, wet mass: a human tongue. Beneath it were the missing ear and nose. Have a look at your checklists and you’ll find the eyes were still missing; the leading theory is that Li actually ate those after cutting them out. The post-mortem also revealed that a part of the heart was also missing, meaning it was most likely eaten by the cannibalistic passenger too.
If this non-stop horror show of an episode is getting a bit too much (believe me, some news articles were close to the limit for me), you’ll be happy to hear that the worst part is over. Now it’s time to try to make sense of the whole, bloody affair — what motivates a man to launch such a vicious attack on a stranger, and then eat pieces of him afterwards?
Before you go placing your bets on bath salts, I’ll cross that one off the list: it wasn’t drugs. In fact, the answer is more tragically familiar than that…
The Voice of God
It was the kind of crime that completely defied explanation, until investigators found out a bit more about who their cannibalistic culprit was. Before Vince Li was trapping innocents inside a zombie nightmare, he was just a normal man, living a normal life.
Born in China in 1968 as Weiguang Li, he studied computer science at the Wuhan Institute of Technology, before working as a software developer in Beijing. He emigrated to Canada in the summer of 2001, and soon fell into a trap that a lot of immigrants find themselves in — chronic underemployment.
Li first worked as a cleaner and handyman at Great Memorial Church in Winnipeg while trying to get himself and his wife up on their feet. The pastor there said he was a quiet, committed employee, but that “he would occasionally feel frustrated with not being able to communicate or understand.”
So am I trying to say that he murdered and dismembered a man just because he was frustrated with his career prospects? No, no — have some patience, we’re getting to that. Around the same time, something started happening to Mr Li that changed his life forever.
While he spent his days sweeping the aisles of the church, he started to get closer to God… but in a more direct sense than usual. In 2004, Li began hearing the actual voice of the Almighty as he went about his day, sometimes giving bizarre orders, sometimes dealing out terrible threats. Apparently Yahweh and his angels are big conspiracy theory fans, because they seemed extremely preoccupied with the threat of an alien invasion on earth.
Now, even the most amateurish amateur psychologist can give a pretty reliable diagnosis from that information alone. Vince Li had always had some mental health problems bubbling away in the background, but this was when these issues rose up to the surface, manifesting as full-blown, undiagnosed schizophrenia.
According to his wife, he would disappear for days on end without any idea of where he was going. In 2004, he was found wandering along the side of a busy highway by police in Ontario. Li explained that God had told him to “follow the sun” (which is a surefire way to win yourself a trip to the mental health ward). But unfortunately his stay was brief, and his diagnoses nonexistent.
Li ended up quitting his church job in spring 2005, and went on to work other manual labour roles while his wife worked as a waitress in a restaurant. After getting their Canadian citizenship in 2006, Li moved to Edmonton, leaving his wife behind until he could get established there. Still hampered by language problems and social stigma, he struggled to get a job befitting his qualifications. Over the next 2 years he worked as a newspaper delivery man, fast food server, and later at a Walmart in town.
In July 2008, he had just been fired from Walmart on account of a “disagreement” with his colleagues, and asked for time off from his delivery job so he could travel back to Winnipeg for a job interview. But as far as I can make out, there was probably no job interview at all — Li was on a very different kind of mission. In his own words: “The voice told me that I was the third story of the Bible, that I was like the second coming of Jesus [and that] I was to save people from a space alien attack.”
And just like that, The Gospel According to Vince was about to enter its dramatic final act. By this point, Mr Li’s schizophrenia had clearly taken a major hold over his perceptions of reality, and his psychotic episodes were becoming increasingly severe (although nobody noticed anything particularly unusual in the months leading up). That was until his wife awoke on the morning of July 29th to a note on the kitchen counter: “I’m gone. Don’t look for me. I wish you were happy.”
Vince had hopped on a bus out of Edmonton in the dead of night, and judging by the note his mind wasn’t in a very good place. He pulled up to Erickson, Manitoba at about 6pm. In one of his bags was the hunting knife, which he bought earlier for protection from any extraterrestrial threats.
The ET bounty hunter needed some cash to fund his mission from God, so he wrote the words ‘Laptop for sale: $600 or best offer’ on a piece of cardboard, propped it against a bench next to a grocery store, and settled down for the rest of the night.
Witnesses reported that he left quite a worrying impression as he sat there through the small hours, straight backed and spaced out, as late as 3am that night. It appears as if he simply spent the entire night sitting bolt upright, barely moving a muscle.
In the morning, a teenager happened upon him sitting there, and decided to try his luck with the laptop. He offered just 10% of the asking price, and was amazed when Li accepted — either he was desperate, or he didn’t expect to need much money for whatever life he had left. Because the voices in his head were clear: if he was unable to follow God’s instructions, the punishment would be a swift and painful death.
Li stayed on that same bench for the rest of the day. When Bus 1170 to Winnipeg pulled up around 6pm that evening, he was stressed, sleep-deprived, and on the brink of an explosive mental episode the likes of which he had never suffered before. As we saw before, he settled down in the seat near the front of the bus, with the voices getting louder and louder as they rolled down the highway.
Vince Li tried to relieve the tension in his head with a cigarette when the bus stopped in Brandon, but it didn’t do much good. Warnings about the aliens were still bounding around in his head, and the voices grew ever more aggressive — they demanded he take action. When it was time to step back on bus 1170, Vince caught sight of Tim, sitting near the back, looking out the window.
The voice of God boomed out in his head: this was one of the enemies, sitting right there on the bus all along. Following the instructions from the voices, he took a seat next to the carnival worker as the bus began to move again.
For the next hour, God and all his angels wouldn’t let him rest: he had been chosen to purge the aliens from earth, and they weren’t about to let him slack off now — not now that he had one of the enemies of Christ cornered. Frustrated with his inaction, God eventually gave Vince an ultimatum: kill his fellow passenger or “die immediately”.
You’re well aware of what happened next, so I don’t think we need to revisit that again. The only thing we really need to add is Mr Li’s own account of what was going through his head at the time. In a 2012 interview he explained:
“I was really scared. I remember cutting off his head. I believed he was an alien. The voices told me to kill him, that he would kill me or others.”
To hear him tell it, in those fateful moments he truly believed he was doing a service to humanity. Meanwhile, humanity looked on from outside the bus, collectively saying “What the fuck mate, please stop!”
But the damage was done.
A Controversial Conclusion
So now you have both sides of the story: a horrible, brutal murder, and the terrible, vicious illness that precipitated it. This is where it gets complicated.
Sure, Vince Li might have committed one of the most awful crimes imaginable — full-on Mexican cartel tier violence — but how far can he be blamed for his actions if he was genuinely inhabiting an alternate reality within his own mind? That’s one of the most difficult questions any court will ever have to answer, and in this case it was a particularly touchy topic.
During his first court hearing, an exhausted Vince Weiguang Li appeared before the judge to hear the specifics of his crime read out in excruciating detail. He was charged with murder in the second degree, and nobody (not even the man himself) denied that he was guilty of the killing; but was he criminally culpable?
Li only hapd a few words to say on the matter. He just sat staring at the floor with his fists clenched, rocking from side to side. When asked by the judge, he declined his right to a lawyer. Then the mandatory public defender assigned to him at the time heard him mutter a simpler request: “I’m sorry. I’m guilty. Please kill me.”
But this was Canada — not some barbaric place like… I don’t know, Texas? So the death penalty wasn’t on the cards. Rigorous psychological examination was the order of the day, to determine whether or not Li was even fit to stand trial.
At that point, Li could still hear the voice of God speaking to him, and believed that the Almighty would strike him down any day for failing to escape. Caught between the real world and his delusions, he was able to accept the terrible thing he did, but not able to escape the fantasies that drove him to it.
When the trial began in earnest in March 2009, it fell to Judge John Scurfield to pass judgement on Mr Li’s plea: not criminally responsible on account of a mental disorder. Following the advice of the psychiatrists, the criminal proceedings were ceased, and Vince Li was committed to Selkirk Mental Health Centre for treatment.
Now, this is where it gets quite controversial. During his time at Selkirk, Vince Li was a model patient — he accepted what he did wholeheartedly, showed complete remorse, and complied with his treatment at every step. By the mid 2010s, his delusions were more or less conquered. So… what to do next?
He had already been enjoying periodic trips off-site to the city and beach, accompanied by a nurse and minder. But every time his psychiatrists granted Li more privileges, certain parts of the Canadian press responded with outrage: Vicious Cannibal Given State-Funded Trips to the Seaside? It’s the sort of headline that makes my grandad’s blood boil!
So imagine the outcry when in 2016, Vince Li was judged to not prove any threat to the community, and was granted permission to live in his own apartment in Winnipeg. Grandads across Canada sharpened their pitchforks at the news. For safety’s sake, Vince Li changed his name to Will Baker, and accepted the state’s offer of a supervised release, on the condition that he stick to his medication schedule religiously.
Less than one year later, his full release was finalised. In February 2017, the review board released a statement, saying “the weight of evidence does not substantiate that Mr Baker poses a significant threat to the safety of the public.” That meant that less than 9 years after the incident, he was released back into the world with no supervision, his full freedom restored…
Tim McLean’s mother, Carol de Delley, was disgusted and distraught. She reacted to the news through Facebook, saying the family had “no words” for what they considered a severe injustice. Her main criticism was that, if Baker forgets to take his medication one day, his relapse could mean another tragedy just like that.
She now had full custody of her grandson (born five months after the incident), and felt the pain of watching him grow up having never got to meet his father. Her priority was that something like that shouldn’t be allowed to happen to someone else, no matter the cost to the culprit.
However, Chris Summerville of the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society says of people in Baker’s situation: “They want to stay in the shadows because they realise what they did was horrible and wrong. Once the medications take effect and they come to realise what they did, they go into horrible despondency and despair.” He argues that recidivism rates for psychiatric patients are about 1/7th of those in prison populations.
So where do the lines really lie on all this? — culpability, rehabilitation, punishment, deep cover Martian spies. Is a system that allows killers to avoid criminal responsibility on the grounds of mental delusions alone too soft-handed, or is simply working as a more enlightened, more intelligent criminal justice system should?
That’s far too big a question for me today — I am but a simple script writer, bringing terrible, depressing facts to the masses for your consideration…
So there you have it: a rather somber end to one of the bloodiest, more shocking crime stories we’ve come across so far. A story in which there are no winners, few consolations, and no convictions (pretty surprising, given the way it all started). If you happened to be listening to this episode on public transport, I hope you’ve got as far away from your fellow passengers as possible by now (especially if you happen to be a shapeshifting alien-demon).
Of course, those extraterrestrial creatures probably don’t exist, but as far as Vince Li was concerned on that day, they were a very real, very dangerous threat. Tragically, that belief turned him into the real monster in the eyes of everyone who witnessed the events of that day.
If the psychiatrists have confirmed he’s genuinely cured, and he genuinely poses no threat to society, then you really have to wish him all the best in coming to terms with his crime and living a good life.But that’s little consolation for the mother who lost her son, or the dozens who were deeply affected by the crime for years after. Tragically, Corporal Ken Barker (the first man on the bus after the incident, took his own life in 2014 as a result of PTSD.
It bears repeating that, although it’s good to take a lighter look at the dark side of life, these illnesses are no joke. We’ll drop a few resources below that explain how to recognise the signs and symptoms.
In closing: remember, although public transport is greener and cheaper, you have a far lower chance of being stabbed in the comfort of your own car. Probably worth keeping that in mind.
Resources for Social Responsibility and All That
[Both are guides on recognising the symptoms in friends and loved ones, which lead on to other articles about avenues of treatment]
1. Shortly after the incident, Greyhound Canada scrambled to pull one of their latest ad campaigns from circulation. Why? The chirpy tag line was “There’s a reason you’ve never heard of bus rage”. But of course, by this point the bloody Greyhound Beheading was front-page news, so all of their target audience had in fact heard of bus rage, and it was pretty damn brutal.
2. I know you’re all itching for me to wrap up one of the most compelling loose ends here: what happened to the laptop? Well, after the news broke, the 15-year-old turned it in to the authorities as evidence. An anonymous local businessman decided to gift him a brand new replacement as a reward for his honesty. I’m not sure he really deserved a reward for low-balling a mentally ill man out of his possessions, but I guess the bar must be quite low these days.
3. In the aftermath of the killing, PETA actually unsuccessfully tried to run an ad in the Portage Daily Graphic drawing parallels between the killing and slaughterhouse practices. That means some PR genius switched on the news, saw the tragedy and their first thought was “JUST LIKE THE CHICKENS!”. You can still find a copy on their website’s blog, if you’re interested.