A Toronto police sergeant has died after being hit by a stolen snowplow that led officers on an erratic early-morning pursuit through downtown streets.
Sergeant Ryan Russell, a married 35-year-old father of a two-year-old boy, had been a police officer for 11 years.
“Today we will grieve the loss of one of our officers, a hero of the Toronto Police Service who went out this morning to do his job and in doing his job, gave his life,” Police Chief Bill Blair said. “That is a tragedy for all of us and something that I think we will all mourn.”
Chief Blair characterized Sgt. Russell’s death as a “murder.”
Sgt. Russell was trying to stop a man driving a stolen snowplow that allegedly hit several vehicles, at least one building and narrowly avoided striking pedestrians during a two-hour-long rampage early Wednesday.
The plow clipped the mirror of a Beck cab around 6 a.m. at Avenue Road and Davenport Road, then came back for more, circling the block and ramming headlong into the same taxi. The cabbie jumped for his life from the car and called police.
The responding officer was Sgt. Russell. The cabbie told him that someone better stop the plow because the driver was “dangerous and he’s looking to kill somebody,” said Gail Souter, Beck general manager.
Sgt. Russell would be hit minutes later just across the street.
The chase began around 5 a.m. when the privately-owned snowplow was commandeered near Regent Park by a barefoot man who jumped into the parked vehicle and sped away.
“As quickly as they noticed him, he just jumped in their vehicle and drove off. They tried to grab the door to open it and he was already gone. He basically sped off erratically and he looked like he was driving very crazy,” said Richard Eros, general manager of Tolias Landscaping and Plowing.
Mr. Eros used the truck’s GPS to update police on the snowplow’s location as it drove around Toronto’s downtown, moving roughly east to west, then north.
“This guy was driving around like a maniac,” Mr. Eros said.
Pierpaolo Miele was driving to work when the snowplow clipped his car and then hit a garbage truck on Keele Street near Annette Street around 7 a.m.
Police officers then opened fired on the snowplow, he said.
“I heard the gun shots. I kinda saw cops on the hood of the car looking in,” said Mr. Miele, a plumber.
The snowplow driver was taken to St. Michael’s Hospital with serious injuries. He underwent surgery and was recovering in intensive care, according to the Special Investigations Unit, which is probing the case. He had not been charged by mid-afternoon.
Another police officer received non-life-threatening leg injuries in the Keele Street takedown and was taken to North York General Hospital.
Chief Blair, who fought back emotion as he spoke with reporters Wednesday morning at the hospital, described Sgt. Russell as “a fine police officer.” He became a sergeant six months ago and previously worked with the guns-and-gangs task force.
“This is the worst of days for the Toronto Police Service,” he said.
In an afternoon news conference, Chief Blair described having the “very difficult responsibility” of informing Sgt. Russell’s “courageous young wife” that he had died in the line of duty.
Sgt. Russell’s father is a former Toronto police officer, said Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association.
“We’ve lost a great officer, a great friend, a husband and a father. And I can’t imagine the grief that the family’s going through right now,” he said. “Coming from a policing family, it’s the worst nightmare.”
Nancy Parker, a neighbour of Sgt. Russell, said she often saw him and his wife with their toddler-aged son. She is organizing a collection from neighbours to buy flowers for his wife.
“From what I could gather, he was a real family man. They were always out with their wagon or their sled with their little boy and seemed like an all-round good guy,” she said.
Mayor Rob Ford extended his condolences to Sgt. Russell’s family and colleagues, calling the 35-year-old a “a shining example of the men and women of the police service who put their lives on the line every day to protect us.” The city is lowering flags at City Hall and civic centres to half mast.
“This is a very, very sad day for all of us,” Mr. Ford said, eyes misted over.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty also expressed sympathies to Sgt. Russell’s family, saying his death is a “grim reminder that we should never take the dangers of policing for granted.”
The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police called Sgt. Russell a “genuine Canadian hero.”
“His death in the line of duty touches all police officers and represents the greatest sacrifice that an officer can make for his or her fellow citizens,” Chief Robert Herman said in a statement.
The last Toronto Police officer to be killed in the line of duty was Constable Laura Ellis, whose police car was hit by another vehicle as she and her partner responded to a break-and-enter call in 2002.
With reports from Arti Patel, Patrick White, Trevor Melanson, Karen Howlett and Anna Mehler Paperny