Former Ontario AG faces charges in death of bike courier
TORONTO - A lawyer who rose through the ranks of the Ontario government to become a prominent cabinet minister and went on to a high-profile role selling Toronto to investors was charged Tuesday with criminal negligence causing the death of a bicycle courier who fell from a moving vehicle.
Michael Bryant, a former attorney general considered by many political observers to have the right stuff for a run at the premier's job, was also charged with dangerous operation of a vehicle in the incident that played out Monday in front of horrified witnesses in the city's upscale Yorkville district.
A source close to the former minister told The Canadian Press that Bryant and his wife, Susan Abramovitch, were driving home after a quiet evening dinner to celebrate their 12th anniversary.
After being charged, a forlorn-looking Bryant, a 43-year-old lawyer known for his energetic tenacity, emerged from a city police station after spending the night in custody to briefly to face the media spotlight which he once eagerly sought in his political career.
"May I ask for your understanding in not making a full statement today or taking your questions on last night's tragic events," Bryant said as his lawyer stood by.
"At an appropriate moment, I will of course speak to you."
He then extended his "deepest condolences to the family involved" and offered thanks to those who had offered their support before leaving.
Police did not identify the 33-year-old victim, but a woman at Toronto's Action Messenger confirmed the death of Darcy Allan (Al) Sheppard, who was also an amateur comedian.
Police said they had contact with Sheppard barely on hour before his death, when his ex-girlfriend called police just after 9 p.m. and told them Sheppard was at her home and refused to leave.
Officers arrived and escorted him away, said Constable Tony Vella, adding there were no allegations of criminal activity such as assault and there was no indication he was intoxicated.
Toronto police Sgt. Tim Burrows said Bryant had not been drinking and was being released under unspecified conditions on his own recognizance pending a court appearance Oct. 19.
Bryant had "absolutely not" received any special treatment, Burrows said.
Criminal negligence causing death carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, while dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death carries a maximum 14-year term.
The incident took place on bustling Bloor Street between Bay Street and Avenue Road, a popular area of restaurants, hotels and high-end jewelry and clothing stores.
Tips from those who claim to have seen what happened poured in to police.
According to information obtained by officers, an altercation occurred between a driver and a cyclist that ended in a minor collision.
"The cyclist that was involved in the collision then approached the driver of the motor vehicle and grabbed hold of the vehicle," Burrows said.
"The driver at that time proceeded west . . . with the cyclist attached to the vehicle who, at this time, was to all intents and purposes a pedestrian, until he fell off."
Police responded to a call at 9:50 p.m. and Sheppard was taken to hospital, where he died of severe injuries.
The death came as a blow to the biking community in a city where tensions between cyclists and motorists are ever present.
"We're all in a daze," a courier who identified himself as Craig said at a downtown Toronto courier hangout.
Many said they knew Sheppard personally.
"He was always very happy, very helpful and very professional," said Barry Ridley, who at 55 years old has been a courier for 39 years.
"He always helped everybody and anybody. If a woman had a bag that was too heavy, he would get off his bike and carry it to her office."
Ridley said it would take a lot for Sheppard to get angry.
"I saw him that morning and he was so calm, collected and full of laughter and asking me for new jokes he could use on his improv," he said.
However, Craig described Sheppard as someone who could be hotheaded at times.
"But it doesn't matter how hotheaded you are," he said. "You don't deserve to be dragged behind a car for several blocks."
"Ugly indeed," read one comment posted to the chat forum BikingToronto.com - a small sample of the torrent of reaction on cycling sites.
"I'm reserving full judgment until more details come to light," writes the blogger, posting under the name Scarr. "In any event, this should never have escalated to the point that it did."
Police, who said Bryant made one of many 911 calls they received, "was not in any way trying to evade or elude our investigation."
A woman who was in the car - identified by the source as Bryant's wife - also called 911, police said.
Officers, who were also in possession of surveillance video, were still interviewing witnesses and asking for any others to come forward.
Intelligent, energetic and articulate, Bryant stood out from other politicians, said Bryan Evans, a politics professor at Ryerson University.
"He's got a rare combination of talents which in political life really come together and allow someone to shine," he said.
But those qualities also "clearly annoyed" some people, including Premier Dalton McGuinty, he said.
Bryant had long been considered a top contender to succeed the premier, and observers believe it was McGuinty's decision to stay on for the 2011 election that ultimately prompted Bryant to strike out on his own.
On Tuesday, McGuinty said the investigation should be allowed to take its course.
"It's just very sad," McGuinty said.
"It is very tragic how events that unfold inside a minute can have such a profound impact on people's lives, negative impact."
Bryant, an outspoken public figure who represented a downtown Toronto riding, was attorney general, aboriginal affairs minister and minister of economic development following the McGuinty Liberals' win in October 2003.
As attorney general, he was responsible for strict laws against street racing and drunk driving. Bryant also banned pit bulls and, most recently, helped handle the province's response to the collapse of the province's domestic auto industry.
Bryant left provincial politics in May to accept a position with Invest Toronto, a new corporation whose mandate is to attract investment to the city.
In a statement, Toronto Mayor David Miller, who is also chairman of Invest Toronto, expressed his condolences to Sheppard's family and friends but refused further comment in light of the criminal case against Bryant.
- with files from Allison Jones
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