A look at the life of James Forcillo, the officer charged in Toronto's streetcar shooting

Globe and Mail update -- Includes correction

Toronto Police Constable James Forcillo is escorted out of 361 University after getting bail on Aug. 20, 2013. Forcillo surrendered to police earlier in the day on a second degree murder charge laid by the SIU that stems from the shooting death of Sammy Yatim. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Ever since his father can recall, Constable James Forcillo wanted to be a police officer – his favourite high school courses had a legal bent, and he pursued his law enforcement dream from Toronto to California and back again.

He drove his father’s Buick to the East Los Angeles College in Monterey Park, Calif., and graduated from the justice program with straight As, Donato Forcillo said. Next came a job as a security guard in Toronto, a psychology degree at York University, a few years as a court services officer upon finishing first in his training class, and then three years as a patrol officer after finishing toward the top of his Ontario Police College cohort, his father said.

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An Italian Catholic, Constable Forcillo married a Ukrainian Jew, had two daughters and moved into a home owned by his father-in-law. “Everything was going their way,” Mr. Forcillo said when reached in Quebec.

But on Aug. 19, Constable Forcillo’s life took a decisive turn: He was charged with second-degree murder in the July 27 shooting death of Sammy Yatim – a Toronto teenager who was shot multiple times by an officer, and then tasered by another officer while alone on a streetcar wielding a knife.

“I’m upset that there was loss of life, of course, but I’m very upset with the situation – he didn’t ask to get put in this situation,” said Mr. Forcillo, who hasn’t spoken with his son in a few years, since losing touch shortly after Donato temporarily moved to China to pursue work in the textile industry.

Videos capturing the shooting depict several officers who did not pull out a weapon or chose not to fire. Three shots were fired, and then, six seconds after Mr. Yatim dropped to the floor, six more. Between the two rounds, at least one officer holstered his gun. Eight of the bullets reportedly struck Mr. Yatim.

Last week, when Constable Forcillo’s wife, Irina, opened the door at their North York home after he was granted bail, Constable Forcillo said he would not comment. Until now, little has been publicly known about the officer, but friends and family who support him have emerged to help paint a picture of the man facing trial for murder.

Born on Dec. 30, 1982, at Montreal’s St. Mary’s Hospital, Constable Forcillo attended a French school before moving to Toronto around Grade 7, his father said. He said his son adjusted well, making friends with whom he played chess and Super Mario Bros, played football for the North York Bandits and volunteered as a Big Brother.

His high school friends remember a friendly but quiet and private young man, an athlete who played lacrosse and wrestled on the William Lyon Mackenzie Collegiate Institute teams and dated a “sweet” girl named Sophia. He spent his lunch hours and evenings lifting weights at the school gym and the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, his sizable frame soon deemed an asset on the sports field.

“He always had your back – if someone ever started with you, he’d be the first one there to protect you,” said a friend and former lacrosse teammate named Jeremy.

According to a bio on a website for a gym Constable Forcillo appears to have co-founded in Grade 12, he gained 80 pounds in two years and maintained 12 per cent body fat. “He would load up plates on the weight racks and then have me stand on it,” Jeremy said.

Another high school friend, Ben Goldenberg, recalled Constable Forcillo as a “family guy” whose mother packed his lunch. “He used to eat these giant Italian sandwiches and I remember saying to him, ‘You’re all about fitness but you’re eating all these carbs.’ And he said, ‘No, no, it’s good. Trust me, my mom makes them for me,’ he said.

Constable Forcillo’s mother, Maria, did not live to see him marry in 2007 at what his father described as a big Italian wedding. In 2001 – a year after the family moved to South Pasadena, Calif., for Mr. Forcillo’s work in the import-export industry – Maria died at 45 of lung cancer. After her death the family was fractured over finances, according to a relative.

Mr. Forcillo, who now works in public relations, said his understanding is that his son met Irina when he was a basement tenant living in her family home, and that Irina is now employed at CIBC.

Constable Forcillo fulfilled his long-time goal of becoming a police officer about three years ago and had, until the Yatim shooting, done so without raising public questions over his conduct: He has never been the subject of a Toronto Police Services disciplinary hearing, spokesman Mark Pugash said.

In fact, according to a legal source, Constable Forcillo has received multiple commendations, including one for a gunpoint arrest of two people brandishing knives.

“He’s like any one of us,” said Detective Kevin Frimeth, who has met Constable Forcillo through their work at 14 Division. “The courts will decide whether he did something wrong or right or something in between.”

Constable Forcillo’s lawyer, Peter Brauti, said his client is “still in a state of shock,” taking some measure of comfort in e-mails of support but grappling with the public uproar.

Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, a Wednesday news story on Constable James Forcillo incorrectly said he graduated first in his York University psychology class.

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