John Doe was the ghost who haunted Ontario’s legal system for 14 years.
No one knows anything about his life before his first run-in with police at an Ontario library in 2003. No one knows his real name or birthday.
Most of all, no one knows what led him to set up camp beside the Toronto rail corridor where police fatally shot him in June 2016 after an attempted arrest went horribly wrong. He continues to confound officials, even from the grave.
“Mr. Doe is an enigma,” wrote Justice Gary Trotter in a 2011 judgment assessing the man’s fitness to stand trial. “Apart from his mounting criminal record, little else is known about Mr. Doe.”
Doe had a long history of pedophilia, violence against police and disobeying every legal order he was ever given, according to Trotter’s judgment. The same document notes Doe was selectively mute, refusing to reveal anything about himself to anyone.
Was he Roy Norman, who was caught stealing from a Goodwill donation box in 2007? Though he told officers he was 16, they suspected he was closer to 30, court documents said.
Or was he Chung Nu or Jonathan Grant, two other aliases police say he used?
Toronto police identified Doe by his fingerprints through various arrests and incarcerations, according to Trotter’s judgment.
Doe’s former lawyer, Brian Irvine, confirmed to the Star that the man who was the subject of Trotter’s decision was the same as the one killed beside the train tracks last year.
Toronto police Const. Jenifferjit Sidhu said it would generally be remarkable for anyone to remain anonymous to the law for so long.
“I can’t think of any instance where we haven’t been able to eventually get the information, and I’ve been on for 19 years,” she said.
Over the years, Toronto police became quite familiar with Doe. He had numerous interactions with officers.
In 2003, Doe repeatedly tried to approach a 15-year-old girl working at a library and grabbed her hand, according to court documents.
“You cannot talk to me this way. You’re a woman. You cannot talk until I’m finished,” Doe reportedly told the girl.
A “violent struggle ensued” when police tried to arrest him, the 2011 judgment noted.
A month later, Doe was convicted of sexual assault after trying to kiss a 13-year-old boy on the lips.
Then, in 2009, Doe approached a 5-year-old at a bus stop, kissed his arm, assaulted the boy’s father and “armed himself with a stick and pitchfork” against police, the documents say.
In 2009 and again in 2015, he swung a baseball bat at officers trying to apprehend him along the same stretch of train tracks where he died.
In 2012, Doe survived a police shooting that injured his hand, thigh, chest and abdomen after advancing on an officer with a kitchen knife. The province’s police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), didn’t charge the officer involved.
As little as police were able to find about Doe’s background, psychiatrists were even less successful in diagnosing him.
Several doctors at multiple institutions assessed Doe in 2006. Two gave him antipsychotic medication, which didn’t appear to change his behaviour.
One doctor said he was “unable to say with any certainty whether Mr. Doe does have an active major mental illness, although this appears probable,” Trotter’s court judgment said.
On June 17, 2016, the day Doe died, officers planned to serve him with notice that he’d failed to put his name on Ontario’s sex offender registry as required. Concerned about his mental state, they consulted a psychiatrist before trying to approach him.
Doe had lived on that stretch of Canadian Pacific Railway tracks near Weston Rd. and Sheppard Ave. W., to the northeast of St. Basil-the-Great College, on and off for some time, the 2011 court documents indicate.
An SIU map of the scene shows a makeshift shelter and a woodpile in a clearing west of the tracks. The 2011 court documents say Doe had once kept a collection of foodstuffs and cooking equipment there, according to one railway police officer.
“Interestingly, the officer reported that Mr. Doe appeared be healthy and in relatively good hygiene for a transient person,” Trotter wrote.
The grasses near Doe’s former camp are taller than the average person. The leaves of the bushes and trees there are so dense that someone could easily disappear into them, remaining nearly invisible from the townhomes backing onto the west side of the tracks.
That’s exactly what Doe did that day, according to the SIU’s report. As police moved north through the brush, one officer slipped on the loose gravel surface next to the rails. Doe then leapt out of a bush a few metres away and charged towards the group, butcher knife in hand.
When Doe raised the knife above his head, another officer shot him four times.
SIU director Tony Loparco opted not to charge the officer involved, saying he was justified in fearing for his own safety.
Last summer, Doe became the 831st homeless person to die in Toronto since 1985.
Not one of the two dozen people who came to a memorial in his honour had ever met him.
“Every John Doe has a family,” mourner Michael Mallard told the Star at the time.
With the SIU case having wrapped up last week, over a decade’s worth of efforts have ended with nothing to show.
“Someone must know who he is,” Irvine, Doe’s former lawyer, mused Thursday. “It’s been a mystery.”