From the first hour of a murder trial in which a homeless man has pleaded not guilty to killing a Toronto police sergeant with a stolen snowplow, the battle lines became clear: The defence will contend that Richard Kachkar was so mentally unbalanced that he did not have the requisite intent to commit such a crime.
Mr. Kachkar, 46, is accused of murdering Toronto Police Sergeant Ryan Russell two years ago after stealing the plow and embarking on a wild downtown rampage in which numerous vehicles were damaged and several people hurt.
And in his first remarks to the six-woman, six-man jury Monday, Justice Ian MacDonnell of Ontario Superior Court said that neither side disputes that Mr. Kachkar was at the wheel of the truck on that cold, snowy morning.
Rather, the judge said, the trial will hinge on Mr. Kachkar’s state of mind at the time, and whether he intended to commit murder.
In her opening address, lead prosecutor Christine McGoey alleged that he did.
“It is the Crown’s position that he meant to cause Ryan Russell’s death,” she said, as the officer’s widow, Christine, with a group of relatives and supporters, listened attentively from the front row of the big courtroom on University Avenue.
It was just a few blocks north of the courthouse, on Jan. 12, 2011, that Sgt. Russell died.
Defending Mr. Kachkar are trial lawyer Bob Richardson and co-counsel Indira Stewart. The proceedings are expected to last about two months, with up to 50 Crown witnesses anticipated.
Ms. McGoey gave the jurors what she described as a road map of the evidence they will hear.
From the prisoner’s box, clad in a grey jacket and white shirt, Mr. Kachkar stood to enter a not-guilty plea and sat quietly as the much-anticipated trial got under way.
Heavier than he was when he was charged two years ago, and without the beard he sometimes had in earlier court appearances, he spent most of the day staring blankly at the floor of the glass-walled prisoner’s box.
He was born in Edmonton in 1966, of Armenian descent, and has an estranged wife and two adult children.
Along with a charge of first-degree murder – automatic in homicides involving police deaths – he is also charged with dangerous driving.
He has no criminal record.
Sgt. Russell, 35, left behind his widow and son Nolan, now 4. Sgt. Russell was the 25th officer killed in the line of duty since the Toronto force was formed in 1957.
Speaking outside the courthouse, Ms. Russell described the impact of the trial on herself and her family.
“The healing is stopping and the pain is back,” she said. “It’s not easy to sit there and sit so close to someone you know has done so much harm.”
She also asked the media to be sensitive in what they write and say, “because I’m going to have to explain this to a four-year-old boy.”
Ms. McGoey told the jurors Mr. Kachkar had been living in St. Catharines and that after arriving in Toronto by bus on Jan. 11, 2011, he checked into the Good Shepherd Ministries shelter on Queen Street East, just east of Parliament Street, at around 5:30 p.m.
They will hear that roughly 90 minutes later he asked one of the shelter workers to call the RCMP, she said, “because he thought he might do something bad.” Then he changed his mind, and said not to bother.
The first Crown witness was snowplow operator Daniel DaSilva who told the trial of encountering Mr. Kachkar, barefoot and without a coat, at an all-night Tim Hortons on Parliament Street at around 5:15 on the morning of the 12th.
Mr. DaSilva and his partner had stopped in for coffee, leaving the truck engine running, when Mr. Kachkar walked over and stared at them. “I thought he was going to ask me for change,” Mr. DaSilva testified.
Instead, Mr. Kachkar ran outside, hopped in the vehicle – a heavy-duty GMC pickup truck with a mechanized shovel attached to the front – and started driving away. Mr. DaSilva tried to stop him but failed.
In reporting the incident to police, Mr. DaSilva said it was apparent there was something peculiar about the thief, whom he described as “mentally unstable.”
So began Mr. Kachkar’s two-hour rampage.
The jury also heard evidence Monday from a doctor who worked at Mount Sinai
Hospital and saw the snowplow that morning as he walked down Avenue Road. As it passed him,
Dr. Neel Datta recounted, Mr. Kachkar leaned out and yelled at him, "I'm
going to get you."
Dr. Datta, whose testimony was read out to the jury as an agreed statement of fact, fled in alarm and encountered Sgt. Russell, en route to the scene, and he told the police officer of Mr. Kachkar's outburst.
Also testifying Monday was Avenue Road resident Margaret Campbell, who described seeing Mr. Kachkar smash into a luxury-car dealership in the same building as her home.
“In your mind, there was something not quite right with this driver?” she was asked by the defence.
Ms. Campbell agreed.
The concierge of her building, Michael Hau, said the same.
“He rolled down the window and started screaming at me,” he said of Mr. Kachkar, and was muttering something about “Chinese technology.”
At around the same time, at downtown 52 Division, Sgt. Russell got one of many calls about a marauding snowplow and headed out to investigate, Ms. McGoey said.
He encountered Mr. Kachkar shortly after the snowplow smashed into the Maserati/Ferrari dealership, the jury heard.
First, the stolen truck sideswiped the sergeant’s cruiser; then, after the officer got out, Mr. Kachkar drove straight at him, Ms. McGoey said, as Sgt. Russell frantically tried to block his path, firing his gun three times and falling to the ground.
The officer sustained numerous injuries, including a fractured skull.
From there the snowplow sped away again, heading west, and was finally boxed in on Keele Street, north of Humberside Avenue, where Mr. Kachkar was shot twice in the takedown.
As evidence was presented, the picture of a deeply disturbed defendant began to emerge.
During his rampage, he asked several onlookers whether they “wanted to take a ride,” with him, Ms. McGoey said.
When treated by paramedics after he was shot, he spoke of 9/11, and of being in “a Russian video game.”
There were virtually no drugs or alcohol in his system, the trial heard, only trace amounts of cannabis.
Later, after his arrest, he also told detectives of being unwanted and unloved and of contemplating suicide.
He claimed he had no memory of events, but “obviously I’m sick,” he remarked.
Sgt. Russell’s death and subsequent funeral prompted a huge show of support for Toronto police by city residents and politicians. The trial resumes Tuesday.
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