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Otto Vass

Witnesses say police beat man who died at store

SIU team probes incident outside west-end 7-Eleven

Otto Vass

Andrew Palamarchuk Photo
FIGHT FOR LIFE: Paramedics try to revive Otto Vass in the parking lot outside a west-end 7-Eleven. Witnesses said the man was beaten by police after being removed from the store after a disturbance.

The man who died in a 7-Eleven parking lot early yesterday was beaten by police, witnesses say.

Two witnesses who watched the incident from a porch across the street told The Star that police pinned the 55-year-old man near the corner of College St. and Lansdowne Ave. and struck him repeatedly with a baton, fists and feet. Neighbours identified him as Otto Vass, a large man with a history of mental problems.

The special investigations unit, the provincial agency that probes serious injuries or deaths involving police, will examine the actions of four subject officers, using evidence from eight witness officers, said spokesperson Gail Scala.

No one else is saying anything officially about the incident, which a store employee said began when Vass got into an argument with some younger men in the store.

"They (the police) were beating him worse than an animal," said Amir Hameed, 23, a neighbour who saw the incident. "He wasn't fighting back at all."

Because the case is now being handled by the SIU, Toronto police said little information could be released.

"We removed a man from the store," Sergeant Jim Muscat said. "Paramedics pronounced him dead a short time later."

Scala wouldn't comment on the eyewitnesses' version of events.

"I heard the rumours, but I don't know whether they're true or not," said Scala.

An autopsy is planned for today.

Police said two officers were called to assist at the west-end 7-Eleven before 1 a.m. yesterday.

While the man's name wasn't released, neighbours identified the victim as Otto Vass, a father of five, twice married, and the owner of a dilapidated shop that sells used furniture and appliances just a few doors down from the convenience store.

Neighbours described Vass as emotionally unstable. In 1985, he pleaded guilty to setting fire to a rental property he owned in an attempt to scare off tenants. Police had originally charged him with attempted murder.

According to a store employee who was reluctant to give details, police were originally called to the convenience store because Vass was arguing with some younger men inside.

Bystanders said magazine racks had been toppled in the commotion.

When police arrived at the store, Hameed was sitting near his apartment window with his roommate Asim Abbasi, 30. The friends watched from roughly 40 metres away as the officers calmly walked a man, wearing shorts and an unbuttoned shirt, out of the store along with a female clerk who soon went back inside.

Abbasi said the officers appeared to be talking calmly with the man when one officer suddenly shoved the man to the ground.

"I don't know what made the officers furious," said Abbasi, who was out of earshot.

"They were just talking in a friendly manner and suddenly started beating him," said Hameed, who was likewise too distant to hear the exchange of words.

After watching from the window, the two witnesses climbed out onto the porch for a better view of the scene.

Hameed said one officer held the man down and punched him in the face while the other hit him on the legs with a baton.

Then the first officer stood up and began kicking the man while the second continued hitting him with the baton, Hameed said, adding that most of the blows were aimed at the victim's lower torso or legs.

The attack lasted about four to five minutes, the witnesses said.

Hameed said the blows continued for roughly 30 seconds after two more officers arrived on the scene. The new officers held the man down while the two original officers kept hitting him, he said.

"He was just screaming due to the pain," Hameed said. "He never hit an officer - they never gave him a chance, and he never tried to."

The officers stopped attacking when the man stopped moving, the witnesses said. When paramedics arrived, they performed CPR and defibrilation.

Resident Tony Wright said he was on his way home yesterday morning when he saw Vass lying on the ground, receiving CPR from emergency staff. He said the large man was shirtless and his knees and legs were cut and bloodied.

Paramedics pronounced Vass dead shortly afterward.

"I don't think they (the officers) meant to kill him," Abbasi said.

The two witnesses, recent refugees from Pakistan, said they were shaken and unable to sleep that night.

"I'm kind of afraid of the police," said Hameed, after being interviewed by SIU investigators. "In civilized countries, we don't do that."

Another eyewitness, who didn't give her name but was also interviewed by the SIU, said she was too exhausted to talk.

"I didn't see what started it," she said. "I just saw the beating."

Members of the SIU were called around 2:30 a.m., said lead investigator Mike MacKinnon.

The five investigators, including one forensic identification technician, spent yesterday morning dusting for fingerprints and collecting evidence. They picked up a pair of eyeglasses near the body, about three metres from the convenience store's door, and seized a VCR and videotape from a security camera inside the store.

Sandy Da Silva, 23, who lives across from Vass' junk shop and attended school with Vass' three daughters, said she often saw people at the shop exchanging money for packages that she suspected contained illegal drugs.

Gabriella Pavao, a nurse at Toronto General Hospital who lives beside the junk shop with her young children, said she was worried by the crowd that loitered next door.

"I'd see homeless people, mostly men, and they'd have nothing else to do," Pavao said. "He hung around a lot of people who were doing illegal stuff, I guess."

Vass was well-known in the neighbourhood for his verbal outbursts and volatility.

"We were a bit concerned," Pavao said. "He was just very emotionally unstable."

"He takes some medication and when he doesn't take it he goes really mental," Da Silva said.

"He'd argue with the neighbours, fight with them."

Neighbours recently persuaded the Toronto Humane Society to take Vass' German shepherd.

"He didn't feed the dog, didn't take it for walks, and tied it to a short leash outside," Da Silva said.

Da Silva said she last saw Vass drinking with other men and enjoying a barbeque on his patio just hours before he died.

Although he lived in Mississauga, Da Silva said, Vass had been sleeping at his shop recently.

Vass was a former real estate agent and owned several properties around Toronto, said Firoz Jamal, who had been his tenant and now owns a drycleaning business nearby.

"He was very kind," Jamal said. "He would go out of his way to help somebody. He would not hurt anybody."

A receptionist for Century 21 Kingsbury Real Estate on Eglinton Ave. W in Mississauga recalled his name, but couldn't remember when he last worked out of that office.

Vass' friend, local landlord Joe Antonacci, 54, said Vass was harmless. "I never saw him as a violent man," he said.

Manslaughter charges laid in the death of Otto Vass

Supporters fill courtroom after four Toronto officers turn themselves in to SIU

Toronto cops

Jim Wilkes/Toronto Star
Three of four Toronto officers accused of manslaughter in the death of Otto Vass arrive at the special investigations unit headquarters. From left, Filippo Bevilacqua, Nam-Nhat Le and Phil Duncan.

Four Toronto police officers were stripped of their weapons, passports and police powers as they appeared in court yesterday, charged with manslaughter in the death of Otto Vass.

The downtown courtroom was packed with sombre-looking police as their four colleagues made a brief appearance before being released.

Vass' widow, Zsuzsanna, sat among them during the hearing at Old City Hall, which took place just hours after Constables Robert LeMaitre, Phillip Duncan, Nam-Nhat Le and Filippo Bevilacqua surrendered to the province's special investigations unit.

The four were formally charged by the SIU with manslaughter in the Aug. 9 death of Vass. The 55-year-old father of five died after a violent struggle with police outside a 7-Eleven store at College St. and Lansdowne Ave.

The officers said nothing during the show-cause hearing (a hearing to determine whether the accused should be held in jail) as Crown Attorney Desmond McGarry read out the seven conditions to which the officers had to agree before they were released and given their next court date of Nov. 23.

The conditions include a ban on possessing weapons, especially of the baton type. They must also refrain from talking to witnesses in the case, and "refrain from their duties as peace officers," McGarry said.

Chief Julian Fantino said he was "disappointed that charges have been laid against four of my officers, but we must now let due process take its course."

He said the four would be "reassigned to meaningful work in an administrative capacity," while the case progresses.

Because of the crown's unusual condition that the constables cannot carry out their duties as officers, the force must seek a legal opinion as to how their jobs will be affected, said Superintendent Bill Blair.

Outside the courthouse, there was tension between members of the media and some police officers who came in support. Some reporters and photographers were shoved aside as a minivan carrying the four accused constables sped away from the courthouse.

Craig Bromell, president of the 7,000-member Toronto police association, said police across the city were upset with the charges.

"We have a right to be angry," Bromell said, noting the charges were unprecedented in the force's history. He said he was confident the officers would be cleared.

"There's no doubt these officers will be found innocent," said Bromell, who was flanked by the officers' lawyer, Gary Clewley, and union officials.

Bromell said the four officers, each of whom has less than four years experience on the force, are extremely upset. "I told them to keep their head up, stand tall . . . and the entire police service is behind you," Bromell said.

He then hurried back to the union hall, where he spent the day fielding calls from concerned officers.

Toronto cops

Rick Madonik/Toronto Star
GRIEF: Widow Zsuzsanna Vass weeps outside court.

Vass' widow let her lawyer, Julian Falconer, do most of the talking. He told reporters he fears the provincial government won't put in the resources needed to take on the police union's high-priced lawyers.

"The Vass family will be watching," Falconer said. "If justice is to be done, the attorney-general's office must be willing to commit the same level of resources that the police union pours into cases."

As he spoke, Zsuzsanna Vass dabbed tears from her eyes. Eventually she couldn't take any more, and the press conference ended abruptly.

Though she spoke little, in a statement released to the media, Vass' widow said she wants justice to be done, "for Otto and my family.

"My husband did not deserve to die like that. I don't want his death to be swept under the rug, just because the police are involved."

Early yesterday morning, the officers arrived at SIU headquarters to be photographed and fingerprinted.

At a news conference announcing the charges, SIU director Peter Tinsley said the allegations are that the actions of the officers "were unlawful, that they were not legally justified in any manner, as may be by certain provisions of the Criminal Code in respect of the actions of police officers - and that those actions and their impact upon Mr. Vass contributed significantly to the event of his death."

Tinsley refused to reveal the cause of Vass' death, saying the evidence will show several factors involved.

"Those factors, I believe, are going to be the subject of much expert commentary in court."

Tinsley said the decision to charge the officers with manslaughter, rather than second-degree murder, came after an exhaustive 11-week probe.

A charge of second-degree murder requires "subjective foresight of either the intent to kill or that the force being applied is likely to cause death and that you're reckless as to the consequences.

"Manslaughter is a lesser form of culpable homicide," Tinsley explained. "It is still occasioned by an unlawful act, but it does not have inherent to it premeditation or deliberation."

A security videotape of the incident was "a factor" in the evidence, but Tinsley said he wasn't "comfortable" weighing its importance.

Premier Mike Harris commented on the Vass case yesterday, saying he hopes the charges haven't shaken the public's confidence in the police.

Police Intimidation of Media at Court

Media complain of intimidation while filming officers

Chief Julian Fantino is reviewing the conduct of officers who attended a court appearance for four colleagues charged with manslaughter in the death of Otto Vass.

The probe follows complaints by media representatives that they were intimidated, sworn at and pushed by police trying to prevent them from taking pictures of the accused officers leaving old city hall after their release by a judge on Wednesday.

"I'm concerned about any of these issues, and I'm looking into it," Fantino told reporters following yesterday's police board meeting.

He refused to provide details about the review or its scope, including whether it will see if officers attending court were on duty.

Norm Gardner, chair of the police services board, said he has no firsthand knowledge about what happened at the courthouse but supports a review by Fantino.

"I think that if, in fact, there's any proof of (misconduct), the chief will ensure that these people understand that, if they expect the public to look to them as professionals and respect them, they have to act accordingly," Gardner said.

Tensions were running high in the police ranks when constables Robert LeMaitre, Phillip Duncan, Nam-Nhat Le and Filippo Bevilacqua appeared in court after they were charged with manslaughter by the province's special investigations unit.

Vass, 55, died following an Aug. 9 confrontation with four 14 Division officers outside a 7-Eleven store at College St. and Lansdowne Ave.

“We have questions for the police service and we're not getting answers”
--Anna Willats

Dozens of officers, many in uniform, descended on the courthouse Wednesday to show their support.

Some media members complained that when the four accused officers left the courthouse in a van, police officers blocked their cameras. Some said they were sworn at and pushed to keep them away from the van.

Yesterday, several protesters showed up at the police services board meeting and held placards during a budget presentation to the board.

One read:"Chief Fantino why are your cops intimidating the media and politicians." Another said:"Support victims not criminals. Justice for Otto Vass!"

The board and police brass ignored the protesters, who finally got up and left.

Outside the board meeting, one protester said they will keep coming to monthly board meetings until they get some answers from the force and the civilians that oversee it.

"We have questions for the police service and we're not getting answers, members of the public are not getting answers," Anna Willats said.

"People are increasingly intimidated by the police."

Willats said she was particularly upset by what happened to the media during Wednesday's court appearance.

"When police officers are charged with incredibly serious crimes, fellow officers are holding the media back from getting pictures," she said.

"When someone from a poor community, or the black community, is accused of a crime, cops invite the media in to point their cameras two inches from that person's face."