Mess Media, December 7, 2009
On August 31, 2009, former attorney general for Ontario, Michael Bryant, killed cyclist Darcy Allan Sheppard in one of the most violent and horrific cases of road rage in Toronto’s history.
Neither Michael Bryant nor his wife, entertainment lawyer Susan Abramovitch, gave statements to police regarding the circumstances that led to Darcy Allan Sheppard’s death. They will have many months to tailor their testimonies to fit the known evidence and weave it seamlessly into a vigorous defense mounted by one of the most elite criminal lawyers in the country.
Bryant’s victim, Darcy Allan Sheppard, who was known as Al to his friends, will not have a voice at the trial. He will not have an opportunity to challenge Michael Bryant’s carefully scripted and rehearsed testimony. He will not have a chance to correct Bryant’s devoted wife and an experienced lawyer when she unconditionally supports her husband of twelve years on the witness stand.
Al’s voice needs to be heard. It’s important that people have an opportunity to understand his life’s last moments. Al could have been any one of us. He just happened to be the cyclist who crossed paths with a driver on the verge of a road rage meltdown.
I have attempted to rebuild those last moments of Al’s life from his point of view. All of the events are based on the factual evidence contained in security camera video, witness statements and news reports. Al’s point of view is also primarily based on the factual evidence as well as my own experiences as a bike messenger and cyclist.
On the evening of Monday August 31, 2009, Al Sheppard was heading home to his apartment at Dupont and Dufferin Streets. His route took him along Bloor Street in front of the trendy blocks of retail stores and boutiques near Bay Street.
At about 9:45 pm, a security camera captured images of a black Saab convertible stopped at a red light on Bloor Street near Bay Street. The car was driven by Michael Bryant. His wife, Susan Abramovitch, sat next to him in the passenger’s seat. The Bryants were on their way home after a night out celebrating their twelfth wedding anniversary.
Bloor Street was under construction at the time so the curb lane was closed and the sports car was stopped in the outside lane. As Al approached Bryant’s car he stayed to the outside, passing Bryant on the left side in order to avoid getting trapped against the curb or becoming vulnerable to a passenger opening their door to exit a vehicle.
One of the many advantages of bicycle transportation in the core of Toronto is that a bike can pass a line of cars stopped at a red light and move to the front of the line. Once in a while a driver may become angered by this because he feels that the bikes should have to wait at the end of the line. However if that same driver came up on a long single file line of cyclists stopped at a light, he would not stop at the end of the line of cyclists. He would pass them and stop near the intersection because traffic lanes in the city are wide enough to support both a car and a bike stopped at a red light.
After passing Bryant`s car Al pulled to a stop in front of it. Many years of experience as a bike messenger had taught Al that the safest place to stop your bike is about one metre from the edge of the lane. Some cyclists timidly stop their bikes as far to the right as possible, sometimes even resting one foot on the curb. They generally do this to appease motorists so that drivers can pass cyclists quickly when the light changes to green or to avoid obstructing a driver who wishes to make a right turn. However hugging the curb is not a safe practice.
Many years ago, I participated in a CAN BIKE II course as part of the city`s Injury Prevention Week promotion. The course included bike couriers, police and a couple of Toronto media representatives. It was taught by Constable Hugh Smith who was responsible for training members of the police bicycle patrol and our course was primarily aimed at the officers who were part of the bike patrol.
Constable Smith taught that cyclists should stop about one metre from the curb at a red light because that is your proper lane position for riding when the light changes to green. It also discourages motorists from cutting across you to make a right turn which can be dangerous for a cyclist. The only problem with this lane position is that some drivers perceive it as arrogance or as intentionally blocking them by taking up too much space on the road.
Downtown driving is a frustrating experience for motorists. There are too many cars, too many traffic lights and too many unexpected circumstances that slow a driver`s progress. In fact the frustrations of downtown driving are one of the major reasons for the existence of modern bike messengers and the growth of urban bicycle commuting.
Downtown cycling is much different. Bikes can move easily through congested traffic and they are not subject to the same parking restrictions. It is certainly less stressful to ride a bike downtown and most of the stress is burnt off through the physical exertion required to pedal.
Construction zones also exacerbate drivers’ frustrations. They decrease the road space for drivers creating more congestion and slowing them down. Some drivers become increasing agitated when they are behind a cyclist in a construction zone because they feel that the cyclist is in their way, taking up too much space and impeding their progress even further.
That night, Al`s proper but inconvenient lane positioning seemed to rub Michael Bryant the wrong way. When the light turned from red to green, Al didn`t move fast enough for him. Bryant honked his horn and screamed at Al to get moving. Al’s response was to stand still.
I have reacted in the same manner many times. Some drivers have a “me first” attitude. They expect a cyclist to get out of their way or to move aside so that they may proceed at the expense of the cyclist. They will make up non-existent laws that reinforce their convenience and priority.
“You’re supposed to be on the sidewalk!”
“You’re not allowed to ride a bike in winter!”
“It’s illegal to ride a bike without a helmet!”
“You not allowed on this road because there’s no bike lane!”
Al was tired of being told by drivers where and how he should ride his bike. He was tired of drivers expecting and demanding that he yield his right to the road so that some angry, self important person could get where he was going faster. Al was going to move in a couple of seconds but he wouldn’t move immediately just because Bryant demanded it.
Bryant edged his car forward in a threat to Al`s safety hoping to intimidate and scare him into submission. Al was unfazed as these kinds of menacing acts by drivers had become all too routine on the streets of Toronto. Bryant pressed his foot against his accelerator once again, pushing his convertible within inches of Al’s bike. Al could feel the heat from the idling engine of Bryant’s car. He looked back at Bryant. The two of them exchanged heated words. Al turned to face forward again.
He was standing his ground. He would not be terrorized. He would not be pushed aside. He would take his space on the road. He had a legal right be to be there.
Bryant lost it. He was overtaken by complete rage. If he had a gun he may have shot Al in the back. If he had a bat he may have bashed Al’s head in from behind. Bryant was behind the wheel of a sports car so he angrily jammed his foot against the accelerator pedal deliberately punching his car into Al and the bike.
The sucker-punch from Bryant’s car crushed the back wheel of Al’s bike and jerked his back, pummelling him and twisting his body. The blow sent Al falling towards the ground. He stretched out his hands to soften the impact but the car continued pushing him from behind, scraping him along the pavement for more than a car length.
If Al was in another car rather than on a bike, Bryant would never have rammed him. He may have honked and yelled and screamed but he would never have deliberately smashed his car into another car. Ramming a bike is less risky because the car is used as weapon, whereas ramming another car would mean the victim has an equal weapon to wield in defense.
Drivers like Bryant view cyclists as less than equal road users. To Bryant, Al was less entitled to the road space and he should yield to a more privileged class of road user. How dare Al get in Michael Bryant’s way! He needs to be taught a lesson.
Al was momentarily stunned by Bryant`s attack. He knew it would happen one day but it was still a shock. So many drivers had threatened to run him down over the years. So many of them had revved their engines and aimed their cars at him but all of them pulled back or veered away at the last instant. Their sense of rational decision-making returned just in time. Al knew that one day someone would be so angry that they would forget the damage they could do to a person with their car. They would forget that in the space of a few seconds they could seriously injure or kill a cyclist in a fit of rage.
Al bent his knees and pushed up with his left arm to raise his body. As he stood up he saw Bryant reversing his car, attempting to drive around him and flee.
“You coward,” Al thought to himself, “you attacked me from behind, tried to kill me and then you run away!”
Al slammed his backpack on to the hood of Bryant`s car as it moved passed. He ran after his assailant’s car grabbing hold of whatever he could to stop it. Bryant took off with Al attached to the outside of the car driving over the back wheel of Al`s bike.
Al didn’t intend to jump on to a moving car. He saw the car fleeing and reached out to stop it. When he felt the car pulling him he tightened his grip as if to scream “stop, you can’t run someone over and drive away!” Once Bryant’s car started dragging him along, there was no turning back. He had to hold on.
Al held on as tight as he could. The car’s engine revved higher and louder. Bryant pressed his foot to the floor dragging Al along at about 90 kilometres per hour. Al was holding on for dear life now. Letting go was not an option. He had to stay up to stay alive.
I knew the feeling. When I was about 13 years old my family lived in a brand new subdivision next to a farm that had a well used railway line running through it. My brothers and I would sometimes hop on the freight trains as they passed and go for a short ride. The trains would travel at various speeds so we would have to judge whether it was slow enough to run beside and hop on to the steel ladder hanging from one of the railway cars.
One time I misjudged the train. It was going just a little bit faster than I could run. I ran beside it but when I grabbed on to the train it yanked me hard, pulling me faster than my legs could travel. Instead of letting go my hands instinctively gripped tighter and my feet left the ground. My brothers would tell me later that for a second my legs and my body looked like a flag flapping in the wind.
Even though I had no control over my legs, I held on as tight as I could because letting go would mean falling and I might fall under the train. My only chance was to hold on. I thought I had yelled for someone to stop the train even though there was no one nearby to hear me.
After a couple of seconds I was able to put my feet back on the ground and push them up to bottom step of the ladder. I rested there for a few moments. Then I jumped back off the train, grateful to have survived. If I hadn’t been able to get my feet up I likely would have kept holding on until I couldn’t hold any longer.
I’m sure that’s what Al was thinking. He had to hold on to stay alive. He had to hold on to the car that moments ago was used as a weapon against him. Surely the driver would see how vulnerable he was and slow down or stop but Bryant kept going. He sped down Bloor on the wrong side of the road, past trucks from the construction site as Al was clinging to the outside of the car. Sparks flew from the ground as the metal cleats from Al’s cycling shoes scraped along the pavement. Their eyes met. Al’s fear and Bryant’s anger were face to face for a tiny moment. Bryant was still screaming out of control at the top of his lungs. He yelled “Get the fuck off my car!”
Bryant could have eased up on the accelerator, or gently tapped his brakes but he kept his foot firmly pressed against the accelerator pedal pushing the two thousand pounds of his sports car faster and faster.
Al thought to himself, “Slow down. Stop. You’ll kill me. I don’t want to die. I CAN’T LET GO,” but as Al met Bryant’s glare he surely knew that Bryant was not going to stop because he saw the anger and rage in Bryant’s clenched teeth and determined stare. Bryant was out of control.
That’s when the first impact hit him.
Bryant mounted the curb on the wrong side of the road aiming his car and Al’s body at whatever he could in an attempt to scrape Al from his car. Michael Bryant crushed Al’s body between a tree and the side of his Saab. The blow squeezed all of the oxygen from Al’s lungs, taking his breath away. Before Al could breathe in again, Bryant crushed him against a mailbox and a fire hydrant, smashing Al’s head.
The blows pounded, twisted and broke Al’s body spewing blood from his nose and his mouth. Al lost his grip. His hands let go of the car. His crumpled body fell and the back wheels of the Saab ran him over one final time. Once again Bryant sped away. He drove around the corner to the ritzy Park Plaza Hotel as Al lay bleeding and dying in the street like a piece of road kill.
Michael Bryant called 911 from the luxury hotel. He was apprehended about an hour and forty-five minutes later. Before he was taken in to police custody, he sent his wife home without making a statement to police. Bryant called his lawyer and hired a public relations firm, Navigator Ltd to spin the facts.
After taking statements from eyewitnesses and viewing surveillance video Toronto police charged Michael Bryant with criminal negligence causing death and dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death.
The next day Bryant was released from custody without a bail hearing. He was permitted to shave, shower and change into a designer suit at the police station before holding a press conference out front.
For the next two days shocked and angry cyclists over a thousand strong came to the scene of the attack. Cyclists blocked off Bloor Street and traced Al’s route from that tragic night. They brought flowers. They posted memorial messages for Al on the mailbox. They grieved.
Al Sheppard is survived by his four young children, his fiancée, friends and family, the Toronto cycling community and the world wide bike messenger community.