A few weeks back, Hanad Mohamed just stopped showing up to union negotiations. He worked as a security guard at Athabasca Lodge, a giant oil sands camp north of Fort McMurray, Alta., and had been attending sessions, fighting for better working conditions.
Mr. Mohamed wore jeans and hoodies, and was at the meetings to describe the working conditions at the lodge rather than in a formal negotiating role. He attended sessions at the Merit Hotel & Suites in Fort McMurray, and a round in Edmonton. Because Mr. Mohamed was a volunteer, union negotiator Thomas Hesse thought nothing of it when he stopped attending, because job turnover is high in the oil sands.
But the security guard's disappearance is more complicated than that. Mr. Mohamed, 23, was arrested in Fort McMurray last week, and charged with first-degree murder in a Toronto shooting that has become linked to an alleged video showing Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine.
Mr. Mohamed's court appearance at Old City Hall in Toronto on Friday was just the latest episode in a drama engulfing Canada's largest city that has led to the departure of much of the mayor's inner circle, and attracted media attention from all over the world.
Mr. Mohamed is charged with the March 28 shooting of Anthony Smith, 21. Mr. Smith's slaying has been the subject of intense focus since a photo of the mayor with his arm around the young man was circulated with reports about the video alleged to show Mr. Ford smoking crack cocaine. According to reports, the owners shopped the alleged video around, and provided the photograph as evidence of the mayor's ties to the drug scene.
But at the young man's court appearance, his family – like his friends in Ontario and Alberta – said the arrest came as a shock.
"My son is innocent; he's never been a criminal," his father Abdulkidir Mohamed told a crowd of reporters in Toronto. "He finished high school with good grades and he's been working for the past four years."
Abdulkidir Mohamed said he cut short a vacation in Kenya, flying back to Canada immediately after hearing about the arrest. "We are all in the dark like everyone else," Hanad Mohamed's uncle Omar added.
In Fort McMurray, and in the north Toronto neighbourhood where the young man lived several years ago, those who knew him were in disbelief. "He's one of those guys who don't do nothing – nothing bad or crime or anything," said Jamal Hassam, who used to hang out with Mr. Mohamed in Toronto.
Mr. Mohamed was in Toronto in August, 2012, when he was charged with possession of marijuana. Between October, 2012, and earlier this month, he appeared in court at least five times in Toronto. The drug charge was withdrawn in mid-May.
Mr. Hesse, the union negotiator for United Food and Commercial Workers local 401, reckons Mr. Mohamed would make about $18 an hour at Athabasca Lodge, working 12-hour shifts – two weeks in, one week out. Like other security guards, he would stay at the camp when not on duty. The charges caught him by surprise.
"There was nothing to suggest that this was anything other than a young worker who was disgruntled with his working conditions," he said.
Mr. Mohamed was assigned to Athabasca Lodge after applying for a "uniform guard" position through United First Nations Alberta Corp. In a handwritten application signed and dated Jan. 26, 2012, Mr. Mohamed listed a Fort McMurray address and two jobs in his work history: a seasonal employee at Canadian Tire, which included building displays; and a cashier at Superstore. Mr. Mohamd worked at Canadian Tire between November, 2010, and August, 2011, according to the application.
He said in the application that he left Canadian Tire because "My mom was sick in toronto." He listed his salary as "16," and "Zak" as a reference.
Zak Abuhya did supervise Mr. Mohamed, but at Wood Buffalo Transit, not Canadian Tire. He said Mr. Mohamed spent months checking coolant and oil in the buses at night.
"When he's in any kind of conflict or controversy with another employee – it is not that he gets mad fast –but he doesn't shy from saying what needs to be said," he recalled. "Usually, he is very sociable, he's very easy to talk to, he's welcoming to and friendly to all employees."
To work as a security guard in Alberta, Mr. Mohamed would have had to receive a license that required a criminal check and the completion of a training program.
The application says he was born in Somalia, has a Grade 12 education, and holds a driver's license in Ontario. (Mr. Mohamed's lawyer said his client was born in Canada.) On his application, Mr. Mohamad said he did not have any pending criminal charges, and that he had never been convicted of an offence.
Mr. Mohamad's lawyer, Fariborz Davoudi, said his client is coping.
"It's a very difficult situation for him, a very emotional situation," he said of his client.
Mr. Davoudi said he learned of the connection between the case and Toronto's mayor through reporters. "I don't know if there's any connection between Rob Ford and this case at all. As far as I'm concerned, this is just another murder case for now," he said.
With reports from Timothy Appleby and Katrina Sieniuc