Canadian Attorney Susan von Achten had to stop going to funerals.
She’d sob uncontrollably, she said, those days when the caskets of ‘her boys’ were lowered into the ground. They kept dying – young men, many victims of homicide. Von Achten has represented both victims and the accused. She knew many of the young men since they were kids.
One of them was a Trinidadian – Tariq Mohammed, 31.
“I haven’t deleted any of their numbers on my phone,” she said. “I can’t.”
At least five men in Toronto have been killed by gunshot since 2014 in a series of shootings that appear to be connected by family ties and complicated by dense criminal histories. It burst into the public eye in 2014 with a high-profile shooting at a popular downtown restaurant, the Toronto Star reported on Monday.
Around 4 a.m. on a weekend in November 2014, an altercation broke out at Garden Restaurant on Dundas St. W. The restaurant was a popular spot to wind down after a night out and there were about 60 customers inside. A group of people attacked a man, police say, who was wearing a “tremendous amount of jewelry.”
The fight broke out near the washrooms. Three suspects, with police saying at least two were armed with guns, allegedly ripped two chains worth thousands of dollars from the man’s neck. A friend intervened, freeing the man from the altercation. But the fight resumed again by the restaurant’s front counter.
Then there were gunshots.
It looked like snow falling, an officer said at the time, after reviewing security footage. The vibration of unloading firearms in the restaurant made dust fall from the ceiling. Panicked patrons dove under tables and scrambled for the door. Tariq Mohammed – the man whose friend was robbed – was killed in the gunfire.
It was a bitter death for a man who seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Thirty-one-year-old Mohammed played football at Clarkson Secondary School. He moved to Canada in 1996 from Trinidad and Tobago with his mom and his brother. He studied business at George Brown and worked as an airline crew chief.
Police arrested Marcus Gibson and Ceyon Carrington, both in their 20s, for first degree murder in connection to the Garden Restaurant shooting. Those charges were later dropped, Gibson’s defense attorney told the Star in 2016. But within two years of their arrest, both Gibson and Carrington had become victims themselves.
Carrington was shot after getting out of a taxi in March 2016, and found in an alleyway in Leslieville. A passerby tried to administer first aid before emergency responders arrived on scene, but after arriving at the hospital, Carrington died of his injuries. He was 29 years old.
A man named Ibrahim Mohammed Ibrahim is wanted for the first-degree murder of Carrington as of November 2017.
In November 2016, Gibson was shot dead inside his bedroom in South Riverdale. Police won’t comment on whether Gibson’s murder was connected to the Garden Restaurant shooting, and haven’t laid charges in Gibson’s death as of Feb. 2018.
Four other men were arrested in connection to the Garden Restaurant murder – Abdirisak Ibrahim, Derek Oppong, Clifton Vassel and Havard McKenzie. The murder charges have been dropped for all of the men except McKenzie, whose charges have not been proven in court.
Police said Weekes appeared to be intoxicated as he left the bar and he was seen walking and running along Queen and south on Parliament. But his journey came to a halt in a gas station parking lot.
When they found Weekes, he was “clinging to life” with multiple gunshot wounds. Paramedics tried to revive him, but Weekes was pronounced dead in the lot.
Police traced a trail of blood to where the shooting occurred, a short distance from Annie’s. Det. Sgt. Michael Patterson described Carrington and Weekes’ deaths as similar, saying Carrington was also shot “by a coward carrying a gun.”
Michael Gibson – who von Achten confirmed is a cousin of murder victim Marcus Gibson – is wanted by police for shooting Weekes. The allegation has not been tested in court, and it’s unclear whether a charge has been laid.
Michael Gibson and Weekes knew each other, police said. They both came from Regent Park. Regent Park is a neighbourhood that began as a social housing development and once operated like an inner-city ghetto. The area has been the subject of revitalization projects since the early 2000s.
In June 2009, before any of the tangled murders of Carrington, Weekes or Gibson, there was a memorial barbeque held in Regent Park – for young men who’d lost their lives. “This video is in loving memory of everyone that we have lost in the struggle,” footage by a group called TnT Sick Thugz begins. “We miss you, but your memory lives on…”
The group – also stylized as Sic Thugz or Sic Thugs – has been labelled by police as a gang. According to a previous Star story, the group is believed to have emerged from Point Blank Soldiers, a now-defunct Regent Park gang linked to the 2005 Boxing Day shooting death of bystander Jane Creba, 15, near the Eaton Centre.
Toronto police declined to specify why they classify the group as a gang, but the label has been widely used. Von Achten vehemently opposes it.
“In an area like Regent Park, and this actually is the same for all the low-economic housing areas, their mother or father or grandmother or whoever it is has to go out to work. They don’t live in the old style communities where there was auntie or grandma or big sister who lived down the road who could watch out for them,” she said.
“Kids need to belong. They need to belong to a family, to some sort of a unit, and so you make friends at school and you have a group of friends, and all of a sudden the word group is substituted for gang.”
At the beginning, the music video from the barbeque – titled “Missing You” – flicks to images of murals. “Choose the right path,” one says.
“Your life is about your choices,” another reads. Young men rap over a backing track about mothers left missing their sons, and daughters missing their fathers. “They’re my boys who’ve been killed,” von Achten said. She re-watches the video in her living room.
Von Achten says many of the boys caught up in crime later in life had been suspended from school for minor offenses and flagged to police at an early age. Michael Gibson has been her client since he was around 13 years old, she told the Star.
“Instead of looking at the great need for stability and security, they just put them in the system,” she said.
Many of her clients were arrested in the Project Rx raids, von Achten says, which police called a targeted project looking into Sick Thugz and their dealings with weapons and drugs.
Suddenly, a group of people who she said looked out for each other – “who were all related, or mostly related,” she added – were sent to jail or not permitted to communicate with one another, she said. Many went to live in different parts of the city, and friends and families split up.
“So what they left was this void area where people are wanting to take over (Regent Park), and they want to make sure that the boys don’t come back, and maybe mixed in all of this, you’ve got old beefs that have to be dealt with,” she said. “Then we got this influx of homicides.”
While cases are still active, police declined to answer questions about evidence or the relationships between the men involved in each shooting.
More slayings still are connected into the group. Von Achten identified Jermaine Auld – a man found dead of what appeared to be a gunshot wound in Ajax last spring – as Michael Gibson’s brother-in-law.
There have been no charges in that investigation. Durham Regional police have no updates in the case.
As of the Star’s inquiry in February 2018, Abdirisak Ibrahim and Derek Oppong are in federal custody. Havard McKenzie and Clifton Vassel are in provincial jail. McKenzie will stand trial for first degree murder, Ibrahim was convicted of robbery with a firearm, and Vassel will stand trial for robbery with a firearm related to the Garden Restaurant shooting.
Long gone are the days von Achten sat with a group of young men, outside at a white plastic table in Regent Park, playing dominoes as the days stretched on. “A lot of these kids, they may not have been hot shot in school, but, my god, they were interesting to talk to,” she remembered.
Von Achten pulled one from her shelf. It’s “The 33 Strategies of War,” by Robert Greene. Greene’s book applies military strategies to social conflicts – whether among family, friends or acquaintances – bolstered with references to great historical figures from Napoleon to Alexander the Great.
Von Achten flipped through its pages, and smiled. One of the boys had given her the copy long ago.
“I learned so much from them.”
THE SCENE OF THE SHOOTINGS