Two hours before sunrise would reveal a city submerged beneath a blanket of snow and a pall of grief, a frantic cab driver called Toronto police with a premonition.
A man driving a stolen plow truck had rammed his cab twice as he sat waiting for fares. "This man is dangerous," the cabbie told police around 5:30 a.m. "He's looking to kill somebody."
The first officer to respond was a recently promoted young sergeant named Ryan Russell. An 11-year veteran of the force and eager goalie for several recreational hockey teams, Sgt. Russell was famous among colleagues for talking incessantly about his wife Christine and two-year-old son Nolan.
He asked where the plow had driven and the cabbie pointed north along Avenue Road. He went in pursuit, mucking through streets covered in snow like every other working stiff that day.
It was his last call.
Moments later, the nearly 3,000-kilogram plow truck slammed into the 35-year-old officer as he tried to stop it along Avenue Road just north of Davenport Road. He suffered massive head injuries and was pronounced dead at St. Michael's Hospital.
"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.
The way he died - upon a plow's blade on a typically miserable January day - garnered a everyman's empathy from Torontonians. "How it happened, there in the cold street with a plow, it almost seems worse than some of the more violent deaths you hear about, with gangs and drugs and guns and all that," said Maria Monahan, who could see the now-disabled plow outside her Keele Street window.
The lethal joyride through downtown streets began a little before 5 a.m. A two-man crew for Tolias Landscaping and Plowing was up early to clear snow around Regent Park when a shoeless man approached.
"As quickly as they noticed him, he just jumped in their vehicle and drove off," said Richard Eros, general manager for the company. "He basically sped off erratically and he looked like he was driving very crazy."
Over the next two hours, the Chevrolet 3500 - equipped with a front-end plow and a back-end dump box - would ding as many as 15 cars on a slow circuitous route west across central Toronto. Throughout the rampage, Mr. Eros tracked the Chevy by GPS and periodically updated police on its location.
The driver shattered the front window of a Ferrari dealership along Avenue Road and sideswiped a mirror off a Beck taxi around 5:30 a.m. The taxi's driver said the plow then drove off, only to reappear behind him. He thought the plow driver was returning to apologize and trade insurance information. Then he noticed the Chevy gain speed. He leaped from his taxi as the plow crumpled his driver-side door. "He's lucky to be alive," said Gail Souter, general manager of Beck.
Pierpaolo Miele was driving to work around 7 a.m. when the snowplow clipped his car and then hit a garbage truck on Keele Street near Annette Street. That's where the two-hour fracas between a slumbering city and a rapacious driver ended. An armoured Emergency Task Force vehicle boxed the Chevy from behind and an officer opened fire.
"I heard the gun shots. I kinda saw cops on the hood of the car looking in," said Mr. Miele, a plumber.
The driver was taken to St. Michael's Hospital with gunshot injuries. He underwent surgery and was recovering in intensive care, according to the Special Investigations Unit, the Ontario agency that investigates shootings involving police officers.
Another officer received non-life-threatening leg injuries in the takedown.
Calling the death a murder, Chief Blair described the sadness the slaying had visited on the force at an afternoon news conference in the lobby of police headquarters.
"I went to the hospital this morning and I had the very difficult responsibility of telling his young wife and the mother of his young son that he had died in the line of duty and that he had made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of this city," he said.
The investigation into Sgt. Russell's death will be handled by homicide detectives, led by Detective Sergeant Dan Nielsen, while the investigation into the arrest will be handled by the SIU.
The funeral is expected to draw officers from around the country, the chief said, but details will likely not be worked out until Thursday at the earliest.
Sgt. Russell is the 25th officer killed in the line of duty since the modern Toronto force was formed in 1956, and the first since 2002.
With reports from Arti Patel, Adrian Morrow and Trevor Melanson
Sergeant Ryan Russell
- Joined Toronto Police Service in October of 1999, graduated police college in March of the following year. As a front-line officer in East York's 54 Division, became an expert in the gangs of Flemingdon Park, including the Flemos and the Stick Up Kids.
- Transferred to the Guns and Gangs Unit in May of 2006, where he worked as a plainclothes officer, leading a street team and gathering intelligence. He was also tasked with preparing cases for court and often testified as a gang expert, including against the leader of the Little Rascalz, a teenaged Stick Up Kids feeder group he first encountered as a beat officer.
- Promoted to sergeant on Aug. 30, 2010, and assigned to downtown 52 Division, where he worked as a supervisor on E platoon.
- Married to Christine, with whom he had a two-year-old son, Nolan.
- In his down time, played goalie on both police and civilian teams and renovated his house.
- Son of Glenn Russell, a retired 30-year veteran of the force.