Little remains to mark the spot on Bloor St. where cyclist Darcy Allan Sheppard suffered fatal injuries Monday night, after falling from a black Saab convertible driven by former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant.
Small knots of people gawkers, mourners and tragedy junkies gather daily to peer at sympathy notes posted on dying saplings or toe aside bouquets in search of bloodstains on the curb.
No blood, but lots of opinion about what happened here.
It's a reasonable bet you, too, Toronto Star readers, have an opinion. But is it, you might ask, your own? Definitely not, says a veteran Toronto criminal lawyer, loath to have his name published. "Look, the headline on this story should be: `Navigator, changing your perceptions without you even knowing it.'"
He refers, of course, to Navigator Limited, the smooth public relations firm hired by Bryant (when exactly is unclear) to massage the message. He's said to be close to Navigator chair Jaime Watt, touted for knowing everybody in Canadian power circles. Senior partner Robin Sears most recently was spokesperson for Brian Mulroney during the parliamentary investigation into his dealings with deported German arms dealer Karlheinz Schreiber.
Navigator isn't shy on its website: "Clients have praised us for our ability to take an issue that has been looked at, sometimes for years, and radically shift perspective to reveal new insights. These fresh insights are what our strategies are built on."
Experienced legal and political hands see Navigator's fingerprints all over public opinion. Shortly after a noon strategy meeting yesterday that apparently drew together Navigator staffers and Bryant's criminal defence lawyer, highly regarded Marie Henein, Sears acknowledged a reporter's remark that things seemed to be going well for them.
"I'm glad you agree," he said. "We're working hard to ensure that it does. A big part of that is us staying out of the story."
Toronto police insist there's been no VIP treatment for Bryant, charged Tuesday with criminal negligence causing death and dangerous driving of a motor vehicle causing death. They argue it's not so unusual for the accused in such a case to avoid a bail hearing and put off fingerprinting and mug shots to a later date. It must precede his Oct. 19 court appearance at Old City Hall.
And yet, nothing and everything is different.
"We knew from the outset because of who the accused was that this case would be under extreme scrutiny," says police traffic services Sgt. Tim Burrows. "Everybody, from the first person on the scene to the last investigator who has touched this, has known this has got to be the case where because there is going to be so much public opinion and so much scrutiny we do everything right and above board ... Nobody would jeopardize the investigation by making a false accusation or statement that wasn't there."
It must be pointed out, says Patrick Monahan, former dean of Osgoode Hall Law School and Bryant friend ("I would do anything for Michael Bryant"), such scrutiny can cut both ways. "The real danger is that he not be treated more harshly because (nobody) wants to be seen as favouring him."
Arguably, however, the tenor of the public mood has shifted from the moment the lives of two people polar opposites in experience, status and power intersected on Bloor just west of Bay.
MONDAY, AUG. 31:
Police arrive on the scene about 9:50 p.m. after several 911 calls about a bizarre accident in which Sheppard, 33, has been mortally injured. He had apparently been shaken off the car along one of the city's poshest strips, highlighted by Gucci, Prada, Hermθs, Mont Blanc, Cole Hahn and Louis Vuitton. Bryant, 43, continued driving west for a short distance, before turning right on Avenue Rd. and pulling into the Park Hyatt hotel, where he and his wife, Susan Abramovitch, 42, both made calls to police.
Bryant and Abramovitch, one of Canada's top entertainment lawyers, had been out celebrating the 12th anniversary of their wedding.
There was no reason to ask Bryant for a breathalyzer, says Burrows, and according to a Toronto Star story, there was no alcohol at their dinner. Police allowed Abramovitch to leave the scene without giving a statement again, usual practice for someone easily located. Bryant was put in the back of a police cruiser before being taken to the traffic services station in the Liberty Village area. He didn't give a statement.
By the next morning, the media was chasing unconfirmed reports Bryant was in custody, noting also police were considering what charges to lay. Comments from the police appearing that day, notably in the Star, suggest a consensus in interviews at the scene. "Based on the circumstances and the evidence we have so far, it was the appropriate charge(s)," says Det. Const. Leslie Lalla. "We have witnesses saying that we have a male hanging on to the driver's side. Eyewitnesses report he was driving along the curb. The car doesn't appear to be out of control."
Witnesses further told the Star the two men were involved in some sort of altercation, Bryant pulled away, Sheppard chased the car and grabbed hold of the driver's side. It wasn't clear what he was trying to do and one witness said there were "sparks" from Sheppard's cycling shoes as he was pulled along. There were comments the car rode on the sidewalk and slammed into a mailbox, with screeching tires. "Like something out of a gangster movie," said one witness, while others suggested it looked like Bryant was trying to use the mailbox as a bludgeon to loosen Sheppard's grip.
A demonstration by cyclists later that day revolved around an angry mood distinctly unsympathetic to Bryant. "Murderer," they yelled. However, police confirmed that an hour before the accident, Sheppard had been sitting in the back of a police car after police were called to an altercation at his girlfriend's apartment. Witnesses to that episode reported he appeared drunk; police are awaiting toxicology tests.
TUESDAY MORNING, SEPT. 1:
It was a busy morning. At the attorney general's ministry on Bay St., it was determined an independent prosecutor would make all decisions on the case. That prosecutor, Richard Peck, from B.C., attended a meeting at Old City Hall to get the ball rolling.
Meanwhile, the police officer in charge at Liberty Village determined Bryant could leave without a bail hearing because there was no flight risk and he posed no threat to the public. However, conditions of release said Bryant must remain in Ontario, notify Lalla of any change of address, employment or occupation, surrender his passport within 48 hours and refrain from driving.
The Star has learned Nikki Holland, a longtime Bryant friend who'd worked for him for years ("she kind of ran his life," says one source) arrived at the police station with a pressed dark grey suit, blue shirt and tie for Bryant's impromptu statement on the station steps. (Bryant, who stepped down as $300,000-a-year president of Invest Toronto this week, hired Holland in a senior position at the city agency only a week ago.) "No comment," she said, about the suit delivery.
Some saw the wise hand of Navigator in Bryant's statement, which noted: "I
would ... like to extend my deepest condolences to the family of Mr. Sheppard."
They also suggest the lobbying agency might have had influence in his
protestation of innocence in his resignation letter to Invest Toronto.
WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 2:
The mood change seemed in full swing. During the afternoon, media reports said police were seeking evidence from witnesses, including video, to fill gaps in what surveillance cameras showed.
The media also began to focus on suggestions the police were examining whether Sheppard had impeded Bryant's driving, either by trying to put him in a headlock or by grabbing the wheel.
Irwin Isenstein, a criminal lawyer specializing in drinking and driving offences, said some might suggest such scenarios could be construed to favour Bryant and his defence.
"What I would suggest is that it's unusual for so much information to be disclosed from police," he said.
But Burrows insists questions about the scenarios which cast Sheppard in a much harsher light did not originate with police.
"Where is all this stuff coming from?" Burrows says he asked himself as reporters raised those issues during informal press briefings.
Burrows acknowledges police may have fuelled those suggestions once they arose. Rather than speculating on each reporter's question, he says, "The most appropriate response would have been just to say, 'Yeah, we're looking into every possibility.' "
As the week progressed, one criminal lawyer gave a harsh assessment to the Star: "I didn't think this earlier, but now, I gotta say, most people think he will walk."
Bryant's friends and colleagues bristle at any suggestion justice will be eluded. That can't happen, says well-known criminal lawyer Clayton Ruby: "He's got to have a fair trial and nothing should be allowed to interfere with that."
Will McDowell, a former colleague and another on Bryant's meaty list of loyalists, cautions against rushing to judgment so early in the case. "Michael will get through this," he says. "He has so much to contribute. He will be a presence in this city and in Canadian politics for a long time to come."