Saturday, May 06, 2006

Why did Jeffrey die


Why did Jeffrey die?
May 6, 2006. 01:00 AM
ISABEL TEOTONIO AND JIM RANKIN
STAFF REPORTERS

A short walkway cuts between tidy bungalows, linking the asphalt basketball court behind St. Rose of Lima elementary school where Jeffrey Reodica once played, to the neighbourhood known as Ben Jungle, where a road hockey game can continue uninterrupted for many long minutes. Stay a while, and one will see games in progress, and perhaps catch a glimpse of the lady down the road who breaks into a jog, her dog and adopted wild pigeon trailing her on paw and by wing.
Two years on, it is hard to picture what went down in this suburban Scarborough neighbourhood the afternoon of May 21, 2004, when two groups of boys — one group mostly brown, the other white — set out to settle a score over hurtful words and missing teeth, and ended with 17-year-old Jeffrey lying on a lawn, mortally wounded by police bullets.
He was the third of eight people shot by Toronto police that year, six of whom died as a result. In each instance, the province's Special Investigations Unit found the shootings to be justified. Aside from being the youngest, there were many things Jeffrey did not have in common with the others, some of whom were suffering from mental illness, and others suspected drugs dealers or worse.
Jeffrey Michael Rich Reodica had never had any trouble with the police. His father is a real-estate agent with an interest in municipal politics, his mother in the insurance business. He played the sax, had served as an altar boy, worked part-time jobs at Canada's Wonderland and Krispy Kreme, and had plans to travel Europe.
On that May afternoon, he was also, as one of his friends had cried out following his funeral, a "warrior" — joining his friends in a schoolyard battle demarcated by race and fortified by youthful bravado. Hardly an uncommon occurrence, but on this occasion and for all involved, with such a jolting end.
Today, Jeffrey would have turned 19.
On Monday, lawyers — including those representing his family, Toronto police, and the SIU — will gather at coroner's court in downtown Toronto for the beginning of an inquest that will ponder the events that led to Jeffrey's death.
It's a death that has strained relations between the Filipino community and police, and sent his parents, brother and sister on a search for answers to questions that a coroner's jury will, in part, examine.
The family's lawyer, Barry Swadron, intends to use the inquest to examine issues unaddressed by the SIU investigation and by police, rendered mute in matters that may end up in criminal or civil court.
The questions are many, and unsettling:
  What role did teenaged and racial bullying play in the events leading to the confrontation?
  Would the outcome have been different had the first officers to arrive on scene been in a marked cruiser and in uniform — and with a variety of less-lethal weapons to choose from — instead of the two plainclothes officers who instead arrived in an unmarked car and were armed only with firearms?
  Why did police arrest Jeffrey, who dropped a rock when instructed to do so, but not a white boy who had wielded a baseball bat?
  Why, amid seriously conflicting reports by eyewitnesses, did a knife the SIU concluded was removed from Jeffrey's hand by police have no fingerprints on it? Jeffrey wore batting gloves that day but there was not a trace of fingerprints, not his or any belonging to the police.
  And, why three shots — one in the right side, one in the right lower back, and one dead centre between the shoulder blades?
"This is just a nice kid. There's nothing wrong with this kid," Swadron says. "We've got a lovely family, an all-Canadian Filipino kid. These parents are so much in despair. They tried to get information about how their son died. Everywhere they go, they've been told no.
"This is really a minefield," says Swadron. "I think this is really an unnecessary death."
Today, the Toronto Star tells the story of the events leading to Jeffrey's death, using publicly released SIU findings, media reports and videotaped interviews with nine young witnesses that have never been reported.
The interviews were conducted in the days after the shooting by an earlier lawyer retained by the Reodica family for the use in a possible civil suit. All but one of the boys had been interviewed by the SIU at the time and all were instructed not to speak to the media. The Reodica family has received permission from the boys, referred to by their first names only for this story, to make the interviews public.
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The afternoon of Thursday, May 20 started out unremarkably. The sky was an uninviting grey, covered by a thick haze blanketing the city. But the mercury had risen to 23C and the air was warm, beckoning teens onto the basketball court behind St. Rose of Lima School on Lawrence Ave., east of McCowan Rd.
It isn't much of a court, just an old rusty basketball hoop, but it had long been a focal point for many of the neighbourhood's kids, including Jeffrey.
That day, however, Jeffrey didn't join his friends. He was at home studying for a test later that evening in night school. As he pored over mathematical equations, five of his Filipino buddies were working up a sweat slicing through air and throwing hoops.
At around 4 p.m., just as they were getting their game on, a group of four white teens approached them, recalled Mark, one of Jeffrey's friends.
"Can I have a shot?" asked one of the white boys.
Why not?, thought the Filipino kids, and tossed the ball his way. Rather than take a shot, the white kid and his friends walked off.
"What the f---?" yelled Mark, staring in disbelief.
"F--- you, Filipinos," one of the white kids, according to Mark, fired back. The court was their turf, the kid said. "Go back to where you came from and go eat your rice."
Enraged, Mark ran after them and a fight erupted, spilling across the schoolyard. By scuffle's end, Mark was relatively unscathed, but his cousin was missing two front teeth.
"You faggots!" screamed Mark, as the white kids fled. "Come back here tomorrow." His cousin searched the ground for his teeth and Mark was thinking about one thing: How to get even.
Jeffrey wouldn't know of any of this for a couple of hours. He heard about it at night classes at Jean Vanier Catholic Secondary School. It was upsetting news and his anger was perhaps further fuelled by suspicions that it might be the same white guys who had repeatedly picked on his own younger cousin. For now, he remained focused on his math test.
At home that night, Jeffrey never mentioned the fight to his family. Instead, he buzzed with excitement about a trip to Europe his school was planning for the following March Break. Even his mother's concerns about costs couldn't dampen his spirit.
"Don't worry about how much the trip will cost," Jeffrey told her, promising he would start setting aside earnings from Krispy Kreme, where he worked part-time. "I'm going to pay you monthly, and by March it'll be paid off."
Flora Reodica had no reason to doubt him. After all, Jeffrey, her youngest of three, had always been a good kid. If he wasn't at church serving as an altar boy, playing saxophone with the Philippine Heritage Band, she could find him on the basketball court, pulling off seemingly impossible moves for a guy who stood only 5-foot-4. He would often dote on his nephew Ty, and once took in a "stray" friend who had had trouble at home — even suggesting Flora and her husband, Willie, adopt him.
A trip to Europe with his graduating class might just be the perfect end to his high-school days before moving on and possibly applying to the Canadian Forces, his mother thought.
Thrilled about the adventure of it all — it promised to include a jaunt to Nice, France, which he pronounced nice rather than niece — Jeffrey bounced down the stairs to the basement, disappearing into his bedroom.
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What followed were telephone calls between Jeffrey and his friends. His parents, unaware of the brewing confrontation, slept upstairs from him for the last time.
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The next day after school, as students shuffled out of Jean Vanier eager to start the long weekend, Jeffrey and a group of friends made their way to the front of the school.
The plan was simple: Meet at 3 p.m., head to the basketball court behind St. Rose of Lima and, well, the details of what would ensue are a bit fuzzy. All they knew for certain was that they planned to get back at the white kids who had beaten up Mark and his cousin the day before.
Mark led the vanguard of about 15 teens — some Filipino, some Italian, some Asian, by no means the homogenous Filipino group some media and even the SIU, would later report — to the subway station, railing about how those racists needed to be stopped.
Mark would later say in his videotaped interview that while he had planned to take on the white guys, "Jeff was only there to see the fights." He also said none of the teens he was with had a "weapon in their hands."
A news release by the SIU painted a somewhat different story. It noted that up to "19 Filipino youths" made their way to the basketball court, "armed with baseball bats and extendible batons."
During the bus ride home from school, the mood was one of excitement. Jeffrey, as he was famous for, was cracking jokes (the epitaph at his gravesite reads God's Gift of Endless Laughter) and the chatter alternated between talk of a birthday party they were supposed to attend that night and the events of the previous day.
The TTC bus stopped in front of St. Rose of Lima and Jeffrey and his friend Joseph made a quick dash to the Reodica home so Jeffrey could change out of his school uniform. His friends, meanwhile, scoped out the basketball court for their intended targets. They spotted three white guys with baseball bats and Mark identified two of them as guys from the previous day.
The white kids, outnumbered, took off. They ran around the school and along Lawrence Ave. E., one of them frantically juggling a cell phone. Mark and his friends gave chase.
As the two groups cut across the parking lot of a strip mall at the corner of Lawrence Ave. and Ben Stanton Blvd., the scene so alarmed a woman sitting in Bendale Restaurant that she announced she was going to call the police.
It was then that Jeffrey and Joseph caught up with their group, running north into Ben Jungle, pushing deeper into the neighbourhood of manicured lawns, bungalows with shutters on the windows and tree-lined streets, whose names all begin with the letters "Ben."
A friend, who had overheard the lady at the restaurant, ran to Jeffrey and told him, "the cops were there, or were coming."
By then, the white kids had disappeared into a backyard. According to the SIU, one of them called 911 at 4:09 p.m. to report he was being chased by a large group of youths, armed with bats and knives. He had run so hard, said the SIU, that he vomited.
Toronto police received calls from nine other witnesses reporting anywhere from 10 to 50 youths armed with bats, crutches, metal batons and other weapons were chasing someone.
At 4:11 p.m., the police dispatcher broadcast an "all units" call but no patrol units were free to respond. At 4:17 p.m., plainclothes officers Dan Belanger and Allan Love, assigned to the 41 Division Major Crime Unit, and in an unmarked car, accepted the call.
Ideally, this would not be a call officers assigned to these specialized units would take. They are usually assigned to investigate certain types of crime plaguing a neighbourhood, such as a rash of robberies or break and enters.
Meanwhile, Jeffrey's friends milled about, watching for any sign of the white kids. Mark and Jeffrey walked down the street to a pathway that connects from the street to the back of the school, all the while shouting, "Where are you fags? Where are you Nazis?"
Just then, a white woman in a light-coloured van turned up. She drove slowly, with the sliding passenger door open. One of the white kids darted out from behind a house, baseball bat in hand and leapt inside.
Mark and Jeffrey picked up palm-sized rocks and ran toward the van.
Officers Belanger and Love arrived in time to see the white youth jumping into the van. According to the SIU, the officers then confirmed he was the one who had called police. Belanger identified himself as a police officer to the driver, showed his badge and ordered her to pull over.
In its report, the SIU noted that as the van was pulling over to the curb, the white youth got out and retrieved a baseball bat from the rear of the van. Again, Belanger and Love identified themselves as police and told him to put away the bat. He did.
Belanger returned to the unmarked police car, and Love walked toward Jeffrey and Mark.
The details of what transpired next are murky and, oftentimes, conflicting, raising troubling questions the coroner's jury will seek to answer.
At the completion of its 16-week investigation, the SIU weighed the evidence and reached some conclusions, one of which was that both officers then identified themselves as police to Jeffrey and his friends.
However, all nine of Jeffrey's friends who were present later told the family's lawyer that they did not hear the officers identify themselves before the shooting. Although as the events unfolded, some came to the conclusion they were police.
Initially, they figured these white men were relatives of the boys they had been chasing. They knew police had been called but they were expecting cruisers.
The unmarked police car pulled up diagonally to the curb and Belanger, a big man with a beard, got out and walked toward Jeffrey. Love was already on foot, speaking to Mark.
Mark, who was closest to Jeffrey, thought the man getting out of the black car was "a dad or uncle" of one of the white kids.
Four of the teens told the Reodica family lawyer that Belanger had his gun drawn. Mark said Belanger drew his gun, pointed it at Jeffrey and ordered him to drop the rock and kneel on the ground.
"They weren't cops because they didn't look like cops," a youth named B.J. told the family lawyer. "(Belanger) just got out of his car — no badge, no nothing. He just told (Jeffrey), `Put the rock down,' and (Jeffrey) was like, `Who are you to say that?' "
By all accounts, Jeffrey nonetheless complied. He dropped the rock and his friends say he sunk to the grass in front of 75 Benleigh Dr.
According to Joseph, the boy who had accompanied Jeffrey to his house, Belanger circled Jeffrey, who was on the ground covering his head, slapping him and saying: "You think you're so tough, motherf---er." Other accounts relayed to the family were similar but not identical.
Jeffrey ended up face down. Belanger then wrestled with him to make an arrest, said Joseph.
"The guy was trying to make an arrest — he was trying to get Jeffrey onto his stomach. And then I saw handcuffs, but I still didn't know it was police," he said. And he didn't believe Jeffrey knew it either.
"Get away from me," Jeffrey shouted, as he swung at Belanger four or five times, Mark told the Reodica family lawyer.
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It appeared as though Jeffrey was trying to punch Belanger, recalled Mark.
The SIU findings, however, differ from the teens' accounts. The SIU found that Belanger, his firearm undrawn, ordered Jeffrey to drop the rock. Jeffrey complied, turned and began to walk away. Belanger then grabbed Jeffrey and told him he was under arrest for possession of a dangerous weapon, the rock. Jeffrey struggled and was pushed to the ground.
Belanger demanded Jeffrey put his arms behind his back and again told him he was under arrest, the SIU found. Love, according to the SIU, then walked over to the pair, handcuffs in hand, and the two officers struggled to restrain Jeffrey as he squirmed beneath them. Jeffrey was able to momentarily break free and "struck out" at Belanger with his left hand, the SIU concluded.
By all accounts, Jeffrey did struggle to break free and attempt to stand up.
According to the SIU, Belanger, thinking he had been struck on the right leg with a knife yelled that the teen had a knife and "recoiled" several feet. Jeffrey continued swinging at Belanger. It was at this point, the SIU concluded, that the officer drew his firearm and fired three times.
Sounded like a cap gun to some.
"I was like blinking every pop," said Mark. "It was Pop! Pop! Pop!"
Jeffrey had been hit three times — once in the side, once in the back just above his right hip and once in the back between the shoulders. The exact order could not be determined, but the one the one that mortally wounded him entered his upper back, injuring his brain stem. The pathologist, according to the SIU, believed he was in a bent-over posture when that bullet entered his body.
He collapsed.
It all seemed unreal. "At first, I thought it was fake," Joseph told the lawyer, "and thought the reason Jeff fell down was because he was scared. But then he wasn't moving. I never heard him making noise. I didn't see blood. Jeff was face down. I just stood there in shock and thought maybe the police would shoot me."
One teen remarked that maybe they should call the cops. "I don't know, I thought that was the cops," said another. The boys were stunned. So, too, it seemed to some of them, was officer Belanger. Mark heard Belanger say, "This guy has a weapon," and watched the officer limp to his car.
The boys and others recalled, with minor discrepancies, that he returned to the unmarked car, slammed his fists against the hood and leaned on the car. It also appeared he threw something into the car, perhaps his firearm. "Was a little angry, sad or something," said one of Jeffrey's friends.
B.J., who also spoke to the Reodica family lawyer, said he asked Belanger why he had pulled the trigger. "He tried to stab me with a knife," B.J. recalled the officer telling him.
There was no knife wound.
All nine boys said told the family lawyer that they never saw a knife in Jeffrey's hand, or on the ground after the shooting.
Mark believed Jeffrey had a knife in his pocket but he never saw it.
Joseph, who had gone home with Jeffrey after school that day, also said he knew Jeffrey owned a knife. But he, too, said he never saw it that day.
Neither officer has spoken publicly about the events of that day. Belanger's lawyer, Joseph Markson, told the Star he saw his client less than an hour after the shooting, and "he was just devastated by this tragedy. The last thing that Constable Dan Belanger ever wanted to do in his policing career was to be forced to draw and use his weapon."
Belanger, married with children and then with just over 14 years on the job, was visibly shaken, and maybe the inquest will explore in more depth what he was thinking in the split-second when he drew his gun and fired.
Perhaps he and no doubt many Ontario police officers that day were thinking of what had become of Cobourg police Constable Christopher Garrett, who had been killed six days earlier by an 18-year-old armed with a hunting knife.
Jeffrey was barely making a sound as he lay on the grass. After calling for assistance, Love approached him, turned him over and, according to the SIU findings, "removed a knife from his hand." Love then began CPR.
At 4:35 p.m., an ambulance left the scene with Jeffrey, headed for Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. When the SIU arrived, some two hours after the shooting, they photographed a flick knife with a 9 cm blade, out and open, laying in the grass, beside where Jeffrey had been shot.
Five months later, James L. Cornish, interim director of the SIU, announced in a press release that there was "incontrovertible evidence" that a knife had been involved and that officer Belanger, fearing for his safety and that of his partner, was justified in shooting the teen. "The officers were responding to what can objectively be viewed as a dangerous situation — emotions were high, weapons were involved and group mentality was at play. The subject officer was attempting to affect a lawful arrest, and in so doing the young man decided to resist, for reasons that will be known only to him," Cornish said in the release.
"The existence of the knife at the scene, in the position and state it was discovered, provides powerful support that the youth attempted to get to his feet and while so doing, struck out at the officer with the knife."
It would be 9:30 p.m. before the Reodica family was notified that their son had been shot.
Three days later, at 1:59 a.m. on Victoria Day Monday, Jeffrey was taken off a ventilator and pronounced dead 11 minutes later.
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On a recent, sun-drenched spring afternoon, an after-school game of pick-up basketball is on behind St. Rose of Lima, next to the church where Jeffrey was baptized and eulogized. Most of the players are Filipino. Beyond the walkway on Benleigh Dr., two nets are in place and a group of boys play hockey. These boys are white. The lady with the bird and dog comes out for a walk.
As the evening grows dark and the games wane as the supper hour approaches, it is indeed easy to forget May 21, 2004 ever happened.
Except the kids on the court all either knew, or know of, Jeffrey. One is a younger cousin. Some of the white kids, who Jeffrey's sister Robyn remembers "smirking and laughing" as mourners left a prayer service for Jeffrey, are still in the neighbourhood. And not far away, in a house on Lawrence Ave., the Reodica family is in for the night. Some of Jeffrey's old friends have dropped by and are flopped on the furniture, watching TV. Pictures of Jeffrey are everywhere. A flickering monitor behind the living-room sofa flashes images from security cameras positioned outside the home. There have been hateful, anonymous letters sent to the address.
"STOP BLAMING EVERYBODY," begins one, written in block letters, addressed to Willie and Flora, and post-marked a week after their son's death. "YOUR LAW SUIT WILL BE CRUSHED, YOUR SON IS SIX FEET UNDER WITH 3 HOLES IN HIS BACK, AND BOTH OF YOU, CRYING IN YOUR BIRD NEST SOUP — YOUR PUNK KID HAD A KNIEF (sic) WAS GANGSTER MATERIAL ... THANK GOD HES (sic) DEAD. POLICE DID THE RIGHT THING, SHOOT FIRST — ASK QUESTIONS LATER. TAKE CARE EGG ROLLS."
There have been many, many letters of condolence and support. Some 250 people have signed on as members to an on-line memorial forum. There, you can find an excerpt of a school assignment on the justice system, where, in response to a question about the powers bestowed upon police, Jeffrey wrote: "I think the law enforcement agencies have enough power but they just need to use it in the proper manner because sometimes they tend to pick on people that haven't really committed a big crime." There's also a copy of Jeffrey's last math test, on which he scored 17 out of 18.
A documentary is in the works, which the producers hope to air on television. Many people have signed petitions calling for a thorough investigation and Jeffrey's name has joined the ranks of those killed by Toronto police in incidents that have shaken the faith of other communities.
As well, there has been something rarely seen in police shootings, and until now, unreported. Shortly after becoming Toronto police chief, Bill Blair met privately with the family to do something the previous chief had not done. He offered his condolences, in person, to Willie and Flora, and brother Joel and sister Robyn, and while there was no apology, Blair seemed to speak from the heart.
Shortly after Jeffrey's death, Willie, who made a run for Toronto city council, told reporters he had forgiven the officer who shot his son. Since then, he continues to immerse himself in the events and in what he knows of the SIU investigation. An SIU investigator came to show him the knife and pulled it out of a paper bag. Although a couple of Jeffrey's friends told the SIU it belonged to Jeffrey, he had never laid his eyes on it. And he wonders, if it was his son's, why could the SIU find no trace of his fingerprints on the handle or blade, or any other fingerprints? He also has seen a statement of death that indicates, in addition to gunshots, a head injury that hasn't been adequately explained.
Today, Flora and Willie will join a downtown rally and march to Coroner's Court, and mark their son's birthday with a visit to his grave, where they will pray — and hope their questions will one day be answered.