Friends called 17-year-old jeffrey Reodica the happiest guy in the world.
Weekdays found him in grade 11 at Jean Vanier Catholic Secondary Schoo l. Weekends he worked at Krispy Kreme. In his spare time he played basketball. He was a member of Youth for Christ and an altar boy at church. The last guy you'd expect to wind up dead with two bullets in the back after a confrontation with police. But that's exactly what happened last May.
In September, Toronto officer Dan Belanger was cleared of any wrongdoing by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), the civilian-led agency that probes incidents of serious injury or death involving police.
Almost a year after his death, the family is still looking for answers to discrepancies in the case and the SIU's handling of a key piece of evidence - the knife the SIU says Reodica pulled on police.
In recent months, the Reodicas, through their lawyer, Barry Swadron, have been trying to piece together the crucial two hours after the shooting - before the SIU arrived, when Toronto police still had control of the scene.
But they've been denied access to police records and witness statements the family says it needs to prepare for a promised coroner's inquest, despite appeals to the province's privacy commissioner.
Much hinged on the knife that, according to the SIU's five-page release clearing Belanger, was recovered at the scene and belonged to Jeffrey Reodica. But the SIU cannot confirm that any of the dozens of witnesses interviewed ever saw a knife.
Now, in a new twist, the young man's father, Willie Reodica, says he was told by the lead SIU investigator in the case that no knife was ever photographed by the SIU at the scene.
More recently it has emerged that Belanger, the officer who pulled the trigger, is the subject of a public complaint involving a motorist who says he was sent to hospital in an incident a few months before the Reodica shooting. Should Belanger have been on duty at all the afternoon of the fatal shooting?
Newly minted SIU director James Cornish, the first full-time head of the unit in more than a year, is promising a more transparent operation (see sidebar). But after one of the deadliest years for police shootings in Toronto in almost a decade, SIU critics wonder. All seven T.O. cops involved in shootings last year were cleared by the unit.
*** The SIU took 129 days to render a decision in the Reodica shooting, more than four times the 30-day limit it usually gives itself to complete a probe. The five-page press release issued by the SIU announcing its decision on September 27, 2004, says that officer Dan Belanger "feared for his own safety and that of his partner" and was therefore "legally justified" in shooting Reodica.
That's a common defence used by officers involved in fatal shootings. But the SIU's own version of events suggest that Belanger may have been the one upping the ante in his confrontation with Reodica. Whether Belanger, who was working in plainclothes, properly identified himself as a police officer before the deadly incident is also at issue.
It all began when a Filipino kid was hurt by a group of white kids in an altercation over a basketball. The next day, Reodica was among a group of Filipino kids out to "exact revenge," according to the SIU's release, when Belanger and his partner, in plainclothes, rolled up to a house on Benleigh in Scarborough in an unmarked cruiser. The officers were responding to a radio call about Filipino youths with bats and other weapons chasing a group of white teenagers.
According to the SIU, Belanger and his partner had just finished talking to a van full of white youths when Belanger "got into a police car and drove toward a group of youths [and] as he was doing so, he noticed one of the youths [Reodica] carrying a large rock." Belanger ordered Reodica to drop the rock. Reodica, according to several witnesses quoted in the SIU's report, complied but kept walking when he was ordered to stop. That's when matters got testy and Belanger walked in front of Reodica, grabbed him and told him he was under arrest for possession of a dangerous weapon.
A struggle ensued, the SIU report says, and Reodica pulled free momentarily before Belanger threw him to the ground. Belanger had his knee in Reodica's back, and his partner was sitting on Reodica's right side when somehow the much smaller Reodica managed to squirm free and, as he was doing so, "struck out at [Belanger] with his left hand," the report explains.
Belanger believed - erroneously, it turns out - that he had been struck in the right leg with a knife. He yelled to his partner that Reodica had a knife, drew his gun and, as he was recoiling, fired three times. Reodica was hit once in the side, once in the back above the right hip and once in the back between the shoulder blades. The last bullet entered his brain stem. He succumbed to his injuries in hospital three days later. The SIU report says toxicology tests indicated he had no alcohol or drugs in his system.
There were no injuries to Belanger's leg. His pants were not damaged. There was no physical evidence to support his mistaken belief that he had been struck with a knife.
Did Belanger, who by witness accounts is 6-foot-tall and 200-plus-pounds, really have to resort to firing his gun to subdue the 5-foot-3, 130-pound Reodica? The SIU concluded that the force used by Belanger "was reasonable, however regrettable the outcome may be."
At least two witnesses interviewed by the SIU said Belanger had his gun drawn when he first confronted Reodica. Four witnesses said the police did not identify themselves "when approaching the Filipino group of youths." Three other witnesses said the police did identify themselves, but the report doesn't specify whether these accounts came from civilians or police.
The SIU also says it found "incontrovertible evidence that the youth had a knife, which was out during the incident," and found "an open, fold-out knife near where the youth lay after he was shot." SIU director Cornish writes in the report that "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 doing so, struck out at the officer with the knife."
Yet of the 31 civilian witnesses interviewed by the SIU, some just a few metres from the incident, none could confirm they saw Reodica with a knife.
"We've got a lot of people lined up who were very close who didn't see a knife," says family lawyer Swadron.
Instead, the SIU seems to be relying on a lone witness who, their report says, after the fact "positively identified the knife as belonging to the youth, who apparently carried it for protection."
The Reodicas had - and still have - their own questions about the knife. They say Jeffrey had never been in trouble with the police. They wanted to see the knife their son allegedly pulled on Belanger. But when the family met with the SIU later, Willie Reodica says lead SIU investigator Rob Watters told him, "I forgot to take a photo of the knife."
Watters declined to be interviewed for this story. SIU spokesperson Rose Bliss's only comment on what the family's contends is a major investigatory lapse is, "Policy is that video and photographs are taken at the scene."
According to the family, the SIU did eventually show them a knife some weeks later that it says was retrieved at the scene, but they're still not convinced it belonged to their son. SIU investigators tested for fingerprints but found none on the knife. However, the unit, which has its own lab, did not test the knife for DNA, says Bliss, a more specialized procedure that would have helped determine with some certainty if it actually belonged to Reodica.
Belanger and his partner were reportedly "interviewed" about the shooting incident, according to the SIU's report. But Bliss will not divulge whether Belanger and his partner agreed to be questioned by SIU investigators or just made a statement with their lawyers present, or whether they turned in their police notes on the incident or submitted written statements.
*** Two independent reviews of the SIU's operations have been conducted by former judge George Adams since its inception in 1990. In 2003, Adams reported that community groups wanted a broader mandate for the SIU.
That mandate might include the SIU's investigating why Belanger was allowed on the street, in plainclothes, carrying a gun, when a complaint about his conduct was on file.
The Police Services Act details how a public complaint about use of force by a cop can be handled. The chief has the option of suspending the officer with pay until the complaint has been discharged. A suspension protects both the officer and civilians by ensuring that they don't interact until the complaint has been dealt with.
Willie Reodica can only wonder what could have been. "If Belanger had been suspended, my son would be alive today," he says.
Meanwhile, the family's appeal for police records and witness statements has been rejected by police and the province's information and privacy commissioner. Swadron contends that legislation the commissioner says is preventing the release of the info is unconstitutional, and he's prepared to take the province to court to get it.
A complaint launched by the family against the Toronto police alleging that the officers failed to properly identify themselves and used excessive force has also been rejected. The family has appealed that decision to the Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services.
The family has also appealed to their local MPP, Brad Duguid, to press for a public inquiry into the case. They want clear rules of engagement written into police training protocols.
Meanwhile, a promised coroner's inquest looks to be months, if not years, away. According to Deputy Chief Coroner Bonita Porter, "Staff are not yet available to commence investigating."
Says Joel Reodica, Jeffrey's older brother, "My small family has been pitted against a powerful bureaucracy."