The fire roared amid the long shadows beneath the Mt. Pleasant Rd. bridge.
A jogger changed his path and ran toward the blaze. A woman driving on Rosedale Valley Rd. pulled over; her female passenger jumped out and sprinted towards an engulfed green tent.
In the heart of one of Canada’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, around dinner-time on the last Friday in April, Darren McKim — a well-loved father, son, brother, cousin, friend — was burning inside.
The jogger pulled McKim from the tent. The frantic rescuers, soon joined by an off-duty paramedic, saw horrific damage. McKim’s trousers had been seared off. He was charred from the waist down. His upper body had no apparent burns but there was a fresh-looking gash on his forehead; blood covered his hands, face and pooled in his mouth.
The woman from the car, Anna Cooper, tried to comfort him, gently stroking his arm as sirens grew louder. McKim looked at her and whispered: “Can I go home now?”
Four days later, on May 1, McKim, 50, died at Sunnybrook Hospital. Alone.
The coroner on duty that day called the death “suspicious.” Hospital staff referenced an assault in several entries in McKim’s medical records. The police taped off the area as a crime scene and treated McKim as a victim of aggravated assault — a witness told police he had heard a woman shouting at McKim in his tent shortly before the fire.
Police would later change their minds. They ruled his death an accident and closed the case, saying there was no evidence to support another conclusion.
The decision devastated McKim’s family who say his name should be on Toronto’s homicide list. His family believes he was attacked, then set ablaze after an altercation with a woman with whom he shared the tent — a woman police never located.
Dr. Kumar Gupta, the coroner, hasn’t released his final report but McKim’s 80-year-old mother Carroll McKim Castle, said Gupta told her during a recent phone call that her son’s cause of death was “undetermined.” He did not describe it as accidental, she said.
“The more you learn about it, the less you think it was an accident,” said McKim’s sister, Lori McKim-Lang.
Carroll laid out her concerns in a blunt letter to police, copied to Chief Mark Saunders, in which she requested her son’s personal items six weeks after he died. She wrote that she was disappointed that there seemed to be “no effort” to find his next of kin and that his few belongings weren’t promptly given to her.
“I have a feeling that had Darren not been ‘just an Indian living under a bridge’ that things would have been handled differently. I hope that I am wrong about that.”
The police dispute the allegation.
“The case was conducted as thoroughly as possible and the only time the victim’s race was considered during the investigation was when officers requested the assistance of others in identifying and locating next of kin,” said spokesperson Meaghan Gray. She said police closed the case after receiving information from first responders, the Centre of Forensic Sciences and the coroner’s office. Det. Stephane St. George, the lead investigator, did not return a call and emails from the Star.
The Star obtained McKim’s hospital records, investigation reports by police and the Office of the Fire Marshal; examined personal effects recovered from the fire scene, including McKim’s cell phone that held phone numbers, texts and photos; interviewed his family, friends and witnesses; and found gaps in the police investigation.
It was a probe that seemed to lack urgency; McKim’s family wasn’t notified that he was injured in a fire until the day after he died.
Even then, police did not positively identify the charred man until they fingerprinted his corpse.
Darren McKim was rushed to Sunnybrook Hospital with 42 per cent of his body’s surface area burned. There were fourth-degree burns to his legs; second-degree burns to his thighs, buttocks, and scrotum.
He had been intubated, soot was found in his mouth, and doctors noted a forehead laceration. Police tried to interview McKim over the weekend but were told by hospital staff that it wasn’t possible because of his condition, according to police records.
The first entry in McKim’s hospital records notes that he had been “assaulted, pushed into tent, tent set on fire. Pulled from tent by bystanders.” The hospital told the Star it got this information from paramedics. The police report also notes he had consumed alcohol.
Sunnybrook surgeons tried to mitigate the burn damage, amputating one of McKim’s legs above the knee, then the other below it. But it was not enough. His organs began to fail. By Monday, a hospital social worker contacted police, advised them McKim was in critical condition and that locating next of kin was urgent, according to the police records.
Det. St. George requested assistance from the Toronto police Aboriginal liaison officer, who reached out to a local Indigenous cultural centre.
Police found a bank card with McKim’s name on it under the bridge. It was one of two potential names for the victim. Cooper, a Vancouver lawyer visiting Toronto who rushed to McKim’s side during the fire, had asked McKim his name. Cooper, who specializes in defending the rights of the homeless, thought she heard “Garrett” and passed that detail to firefighters at the scene.
That information may have initially slowed the search to identify McKim, because “Garrett” was not a name on the bank card.
McKim had been identified in Sunnybrook hospital with help from a social worker who also provided a phone number for Carroll, but it was out of service, and she wasn’t reached.
McKim’s cell phone, which was not password protected, had also been collected but it’s not known who found it — paramedics and firefighters also raced to the fire scene — or what happened to the phone before it ended up in a police evidence locker along with McKim’s keys and earbuds.
What is known is that his family was not contacted the night of the fire or the day after that. Or the day after that. Or the day after that.
Darren John McKim was born Darren Earl Petawayash into the Long Lake #58 Band in Kenora District on Jan. 13,1968. His mother, Shirley Skead, was Ojibwe, as was his father, Richard Petawayash, later known as Richard Bedwash — an acclaimed artist who studied under legendary Ojibwe painter Norval Morrisseau.
By the age of 3, the boy had been in two French-speaking foster homes, with the local children’s aid society offering him for adoption.
A picture of McKim — in a short-sleeved yellow shirt and striped trousers, his dark hair is brushed neatly to one side and his eyes wide as he looked at the camera — was mailed to a white couple in Lucknow, Ont., a town about 125 kilometres north of London.
“We loved him before we met him,” said Carroll, smiling at the old photograph cradled in her hands. She and her husband, Jack, had three small children of their own and wanted to adopt a son.
It wasn’t until decades later that McKim, his older brother and countless other Indigenous children, would become defined as part the “Sixties Scoop” in Canada. The term refers to the removal of Indigenous children from their homes, birth parents or communities by child welfare agencies and adopted out or placed in foster care between the 1960s and the 1980s. Last year, the federal government agreed to pay a $750-million class-action settlement to survivors.
In 1971, such adoptions carried no stigma, said Carroll, who was a nurse. Jack, now deceased, was a doctor and coroner. When asked by Bruce County Children’s Aid if they’d accept a “mixed race” child, the McKims said yes.
The couple flew to Winnipeg, then Kenora to meet McKim at the children’s aid office. Carroll says she and her husband were taken aback when the social worker suggested they take him to their motel room for the night. They agreed, took a cardboard box with the boy’s belongings, ate, bathed him and tucked him in. The next morning, the social worker brought adoption paperwork, and said “You can take him,” Carroll recalled.
They returned to Lucknow with their new son. There, his English skills improved quickly while surrounded by attentive siblings Kathryn, Lori and Scott.
“Of all my children, he was the most expressive of his love,” said Carroll, standing at her daughter Lori’s kitchen counter in Waterloo, looking at photos of her son.
“I don’t remember us ever thinking that as kids, he wasn’t one of us,” said Lori, a teacher in Waterloo.
The McKims were Christians but Caroll said they encouraged McKim to explore his Indigenous heritage. Carroll was friends with the wife of the Cape Croker chief, who selected the name Gahwenobin — the Chosen One — for the young boy.
As a youth, McKim ran, skied, played hockey and tennis, played in the school band and attended local powwows. Carroll said “it only started to go wrong” when he was about 15 and like many teenagers, started experimenting with alcohol. His rebellious streak coincided with Jack’s death in 1984.
McKim would leave home for periods of time. He dropped out of school after Grade 9 (he earned his high school diploma in 2011) and worked as a waiter, then a chef. His drinking became a source of tension in the family, though McKim always kept in close touch with his mother — living with her on and off, even after she moved to Port Colborne when she married her second husband, Roy Castle.
At 21, McKim married and had a daughter (who lives in Vancouver). The marriage was short-lived and he began to roam afar — a lifestyle that connected him with blood relatives across Canada but periodically led to him living on the streets.
McKim often travelled to Vancouver, where his older brother lives. For a large part of his life, he called Toronto home. “He loved to go to the theatre; he saw Les Mis every time it played,” his mother said.
In the city, McKim discovered distant cousins on his birth mother’s side and found his birth father: Richard Bedwash, now deceased. Father and son reconnected, even spending time with Carroll and Roy Castle.
McKim was an industrious, well-liked worker. In Toronto, he was employed as a chef, a bicycle courier, shovelled snow and cleaned yards. He also collected bottles.
“He was very humble,” said Melanie Montour, an Indigenous artist who in the early 2000s volunteered with McKim to cook for community gatherings.
McKim tried to control his drinking as an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous. There were minor scrapes with police. Some jail time, the result of fights. Probation periods — in Toronto and elsewhere. He was chronically underhoused; often couch surfing or living outside. When he slept on Toronto park benches, Carroll said mother and son would spend time on those benches when she visited “because he had no place else to take me.”
In the summer of 2017, McKim celebrated. He had been matched by a city social service to an apartment at 550 Kingston Rd. in the Upper Beaches neighbourhood. Carroll took a photo of her son in his new place last December. He held that apartment for eight months, until the day of his death.
Around 5:30 p.m. on April 27, Roger St. Louis, who sleeps rough in the Mt. Pleasant Rd. bridge area, told police he was walking past McKim’s green tent and heard a woman shouting. St. Louis told the Star that McKim and the woman were “in love” and seemed to be arguing about another woman.
“Don’t you ever touch my friend again,” St. Louis says the woman yelled twice before opening the tent flap and looking at him, according to the heavily redacted police report obtained by the Star. He also told police a woman had “moved in” with McKim earlier in the week but on that Friday, the pair “were arguing all day.”
Within about an hour of the argument, McKim was on fire.
St. Louis described the woman to police: “Aboriginal, mid-20s, small build, with light brown/dark blonde shoulder-length hair, and wearing a blue/grey baseball cap.”
He gave the Star the same information, plus a nugget more: Since the day of the fire, she hasn’t returned to the valley under the bridge.
Police spokesperson Gray told the Star that officers went to the fire scene to look for her on April 30, the Monday after the fire, “and again for several days after that.”
McKim’s family says that delay would give any potential witness plenty of time to disappear.
“They’ll be long gone,” said McKim’s sister, Lori. “Because they didn’t investigate right away.”
Two of McKim’s cousins, Ronald Momogeeshick Peters and Stephen McGillis, who were close to McKim and spent time with him in Toronto say there was little word in the Indigenous community about a police investigation.
McGillis said he was storing his belongings at McKim’s apartment when McKim died. McGillis questions the scope of the investigation.
“I really feel that there was really not very much done because I wasn’t even interviewed,” said McGillis, whose phone number and photograph were in McKim’s cell phone.
The police report does not indicate officers visited McKim’s apartment.
Carroll and Lori said they were surprised that McKim was living in a tent during the last week of his life but understood that sometimes he liked to drink with friends who lived downtown. Still, they wrestle with how their son and brother came to suffer such horrific burns.
An investigator for the Ontario fire marshal’s office, James Gillespie, conducted his own probe and came up with two scenarios that “could not be eliminated”: careless smoking — cigarette butts were found near the tent — and “combustibles being placed too close to an open flame.”
Gillespie’s investigation focused on the cause of the fire, not on any injuries McKim may have suffered.
Gillespie’s report speculates that clothing could have acted as an insulator for a lit cigarette resulting in a “smoldering fire” that allowed the tent’s cardboard lining to ignite. Or, McKim may have lit a fire inside or near the tent and flames spread to his clothing or the cardboard. No volatile ignitable liquids were identified in tests.
Gillespie’s report says the cause cannot be determined because both ignition sequences — which he called hypotheses in an interview with the Star — are possible. Nevertheless, the fire was classified as accidental.
McKim’s sister, Lori, is skeptical.
“Don’t you think that if someone is beaten up badly, and then within hours of being beaten up badly they accidentally catch themselves on fire, does that not sound suspicious to you?” she said.
Police spokesperson Gray said “the decision was made that he died as a complication of the burns and that he had no other injuries or indications of injuries that would impact the cause of death.”
When asked specifically whether police concluded McKim’s head wound did not play a role in the cause of his death, Gray wrote in an email that “we didn’t (and can’t) make that determination, only the coroner can.”
By all accounts, McKim was happy. He had left his job as a chef because of anxiety and was on medication. He received provincial disability payments and emotional support from his family. McKim had lots of friends and was planning a trip to see his daughter.
The night before the fire, Carroll said her son phoned and they discussed her plan to rent a private box at the Rogers Centre for a family party at a May 12 Jays’ game: Carroll was turning 80 later that month. “Darren loved the Blue Jays,” she said.
Carroll said her son didn’t call from his own cell phone — she noticed it came from a different number. He explained to her that his phone battery had died. Carroll doesn’t know whose phone he used.
The next evening — the night of the fire — she texted him:
“Hope you have had a good day. Love you. Mom.”
Dr. Kumar Gupta, the coroner who came to Sunnybrook on May 1 — the day McKim died — deemed the death “suspicious” and ordered a post-mortem, according to police records. The records also noted “a large cut to his right forehead and swelling in his face was observed.”
Gupta would not comment when reached by the Star.
The police report states it’s unknown if McKim was “recently assaulted.”
The Star spoke to Henry Kataquapit, a soapstone carver and McKim’s friend. Kataquapit recalled seeing him either the day of the fire or the day before, when the two smoked some marijuana at Paul Martel Park near Bloor and Spadina in the early afternoon. Kataquapit says McKim had no head wound.
If Kataquapit is correct, this means the laceration that Anna Cooper and others saw on McKim’s forehead the night of the fire was a new injury.
Cooper told the Star it appeared to her that McKim had been assaulted. “It looked like he had been attacked because he was bleeding from his forehead and he had blood in his mouth,” she said.
At the hospital, photos were taken by a forensics officer, and McKim’s body was driven to the Ontario Coroner’s Office near Wilson and Keele.
Carroll didn’t find out until the next day that her son was dead. The police never contacted her directly; she phoned them wondering if McKim was in some sort of trouble after she received a Facebook message from an Indigenous community member urging her to get in touch.
That’s when St. George told her a man had died but his identity needed to be confirmed through fingerprinting. Carroll said St. George called her back about an hour later. It was her son.
“My biggest heartache is that he went alone,” said Carroll, whose contact information was in her son’s cell phone. “If we had known, we would have been there … That’s the part of the whole story that hurts the most.”
When police ruled the death accidental three months later, Carroll had doubts.
Carroll, who awaits the coroner’s final report, hopes that by speaking publicly about her son and her concerns about how his death investigation was handled, that no other family will experience the anguish hers did.
“It won’t help Darren now but it might help the next street person who’s found,” she said.
Mary Ormsby is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Reach her via email: email@example.com
Kenyon Wallace is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @KenyonWallace or reach him via email: firstname.lastname@example.org