Skip to main content

Toronto Mystery on Nuthatch Lane: Why police arrested a fashion entrepreneur after the death of a homeless man

Facebook photo of Michelle Shemilt, a Toronto businesswoman who founded the NUMI fashion line. She is charged in connection with the hit-and-run collision that led to the death of homeless man Michael Watts. Source: Facebook

Facebook

It was shortly after four o’clock on a Friday last fall when Michelle Shemilt dialled 911. “I was just walking home and I saw someone lying in the middle of the lane and I don’t know if they need help or not,” she said.

Her call was routed to Emergency Medical Services and she explained again that she was walking home when she saw the man in an alley in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood.

Later, however, she told 911 and police that she was driving. It was a discrepancy that fuelled the suspicion of investigators assigned to the fatal hit and run, according to an affidavit police filed to obtain a search warrant.

Story continues below advertisement

Ms. Shemilt, 35, the founder of the NUMI fashion firm, has been charged with failing to stop at scene of accident that involved death, and causing death by criminal negligence.

She is a former bank equity trader who quit her job in 2011 to start her own line of organic bamboo women’s undershirts. She has appeared on CBC’s Dragons' Den to pitch her project. She also wrote an article for The Globe and Mail about crowdfunding for startups. She didn’t answer requests for comment.

Police have not released the victim’s name but he is identified in the court affidavit as Michael Watts, a 57-year-old who had no fixed address and was only identified by his fingerprints.

The incident unfolded on Sept. 21, in an alley south of Carlton Street. Around 3:55 p.m., a local resident, Danna Osbourne, was cycling on Nuthatch Lane when she saw a man sprawled on the ground.

He appeared to be intoxicated. Ms. Osbourne later told police it was not uncommon for homeless people to be under the influence in the area. Ms. Osbourne spoke to the man and he told her he was "okay” so she left him.

About 10 minutes later, a motorist, the novelist Michael Ondaatje, called 911 to report that he had seen a badly injured man on Nuthatch Lane, his head bleeding.

“It looked like the right side of his face was torn down,” Mr. Ondaatje later told police, according to the affidavit.

Story continues below advertisement

A second person then called 911 about a man lying on the ground. The caller was Ms. Shemilt, the affidavit said, adding that she was recorded as saying she was walking home.

An ambulance was dispatched but Mr. Watts was pronounced dead an hour later at St. Michael’s Hospital.

The paramedics thought Mr. Watts had been assaulted. But an autopsy determined that he suffered from multiple injuries consistent with a car collision. At the scene, police found a blood trail on the asphalt, suggesting that Mr. Watts had been dragged on the ground by a vehicle, the affidavit said.

On the Sunday evening, the police made a public appeal for anyone with video images. The next day, detectives were able to get footage from a home security camera that pointed at a portion of the lane.

On the video, a cyclist, Ms. Osbourne, passes through, then two cars drive down the lane, according to the court filing.

The first, at 4:01 p.m., looked like a black Dodge Durango SUV. Three minutes later, came Mr. Ondaatje’s Audi.

Story continues below advertisement

Investigators examined Mr. Ondaatje’s car and found no signs of a collision. His Audi has a low ground clearance so its cowling would have been damaged if it had dragged Mr. Watts’s body, the affidavit said.

The court document says police then noticed something in Ms. Shemilt’s accounts of the incident.

The affidavit said that when she first called 911, she reported that she was walking home. However, she said she was driving when 911 called back and said the same in an interview later with Detective Constable Allistair Blair. “Significant discrepancies are apparent between Michelle Shemilt’s statement to Constable Blair and the recorded 911 calls,” the affidavit said.

The sworn statement noted that Ms. Shemilt told police that after calling 911 she took her dog to the veterinarian.

Two detective constables, William Gee and Frank Girmenia, canvassed the area looking for a vehicle similar to the black Dodge Durango. They spotted a matching vehicle in a detached garage that backed onto Nuthatch Lane.

The SUV was a vehicle rented by Ms. Shemilt, who lived nearby, the affidavit said.

Story continues below advertisement

The two detectives kept the garage and her house under observation while other officers applied for a search warrant.

At 5:40 a.m. on Sept. 26, they obtained their judicial authorization. The warrant gave them permission to seize the car to look for clothing fibres and blood, hair or other bodily substances that could be analyzed for DNA.

Even if they were able to establish that it was the vehicle that had struck Mr. Watts, investigators also needed to ascertain who was at the wheel at the time of the collision.

The warrant also allowed them to look for fingerprints and documents such as receipts or mail that could help investigators identify who drove the Durango.

Police officials would not comment on Friday but a spokesman last week said it took about a month after the vehicle was seized for investigators to identify the driver.

Ms. Shemilt was arrested on Jan. 3. She is to appear in court on Feb. 14.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons or for abuse. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Cannabis pro newsletter