Published On Thu Oct 28 2010
Mei Han Lee, left, was struck and killed when a Toronto police constable suddenly accelerated into an illegal right turn. Lee is pictured here with her husband and a relative.Handout
Mei Han Lee was on the way home from a morning stroll when she was struck by a Toronto police cruiser and killed.
The impact of the suddenly accelerating police car launched Lee off the bumper and threw her about 30 metres down the street. The impact severed her brain stem, killing her instantly.
Lee, 67, had the right of way, crossing at a green light.
The marked cruiser had been idling in the left-turn lane, facing east, when Toronto police officer Juan Quijada-Mancia suddenly backed up, crossed three lanes of traffic, slammed his foot on the gas into an illegal right turn and hit the small but sturdy grandmother.
The officer was not responding to an emergency call. His lights and siren were off. For seven years, the police, the provincial Special Investigations Unit (SIU) that probed the case and the officer himself would not divulge where he was going in such a hurry. Thursday, Toronto Police spokesperson Mark Pugash called the Star to say Quijada-Mancia had been on his way to court.
Today’s story is one of an ongoing series on police conduct in Ontario. A Star investigation of two decades of cases probed by the province’s Special Investigations Unit found that police officers across the province are treated far differently than civilians when accused of shooting, beating, running over and killing people.
Lee was struck while on the way home to care for her autistic grandson so her daughter-in-law could spend the day looking for a job.
“She always obeyed the law,” a tearful Rose Chen says, through a Cantonese translator, of her dead mother-in-law. “What was the officer doing? Someone should be held accountable.”
The SIU cleared Quijada-Mancia in February 2004, two months after Lee died, claiming he had only been driving 24 km/h at the time of impact.
Instead of a criminal charge, Quijada-Mancia faced a far less severe form of justice after pleading guilty to discreditable conduct at an internal police disciplinary hearing.
His punishment: loss of a week’s salary.
Quijada-Mancia is well-spoken with a benign smile. He swallows hard to stave off tears and told the Star in an interview that the incident is a “disaster” that keeps creeping into his life. He had run to Lee lying on the road and given her CPR, but to no avail. He never disputed any of the charges against him.
“I paid my dues,” Quijada-Mancia, now a sergeant, said. He had been on the job 11 months when he killed Lee. “I don’t think a criminal charge would have made the case against me any stronger. It just would have meant five years in jail.”
An internal Toronto Police probe found the constable’s speed was double what the SIU claimed when the agency announced it was not laying a charge. Toronto Police said Quijada-Mancia accelerated to around 50 km/h from a stopped position.
Chen, Lee’s daughter-in-law, was shocked and skeptical when the SIU told her the officer had been driving slowly. According to family, Lee landed close to a bus shelter, a far distance from where she had been crossing the road in the designated crosswalk.
“It seemed like the SIU was helping the police,” Chen said. “The speed of the cruiser – it’s just not possible.”
New immigrants to Canada, Chen, her husband and young children did not understand English when they spoke to SIU investigators. Chen said the agency did not provide a Cantonese interpreter. An English-speaking friend helped translate, but Chen did not feel she was in a position to argue with government officials.
“At least if he had been charged criminally there would be some closure,” Chen said. “Someone would be held accountable and responsible.”
The SIU director at the time, John Sutherland, now a superior court judge working in Toronto, did not return the Star’s calls for comment.
In the years following Lee’s tragic death, her family moved away from the condominium they owned on Progress Avenue. It was too painful to drive past its intersection with Sheppard Ave. E, where the vibrant woman died.
At 8:45 on the morning of Dec. 8, 2003 – a few minutes after Quijada-Mancia struck and killed Lee – Chen was worried, wondering why her mother-in-law had not returned home.
She heard sirens, walked the block from her condo to the intersection, and an officer standing behind yellow tape told her an “old lady” was killed and asked her to run home and grab a photo of Lee.
The internal sentencing hearing in April 2005 raised “mitigating factors” from Toronto police traffic specialists, including the bright sun and a theory that Lee’s outfit played a role in her death. Her hood was pulled over her head as she walked home on that frigid morning, so she didn’t see the hazard.
Quijada-Mancia’s lawyer Gary Clewley said in an interview that the officer could not see the victim because he “got the sun in his eyes.”
Superintendent Neale Tweedy, the senior officer who presided over the hearing, wrote that the cruiser was traveling between 45 and 52 km/h, but “while not excessive speed, it was achieved from a stopped position over a short distance.”
Before handing down his sentence for this “highly regrettable incident,” Tweedy balanced Lee’s death with the officer’s “good history.”
Quijada-Mancia is a recipient of the Canadian Military Medal, Canadian Peace Keeping Medal and a Toronto police Unit Commander Award. He had considerable remorse, Tweedy wrote, his “degree of negligence was low” and he had a “momentary lapse in judgment.”
In deciding the officer’s penalty, Tweedy also considered that Quijada-Mancia was fined only $500 for making an improper right turn – a Highway Traffic Act charge that carries two demerit points.
Quijada-Mancia, who has been promoted to a sergeant since the incident, attended some driver “re-education” courses, but never had his license taken away.
Lee’s family remains bitter about how the SIU seemed eager to sweep the incident into obscurity. When they sued, the officer and police mounted no defense and agreed, without admitting guilt, to pay the claim immediately.
The family was awarded $187,525.64 in a civil suit that ended in 2007.
Chen said that Quijada-Mancia did not come to the funeral and never apologized to the family.
“He never expressed regret,” Chen says. “That’s the worst part.”
When asked whether he ever tried to make contact with the family, Quijada-Mancia said “no comment,” but that he has never known any police officers who have done so.
Tomorrow: The story of the 23-year-old homeless man who threw a plastic chair and the cop who shot him.
Michele Henry can be reached at (416) 869-4386 or email@example.com