As police, paramedics and curious bystanders converged on a west Toronto hydro field late Monday afternoon, drawn by the body lying motionless beneath a tarpaulin, Crime Stoppers schools officer Constable Scott Mills handed one of his cards to a 30-ish woman who was clearly in distress.
"She said, 'My son is missing, he didn't come home from school, he usually goes to the library or his friend's house after school, but nobody knows where he is,' " Constable Mills recounted.
"Then she looked over at the orange tarp and I think she knew," he said.
"I couldn't sleep last night."
The woman was Stephanie Johnston, mother of Adrian Johnston, at 14 the newest and youngest casualty in a spiral of violence that has claimed seven victims in 12 Division since Jan. 1 - out of a citywide homicide tally of 18 - and left numerous others wounded.
Like Adrian, many of the victims were young black men, caught in a wave of killings and woundings that at first glance bears the hallmarks of a retaliatory gang war and has stirred major worry within the Toronto Police Service.
"I'm very concerned," Police Chief William Blair said yesterday.
"There has been a very concentrated, very serious escalation of gun violence in a certain part of our city."
Nor is there any doubt that street gangs - three in particular - are active in and around 12 Division, bordered by Lawrence Avenue West, Scarlett Road, Dundas Street West and Caledonia Road.
"The big picture is that this is all about gangs, drugs, money and power, and the two names I'm constantly hearing are the Five Point Generals and the Gators," a police source said.
But a gang war? So far, the cops who best know 12 Division remain unconvinced.
"We're out shaking bushes and there are some gang ties to the homicides," said Staff Sergeant Daryle Gerry. "But we can't connect them to each other, and we can't say there's a gang war right now because it could be just criminal interaction."
Staff Sgt. Gerry agrees that along with the Eglinton Avenue Crips, the Five Point Generals and the Gators are active players in the neighbourhood, and both have a violent history.
Loosely based around Weston Road and Lawrence Avenue, numbering perhaps a few dozen hard-core members, the Five Point Generals, or 5PGs, rose to prominence in Toronto in 2005 amid a spasm of gun violence redolent of the current one.
Vying with the 5PGs are the Gators, based in the Jane Street and Woolner Avenue area, who are associates of the Crips and wear green as their trademark colour.
Adrian was last seen walking in a field abutting Eileen Avenue, close to where Scarlett Road and St. Clair Avenue West intersect, detectives said yesterday, accompanied by a tall young black man clad in a black hoodie with a white swirl, his face covered by a black bandana.
Whoever the killer is, he did his work thoroughly before fleeing across Lambton Golf and Country Club.
Adrian was shot three times: in the chest, the stomach and the shoulder.
He was a Grade 9 pupil at Runnymede Collegiate Institute, whose principal, Lynn Farquharson, remembers him as soft-spoken and polite with his teachers.
His classmates saw a more outgoing side, calling him funny and friendly.
He played basketball on the school's court, where a lunch-hour game went on as usual yesterday. But emotions were taut. One boy, too upset and angry to speak to a reporter, broke down in tears.
A classmate said he wanted people to know Adrian was a supportive friend. But outside school, he added, Adrian was hanging out with some bad people from his neighbourhood.
He lived with his mother in an apartment on Gooch Avenue, between his school and the spot where he was killed. At the apartment complex yesterday, a woman who identified herself as Adrian's aunt said the family wasn't yet ready to speak publicly about his death.
By midafternoon, flowers and candles lined the edge of the field where he died. Police were still on the scene, some searching for bullets in the backyards of nearby houses.
One bullet was already found, in 84-year-old Mike Shykula's gardening shed, after it pierced the wooden wall.
A few doors down, Melanie Cebry stood on her front porch, tears streaming down her face as she recounted what happened Monday night.
She heard gunshots and ran into the field to find Adrian lying in the grass. She held him and spoke to him while awaiting the paramedics.
They were too late, she said.
"All I kept thinking about was his mom. I just want her to know that he wasn't alone," Ms. Cebry said.
Whatever the immediate causes of the wave of violence, which has claimed both gang members and innocents, the gangster culture is largely to blame, Chief Blair said yesterday.
"It's indicative of the influence gangs are having in our neighbourhoods, the propensity to use guns," he said.
In coming weeks, 75 new police recruits will be deployed in the area.
Adrian's ghastly death, says Constable Mills, underlines why police need to liaise constantly with at-risk youth.
"If we're not face to face with the kids in the neighbourhood, doing something the kids want to do at the times the kids are out there - which is after school and all weekend long - we're not reaching them."
The crime-scene encounter with the boy's mother, he says, left him shaken.
"I felt guilty because I couldn't do anything."
The violence continued last night, with a trio of shootings in 31 division, which sits immediately north of 12 division. One man was found on Toryork Drive at 5:40 p.m. with a gunshot wound to the leg. Thirty minutes later and three kilometres away, at Sheppard Avenue and Jane Street, a second victim was shot in the leg. Both are expected to survive.
Two hours after that, and just south on Jane Street, a volley of shots was fired into the lobby of a building at 180 Chalkfarm Dr. No one was hit.
Violence in 12 Division
Gun violence has claimed seven victims in 12 Division since Jan. 1, out of a citywide homicide total of 18, and left numerous others wounded.
Six people shot
530 The West Mall
Police seeking late model, luxury vehicle that was at the scene
29 years old
Jane Street /Eglinton Ave. W. area
14 years old
St. Clair Ave. W. and Scarlett Rd.
Jarvis St. Remy,
18 years old
4049 Dundas St. W. near Scarlett Rd.
Police seeking two suspects
19 years old
Rogers Rd. and Keele St.
Two male suspects in custody