Skip to main content

To those who knew him well, O'Brien Christopher-Reid, the 26-year-old shot by police in a Toronto park last weekend, was "O'Brien the lion," a courageous and strong character who could cheer you with a joke as easily as he could carry you through a crisis.

"That's his character in a sentence; O'Brien the lion," Mr. Christopher-Reid's long-time friend Steven Janev, 27, said, explaining that the name came from Mr. Christopher-Reid's grandfather in Manchester, Jamaica.

"O'Brien was very involved in the church," added the dead man's aunt, Gladys Fraser, whose husband is a pastor in the Agincourt Church of God. "It was part of his culture; it was part of his upbringing."

According to police, however, it was a very different man who was walking through Edwards Gardens last Sunday afternoon. In a mysterious standoff, three officers shot Mr. Christopher-Reid dead after he allegedly tried to attack them with an electrical cord and a large knife.

Though it is still unclear what happened, or even what drew the 26-year-old Jamaican-born Canadian to Edwards Gardens that day, The Globe and Mail has pieced together a picture of Mr. Christopher-Reid that reveals how a life of ambition and success was cruelly interrupted by mental illness.

On Wednesday evening this week, as late afternoon faded into night, many of Mr. Christopher-Reid's loved ones collected on the driveway and in the garage of his mother's Scarborough house to recount his triumphs.

One spoke of how Mr. Christopher-Reid would try to explain the fundamentals of astronomy he had picked up while pursuing a degree in chemical engineering at Ryerson University.

"Quasars, universes, I couldn't understand it, but he just completely broke it down for me," Mr. Janev said. "He was one of the most intelligent guys you'd ever meet in your life."

Interjecting on the heels of each successive story, others talked of how Mr. Christopher-Reid left Ryerson early to work at the American Express call centre in Markham.

"He was a salesman. That was his passion," Boyd James said, recalling his cousin's deep "radio" voice and ability to talk to just about anyone.

"He was tops in sales," added Cory Piggott, Mr. Christopher-Reid's best friend of almost 12 years from high school. "He started out at the bottom and it was his drive that brought him right up to the top. He knew that he wanted to be a team leader, and that's what he got. He was the most confident person out there."

Everyone filtering through the garage that night agreed that Mr. Christopher-Reid was strong, smart and driven -- some going so far as to call him a mentor. But many also said there were times where the young man needed a mentor himself.

"He has lots of strength, he was O'Brien the lion, but at the same time, we cannot consider him to be perfect," Ms. Fraser said.

What she was alluding to, but at the time had been instructed by the family lawyer not to reveal, was that over the past year or so, Mr. Christopher-Reid developed problems with his mental health.

The issues first arose last July, after he returned to his mother's home from a yearlong trip to Vancouver.

During the first few months back, Mr. Christopher-Reid argued with his mother because she didn't like his attitude, another cousin, Ian Daley, said yesterday, explaining the man was usually quite positive.

The two were at such odds with each other that within months Mr. Christopher-Reid had moved away to live with another cousin.

By October, he was back in his mother's two-storey house, but again began acting strangely -- this time complaining he was hearing voices and that people were after him.

It caused enough concern that his mother, Jacqueline Christopher, had her son committed to Scarborough Grace Hospital at the end of October.

Within three days, Mr. Christopher-Reid was released, and although his doctors were unable to provide a clear diagnosis, they were convinced he posed no risk either to himself or to others, Mr. Daley said.

Not long after his release, however, he was back in the hospital.

In January, he checked himself in to Scarborough Grace, once again complaining of voices in his head.

One week later, Mr. Daley said, doctors again declared him fit for release and no danger to anyone.

Mr. Daley said that throughout these periods of difficulty, Mr. Christopher-Reid was never violent. He added that his cousin had remained close with his family, and seemed to be faring well since leaving hospital the second time.

As for what brought him to Edwards Gardens on Sunday afternoon, no one in the family knows. Mr. Christopher-Reid had moved to a new house at the beginning of June and had given his new address to no one, his family said.

Nevertheless, they knew Mr. Christopher-Reid loved to take long walks, often with his shirt off to show off his slim, muscular body and the lion tattoo on his right arm, they said, and suggested he was simply enjoying a stroll among the trees and flowers.

As for the alleged knife, and the story that surfaced about Mr. Christopher-Reid being emotionally disturbed and attacking police, friends and family are suspicious, but are reserving judgment.

"The whole situation is a little unfair," Mr. James said. "He didn't need to die. There's just no need to die, that's what my heart is telling me."