The 28 seconds that changed my life - Macleans.ca

The 28 seconds that changed my life

Michael Bryant on his deadly encounter with an angry cyclist

by
The 28 seconds that changed my life

Photograph by Andrew Tolson

Michael Bryant was on top of the world. The Harvard-trained lawyer and former attorney general of Ontario had retired from politics months earlier to become president and CEO of Invest Toronto, an agency charged with bringing new business to Toronto. He was married to a high-profile entertainment lawyer, had two young kids and a nanny to look after them. He had beaten an alcohol addiction and hadn’t had a drink in three years. But the marriage was shaky, he was preoccupied with his new job, and he had forgotten what day it was. It was all he could do to formulate a dinner plan for his 12th wedding anniversary on the fly when his then-wife, Susan Abramovitch, asked what they were doing that night. All of the decisions that followed put Bryant on a path destined to intersect with Darcy Allan Sheppard’s that night. In the following excerpt from 28 Seconds, he recounts the hours leading up to the accident, and the seconds it took to transform him from a free man to one in shackles.

As Susan and I licked honey from our fingers in a Greek bakery on the Danforth, at about 9:30 on the evening of August 31, 2009, we could never have anticipated the storm of primal fury that was blowing our way.

Not terribly far away, the man we would presently come to know as Darcy Allan Sheppard, part of Toronto’s hardy, scruffy, aggressive subculture of bicycle couriers, was having the latest in a lifetime of turbulent days.

For most of his troubled 33 years, Darcy Sheppard had fought addiction to alcohol and crack cocaine. On this day, his string of eight sober days had come—once again—to a dispiriting end. He appeared on the city’s radar a little after 7 p.m., as Susan and I were parking the car at the restaurant where we would have our shawarma dinner. It was then he showed up at the apartment of his girlfriend on George Street, in a notorious zone of men’s hostels and crack dealers in one of Toronto’s grittier quarters.

For a time, Sheppard and his girlfriend had lived together. But, after a dispute, she had asked him to move out. Now, he was back at her door, drunk on arrival. She wanted him to sleep it off. For a time, he reportedly did. Then he awoke and apparently decided to leave. There must have been a disagreement in the apartment about the wisdom of this.

Around this time, Susan and I would have been exchanging anniversary presents, and walking on the sand, along the lakeshore at the Beaches. The moon was three-quarters full. On the other side of town, someone was howling at that moon.

At 9:12 p.m., the Toronto Police Service received a call from another resident of the building, complaining of noise coming from the apartment of Sheppard’s girlfriend: screams, crying, the sound of things being thrown. The caller told police that Sheppard was observed outside the building a few minutes later, assaulting a homeless man.

Police arrived at 9:21 p.m., as Susan and I were finishing our baklava on the Danforth. They noted that Sheppard was belligerent and had been drinking. Sheppard’s girlfriend would later tell reporters that she, along with other friends who showed up, asked police to allow Sheppard to return to the apartment, but the officers refused to permit it.

Instead, police warned him not to return to the address. They cleared the call within 10 to 15 minutes, about the time Susan and I were paying our bill at Akropolis and heading toward our car to drive home.

Sheppard “was asked to leave,” a police spokesman would later tell the news media. “The officers left. And that was it.”

Except, it wasn’t.

Darcy Allan Sheppard—extremely intoxicated, fresh from an argument with his recently estranged girlfriend, from beating up a homeless man, and from his latest encounter with police—was allowed to ride off on his bike.

As Susan and I approached Yonge Street, it was Darcy Sheppard who had snarled traffic by throwing pylons and garbage across the intersection. Then, in something of an athletic marvel—despite an alcohol level more than twice the legal limit—he did figure eights curb to curb, along Bloor Street, as drivers like myself hung back, refusing to take his dare to pass him. Until he finally forced a vehicle over to the side of the road, and I drove on by.

It was Darcy Sheppard who, moments later, drove within inches of my driver’s-side door, as our Saab was stopped a little farther west on Bloor Street at an intersection near Avenue Road.

It was Darcy Sheppard who then pulled directly in front of our car and spun his bike around to confront us, sneering at me. “Now what’re ya gonna do?”

By 9:48 p.m., on the night of my 12th wedding anniversary, the 28 seconds that changed my life forever, and that abruptly ended Darcy Sheppard’s, were about to begin.

IT’S ABOUT three kilometres—and many tax brackets—from that apartment on George Street to 102 Bloor Street West in Yorkville, which houses a store called L’Occitane En Provence. That shop, specializing in vanity products, is what Yorkville is all about. L’Occitane started in the south of France and is now listed on the stock market in Hong Kong. The company aspires to be, in its own words, “the worldwide reference for Mediterranean well-being, with unique body, face, and home products.” The shop smells wonderful, the scent of money not least among its allures.

The store also has two security cameras, one facing southeast on Bloor, the other facing to the west. Some of what happened that night was captured by those cameras. Some of the video is fairly clear. Some isn’t.

What it did show, what a later investigation would show, and what I recall, is this:

Before the 28 seconds began, I had been unsettled by Sheppard’s antics and had lost sight of him. I was anxiously trying to spot him in the passenger-side rear-view mirror, assuming that if he showed it would be near to the curb. Susan took the direction of my glance for attention and chatted away about work.

As Sheppard passed on my left and cut in front of us, the traffic light had just turned green and I was starting to move the Saab forward. As he passed, he slowed, coming very close to my side door. I sensed him swipe his hand at me. I ducked instinctively to my right, hitting the brakes and turning the wheels to the right. It was then I stalled the car, presumably taking my foot off the gas and clutch while putting on the brakes. When I looked up, he was straddling the bike, facing us, taunting me. “Now what’re ya gonna do?”

The 28 seconds began.

His front wheel was within a couple feet of the Saab’s front bumper. I knew he was too close for me to drive around him. In a millisecond, my eyes darted up to my rear-view mirror, then back to this man. I saw there were cars behind me, so I couldn’t back up. I couldn’t move forward. Trapped. He was big, drunk and raging. I feared for Susan and myself. I wondered if he had a weapon on him.

The thought of confronting him was never an option—it was our anniversary, for God’s sake. Susan was with me. Neither did staying put make any sense. Susan was with me. Either to fight or sit tight might put her at risk.

I needed to get away. I’d no idea how. But I knew I couldn’t escape the situation until I started the damn car. I tried to keep an eye on him and at the same time I tried to start the engine. It turned over, but kept stalling out. Frustration and panic were both rising fast.

As the car started and stalled, it bounced and lurched forward a little bit. This growling man saw this, the car lurching, and he seemed to get more and more agitated. He seemed to be howling at me.

I gave up on the eye contact with Sheppard. I looked down at the pedals and the stick shift and the ignition to see why the Saab wouldn’t start. As my eyes darted back up, I saw that it finally was moving forward—for all of a second. I hit the brakes. Another second. Now, Darcy Sheppard was draped over the hood of the car.

During my frenzied attempts to start the car, as it stalled and stalled, the Saab lurched three times. The first, with the wheels angled to the right, moved the car away from Sheppard. With the second, there was still no contact with him or his bicycle. The third caused Sheppard to land on the hood. But it was at low speed, brief in duration and, because he was already so close to the car, left no discernible injury.

But now he was furious. His bike was caught under the front bumper. He screamed at people on the sidewalk, “You’re a witness! You’re a witness!”

By now, Susan was also yelling something. I don’t know what. And by now, I no longer cared what was behind me. I didn’t care if I had to ram the car behind me and push it back to Bay Street. I needed to get us out of there.

I was now especially terrified of taking my eyes off him. But in order to back up, I had to. I looked behind me, turned my back on the beast. It looked clear enough. I put the Saab in reverse. As I was looking back, Sheppard hurled his backpack, containing a heavy bike lock, at us. It went sailing over my head.

I put the car in first gear and tried to drive around him. Outraged, he raced toward the front of our car. I remember Susan screaming, “Oh, my God!” over and over.

Chasing after us, he leapt at the Saab, as if in slow motion. Sheppard landed hip first, to break his fall, the way you see stuntmen-as-cops do the hood slide on crime shows. It made a crunching noise. I felt the impact of a man over 200 lb. landing on my car. He then grabbed the windshield wiper and bent it back toward him. He began pulling himself toward me, hand over hand, as if the wiper were a rope. The strength of the man was extraordinary. He seemed almost superhuman.

His upper torso was now on the hood’s edge, driver’s side, with the car still moving forward. He swung around, put his right arm inside the door, his left armpit around the side mirror. He held up his legs, a feat of some strength, no doubt assisted by the adrenalin that, I later learned, Darcy so often sought.

The car suddenly swerved sharply to the left, almost 45 degrees. I have no recollection how that happened. He must have grabbed the wheel. In wrestling for control of the car, we crossed to the south side of the street, heading westbound into the eastbound lane.

As it registered in my mind that my escape attempt had failed, I tried again. So I slammed on the brakes. But the Saab has anti-lock brakes. The stop wasn’t sudden enough to dislodge him. Nevertheless, there was a fair bit of torque. I could see him bending forward and hanging on, the side mirror cracking under the pressure. I remember thinking how strong he seemed to withstand that torque.

Then, he said to me, with a crooked grin: “You’re not getting away that easy.”

Less than 20 seconds had passed since he had said, “Now what’re ya gonna do?”

Next, I tried to push Sheppard off the car door. It felt like trying to push over a telephone pole. He pushed back. I pushed again. He pushed back. Then he started climbing in the car. Susan grew louder and more frantic. “No! No! No! No! Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop!”

This was the only physical contact between us. The car remained stopped while this shoving was going on.

I had stopped the car and couldn’t get him off. It seemed that when the car was stopped, he got closer to being on top of us; when the car was moving, he wasn’t.

I started moving forward again.

It felt to me like The Twilight Zone, where familiar streets are oddly abandoned. I registered no cars, no people. We just seemed to be heading into a tunnel. And it was getting smaller and smaller and smaller.

The car never left first gear. It was very noisy, because the Saab was still in first gear and the car was revving so high, almost red-lining.

At one point, it seemed like Sheppard was skiing beside the car, making the kinds of whooping noises you’d make if you were intentionally road-skiing for sport. A witness would later say his bicycle shoes were setting off sparks on the pavement. I remember thinking: he’s done this before.

I couldn’t take my two hands off the wheel even if I’d wanted to. I was struggling with Darcy Sheppard for control of the vehicle.

Then he was gone.

All of a sudden, he just wasn’t there. I didn’t see him fall. I heard a sound, maybe a groan.

From the moment of him jumping on the car to the point where I stopped the car with him on it, we had travelled about 100 m.

At first I felt relief, but for less than one breath. Now what was I going to do? Should I stop right now? I shouldn’t leave the scene of an accident. But I wanted to get away from this guy. Is he coming? I was not going to stop the car and let him come at us again after finally getting away. There was no one to help. I wanted to get somewhere safe.

I looked up and saw Avenue Road in front of me. I saw the Hyatt hotel. It’s where our marriage counsellor had an office that could be entered through the hotel lobby. I routinely tore up in front of the Hyatt, getting overpriced valet parking because I was running late for our sessions in the marital intensive-care unit.

So I turned right on Avenue Road and drove into the hotel’s circular driveway and found, I thought, sanctuary.

I stopped the car and pulled up the emergency brake—for what would be the final time. I couldn’t find my cellphone. Susan offered hers. Neither of us today recall what was happening on her side of the car, other than that she was there, frozen, and terrified.

I dialled 911. I began to describe what happened. I wanted police to get there quickly—to protect Susan and me. I said we’d been attacked by a man on a bicycle on Bloor Street. A transcript was made of this, of course.

“He was literally picking fights with people on the corner of Yonge and Bloor, and putting obstacles in the way and trying to stop cars from going,” I told the operator. “We all avoided him, drove past him, and then he came back. I’m in a convertible so he came back and he started—I mean, I thought he took a swing at me, but whatever, he missed. And then he pulled in front of me and stopped. I slammed on the brakes and I tried to get away, and then he—the next thing I know, he’s, like, literally trying to climb into my car.”

When asked where Sheppard was, I said: “Somewhere on Bloor, I assume.” She said an ambulance was on the scene. It was the first time it occurred to me that Darcy Sheppard had been injured.

I told the operator I’d just “wanted to pull into a place where . . . ” She seemed to understand. “Where you felt a little safer.” “Yeah,” I said.

I suggested to Susan that she take a taxi home to relieve [nanny] Sarah and care for the kids. I figured that I’d be only a few minutes behind her, depending on how long it took to give a statement to the police about the attack. That’s where my head was at: we were attacked, he was the attacker, and now he was to be arrested and charged.

“I’ll be home soon,” I said to her.

At 10:01 p.m., the police arrived as Susan climbed into a cab.

My rescuers, I thought. But as soon as the constable driving got out of the car, I knew something was wrong, though I couldn’t say what. He was a huge guy. I walked up to him, to get close to him in case Sheppard arrived.

The constable promptly manhandled me around to a spot in front of his squad car. He started pushing and poking me. He said I was in a lot of trouble. He kept asking how much I’d had to drink. In five different ways, he asked me if I’d imbibed. I told him I didn’t drink alcohol, period. “Yeah, okay,” he scoffed.

“What’s going on?” I said. I couldn’t understand why I was being questioned. I’d called the police for protection. It never occurred to me that I’d done anything wrong.

Susan was off to the side. She’d stepped out of the cab when she witnessed the police pushing me around. I assumed she was being questioned by the other officer. But she wasn’t. She was just watching, thinking, and trying to call for help—on a BlackBerry that suddenly kept resetting on her, over and over.

“You’re in a lot of trouble,” he said again.

It wasn’t registering. Why was I in trouble? I felt like we just had to get the have-you-been-drinking part over with, then reason would prevail and he would give me an update. I was imagining that Darcy Sheppard was in handcuffs right now.

“You better hope he makes it back there,” the officer said. “You’re in a lot of trouble. It’s touch and go . . . ”

The constable was talking on the radio to his superior officer. The hotel valet handed me and the constable a bottle of water. I took it; he refused. There were more people milling about the driveway. Cars were pulling in and people getting out, and some were getting into cabs. I couldn’t see where Susan was standing. I was worried about her.

Suddenly, I was being handcuffed. I was flabbergasted. I remember seeing the constable pulling the cuffs out, and my overpowering feeling of disbelief. Were these for me? Handcuffs? Really? REALLY! What will Susan think, seeing me being cuffed? I imagined she’d want to throw up.

The kids were being babysat by our beloved Sarah; she started work at our place pretty early, so she didn’t like late-night babysitting. I knew that it was after 10 by now. Someone needs to contact Sarah, I thought. Susan should call her mom for support, I thought. I was suddenly ashamed of being in cuffs, and angry. They put my head down and sat me in the back of the squad car. Less than 10 minutes had passed since the police had arrived at the Hyatt.

“The cuffs are over the top,” I said to the constables, who were sitting in the front seat, whispering to each other, though I clearly could hear every word. “I’m not going anywhere. I could have sat in here without the cuffs.”

“It’s standard procedure,” said one of the officers.

For what? I thought. Standard procedure for what? What the hell was happening?

There was more whispering and radio talk. Seconds became minutes became 20 minutes. Then we’d been there, waiting, for almost an hour. I didn’t speak a word after my outburst about the cuffs. At some point in that hour, the constable who’d been aggressive with me opened the door beside me, and finished his conversation on the radio:

“Yeah, I’ll do that now,” he said.

Do what now?

I knew I was being detained pending investigation. I had a burning desire to talk with the constables but nothing came out. Something told me to shut up.

“You’re under arrest . . . dangerous driving . . . criminal negligence . . . right to retain a lawyer . . . ”

“I’m aware,” I mumbled, but I don’t think he heard me. Susan appeared inches from the side window on my left. “Are you okay?” she mouthed through the closed window. Then to the constable: “Can I talk to him?”

Silence. They ignored her. “Hey! I just want to talk to my husband?!” More silence. “Just roll down the window.” They kept ignoring her. “Fine!”

“MICHAEL!!” she yelled through the front window to me in the back of the cruiser. “WHO SHOULD I CALL?”

I was happy to see her. She didn’t seem panicked. She seemed heroic.

“A lawyer,” I answered, less than helpfully.

“WHO!? WHO SHOULD I CALL?”

Blank. Between those 28 seconds, being cuffed and put in the squad car, and then read my rights, I was unable to process much. The former attorney general of Ontario, who’d spent most of his adult life rubbing shoulders with hundreds of Canada’s leading barristers, couldn’t name a single lawyer at the moment he most needed one.

By the time the squad car left the Hyatt, Darcy Allan Sheppard was dead, although Michael Bryant wouldn’t learn that for several more hours. Sheppard hit a fire hydrant, fell off the car and struck his head on the curb or the road. The impact killed him. Michael Bryant was arrested and charged with dangerous driving causing death and negligence causing death, but the charges were withdrawn in May 2010. Bryant and his wife separated in December of that year. He now works as a senior adviser at Norton Rose, a Toronto law firm.