It wasn’t unusual for Charlie McGillivary to rush out of his mother’s apartment to help others carry their groceries or hold a door open for neighbours.
The 46-year-old hadn’t spoken aloud since a car accident when he was four that caused brain damage, his mother said. But the fact that he didn’t talk didn’t matter to most people at Pendrith Park, a three-storey Toronto Community Housing building.
Because of his kind nature, some neighbours are unable to understand why he was arrested on Monday. He collapsed and died after a physical interaction with police a short walk away from his home.
Mr. McGillivary’s death is being investigated by Ontario’s police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), which is called in when there are cases of death, serious injury or allegations of sexual assault involving police.
Toronto Police called the SIU at about 9:45 p.m. on Monday to the front of a pizza shop near Christie Street and Bloor Street West. Police had been investigating someone else before they began physically interacting with Mr. McGillivary at about 8:30 p.m., said SIU spokesman Frank Phillips. Shortly after, Mr. McGillivary collapsed and was rushed to Toronto Western Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
“A physical interaction took place,” said Mr. Phillips, adding that there are three subject officers in the case. “We’re looking at what surrounded this.”
Ann McGillivary said in an interview that she was walking with her son on Monday, as she did at least three times a day. As usual he was striding ahead of her. When she caught up with him near the pizza shop, she said, she could tell he was in trouble.
“His face turned blue and his eyes were already [rolling]” said Ms. McGillivary, adding that witnesses told her that her son was thrown onto the ground and handcuffed. “It was a heart attack from what I saw.”
She said the police didn’t listen to her pleas and explanations that he was unable to speak. Ms. McGillivary believes that the fact that he was more than 6 feet tall and 250 lbs. and unable to interact verbally with police may have sparked the situation, she said.
Police at the city’s 14 Division are referring all comments to the SIU. “Legally, we can’t comment, it’s an SIU matter,” said Staff Sergeant John French.
The SIU and Ms. McGillivary are awaiting the results of a postmortem performed on Tuesday. Funeral preparations are being made, and Ms. McGillivary said she hopes it can be arranged for next week.
Now Ms. McGillivary, family friends and the SIU are asking witnesses to come forward and to submit photos or video they may have taken.
“There were a lot of people out there at the time and people were taking pictures and stuff like that so it’s out there,” said Karlene Steer, the tenant representative at the McGillivary’s building. She went to the pizza shop the day after the incident and was told there were 20 or so people watching.
“I hope those that took pictures and have it on their phone, I hope they still have it.”
What Ms. McGillivary will do without her son is a worry for Ms. Steer, she said. They were always together and looking out for each other, whether Mr. McGillivary was making his mother breakfast or she was going on walks with him.
“You could see that love for him,” she said.
In her small apartment on the ground floor of the building, Ms. McGillivary returned home after 6 p.m. on Wednesday. She’d had a busy day of trying to make funeral preparations and other tasks.
“Charlie was everything to me. He was everything. He didn’t talk but he was everything to me,” she said, in her son’s small room, which contained little but a single bed, a suitcase, a dresser and a fan. Although they didn’t talk aloud, she said he could use some sign language. “He was always helpful and always trying to help.”
Late last week was the last time Donna Brown saw him. He was opening the door for her as he usually did when the single mom was rushing home with her kids or groceries.
“I literally cried when I heard. ... I couldn’t believe it,” she said outside the apartment building, adding that her 26-year-old daughter has special needs and she worries what communication problems could happen between her and others as well.
Assegid Tiruneh, who has known Ms. McGillivary since he moved into the building 10 years ago, called her son a gentleman.
“Every time I come to the building, if he’s in the lobby he opens the doors for me. He’s a gentleman. But for anybody who doesn’t know him. ... he’s got a huge body build,” he said. “So people probably get intimidated.”
Still, he said, he can’t understand why there seems to have been little understanding of Mr. McGillivary’s condition. “I don’t know how the police weren’t trained to decipher this type of [disability]” he said.
This week, the SIU was also called in to investigate a fatal shooting last weekend at the Scotiabank Toronto Caribbean Carnival.
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