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The Globe and Mail

Band of brothers copes with loss of 'the boy'

Toronto Police Sergeant Ryan Russell, or "the boy" as he was to some of the old hands, died on the cold city pavement in the arms of two fine young policewomen who had just arrived at the scene.

Detective Sarah Andrews and Constable Debbie Martell of 53 Division, in the words of one of their own "two of the nicest, sweetest, most un-embittered young women you could ever hope to meet or work with," held Sgt. Russell until, vital signs absent, he was rushed by ambulance in a special emergency run to St. Michael's Hospital, his death formally pronounced there.

"The boy was passed from two angels in blue to the angels in white," a veteran officer wrote me in a note late Wednesday.

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Sgt. Russell was struck by a stolen snowplow driven by an unidentified man who had commandeered the vehicle in the Regent Park area just moments before the young sergeant and his platoon started work at the nearby 52 Division station downtown.

By the time he caught up to the vehicle, it had carved a swath of destruction - smashing into more than a dozen parked cars, with the driver doing regular U-turns, apparently to survey the damage he was causing - and made its way to the posher confines of Avenue and Davenport roads in mid-town.

Although police were still working to identify the suspect and solidify details of the deadly confrontation that occurred in the middle of the vehicle's bizarre rampage across the city, The Globe and Mail has learned that preliminary investigation suggests the man drove the snowplow directly and "intentionally" at Sgt. Russell as he stood before its front end.

"It doesn't surprise me that he'd be taking on the bow of a snowplow, trying to prevent something else from happening, trying to do something," Craig Peddle, a former mentor in the force's guns and gangs squad, said on Wednesday.

"He's the kind of guy who charges gunfire."

Mr. Peddle, who retired young after two decades on the job and now works for the Ontario Gang Investigators Association, would dispute the characterization of him as Sgt. Russell's mentor; he said he learned as much as he taught.

The young man had "wisdom beyond his years" and 11 years of experience. "I've never seen it, not in my 20 years," Mr. Peddle said. "I think Ryan was born with it. You know how some people have their vocational calling? It jumps out at you? He was professionally mature beyond his years."

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Sgt. Russell arrived at guns and gangs not much past the mandatory probation period, "as a temporary secondment from 54 [Division] where he'd been doing tremendous work with young gangs in Flemingdon Park," Mr. Peddle told The Globe in a telephone interview.

But the veterans on the squad recognized immediately what a jewel they had, and went to bat to keep him with the unit. "I helped train him to take my spot when I went to surveillance," Mr. Peddle said. "We really fought [for him] pitched the boss … there's something special about that kid."

He particularly admired how Sgt. Russell could "strip himself down emotionally" when interviewing some of the hard-case young gang members.

"There was nothing false about him," Mr. Peddle said, and it gave him a wonderful edge.

Sgt. Russell was 35.

He was utterly smitten with his wife, Christine, and their little son.

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He brought a packed lunch every day from home, and to hell with the good-natured teasing that might get him. He had pictures of the family on his desk, and for all that he was dedicated - "he embraced the challenge of it, the W5 of it all," Mr. Peddle said - he was always eager and ready to go home too.

By the time Chief Bill Blair appeared outside St. Mike's to announce Sgt. Russell's death officially, it meant that his father had been contacted in Florida, received the call that police families dread.

Glenn Russell was a Toronto officer too. He retired as a sergeant in 2002 after 30 years on the job. He was a police officer for almost as long as his boy was alive.

Over the coming days, the force will prepare for a funeral.

As the old hand wrote, "It was nice of the staff-sergeant to offer us the services of the grief counsellor … but I passed. I decided to come home and have a beer." Today, the officer said, there might even be a hangover. "We old guys will all run around like mad, trying to find a tailor to get our dress tunics let out, again, so we can get our fat asses into them in time for the funeral.

"I am not writing to cry," the officer said. "Okay, a little bit."

One of the last times I covered the death of a Toronto Police officer, it was 1994. On a hot June night that year, a 25-year-old constable named Todd Baylis, doing a walkabout with his partner, was shot in the head.

His father, Ted, was in Florida when he got the first news and began the long drive home; this roughneck former minor-league defenceman and 30-year cop was afraid of flying.

As word spread of what had happened, police cars began to appear like magic on the highways as Ted and his younger son made their way home. They were giving him an escort, and the only tribute they could.

The band of brothers, tender and tough, is the same as it ever was. As old as I am, as old as the old cop who wrote me is, the terrible beauty of that never gets old.

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