How an estranged Victoria family has come together to find Sean Hart

Hart went missing 40 days ago today from a mental health facility in Saanich. No one has reported seeing him since, but his family has come together to make sure he's found

By Brishti Basu
December 16, 2020

How an estranged Victoria family has come together to find Sean Hart

Hart went missing 40 days ago today from a mental health facility in Saanich. No one has reported seeing him since, but his family has come together to make sure he's found

By Brishti Basu
Dec 16, 2020
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

How an estranged Victoria family has come together to find Sean Hart

Hart went missing 40 days ago today from a mental health facility in Saanich. No one has reported seeing him since, but his family has come together to make sure he's found

By Brishti Basu
December 16, 2020
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How an estranged Victoria family has come together to find Sean Hart
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Penny Hart has lost her voice, but not her determination, after weeks of talking to dozens of people in hopes of finding her missing son.

Speaking in as clear a tone as she can muster these days, Penny says she has been on the phone, out on the streets, and traversing parks and trails day in and day out looking for her 34-year-old son, Sean.

On a cloudy Wednesday morning, Penny, her sister Lee-Anne Karlsson and niece Rebekah Savage sat down with Capital Daily in Lee-Anne’s Royal Oak home—a house so artfully decked out in Christmas cheer, it almost masks the sombre mood within. 

Armed with steaming lattes, the three recounted the story of a beloved family member gone missing and the community that has come together to help find him. 

Sean Hart was living at Seven Oaks Tertiary Mental Health Facility in Saanich when he suddenly went missing on Nov. 6. Police reports say he walked out of the facility unexpectedly and hasn’t been seen or heard from since. His disappearance sparked an investigation that has involved search-and-rescue teams. 

The case appears to have become a higher priority for police when his mother and sister flew out from Calgary to help with the search and other family members in Victoria joined forces to assist.

During our conversation, Penny Hart insisted on emphasizing a detail that has been reported incorrectly in media reports so far.

“When I first came here, the word ‘schizophrenic’ was used to describe Sean’s illness. Sean is not schizophrenic. He has schizoaffective disorder,” she said.

Penny Hart in Victoria. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Penny believes her son operates at a higher level than he would if he had schizophrenia, and launched into a list of character traits that, in her motherly eyes, distinguish him from others. 

The words “intelligent,” “insightful,” and “kind” offer a glimpse of who Sean Hart is, but one word stands out when describing how he has dealt with his lot in life: “survivor.” 

For Sean, the mental illness first manifested itself when he was 15 years old.

It took about another 15 years before he was properly diagnosed. 

The first disappearance

In 2016, Sean was living with his father, Marty, when he left without telling anyone, bought a ferry ticket and took a trip across the Strait of Georgia.

He wandered around Vancouver barefoot for six days before turning up in the psychosis unit at UBC Hospital. 

“I happened to be working in Vancouver at the time,” said Penny, who had by then separated from Sean’s father.

“No one knew where he was. I started calling the hospitals, and I found him…” Her voice breaks with emotion as she recounts the story. "He was so sweet. He was like, ‘Hi, mom. You found me.’”

The six days in which Sean went missing back then were harrowing for the family, but ended on a happy note: doctors at the BC Psychosis Program were able to properly diagnose him and, for the first time, find a drug (clozapine) that worked. 

From there he was transferred to Seven Oaks Tertiary Mental Health Facility in Saanich, where Marty could visit him regularly. Penny and Sean’s sister, Bree, meanwhile, lived in Calgary. 

Penny and Marty’s separation was not the only familial fracture that had an impact on Sean. 

His cousin, Rebekah Savage, has fond memories of the years she spent growing up with her siblings and cousins. She says her brother, Michael, and cousin Sean were inseparable as kids.

“Our parents lived in townhouses in the same complex,” said Rebekah. Sean and Michael, she says, grew up more like brothers than cousins. 

“We really overtook that place,” she said with a laugh. “They could have done a [reality TV] show on us,” chimes in her mom, Lee-Anne.

Sean as a child. Provided by Penny Hart

But then, for reasons undisclosed by either, Penny and her sister Lee-Anne became estranged. 

“We’ve been estranged for a lot of years… It shattered these kids, you know? It was damaging… and they would’ve felt uncomfortable going to see [Sean at Seven Oaks] because of me,” said Penny. 

It took Sean’s disappearance to bring the family back together. The first thing Penny did when she heard the news was call the police. Then, she called her sister and flew out to Victoria to stay with her during the search. 

“Through this [search process], Sean has brought so much healing to our family. He’s brought us all together and we’ve all forgiven each other.”

Now that they’re together, Penny looks forward to the day she can tell Sean that he’ll be able to see his cousin, Michael, again. 

40 days in crisis

Despite the familial strains, Sean’s family says he was doing very well with his medication at Seven Oaks ever since he got there. But there have been times when he slipped up. 

“What happens with a lot of [people who have] mental illness is they get to where they feel well. Then they think, ‘Why do I have to take this?’”  Penny said. “And then, of course, they go off their meds.” 

When Sean is off his medication, he hates being around people. According to Penny, his illness makes him reclusive and paranoid, and he is known to get rid of all identification cards, take off his shoes, and walk for miles at a time. 

In the past, when he left Seven Oaks to go on these walks, he was found right away or returned to the facility by himself. This time is different. No one has seen or heard from Sean for nearly 40 days. 

“He's paranoid. He's hearing voices. He's hallucinating. He's delusional,” Penny said. “It's not a good situation.” 

When Sean went missing on November 6, staff at Seven Oaks filed a police report and, as per protocol, let his father know that he was unaccounted for. His mother, Penny, flew in from Calgary one week later to help look for him.

The lead investigator in charge of finding Sean, Saanich Police Detective Constable Jason Whittaker, said it is very common for police to get missing persons calls from Seven Oaks, and the cases are handled by patrol officers.

“We have many people that leave Seven Oaks. This would’ve been a typical call,” Whittaker said in a phone interview. “Most of these people are found quite quickly.”

According to Saanich Police, 64 people have been reported missing from Seven Oaks between January 1 and December 15 this year. None have stayed missing as long as Sean Hart.

In a statement to Capital Daily, Island Health said many of the facility’s residents are allowed to leave and come back on designated passes. Sean was one of the residents who had access to these passes.

“This is part of their recovery and reintegration plan; independent passes and community integration is part of the care and treatment program offered at Seven Oaks towards eventual discharge,” reads the statement.

“Whenever a resident does not return, we work with local authorities and their families to locate the individual.”

Seven days after Sean went missing, patrol officers passed the file along to the Major Crimes Unit where it landed on Whittaker’s desk. 

Getting to know Sean

Since December 13, Whittaker and his team have not only been following up on possible sightings, but have also been working on learning all about Sean Hart.

“I’ve spoken with his psychiatrist, staff at Seven Oaks, his family, and have looked at his history,” Whittaker said. 

He’s learned what Sean’s family said as well: that when he is off his medication, he won’t be found among crowds of people. This knowledge helps police whittle down hundreds of tips from the public, and focus on those that are more likely to be credible. 

“When he’s walked away in the past, he goes on ‘adventures’ — he wants to be rural. When a tip comes in, I tend to gravitate to tips about rural areas than I will to the shelter at Rock Bay Landing,” said Whittaker, speaking of dozens of calls he’s received from people who work with marginalized communities in Victoria.

Whittaker has also learned, and verified, other traits that could help him find Sean. 

After looking through his personal belongings at Seven Oaks, it became clear to police that Sean only wears black clothing. 

They know that he doesn’t own a cellphone—so a tip about a man who resembles Sean purchasing a phone charger was deemed most likely not credible.

Whittaker also knows that he has not used his bank card since he went missing. This tells him that Sean probably is not travelling by bus and most likely has not taken the ferry anywhere. But no matter what they know, police have to follow up on every tip they get.

“Maybe he’s connected with someone who’s giving him money. Maybe at some point, he changed his clothing. However unlikely, it’s not impossible,” said Whittaker. 

In addition to scouring CCTV footage to try and verify whatever tips they get, Whittaker says the team’s goal is to find a pair of boots that Sean was wearing when he went missing.

Operating on the knowledge that he tends to go barefoot whenever he has gone missing in the past, Whittaker says finding the boots could prompt a search-and-rescue deployment in the area where they’re found. 

After going through Sean’s belongings, police announced on Tuesday that when he went missing, he was wearing an ONLY-brand ladies’ black jacket with a fur-lined hood.

Supporting the family

Throughout the ordeal, Penny says her contact with Whittaker and others at Saanich PD has been a source of reassurance that no stone is being left unturned. She describes his commitment to the case as “incredible,” adding that he always makes sure to check in with her twice a day. 

“Penny is kind of a roller coaster of emotion,” says Whittaker. “I have two boys who are 20 and 25. I can’t imagine what she goes through on a daily basis.” 

Being reconnected with her sister and other family members has also afforded the distressed mother a great deal of comfort. 

When asked how many friends and family members are involved in posting flyers of Sean and pounding the pavement talking to people to raise awareness of the case, Penny rattles off about a dozen names. 

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Her sister Lee-Anne admits that in the past, she has not always understood mental illness and what it does to Sean. 

“I’ve always been intimidated by [mental illness]. So I visited Sean one time in the hospital and I let that stop me, because I was fearful... because he was better but he still was, you know,” said Lee-Anne, struggling to find the right words to explain what her nephew was going through. 

“In us spending so much time together… I understand Sean better. So when we find him, I feel good that we can have a relationship.”

The sisters never specify whether Sean’s mental illness is what drove the family apart. What is certain without a doubt, though, is the fact that they are now united in their efforts to find him and are confident that he will be found, alive and well. 

In a lighthearted moment, Lee-Anne talks about how she and her sister are bonding now after years spent apart. 

“She’s teaching me how to do my makeup,” she said enthusiastically. 

And when Penny starts to entertain dark thoughts about what may have happened to her son, Lee-Anne is right by her side, ready with a much-needed dose of optimism. 

Penny says once she finds Sean—not if—her mission will be to raise more awareness about mental illness and advocate for the many missing people who don’t have a family like Sean’s to speak up for them. 

“When a parent is involved, or a loved one, it does change the dynamic,” she said, discussing the multitudes of missing people who go unseen and unfound in Greater Victoria. 

“I feel for those out there that don’t have an advocate… that’s going to be one of my things I’m gonna start doing.”

But first, Penny Hart will find her son. 

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