Published: March 8, 2022
The family of a renowned gunsmith says Ontario’s police watchdog isn’t telling the full story in its report that clears the officer who fatally shot 70-year-old Rodger Kotanko of any wrongdoing.
“They’re expecting us to believe my brother, who has been shooting all his life … is a gunsmith for better than 40 years, would reach for a gun on the bench that is unloaded, with no magazine in it … picked it up and pointed it at an officer who had a gun trained on him with his finger on the trigger,” Jeffrey Kotanko said to reporters and a crowd of roughly 50 people Tuesday morning in front of his brother’s home.
“He wasn’t Billy the Kid. Come on — nobody in their right mind would possibly even consider doing that.”
Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) released a report last week that says the officer who shot Rodger in his gunsmithing workshop did so in self-defence. Kotanko died Nov. 3.
Search warrant documents show police arrived to investigate why two guns registered to Rodger were found at a crime scene in Toronto and another in North Bay, Ont.
Surveillance video released by the family appears to show five officers arriving at the home and gunsmithing workshop and interacting with Rodger’s wife, Jessie.
Trees block the view of the doorway of the workshop, so the video doesn’t capture the interaction with Rodger, but what happens in those moments varies depending on who you ask.
Family disputes SIU’s conclusion
When officers arrived at the home, the SIU’s final report says, two officers wearing police vests announced they were executing a search warrant and approached the gunsmithing workshop.
The report states the workshop door was open and they asked Rodger and a customer he was with to raise their hands.
They say Rodger didn’t raise his hands, and instead picked up a gun and pointed it at police, according to the SIU.
He refused to drop it and an officer shot him four times, the report says.
The whole exchange reportedly lasted between five and 10 seconds.
“The officer fired his weapon to protect himself — and possibly the other officer — from a reasonably apprehended assault,” reads the SIU report.
“Importantly, the civilian eyewitness evidence was materially consistent with the police eyewitness accounts.”
The family and their lawyer say details they’ve gathered, including information from a representative of the customer, suggests Rodger was in a swivel chair with his back to the door.
When police reached the doorway, the family says, he turned around holding the gun he was working on — then he got shot.
Another key objection the family makes is that Rodger’s wife did offer a written statement to the SIU, despite the report stating she didn’t respond.
The family says she didn’t hear officers announce their presence or what they were doing.
“I’m just angry, infuriated,” said Suzanne Kantor, Rodger’s sister.
The family also wonders why police decided to approach Kotanko while he was inside his workshop full of guns with an innocent customer.
SIU defends report, eventually will be inquest
SIU spokesperson Kristy Denette told CBC Hamilton the unit stands by its report and has no further comment.
Toronto police spokesperson Connie Osborne wouldn’t comment on some of the family’s claims and said its internal investigation is still ongoing.
“Assume the worst, it’s still, from a legal standpoint, this raid was reckless and negligent from the planning to the execution,” said Mike Smitiuch, the family’s lawyer.
The Kotanko family is still suing the Toronto Police Services Board for $23 million in a civil suit, claiming the police conducted an unlawful raid that led to Rodger’s wrongful death.
Smitiuch said there will also be an inquest into Rodger’s death. An inquest is mandatory whenever someone’s death involves police.
Stephanie Rea, issues manager at the Office of the Chief Coroner, said the inquest will start after all other investigations have been completed — there’s no word on how long that will take.
“For reference, the inquest going on this week is regarding a death from 2018,” she wrote in an email.
But Rodger’s family made it clear they will fight for as long as it takes to get answers.