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The killing of Ken Chopee has filled an Ontario community with grief, and some rancorous debate about the micro-home complex where he died

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In the fall of 2020, Ken Chopee spoke to The Globe and Mail about his struggles with opioid addiction at Memorial Park in Oshawa, Ont. He was found dead this past January.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

One grey afternoon last month, a cube van pulled up outside the tiny apartment in Oshawa, Ont., where Ken Chopee met his violent end. Workers piled the last of his belongings into the back. But before they could drive off to the dump, Mr. Chopee’s brother, Robert, salvaged two of Ken’s most treasured keepsakes, sealed in a plastic bag.

One was the baby bracelet that he wore in the hospital where he was born. Little white beads spelled out his surname. The other was an old paperback with yellowing pages, Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker.

Ken saw the original George Lucas movie when he was a teenager and it changed his life. He became a life-long Star Wars fanatic, building a valuable collection that included everything from vintage lightsabers to storm trooper figurines to copies of original movie scripts. Even in his later years, when he was addicted to drugs and eating at soup kitchens, he was “the Star Wars guy,” always ready to expound on everything from the habits of the Sand People to the best replica of the X-wing starfighter.

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Mr. Chopee's brother, Robert, has saved a backpack with his late sibling's name, as well as a Star Wars book and baby bracelet.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Chopee, 58, was found dead in his government-built microhome on Jan. 27. A 32-year-old man arrested at the scene was charged the next day with first-degree murder.

The killing has sharpened concern over crime and disorder in the heart of Oshawa, a thriving community of 170,000 an hour east of Toronto. Some residents are focusing their anger on the microhomes, saying they have become a source of constant trouble.

Even in downtown Oshawa, which is accustomed to dark happenings, Mr. Chopee’s killing was a punch in the gut.

He was a familiar character there, unmistakable in the battered ball caps, grey beard and long hair that made him resemble Willie Nelson on a bad day.

Those who sped past him on the broad one-way streets that pass through the city centre would only have seen another dishevelled figure lingering on the sidewalk. Those who knew him saw a troubled but generous man who brightened their lives with his tall tales and peals of laughter.

Sue Chambers says he would often come into her bookstore to chat, browse for cheap paperbacks or try to sell her old comics.

When she heard about his death on the news, she said: “Oh, Ken, no, no, no. It’s not fair. Of all people, it had to be him.”

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Mr. Chopee's Chewbacca robe lies on a table in Oshawa after a Feb. 13 memorial service.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Chopee was born and raised in Oshawa. His mother struggled with mental illness and a drinking problem. Ken spent part of his childhood in foster care.

A window opened when he saw Star Wars, with its stirring tale of heroic exploits in “a galaxy far, far away.” Entranced, he watched it over and over, going so often that the movie theatre started letting him in for free.

As more films in the series came out, his obsession grew. He started collecting posters and figurines. He went to fan events in Toronto and got autographs from Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher.

By now into comic books as well, he opened a local store, Ken’s Comics and Collectibles. Batman was his favourite series and the Joker his favourite character. He got a Joker tattoo and taught his pet bird, a cockatoo named Sammy, to mimic the Joker’s maniacal laughter. Oshawa teenagers flocked to his store to paw over the comics and gawk at his growing collection of toys, which included G.I. Joe, the military action figure. One day, for a lark, Ken and some pals were using a cane as a golf club and knocking the figures one by one into a vacant lot across the street. When some passing cops asked what they were doing, friends recall, he told them that he was simply “golfin’ Joes.”

But Stars Wars remained his passion. He saw all the films, from Return of the Jedi to Revenge of the Sith, and collected countless VHS tapes, laser discs and DVDs, piling them in towering stacks against the walls of every place he lived. He travelled to New York, Chicago and Los Angeles for conventions. He got a Darth Vader phone in the shape of the imperial warlord’s helmet.

When The Last Jedi was coming out, he showed Toronto Life some of his best finds, including a gold-plated model of the Millennium Falcon, the spaceship piloted by Han Solo, and a 1978 Luke Skywalker action figure that he bought for $3 but was by then worth $1,500. “What’s really cool about this figure is the ‘Free Boba Fett’ badge,” he told the magazine in 2017, referring to the helmeted bounty hunter. “Boba Fett wasn’t introduced in the movies until The Empire Strikes Back in 1980.”

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Mr. Chopee sits on a replica of Emperor Palpatine's throne at 2015's Fan Expo in Toronto.Courtesy of Roy Mitchell

Long before that interview, though, his life had begun to unravel. He was never any good with money and Ken’s Comics went out of business. He worked a series of factory jobs. He and a girlfriend had a son who died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

He moved back in with his mother. The two fought constantly and police officers were sometimes called to the house. Among them was his brother, Robert, who spent 30 years as a cop and was frustrated by Ken’s erratic ways.

When Mr. Chopee’s mother died a few years ago, the unravelling worsened. Thieves stole $10,000 worth of his collectibles by breaking into a storage pod. A fire in a place where he was living destroyed more of his collection and killed his dog Anakin, a Labrador retriever named after the Star Wars character who goes on to become Darth Vader. He said the dog woke him when the fire broke out, saving his life.

He started staying in shelters and sleeping on friends’ couches, joining a roaming community of vulnerable people who inhabit Oshawa’s downtown streets.

Friends say that whenever he had a place of his own, he would invite people over to warm up, do laundry, watch movies or crash on the floor. Some of them took advantage of him, stealing his stuff and beating him up.

“Every time one of his so-called friends would rip him off, he wasn’t angry, he was disappointed,” says Tim Simms, owner of the comics store Worlds Collide.

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Tim Simms, left, owner of the Worlds Collide comics shop, chats with Roy Mitchell at an Oshawa restaurant where Mr. Chopee's friends gathered to remember him.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

When The Globe and Mail first encountered Mr. Chopee in 2021, he was lining up for free sandwiches handed out by a local charity at a downtown park. He said he had been addicted to drugs since a doctor prescribed him powerful painkillers for a shattered ankle years before. Now he was suffering from a list of other impairments: arthritis, damaged spinal discs, blindness in one eye.

He dulled the pain with fentanyl, the potent synthetic opioid, but tested his drugs with a special kit and carried the lifesaving drug naloxone on his belt. “I don’t want to die,” he said. His best friend, Kevin, had succumbed to an overdose, and “I miss him every day.”

Things started looking up for Mr. Chopee last year when he moved into the new microhomes project on Drew Street. The regional municipality had 10 modular units built at a manufacturing plant in Cambridge, Ont., and assembled on the Oshawa site. It’s a version of a strategy that cities from Vancouver to Halifax are using to get the homeless housed fast. When the Oshawa project opened last spring, the municipality posted a video that toured viewers around the neat, white-walled apartments as pleasing piano music played.

Neighbours said Mr. Chopee was a friendly guy who seemed to appreciate his new home. His background was Ukrainian and he put the country’s flag in his window while the war there raged. He picked up litter on the property, pulled up weeds and strung Christmas lights for the holidays. When people with dogs came by, he would often come down off his little porch to make friends.

A woman in the unit two doors down said he made her feel welcome when she moved there from a shelter. If she needed anything at all, he told her, she should just let him know.

But people in the surrounding houses say they saw alarming goings-on at the microhomes. They complained that police often came to the site, in one case bringing a SWAT unit. Shopping carts, litter and drug paraphernalia were often strewn around, nearby houses and cars broken into.

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At Mr. Chopee's old micro-home, his brother, right, supervises the workers emptying out its contents.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

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Mr. Chopee's Star Wars and comic memorabilia pile up in a truck destined for the garbage dump.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

In late January, staff at the clinic where Mr. Chopee went for daily doses of methadone to combat the cravings of addiction noticed that he had stopped coming in. Housing officials went to his place to do a wellness check. They found another man in the unit and called 911. Police arrested the man and took him away, cuffed, barefoot and bare-chested, in a cruiser, neighbours say. Mr. Chopee was found lifeless on the bathroom floor with blood all around.

Police won’t say what they believe happened inside that apartment. Robert Chopee says he heard his brother was beaten and stabbed to death and then left there, possibly for days. He doesn’t know why – a robbery, some obscure dispute, a drug transaction gone wrong? All he knows is that police with grave expressions came to his door that day and asked, “Can we come in?”

The killing has provoked strong reactions. One neighbour of Mr. Chopee’s, Denise Boudreau, says it shows the microhomes are an “epic failure” and should be torn down. “How many Kens have to die” before the region admits that the experiment hasn’t worked, asks Ms. Boudreau, a law clerk who recently bought a house nearby.

Local activist Christeen Thornton says that officials are plunking people in the homes without giving them enough support for the problems that may have landed them there in the first place, such as mental illness or addictions.

The municipality responds that it built the microhomes to help bridge the gap from homelessness to permanent, independent housing. Two occupants have already made the transition and that “is a success to celebrate.”

To address local complaints, it says, it installed cameras, put up extra fencing, instituted daily inspections and removed some trees to improve visibility. But “remember,” it said in a prepared statement, “just because someone doesn’t have a home doesn’t mean they are dangerous; have substance-abuse issues; or are taking part in criminal activity. They are people, just like us.”

For those familiar with Mr. Chopee, the dispute over the microhomes is overshadowed by simple sorrow.

Outside the Back Door Mission, which hands out food and clothing daily, Emily Lelievre said that when she complained her hands were cold one recent day, Mr. Chopee gave her his gloves. “No matter my mood, he’d always make me smile,” she said, imitating his “hyena” laugh, a high-pitched “he-he-he.”

Murray Acreman said that on Christmas Day Mr. Chopee saw him collecting empties on the street to take to the Beer Store for cash. Mr. Chopee invited him over to watch – no surprise – a Star Wars movie.

“He was a nice guy,” said Mr. Acreman. “He was just lost. He had lost everything.” All he had left was his friends on the street – “Oshawa’s big dysfunctional family.”

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Murray Acreman watched several Star Wars movies with Ken Chopee over the years.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

The downtown social workers who helped Mr. Chopee remember his giving nature and his eccentricities.

Shelter staffer Shylo Steininger said he once called her in a panic to ask her to meet him at Walmart. She drove 45 minutes to get there and found he just wanted her to help him take home some cartons of his favourite drink, chocolate milk, which was on sale that day.

But he was just as often thinking of others. “He spent his entire life trying to keep people well, from his mom to a random person that he saw on the street,” Ms. Steininger said.

Three weeks after his killing, a local men’s shelter held a memorial service for Mr. Chopee.

A picture of him in a fuzzy Chewbacca robe stood on a table, flanked by a flower arrangement and a red-and-white naloxone kit. Mourners sang Amazing Grace.

Robert Chopee told the story of discovering his brother’s Star Wars paperback and baby bracelet.

With the bracelet was an official card from the hospital. Apparently filled out before Ken’s mother decided what to call her new son, it recorded the details of his birth. Date: March 24, 1964. Weight: six pounds, eight ounces. Name: Baby Boy Chopee.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

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