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Christie Blatchford (Deborah Baic)
Christie Blatchford (Deborah Baic)

Christie Blatchford

Three murder convictions and a temper tantrum Add to ...

cblatchford@globeandmail.com

When the jury in a major gang case yesterday returned with verdicts - what are believed to be the first convictions in Canada for murder committed for the benefit of a criminal street gang - the thugs in the prisoner's box erupted with outrage so patently fraudulent it bordered on the farcical.

Tyshan Riley, now convicted of one murder, facing charges in two others and believed by Toronto Police to have been involved in as many as four more, as ever the standard-bearer, led the way: "Lies!" he cried. "Did nothing! It's a joke."

Phillip Atkins was next: "I didn't kill nobody!" he said, before moving to outright hilarity. "I love you Mom," he bellowed. "You raised a good kid, you know that!"

"I love you Brubbs," his mother replied. "I know you didn't do it."

Mr. Atkins is now convicted in one murder and charged in another, surely the apple of any mother's eye.

Next to him, Jason Wisdom, the only one of the three who had testified in his own defence and who had offered an alibi the jurors clearly rejected, yelled, with tears running down his endearing boxer's mug, "I told the truth!"

As that was unfolding with all the spontaneity of an arson, Ontario Superior Court Judge Michael Dambrot, who was about to thank the jurors, quickly sent them on their way without the usual pleasantries.

They were spared the worst of the protracted temper tantrum - Mr. Riley crying, "What do I do? How am I guilty of fucking murder? I didn't do anything!"; Mr. Atkins wailing, "What am I going to tell my daughter, man?"; Mr. Riley stamping his feet in rage and punching the glass partition in the box and, minutes later, as Mr. Atkins and Mr. Wisdom were being taken away, the sound of breaking glass coming from the back hall as one of them smashed a cabinet holding a fire extinguisher.

But it was a sharp reminder that the three who for almost eight weeks had presented as college students - in neat cable-knit tennis vests, crisp striped shirts and the like - were anything but.

The young men - Mr. Riley and Mr. Atkins are now 26, Mr. Wisdom 23 - were convicted in the March 3, 2004, daylight drive-by shooting of two utterly innocent, law-abiding, hard-working men at the Neilson Road and Finch Avenue East intersection in Scarborough.

Brenton (Junior) Charlton, a 31-year-old SkyDome worker, died on the spot, the only child of his hard-working mother, Velda Williams, who said quietly afterward, "I felt him beside me, I was hugging him, holding him."

Leonard Bell, a renovation contractor who was 43 at the time, was shot nine times but miraculously survived to testify at the trial.

The three were each convicted of first-degree murder, attempted murder and committing murder for the benefit of a criminal organization, in this case a subset of the G-Way, or Galloway Boys street gang.

The subset was called the Throwbacks, their signature was "the Ride," a random drive onto the turf of a rival gang in the nearby Malvern area and the shooting of anyone there the Throwbacks guessed was a gangbanger - or was dressed like one.

Given the popularity of gangsta fashion, it was a stunningly broad definition, undoubtedly part of the reason that, as the officer in charge of the case, Detective Sergeant Dean Burks said yesterday, "It was only on the rarest of occasions" that the Throwbacks's targets were actually Malvern gang members, with most innocents like Mr. Charlton and Mr. Bell.

"Only one of the victims had any criminal history," Det. Sgt. Burks said.

Mr. Riley, for instance, is charged with first-degree murder in the January, 2004, slaying of a 21-year-old named Omar Kente Hortley, whose "sin" was to be walking to a friend's house in the Malvern neighbourhood when he was casually executed, as he begged for mercy, by gunmen who stopped him to demand a cigarette and then marijuana.

Mr. Riley is also facing another charge of first-degree murder in the November, 2002, shooting of 23-year-old drug dealer Eric Mutiisa.

In addition, Mr. Riley and Mr. Atkins are charged with attempted murder in the April, 2004, shooting of two teenagers, Koffi Patrong and Chris Hyatt, who were sprayed with gunfire as they stood on the back porch of Mr. Patrong's Malvern-area home. As Judge Dambrot noted in one of many pretrial rulings, "The fact that [Mr.]Hyatt and [Mr.]Patrong were not killed can be attributed only to bad shooting or good fortune."

Neither young man had the remotest connection to the rival crew that was the Throwbacks's collective obsession.

Det. Sgt. Burks, asked yesterday if Mr. Riley wasn't like a serial killer, replied bluntly, "He was a serial killer - one [murder]conviction, accused in two others ... same MO [modus operandi] same part of the city." He said Mr. Riley is suspected or implicated in as many as eight shootings in total.

That this prosecution was successful was in significant measure because the case was unique - a former G-Way member (though not a Throwback), Roland Ellis, testified against his childhood friends. Most gang shootings remain unsolved because few witnesses will speak to police, let alone testify in court.

Mr. Ellis was, lead prosecutor Suhail Akhtar said outside court yesterday, "one of the most important witnesses in the case" and offered hope that, as Det. Sgt. Burks said, "If you come forward and testify to what you know about gang offences, justice will be served."

Even from his jail cell, Mr. Riley continued to try to intimidate and manipulate potential witnesses and those who displeased him - threatening to kill Mr. Ellis, for instance, and persuading, with Mr. Atkins, another gangster, Marlon Wilson, to recant the damning testimony he gave at the preliminary hearing.

But the success is also a testament to the merits of remarkable perseverance - from the patient judge, who made dozens of rulings on Charter motions brought during 13 months of pretrial hearings, to Mr. Akhtar and his prosecutorial team, to the Toronto Police officers, many of whom spent five years of their lives on the case.

The financial price - what with extra security in a re-fit courtroom, judge and prosecution salaries, the unknown bill for the defence - is probably enormous.

But the societal costs of doing nothing, or giving up because prosecution is so difficult in the age of the Charter, would be far greater.

When court briefly resumed yesterday afternoon, Judge Dambrot ruled that in light of their earlier outbursts, the three young men were to be brought up separately from the cells.

Mr. Atkins was still yapping. "You guys know I didn't kill nobody," he said as he was led away. Ditto Mr. Riley, who offered, "I'd like to put something on the record," was interrupted by the judge and smartly taken away, still shrieking, "I didn't do this crime!" and "You're biased!"

The last word goes to Mr. Charlton's mom. "God was on our side," she said.

It was a good day for those who loathe the double negative, not to mention random lethality in public spaces.

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