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A search for answers in a cyclist's death

As former Ontario attorney-general Michael Bryant awaits his first court date on charges of criminal negligence in the death of bike courier Darcy Allan Sheppard, some hard questions are being asked about how two police officers handled a trouble call involving Mr. Sheppard earlier that evening.

Summoned to Mr. Sheppard's girlfriend's downtown home, those officers from 51 Division questioned Mr. Sheppard and then allowed him to cycle away, despite the fact that he had dozens of arrest warrants outstanding and despite the fact that he had evidently been drinking.

So how did he come to be released, with such fateful consequences?

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In part, the answer is rooted in Canada's arrest-warrant system.

An erratic figure with a history of alcohol problems, Mr. Sheppard, 33, had never been convicted of any crime.

But he had had many run-ins with police in Edmonton, who had issued 61 Alberta arrest warrants for him, chiefly for property theft and writing bad checks.

As he sat in the back of a Toronto cruiser Monday night, police consulting their computer system would have learned that.

Not all warrants, however, carry the same weight.

Unlike Canada-wide warrants for such serious offences as murder, the Alberta warrants for Mr. Sheppard had a maximum enforcement radius of 50 kilometres.

Beyond that 50 kilometres, the arresting officers have no powers to hold the person.

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Instead, protocol requires them to contact the police agency that issued the warrants; advise that the suspect has been picked up and provide the person's address; and then inquire whether that police agency wants to have the person shipped home, which entails dispatching an officer to accompany the person back.

For cost reasons, the response in the case of minor crimes is generally no, said Sergeant Tim Burrows of Toronto Police Service's traffic division.

"It's the proverbial question," he said. "All we can do is advise."

Sgt. Burrows could not say whether the normally routine request was made in this case, but he assumed it was.

An Edmonton police spokesman said he too did not know.

Another question: Why did those two 51 Division officers not give Mr. Sheppard a ride home after questioning him, as several of his friends requested?

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The short answer, police say, is that he appeared to have been drinking but was not drunk and posed no threat to anyone.

His girlfriend, Misty Bailey, 34, said he was inebriated when he showed up on her doorstep and seemed "irritable," so she let him doze in her apartment.

On awaking, she said, he wanted to return to his own apartment in the Dupont and Dufferin area, despite the protests of Ms. Bailey and friends.

Neighbours say they saw Mr. Sheppard "staggering" out of the building. Annette Wabie, who lives below Ms. Bailey's apartment, saw him mount his bike and pedal a few feet before falling over.

She said his bike chain fell off, that he grew frustrated trying to fix it, and that when another man approached, a scuffle erupted.

But that was before the police arrived, after a call from a neighbour.

Ms. Bailey said she was nervous about her boyfriend cycling home, and that she and friends asked the officers several times to drive Mr. Sheppard home.

"They didn't say anything," she recounted. "They just told me to leave and go back upstairs."

Staff-Sergeant John Spanton of 51 Division said there was no reason to take Mr. Sheppard anywhere.

"When we run into people who have been drinking or on drugs or mentally ill or disabled, we look after them," he said. "We can bring them to the station, we can take them to a centre, or we can take them to the hospital, that's part of our job.

"So on this night, Mr. Sheppard spent some time with two officers and they made the decision that he was fine. They had received information that, yeah, he had been drinking earlier, but not for a while and they made the decision he was fine to leave."

An hour and a half after Mr. Sheppard departed, officers were back at Ms. Bailey's doorstep to tell her he had been killed.

She says she doesn't blame police for the tragedy, but believes in hindsight the accident could have been averted had they agreed to bring Mr. Sheppard home.

"We're Toronto Police, not Toronto Taxi," Sgt. Burrows responded.

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About the Author

At The Globe and Mail since 1982, in assorted manifestations, chiefly crime reporter, foreign correspondent and member of the Editorial Board, Tim is now retired. More

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