Before he headed off to work late Tuesday night, Mohamed Salah Belhaj kissed his two young children goodnight and decided he didn’t feel like taking his car to work.
The 48-year-old father opted instead to take the bus, a decision that would put him in the path of a complete stranger who, police suspect, wanted to kill for no apparent reason.
That fateful decision made Belhaj one of three men who were gunned down in Montreal and Laval this week. The suspect in all three homicides, Abdulla Shaikh, 26, was shot and killed Thursday morning at a motel in the St-Laurent borough as a Montreal police SWAT team tried to arrest him.
Shaikh died keeping any possible explanations behind why he killed Belhaj and two other victims — André Lemieux, 64, and Alexis Lévis-Crevier, 22 — to himself. The Sûreté du Québec has said they believe Shaikh chose his victims at random.
Lévis-Crevier, who had just begun working in construction, was fatally shot in Laval Wednesday night.
Lemieux, the father of professional boxer David Lemieux, was killed near his apartment on Jules-Poitras Blvd. in St-Laurent an hour before Belhaj was shot.
“He was in the wrong place at the wrong moment,” Mohsen Belhaj, the brother of Mohamed Salah, told the Montreal Gazette on Friday as he continued to struggle with the choice of whether his sibling should be interred in Montreal, to be close to his widow and their children, or Tunisia, their birthplace and where their mother lives. He said his brother’s children, ages six and four, have only been told so far that their father travelled to Tunisia and will be coming back.
His brother was killed while both men were mourning the loss of their father, who died on July 29.
Belhaj said he and his sister-in-law have since been able to piece together some of his brother’s final moments before he was shot late Tuesday night.
“Around a quarter to 11 (p.m.), he grabbed his lunchbox and kissed his kids. He told them it was getting too late for them to be up. They went to sleep and he went to his work,” Belhaj said. “He was willing to take his car but he decided: ‘You know what? I don’t feel like taking the car. I’m just going to take the bus. It will be much easier for me. I don’t feel like driving’.”
Minutes after he left his home in the Ahuntsic-Cartierville borough, Belhaj was shot at an intersection near St-Benoit Park around 10:50 p.m. He never made it to his job at the Albert Prevost Hospital, an institution that treats patients with mental-health problems.
Belhaj said his brother was part of the general staff at the hospital and was appreciated by his co-workers.
“The guy was a simple man. He worked for his kids. He had no problems whatsoever. Everybody is in shock. All the medical staff who worked with him, they came to see me (on Thursday) and they all said Salah was one of the nicest guys of the staff. They asked: ‘How could this happen to him?’ ” Belhaj said.
Shaikh had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was charged with mischief following a series of strange incidents at both Trudeau and Mirabel airports over the course of several days during July 2018.
He was found to be not criminally responsible for his actions and was ordered to live with his parents while receiving treatment. But months later, his family became so concerned with Shaikh’s behaviour they asked that he be committed to an institution for people with mental-health problems.
He was released early in January 2021 and the Commission d’examen des troubles mentaux, an administrative tribunal, reviewed their decision on March 29 of this year. A psychiatrist told the tribunal that Shaikh “still represents a significant risk to public safety because of his mental state.” But the psychiatrist also recommended Shaikh could reside outside the hospital as long as he continued to follow the conditions imposed on him in January 2021.
On Friday, Belhaj said he is struggling to understand how a man who represented a “significant risk to public safety” could also be a free man.
“This is the problem with this city. People who do whatever to innocent people, whatever the story is, they get put back on the streets. He had mental problems and the file was closed,” Belhaj said. “The government, or their institutions, they knew he was a risk. They knew that the guy had a serious problem. Why didn’t we place him under some form of control so that we would know what he is doing?
“I mean, he was mentally sick and he was out there among us. I’m not just speaking on behalf of my brother. Logically, it could have happened to any of us. It could happen to you, going to work and you get chosen like this. I understand his right to live (as a free person) but if he represented a risk for our safety, we can do things much better than we are doing now as a society. As a father of three kids, do you think I feel safe sending one of them to get milk?”
Belhaj also said he feels sympathy for Shaikh’s family.
“Behind him there is a father and a mother,” he said. “They lost a son as well.”
Suspect in three homicides was released from institution despite ‘significant risk’
Two men, including boxer David Lemieux’s father, shot to death in separate incidents
Teenagers are dying. How can we stop the violence?