On the evening of Friday, May 1, Jarvis St. Remy was standing at a Dundas Street corner outside his best friend's building. He wore a white cap and white shirt, and was waiting for the bus. His midnight curfew was approaching. His mother was strict about these things.
As the bus came into sight, Mr. St. Remy, 18, was shot twice, from behind, while calling his girlfriend. By the time she picked up the phone, she heard only wind. Mr. St. Remy was dying on the other end of the line.
A five-minute ride away, his mother's phone rang. Her son was on his way to St. Michael's hospital, and would die soon after.
"Every day it goes through my head, every day," says Clemee Joseph, his mom. "Since the first day I got a call. I say, when these people came up to Jarvis and shot him, did they know him? What did they say to him? It never gets out of my mind. Did he suffer?"
Mr. St. Remy's death came amidst a spate of west-end gang violence, but parents and police say this Grade 12 student wasn't in a gang. He wasn't wearing any gang colours: blue, red or green. Instead, he was likely caught in a case of mistaken identity.
Three weeks after his death, five-year-old Tanya Reynolds was shot in the chest at a family barbecue by a gunman wielding a pistol in each hand. She survived.
"One of the biggest fears we've always had is that an innocent individual, a bystander, a Jane Creba-type incident would occur," says Superintendent Brody Smollet, head of 12 Division, home to the violence. "And that's what happened. That five-year-old girl, she got caught in the crossfire, so to speak."
In a year of record lows in Toronto crime rates, Supt. Smollet's division sits at the new epicentre of gang activity, a region bound by Lawrence Avenue, Caledonia Road, Dundas Street West and the Humber River. This tiny swath has had nine homicides since January.
In 2008, there were four, and that number was considered high at the time. Strictly speaking, Mr. St. Remy was killed just outside 12 Division's border, and brings the neighbourhood total to 10.
The spike is unprecedented, what Supt. Smollet calls "unheard of." The 10 deaths are one-third of Toronto's total, and twice the number of nearby Jane-Finch, which often earns the distinction of being the city's violent-crime capital. Half of the ten killings are unsolved.
A Globe and Mail investigation has revealed that police have linked six of those murders, as well as Tanya's shooting, to two unsophisticated local gangs, the Gatorz and the Five Point Generalz. Mr. St. Remy's case is still unsolved, but family believe an arrest is close, which may make him the seventh gang victim.
The casualties have caught the eye of Toronto's top cop, Chief Bill Blair, who this summer made Weston the new front in his force's war on gangs. Toronto police conducted a gang and drug sweep, Project Spring Clean, arresting 120 people and dismantling grow-ops. With the help of temporary provincial funding, Chief Blair has also brought in 32 new officers to the division, borrowed from other police stations as part of his Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) initiative.
There hasn't been a homicide since. But those officers are leaving in two months. And many of the people they arrested, including one suspected top gang member, are awaiting a bail hearing and could be released. The prospect leaves residents wondering if police have saved the former City of York or if, come fall, the gangs will be back.
Stuck with the stigma
On Lawrence Avenue, at the northwest corner of 12 Division, a sign welcomes drivers to the "home of the bicycle," the neighbourhood where CCM bikes were once made, while streets are filled with quaint detached homes and small parks. There are houses of worship and schools seemingly on every corner.
Take a step off the main streets and one of the things you'll notice are the beautiful gardens in front of quaint homes. When Terry Di Chicco moved in about a decade ago, her neighbours each brought her a plant.
But the neighbourhood dynamics here have changed. The hard-working, blue-collar region (known altogether as York South - Weston) has moved on, most recently with the 2005 closure of the Kodak plant. Today, you see many ramshackle beauty shops and community-housing buildings. Some tenured businesses have held on, but the violence has scared away customers.
"We're in a vicious cycle," says Steve Tasses, owner of Variety and Video and the local Business Improvement Area leader. A tireless advocate, he takes in stray cats and hosts community barbecues. His activities don't make the news, he pointed out. Shootings do.
"All of the sudden we got pegged, then we got all the attention and then, you know, the stigma. And then we're in the same breath as Jane and Finch."
Many in this tightly knit community have been forced inside by fear of the gangs nearby, says Ms. Di Chicco, a 38-year-old mother who spoke with me after Mr. Tasses drove to her house to deliver a pack of cigarettes..
"They're intimidating people, so people are stepping back and allowing this to happen," she says. "I should be able to run out at night and not be worried I'm going to get caught in the crossfire."
Her community is stuck between four other typically high-crime areas. There are the fabled Rexdale and Jane-Finch neighbourhoods to the northwest and north (Crip and Blood territory, respectively), the Lawrence Heights "jungle" to the northeast and Parkdale to the southeast. In what is perhaps a testament to Chief Blair's prowess, police activity has driven crime out of those areas. But the crackdown has pushed the gangs into York South - Weston. Police call it the water-balloon effect - press down somewhere, another spot pops up. Local city councillor Frank Di Giorgio believes that's what is happening here.
Aggravating matters, gangs have arrived at an area with no community centre and few social services, and experts on crime say that gangs thrive in a place where young men have nothing else to do.
"Weston [and neighbouring]Mount Dennis is still one of the most under-served communities," says Kristy Grisdale, director of Frontlines, a Weston Road youth centre funded by private donations.
The centre's doors are locked all the time, keeping kids in and undesirables out. "We really want the kids to understand they can choose to engage, safely, in a solution."
The murders started last fall, when Stephen (Frost) Barton was shot on Eglinton Avenue. You'll see "RIP Frost" spray-painted all over this part of town. The slaying drew some police attention. Things calmed down. Supt. Smollet thought that was that.
But in January, Kevin (Kasa) Boateng, a suspected Gator, was stabbed outside a Old Weston Road home. (His mother denies he was a gang member.) It was around the time of that death that police searched another home and found illegal guns and a three-foot-long alligator, thought by police to be a Gator mascot.
Jahmelle Grant, who police believe was a 5PG member, was shot and killed at a Weston Road booze can on Feb. 1. After that, Daniel (Dizzle) Da Silva, a 22-year-old Portuguese man who police say had gotten into drug dealing, was robbed and shot inside his luxury BMW SUV. A suspected 5PG member was arrested.
There was Danny (Goon) Lewis, shot and killed off Keele Street. He was Frost's best friend, a suspected General, and into dealing, police say. The gun that killed him was dropped in a dumpster at a youth centre where he'd sought help writing a resume.
A day later, Omar Waite, allegedly a Gator, was gunned down nearby. Mr. St. Remy's death came a week later. Ten days after that, Adrian Johnston, a 14-year-old suspected to be a Gator associate, was shot in a field near Woolner Avenue, still wearing his school uniform.
All told, the violence this year has claimed six homicide victims linked to the Gatorz and 5PGz, the latter of which is also linked to the high-profile killing of Ephraim Brown, the 11-year-old shot and killed two years ago this month.
"My gosh, they [the 5PGz]have done so many things," says Amiga Taylor, Ephraim's sister. "If they have been involved in so many things, why does it take my brother dying for them to be in jail?"
The division has had about a dozen non-fatal shootings, but none since June 29, when a drive-by shooting outside 2468 Eglinton Ave. W. left a 16-year-old with a wounded leg.
Police believe the violence is largely drug-related. "You get shootings, you get stabbings, you get robberies, this is all part-and-parcel of the drug trade," Supt. Smollet says.
The gangs are small, basically groups of no more than two dozen friends. Police information shows that the recession is leaving addicts with less money for drugs, with the water-balloon effect driving them into tighter areas.
Gangs are, in turn, fighting for turf in a shrinking drug market. The 5PGz are based at Lawrence-Weston, the Gatorz at Woolner Avenue. Four other gangs lurk, including the Trethewey Gangsta Killaz and Eglinton West Crips, both Crip-affiliated. (Their rival Bloods are north, at Jane-Finch, and east, in Scarborough).
But the term "gang" is touchy. One of the men arrested, Curlew Moulton, is thought to be the highest-level player in the area, working with all gangs selling drugs. Despite gang lore, it seems none of the local thugs are particularly aligned or particularly opposed to one another on principle - it's business. The Gatorz and 5PGz are a group of friends, some of whom deal drugs and carry weapons, rather than an organized crime syndicate.
"Oh my gosh, there's no 'top 5PG [member]' This ain't no mafia. There's no guy at the top," says Matthew Eubank, a 27-year-old father who grew up in the area, sold marijuana as a teenager and now is a board member at Frontlines. Mr. Eubank is a deeply religious man and a passionate speaker who believes police are focusing in on gangs that aren't around any more and, as such, are missing out on catching killers.
He uses air-quotes when he says the word "gang." The 5PG were founded a decade ago and have dwindled, while the Gatorz aren't around any more, he says.
"It's just a bunch of guys who hang out with each other and take care of each other in their neighbourhood. And it's sad, because they abuse their neighbourhood by selling drugs and stealing from the neighbourhood," says Mr. Eubank, who knew Mr. Grant and believes police have mistakenly labelled him a 5PG.
"[Police]have cast a net so wide and so far that anything that happens within these boundaries, they automatically just associate with 5PG or Gatorz," he says. "To say that everything that happens in this area is associated with 5PG, it's false."
You can earn upwards of $1,000 a day selling cocaine and heroin. For a poor kid from assisted housing, the lure can be too much to ignore. "It's like you're in the jungle. It is like a war," says Linkx, a 20-year-old rap producer from nearby Rexdale who wears Crip colours and spoke on condition of anonymity. "The police are after you and you're after something else - you're trying to get money."
You can often spot a General easily - they have "5PG" either shaved into their head or displayed as a tattoo. Gatorz wear a "G," and either green, or Florida Gators athletic gear. Both sprung a decade ago out of small geographical areas, such as an apartment building or city block. Since then, young teens have adopted group names they've heard of, keeping the gang's legacy alive but with little organization or formality.
"It's really who is hanging out on what street corner, who is hanging out with who, who goes to school with who," said Jim Aspiotis, president of the Ontario Gang Investigators Association.
Investigators continue to look into what's causing this year's violence. Supt. Smollet believes the Gatorz are fighting a multi-front battle against other gangs and a splinter group, the Southside Gatorz, who call 11 Division home. "Someone once described it to me as, 'This isn't the time you want to be a Gator,' " he said.
The police response has been swift. Mr. Moulton, 35, is believed to be the big fish. Arrested June 24, he faces 12 charges, including four counts of trafficking heroin and two counts of threatening death. He's up for bail in a week. Eric Morgan (accused of being Mr. Moulton's sidekick) also faces seven drug-related charges. In search warrants related to their arrest, police say they seized heroin, cocaine, marijuana, three vehicles and $30,000 in cash.
"[Mr. Moutlon]controlled the money, he controlled the drugs. He was the top of the food chain," alleges Toronto police organized crime Detective Sergeant Rob DiDanieli, who says he's now watching for any "heir apparent."
Shane Evans, 26, and Sheldon Evans, 24, who police also suspect are 5PG, have also been arrested. They face six and eight drug-related charges, respectively.
Then, in the third week of June, the 32 new TAVIS officers arrived in the division. The program is the brain child of Chief Blair, who rose to power on his community policing bona fides and recently became the first chief in three decades to be given a second term. In his battle to save 12 Division, it plays a major role.
Sarge and the surge
Just before 7 a.m. on the last Tuesday in June, about a dozen officers are sitting in a room on the second floor of 12 Division headquarters on Todd Bayliss Boulevard, named for an officer killed in the line of duty over a decade ago. This is also the home of TAVIS.
There's a box of ready-made Tim Hortons coffee downstairs. One list on the office's wall is titled "Crack Houses - to be cleared." Strung above it is a decorative row of blue and red bandanas, the colours of Crips and Bloods, respectively. The door has mug shots of 33 "known gangsters."
"I've often felt people turn to crime because of their appearances, or their hair," jokes Jim Hogan, the Toronto police sergeant in charge of this shift.
Sergeant Hogan's shift this morning includes two female officers and one male officer who is Muslim, but most officers are white. One comes from a line of police officers and has handcuffs tattooed on his left calf.
This unit does have one black officer, I'm told, but he's off with an injured ankle.
It's a special day - the morning after the first shooting since they've arrived. The 16-year-old boy shot in the drive-by. Sgt. Hogan addresses his troops, starting off with a joke.
"The only good news is it was at 8 o'clock last night," he quips.
Everyone laughs. Of course, they had finished their shift the previous night at five o'clock and were gone by the time the first shot was fired.
Sgt. Hogan - who officers call "Sarge" - tells them about the "vic," the wounded boy. "He's shooting out names left, right, and centre, but obviously they can't all be involved," Sarge says. "He's just trying to appease the detective."
The dozen or so TAVIS officers on this shift spend the day on foot and bicycle. They examine the scene of the shooting, where bullet holes puncture a wall. They make note of two Eglinton West Crip tags - one simply the world "Crips," and another "EWC" with a sort of jester hat shape over it. The crews who usually remove such things are on strike.
The TAVIS officers ride through precarious alleys, and check on an abandoned house to make sure no one is squatting. They talk to everyone, and have drawn some heat for what residents consider unfair questioning of innocent men who dress like thugs. Either way, TAVIS is visible.
"The chief's mandate is clear," explains Staff Superintendent Glenn De Caire, who heads up the TAVIS squad. "Establish positive relationships, identify those relationships that will help us fix the problem, and also give people the courage to come forward and give us information."
Jarvis St. Remy's mother is waiting for those relationships to pay dividends. Her attention was piqued this week by rumours of an arrest in her son's case. The handling detectives aren't returning her calls this week, or the Globe's. One police source said an announcement was coming soon.
"I want justice for Jarvis. I don't care in what way, I just want justice for Jarvis. I want whoever did that to Jarvis to suffer a thousand times worse than Jarvis," Ms. Joseph says. "I'm still waiting for the call where police can say they found Jarvis's killer. So I can look him in the eye and say. 'Why? Why Jarvis?' "
The breaking point
In the basement gymnasium of her Toronto Community Housing building, Charmaine Baird called a meeting this month to discuss safety and violence.
The 38-year-old tenant representative is an impassioned community member who has her work cut out for her. This building, at 2468 Eglinton Ave. W., is on the breaking point - it's full of well-intentioned families whose members can fall into the wrong crowd. Frost lived there. Goon worked there. The 16-year-old was shot there.
"We take those [people]out, our community is back," said the recently elected Ms. Baird, a mother of four. "It's on a roll. We're on the right track."
Two weeks later at another community meeting, Chief Blair praised people like Ms. Baird as what York South - Weston needs to turn itself around. I ask him if they think they've done that.
"Not completely," the chief says, careful not to name the gangs. "We've already taken out a number of people from these gangs."
Residents of all stripes who attended raised the same question: What are we going to do when TAVIS leaves? Will street gangs rise again? ("Give it three weeks after that, the community will be back the way it was," one long-time resident, 54-year-old Ray Cammalleri, told me earlier.)
Police point out 12 Division has a year-round batch of TAVIS officers, and it's just the 32 officers (Sarge's crew) they're losing. At the same time, police credit those 32 with making the difference.
"All the people who are usually assigned to 12 Division will still be doing what they've always done," said Supt. Smollet, sitting next to Chief Blair.
Earlier, I had asked the residents' question to him in his office: Will gang activity spike up again after TAVIS leaves?
The veteran policeman paused.
"What we're doing right now could simply be sticking your finger in the dike. And the instant these officers leave, it could all start up again," Supt. Smollet says. "We really don't know. We don't like to think that could happen."