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Hamza Abdi had phoned 911 threatening to detonate a suicide belt. But all he had the night of his shooting were hair clippers.
Hamza Abdi had phoned 911 threatening to detonate a suicide belt. But all he had the night of his shooting were hair clippers.

How a Paris terrorist attack led to bullets flying in Mississauga Add to ...

Nine hours after terrorists killed 130 people in Paris, a 26-year-old Mississauga man called 911.

“You are killing my people, you are killing my people everywhere in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, everywhere,” he told the operator in the early hours of Nov. 14, 2015. “I am ready to die.”

He had a suicide belt, he added.

Within 10 minutes, Hamza Abdi would be lying still on a suburban street, his blood pooling on the cold asphalt. Accusations that he was motivated by terrorism would flare up in newspaper headlines and in court without attracting much notice, the city too preoccupied with bloodshed overseas to contemplate any rationale for this latest police shooting.

“It gets me worked up just talking about it,” said Mohamoud Abdi, Hamza’s brother. “I understand the officers had a tough decision that night. But he wasn’t a threat. This never should have happened.”

A host of court documents and interviews offer a fuller explanation for why police came to see Mr. Abdi, a Somali-born man with a long history of mental-health needs, as a deadly threat. They also show, beyond doubt, that his actions were the product of a disordered mind, not a would-be terrorist.

The broader story is all too familiar for those working at the intersection of law enforcement and mental health.

In Toronto alone, police encounter 20,000 people with urgent mental-health needs every year. In the vast majority of cases, there is a peaceful resolution. Others, such as the shooting of Sammy Yatim aboard a streetcar, involve a clear case of deadly police overreaction.

Hamza Abdi’s shooting is a different situation altogether, void of peace or moral clarity.

“I honestly think the reason he was shot was because it happened to be the same night as the terrorist attacks in France,” said Lorne Sabsay, the Abdi family’s lawyer.

“There was real heightened psychology operating amongst the officers, and that is understandable. … However, in my client’s mind, I think it was an unfortunate coincidence,” Mr. Sabsay said.

Manic demands

Sorrow gripped the world that night. In a matter of minutes, terrorists had turned the planet’s leading tourist destination into a war zone, the bloody scene outside the Bataclan concert hall in Paris looping over and over on international news channels.

For police in the Greater Toronto Area and elsewhere, the tragedy in France was cause for heightened vigilance.

At a subsidized housing unit in eastern Mississauga, the atmosphere was tense for a different reason. Mr. Abdi was pestering his mother and brother for cigarettes, becoming compulsive in his requests.

There was ample reason to worry about his manic demands. One year prior, in 2014, a family argument escalated to the point where Mr. Abdi picked up a plastic butter knife and held it in such a threatening manner that he was charged with a weapons offence.

For the Abdis, the butter-knife incident was a continuation of the struggle they had been waging for years against encroaching mental illness.

Mr. Abdi first started feeling an overwhelming sense of “confusion” in Grade 9, according to a psychiatric assessment submitted in court. “I felt ants crawling on me,” he told a psychiatrist. Classmates bullied him. He lost a tooth in a fight with some older kids. His mother noticed that he was sleeping a lot more and staying home from school.

At first, family members teased him about his strange statements, then they began reading him Koranic passages. In 2009, they sent him to Somalia for an “exorcism” with local healers, but they determined that he wasn’t possessed and needed mental-health care and medication back in Canada.

He was admitted to hospital seven or eight times after that and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder and performance anxiety. On every occasion, manic episodes or hallucinations had presaged the breakdown. On every occasion, his family felt ill-equipped and upset.

On Nov. 13, 2015, his behaviour was foretelling more heartbreak.

Something in his hand

Cigarettes served to soothe Mr. Abdi’s anxiety about the world and his place in it. By last year, he was up to a pack and a half a day, taking up a big chunk of his disability income.

He had missed his medications that day. Thoughts became muddled. His family’s refusals became conflated with the news of carnage blaring from every radio and television in the city. He devised a plan to get back at his brother. Before leaving the family home, he grabbed a black cloth bag holding Vidal Sassoon hair clippers and put on a dark winter coat.

“He has no contact with society or other people,” Mr. Abdi’s mother later told a social worker when asked about possible extremist sympathies. She said her son, troubled though he was, had never spoken of Islam or world events in her presence.

The first of two calls to 911 came at 12:58 a.m. on Nov. 14, 2015. Mr. Abdi said he had a suicide belt “ready to explode,” according to a court narrative of events agreed to by both Crown and defence lawyers. On a second call, he told the operator that he would “detonate” and named Muslim-majority countries where his “people” were being killed.

In Canada, issuing a false threat that prompts a police investigation is grounds for a public mischief charge. Throw in some terrorism undertones to the same threat, and it becomes the more serious charge of hoax regarding terrorist activity.

Peel Regional Police were on it, tracing his phone using cell-tower triangulation.

Shortly after 1:03 a.m., Constables Humber and Lancia (police have not released their first names) spotted someone hiding next to a tree near Burnhamthorpe Public School. Constable Humber flicked on his flashlight and saw a darkly dressed figure.

Both officers stopped their cars.

At this point, the accounts of the two officers differ somewhat, underscoring the unreliability of witness testimony, even from those who have been trained to memorize and record everything they see.

Constable Lancia thought that he could see a black object strapped to the figure’s body in “vertical and horizontal lines across his torso.”

Constable Humber, meanwhile, didn’t see any vertical lines, only a single black strap around the man’s waist and a “backpack strap in his right hand.”

Both officers saw something in the man’s right hand. Given the context of the night – the phone calls and the attacks in Paris – they both came to the same conclusion: a detonator.

Constable Humber got out and looked in the direction of the figure, who was three to five metres away. “Did you call the police?” he said.

“I’m going to kill you,” came the answer.

Shortly before 1:07 a.m., Mr. Abdi bolted from behind the tree and headed toward the officers. Constable Humber began backpedalling. He thought he heard Mr. Abid say, “I’m going to blow you up.”

He drew his sidearm, his backward footsteps affecting his aim, and shot four times.

Mr. Abdi hit the ground. Rather than rush toward him, the officers kept a distance. If it was a bomb they had seen, the risk of detonation remained high.

A call went out to the explosive disposal unit (EDU). More Peel officers arrived to thump on the doors of dark suburban homes and tell groggy occupants to hunker down in their basements.

Almost 45 minutes after the shots, bomb-unit officers deployed a remote-controlled robot to inspect Mr. Abdi and his device, whatever it was.

The EDU’s Constable Jordan Swan-Tuomi could see a dark blue bag in Mr. Abdi’s waistband and a long cord. He used the robot’s claw to tug carefully on the cord. A black electrical plug popped out of Mr. Abdi’s jacket pocket. No threat there.

Constable Swan-Tuomi could see that the cord was wrapped around Mr. Abdi’s stomach. These were the “horizontal lines” Constable Lancia had noted. He manipulated the claw to pull on another section of cord and the robot arm rose to reveal a black-and-silver device: Vidal Sassoon hair clippers.

An hour and a half had passed since Mr. Abdi had taken four bullets in his torso and legs. He could speak, telling the police that the only thing strapped to his waist were hair clippers, “because of my family problems.”

The bomb experts weren’t buying it. They saw no trigger device, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t concealed beneath Mr. Abdi’s body, which was too heavy for the robot to budge. A riskier human inspection was needed.

Constable Swan-Tuomi climbed into a protective bomb suit and walked toward Mr. Abdi carrying a two-metre-long grappling pole called a hot stick. He attached one end to the cord and pulled, but the pole buckled under the tension. Clasping the cord with his hands, he was able to wrench the Vidal Sassoon trimmer free of Mr. Abdi’s motionless body. They found lubricant, hair guards and a cleaning brush for the clippers, but no sign of a trigger or any active circuitry.

At 2:37 a.m., the scene was cleared for paramedics.

‘Unbelievably lucky’

At St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, medical staff found that the rounds had missed major organs. They patched Mr. Abdi up and sent him to the Maplehurst Correctional Complex in Milton, Ont., where he would need a wheelchair to get around.

Mr. Abdi was charged with two counts of uttering death threats and one count of carrying an imitation weapon, which the charge sheet described as “an explosive vest, for a purpose dangerous to the public peace.” The latter carries a maximum 10-year sentence. Within days, the Crown would get permission from the attorney-general to add two terrorism hoax charges as well.

At first, the Crown took a hard-nosed approach. During a bail hearing, prosecutors alleged Mr. Abdi donned something approximating a suicide vest.

“I don’t know if you’ve seen a picture of a real suicide vest, but it doesn’t look anything like what [Mr. Abdi] had on,” Mr. Sabsay, the family lawyer, said. “You have this ominous vision of pockets stuffed with explosives. It was nothing like that.”

The tone softened as evidence of his mental state piled up.

The Crown consented to Mr. Sabsay’s request for an assessment to determine whether Mr. Abdi was not criminally responsible because of mental illness. The 32-page document that came back from psychiatrists at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health was definitive: “On balance, it is our opinion that, based on the totality of the available information, Mr. Abdi has available to him a defence of not criminally responsible on account of a mental disorder, from a psychiatric perspective.”

By this September, both the Crown and Ontario Court Justice Nancy Kastner had agreed with the assessment.

Mr. Abdi is free, but still faces a January hearing before the Ontario Review Board, the tribunal that determines the status of all people found to be not criminally responsible.

And what of the officers? The Special Investigations Unit, which looks into all incidents involving police in which a person is injured, has completed its probe, but has not yet issued its finding. Contacted last week, Peel Regional Police said it was not yet in a position to comment.

The Abdis and their lawyer seem understanding, if not entirely supportive, of the constables’ actions.

“Under those circumstances and given what was going on the world that night, it is hard to fault them,” Mr. Sabsay said. “He’s really lucky to be alive. He’s unbelievably lucky.”

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