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Westminster Pier Park fire suspect dies of overdose in New West

September 2020 fire caused significant damage
Sean Warnick, the man charged with starting the September 2020 fire that destroyed the timber wharf portion of Westminster Pier Park, has died. Rick Fabbro/File

The man charged with setting the fire that destroyed a large portion of Westminster Pier Park has died of an overdose in New Westminster.

A month after a massive fire destroyed a section of Pier Park, Sean Warnick, 49, was charged with mischief to property and arson with damage to property. Warnick who had been living on the streets in New Westminster for many years, died May 13.

A statement from the New Westminster Police Department stated police recently became aware of Warnick’s death, but the details were not being released at this time.

“The prosecution of the offence has been abated by the death of the accused,” said a NWPD press release. “There is no further investigation being conducted by the NWPD and no additional suspects being sought at this time.”

People who knew Warnick confirmed he had died of an overdose in New Westminster on May 13. A source, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Record it’s alleged Warnick started the Sept. 13, 2020 fire while burning the plastic off of copper wiring, so the copper could be sold to a scrap metal dealer.

“That’s what it appears was going on down there,” said the source. “It wasn’t intentional. They were recycling copper.”

Dave Brown, a manager with Lookout Housing and Health Society programs in New West, said it’s common to see people burning plastic off the copper, as it’s faster than stripping it with a knife. But, he added, Warnick denied setting the fire.

“He said he didn’t do it, plain and simple,” Brown said. “We didn’t get into who did it because he’s not going to go there, but he said he didn’t do it. A lot of people believe he did. A lot of people believe he didn’t. Myself, I don’t have a clue; I am just there as an ear because he knows me and he trusts me enough that he’d talk to me.”

A day before his death, Warnick spent some time with Brown, chatting about his life.  Brown said Warnick told him he couldn’t figure out why the drugs he was using were so powerful.

Warnick’s death comes at a time when local first responders are attending many calls about overdoses.

“Drugs are bad in general, but as far as bad drugs going around, I definitely think that does exist,” said Sgt. Sanjay Kumar, spokesperson for the New Westminster Police Department. “The members have been using Narcan over the last week or so.”

On May 16, Deputy Chief Const. Paul Hyland tweeted that New West police officers had been doing foot patrols in the downtown the night before when they found three unresponsive people in the same location, all of whom were believed to have overdosed. He said NWPD members administered Narcan, and BC Emergency Health Services transported them to hospital for further medical care.

According to the BC Coroners Service, there were 12 illicit drug deaths in New Westminster between Jan. 1 and March 31, 2021. That’s on top of the 35 illicit drug toxicity deaths in New West in 2020, 20 in 2019, 36 in 2018 and 24 in 2017.

“For me, I just know that this is a human being that we knew, that I knew on a first-name basis, who is no longer with us,” Brown said of Warnick. “He died from using something that he was hoping was going to help him deal with all of the crap that went on in his life. It took him out. There’s so many. That’s the sad part, too. We don’t even talk about the overdose issues that are going on. There are so many people overdosing. More than I have seen in my lifetime in a year. It’s crazy.”

Dreams dashed

When Brown started working with Lookout in New West back in 1999, he met Warnick, who was camping out on Front Street with a group of folks.

“Sean was quite an intelligent fellow. He wasn’t stupid. If people ever took time to sit and listen to him, quite the intellectual kind of guy,” he recalled. “He got caught up in something bigger than himself, and that’s the way it went.”

While chatting with Brown the day before he died, Warnick talked about his life, including his relationship with Linda, his street partner, who died several years ago.

“We talked about his life and how he got stuck on the street and got to a place where he couldn’t find a way off the street. It just became such a part of his life, and he just sort of lost touch,” Brown said. “He went from living a life with, like all of us, with dreams, aspirations and thoughts to bare-bone basics of survival.”

Through the years, local service providers tried to help Warnick get off the street and into housing.

“He got so stuck out on the street that it didn’t work,” Brown said. “We brought him into the Russell, but all he used his living space for was to put stuff. He was so used to being on the street that he would just go sleep on the street every night anyway.”

At one point, Lookout moved Warnick and Linda into one of its buildings for a short period of time, but he soon reverted to the shelter system.

“That’s what he was used to. He always gravitated back to the street because that is where he felt safe for the better part of his life,” Brown said. “He felt trapped when he was in a room. So, putting someone in a 10-by-10 room, I guess it wasn’t for him, and he couldn’t find a way to make it home. So he just went back out onto the street again and started hanging with who he was hanging with. Things went from there.”

With his history of living on the street, Warnick was well-known by local police and bylaw officers, local service providers and other homeless people.

“He was looked upon by one of the street entrenched folks as one of their elders out there,” Brown said. “Even though he did certain things that got him in trouble sometimes, they looked at him as being someone who knows how to survive, so they would go toward him and ask a lot of questions.”

Warnick faced numerous criminal charges during his lifetime, dating back to possession of a controlled substance in 1998. In the years since, he’s faced a number of charges, including possession of a controlled substance, failing to appear (in court), theft – $5,000 or under, breaking and entering, break and enter with intent to commit offence , mischief and assault with a weapon.

Living in the Shadows

Brown said many street-entrenched people like Warnick are “stuck there” because of some sort of trauma they’ve experienced in their younger years. In many cases, the supports they needed to help them address the issue weren’t available.

“It was just a ‘pull up your bootstraps and get on with life, and go get a job, you bum’ type of thing. It’s more than that. They had trauma. There was nobody and nothing there. They got blamed for being victimized when they were younger. They believed that it was their fault,” he said. “I have run into so many people on the street who are blamed for being there, blamed for being stuck on the street. I think, ‘Man, they are human. Quit looking at a piece of that and look at the human being. Talk to them. Get to know them.’ But it is what it is. It is kind of sad.”

Warnick tried different programs and housing options through the years, but he was always sucked back into the lifestyle to which he’d grown accustomed, said Brown.

“He was one of those guys who would be sitting on a street corner, and you’d just sort of walk by him. A lot of people would just walk by when he was there. He was invisible,” Brown said. “That was heartbreaking as well.”

Brown suspects there were probably times when Warnick did reach out for help, and would have gone for help with his addiction if services had been available.

“The system is overwhelmed. It’s not that people aren’t doing their jobs, it just seems that there is nowhere for a lot of folks who are street entranced to go because of the way things are right now,” he said. “Hopefully that will change. Hopefully. Hopefully.”

Brown would like people to look at homeless individuals as people, not as anonymous faces taking up space on a sidewalk.

“Sean was a human being. Sean was someone who a lot of people knew and a lot of people would see, and most people never bothered to talk to. So nobody really got to know Sean. Sean lived in a world that was in the shadows, so to speak, and people didn’t take the time to,” he said. “I would say to people: ‘Get to know some of these folks you see on the street, get to know them. Say hi to them. It could make the difference between living and dying. Something as simple as a hello goes so far.”


Follow Theresa McManus on Twitter @TheresaMcManus