Widow of slain Toronto police officer on tragedy and punishment
Nearly three years have passed since the day Christine Russell became a widow but her she’ll never forget how she felt upon learning her husband, Sgt. Ryan Russell, 35, had been killed in the line of duty.
“All your emotions burst out of your body and you’re left lost, completely lost, not knowing how to handle anything,” Christine told W5.
Sgt. Russell’s death not only left her without a husband but also left her four year old son, Nolan, without a father. He had been a Toronto police officer for 11 years and while Christine knew the hazards of his job she spent little time fretting over the dangers he faced.
“If you lived your life worrying every day that they won’t come home then it wouldn’t be a very happy marriage,” said Christine
But tragically that day would come. It was the morning of January 12, 2011 when, Toronto Police received a series of calls about a stolen snowplough, careening through the slick city streets, smashing into numerous cars, taxis and even a Ferrari/Maserati dealership.
Sgt. Russell was one of the first on the scene. He was following the snowplough when it turned and drove right at him. Sgt. Russell managed to fire his gun three times, but the driver kept on going, running over Sgt. Russell. He later died in hospital.
Richard Kachkar was the man driving the stolen snowplough. The then-45-year-old had left a homeless shelter sometime before midnight. And despite the subzero temperatures, he was barefoot and seemed agitated. That Kachkar was driving the plow was never in question at his trial for first degree murder. But his mental state at the time of the incident was called into doubt. Numerous psychiatric experts were called to testify for both the Crown and the defense. On March 27, 2013, a jury found that he was Not Criminally Responsible (NCR) for his actions.
For Christine the verdict of NCR is a grave disappointment.
“Ryan deserved a lot better than this, he was serving and protecting all of us. He was killed by this man. And nothing changes that fact” she told a crowd of reporters outside the courthouse shortly after the verdict was announced.
That verdict meant no prison time and no criminal record for Kachkar. He was sent to the Ontario Shores mental health facility in Whitby, Ontario. Locked up, but with an annual review that could release Kachkar any time doctors decide he’s no longer mentally ill.
Kachkar’s first hearing before the Ontario Review Board was in April 2013. Christine Russell was there and read a Victim Impact Statement.
“Now I’m not dealing with the criminal justice system. Now I’m going to go and deal with a health care system.” She believes that Kachkar should stay in a facility for the rest of his life.
But under the current system, Russell knows that is not guaranteed. Her fears have been highlighted by recent high profile NCR cases: Vincent Li, who beheaded Tim McLean on a Greyhound bus in 2008, has been granted permission to leave the secure facility where he is being held for short visits. Guy Turcotte, convicted of murdering his children in 2009, was released from the facility in December 2012 where he was being held but has now been returned to jail, awaiting a new trial ordered after an appeal.
The outrage expressed by victims of violent crimes has led the federal government to introduce a new bill, the Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act. Among the proposed changes some offenders could be designated as high risk and that would mean the courts, not the mental health professionals of the review boards would decide if and when they get out. These high risk offenders would only have a review every three years, not annually.
The legislation died on the order paper when Parliament was prorogued but this week the federal government re-introduced the legislation, bill C-14.
“It will put public safety first and explicitly set out that the safety of Canadians the safety of victims must be the paramount decision,” said Justice Minister Peter MacKay at a news conference outside the House of Commons.
The legislation is headed to the Senate for second reading, which is where it was when Parliament prorogued. It will likely become law in 2014.
Christine Russell believes the proposed bill is a step in the right direction and is now working to ensure the bill passes. “I would like to be an advocate for change. This has happened to many families, not just mine.”
Critics argue that Bill C-14 will actually hurt the people who need help the most. “They didn’t do what they did with a criminal mind. They did it as the victim of untreated mental illness,” explained Chris Summerville, CEO of the Canadian Schizophrenia Society. He believes that treatment and gradual reintegration into the community are the keys to success.
Summerville says the best people to determine whether those found NCR are capable of reintegrating into society are members of the Review Boards, which are made up of psychiatric professionals, rather than the courts.
Summerville believes that fear of people who have been found NCR re-offending is unfounded. “When people are released from a forensic mental health unit, and having stayed an average of 10 years, the recidivism rate or reoffending rate is only around 7 and a half percent.” He says that it may sound high, but it compares favourably to those who go through the Federal prison system where the recidivism rate is about 45 per cent.
Christine Russell will do whatever she can to ensure her husband’s killer is never released. She will continue to attend Kachkar’s Review Board hearings even though it means reliving the events of January 11, 2011 over and over again.
Russell also attended Parliamentary hearings in June 2013 to support the new legislation. With a picture of her slain husband beside her, Russell reminded the Committee: “Whether Richard Kachkar was sane or insane does not matter,” she said. “He is dangerous. The public has the right to be protected and feel that it is being protected.”
“I will always be a victim, always be a victim. My husband was the ultimate victim of his crime.”