When Dan Knox sat down to lunch at his kitchen table with his mom and his daughter, Sherry Cole, on June 11th 2014, he was feeling pretty good. As Dan, owner of Tree Men & a Chainsaw, sank his teeth into the juicy deliciousness of Muio’s restaurant’s broasted chicken, he had no clue that the accompanying coleslaw would never pass his lips. In less than an hour Dan would be twice tased in the back, shin raked, arrested and slammed into the back of an OPP cruiser. But his adventure would not be shared alone. Sherry, along with Dan’s son, Harrison Knox, and Dan’s employee, Calvin Lynn, would all find themselves handcuffed and held behind bars at the OPP’s Sault Ste. Marie detachment that spring afternoon.
Editor’s Note: The series of events that have led up to the recent filing of a Statement of Claim (attached below) initiating a lawsuit against the OPP are anything but simple. Various interviews, legal documents, photographs and video have been resourced to parse together the following article. Statements made about the events on June 11th, 2014 by the Northern Hoot have been informed by: admissions made by the individuals who those statements are about; or were corroborated in reports where statements are agreed upon by all parties. Those directly quoted below provided their comments to the Northern Hoot. Sparing the reader from the he-said-she-said merry-go-round, this piece attempts to focus on the broader issues of this conundrum that encompass vigilantism, police accountability and transparency, and media accountability. Efforts were made to obtain comment from the OPP but none were received by the Northern Hoot at the time of publication.
At 6’2” and 250 lbs., Dan is a presence that naturally commands a certain respect when he walks into a room. “I’m a big man,” acknowledges Dan. “But there’s absolutely no reason to be afraid of me.”
He admits that in his younger days his past was- well, a bit colourful but after meeting the love of his life in 1982, who he tragically lost only three years ago, he was inspired to a productive lifestyle that meted out a successful career. He spent the first 25 years of a 40 year career with the Algoma Central Rail working as a conductor and a brakeman. In the mid-90’s, while transitioning from his position with the ACR, Dan established his business, Tree Men & a Chainsaw. His daughter and son, as well as extended family, have all wielded the Tree Men chainsaw. Dan is fond of referring to his family as a “working family”.
Dan wiped off his sticky fingers when the phone rang that afternoon and picked up the phone. Harrison was on the other end and what he was saying had Dan boggled and concerned. Dan had sent out a four man crew to handle a job- his son, his nephew -Kenneth Knox, his grandson and Sherry’s son- Daniel Campbell and his employee -Calvin Lynn. Harrison explained to his father that the crew had been driving to the job in two vehicles and that they had stopped at the abandoned Esso in Heyden to pile into one vehicle to attend the next work site together. While making the switch a Ford SUV hauling a trailer and a black SUV had blocked the crew’s exit from the parking lot. Dan called the OPP for assistance but before he could head out the door to see what was happening for himself, Harrison called again saying that the SUV pulling the trailer had rammed into the side of his truck popping the front passenger tire. Dan grabbed a spare tire, Sherry grabbed a clipboard to collect information for insurance and they headed out to the site. Dan drove while Sherry called 911 to inquire if OPP had arrived on scene and was advised to pull over and not proceed to the incident area.
“I could not understand them telling me that I could not go and help my family and my business on the side of the highway,” Dan remarked. “It was outrageous.”
Dan and Sherry continued on to the abandoned gas station.
So, what led to the crew being barricaded on the side of the highway? Meet driver of the black SUV -Wendy Grenier and her passenger, daughter Cindy Wagner. Also meet driver of the SUV hauling the trailer -John Vanderloo Sr. and his passenger, son John Vanderloo Jr.
Both drivers were travelling north as were the two vehicles carrying the Tree Men crew. Vanderloo and his son were between both Tree Men vehicles and Grenier was last in the line-up. Grenier and Wagner observed the Tree Men vehicle behind Vanderloo, driven by Calvin, pull into the oncoming lane to pass the Vanderloos. The Vanderloos, Grenier and Wagner would later tell the OPP that the pass forced an oncoming vehicle onto the side of the road and Vanderloo slowed down his vehicle and pulled far right to provide room for the Tree Men truck to pass. The Tree Men truck moved into the proper lane.
The Tree Men vehicles proceeded to the abandoned Esso and pulled in. The Vanderloos turned into the abandoned Esso looking for gas not realizing there was none to be found. Grenier and Wagner pulled into the Esso to detain the Tree Men by blocking the front exit and then called the police. The dispatcher advised Grenier not to follow the Tree Men vehicle. Wagner exited the vehicle and in her own words recalls saying to Calvin, “what is wrong with you, you almost caused a head on collision, you’re not going anywhere, we have called the cops”. Grenier in her own words said of her daughter “my daughter was mouthing off to them a bit”. Wagner then approached the Vanderloos and in her own words recalls saying to Vanderloo Sr., “We are blocking them from the front. Pull up and block them from the back.” Vanderloo complied with Wagner’s direction and in his own words says, “I then drove away from the gas pump and directly behind the red pick-up truck”.
From this point accounts from the Vanderloos, Grenier, Wagner and the Tree Men crew are varied – a real typical he-said-she-said circus. What all parties agree on is that the Vanderloos, Grenier and Wagner deliberately barricaded the Tree Men vehicles and what can be seen by photo evidence taken by the police, the Tree Men vehicle took a significant amount of damage to the passenger side including a punctured tire. What could have been handled as a traffic infraction by the OPP turned into an escalated situation that now included property damage, accusations of physical assault, multiple arrests and tarnished reputations.
In Canada any person can make a citizen’s arrest if they catch someone “in the act of committing a crime, or escaping from and freshly pursued by persons who have lawful authority to arrest that person, in order to lawfully make a citizen’s arrest”. In these instances, the citizen arrest must be made at the time of the criminal offence. However, if the criminal offence occurs on or in relation to one’s property a citizen arrest can be made at time the crime is being committed or within a reasonable period of time after having found that person committing that crime.
Some legal observers worry that the power of citizen arrest could lead to dangerous situations, violence, false accusations or forms of vigilantism.
Was the pass made by 21 year old Calvin a crime or an example of lousy, inexperienced driving? A judge would later decide that Calvin’s pass, though maybe risky, was not a crime. Grenier and Wagner decided otherwise, taking matters into their own hands and barricaded the Tree Men’s property preventing the Tree Men from leaving with their vehicles. Vanderloo Sr. willingly conspired with Grenier and Wagner using his SUV and trailer as a blockade.
Davin Charney, Charney Law, represents Dan Knox’s lawsuit. Of the conduct of the Vanderloos, Grenier and Wagner, Charney believes it was “excessive” and “unlawful”. “Under the circumstances it was not lawful for them to make a citizen arrest because they didn’t find someone committing a criminal offence. In this situation they were reacting to the driving incident. Bad driving doesn’t necessarily mean a criminal offence has taken place. But the big problem is that they acted unlawfully and excessively and they escalated the situation way beyond the simple driving matter that it could have been. What they could have done was made note of the license plate and contacted the police. That’s what most people would do under those circumstances. There was no reason to barricade those vehicles in. It was those people that escalated the situation but the Knox family paid the price.”
Both Grenier and Vanderloo admit that the incident at the Esso was out of control. Remarked Grenier of her decision to pursue the Tree Men to the Esso, “There could have been an accident. It scared the heck out of me and my daughter and so I did what I did. I figured there was something wrong with that driver. I figured he was drunk or something and to avoid him from killing somebody else I thought I would stop him and report it to the police. I certainly didn’t expect it to turn into the situation that it did. There was no need for that. I never thought it would escalate the way that it did.”
Vanderloo remarked that the entire incident at the Esso was “unreal” and “the whole thing snowballed” adding, “Something needed to be done so it didn’t happen again. They couldn’t be left unpunished for doing what they did. They needed to be talked to by authorities. I was just trying to be a good Samaritan.”
Shortly after 1 p.m. the OPP began arriving on scene- Constable Luigi Bruni, Constable Mario Posteraro, Constable Peter Van Den Diepstraten, Constable Keith Nicolle, and a bit later –Sergeant Ken Spahr and Sergeant Mike Wreggitt. All, with the exception of Sergeant Wreggitt, are named in the Statement of Claim.
The Claim provides that the Knox family aims to sue the OPP for $2 million. $1.5 million is set out for general damages that include negligence, assault, battery, false arrest, false imprisonment, trespass to property, misfeasance of public office and malicious breach of public duty. An additional $500,000 is sought for breaches of sections 7, 8 and 9 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and for aggravated and punitive damages.
On scene, the officers spoke with the Vanderloos, Grenier and Wagner and within a few minutes determined that they had enough information to arrest and charge Calvin and Harrison. Calvin was charged with dangerous driving as well as resisting a peace officer. Harrison was charged with dangerous driving and assault. Calvin’s charges were significantly decreased by a judge from a dangerous charge to a minor traffic violation and his assault charge was dropped. All of Harrison’s charges were entirely dropped.
Charney believes the police investigation was one-sided. Of the Vanderloos’, Grenier’s and Wagner’s participation in the incident that day Charney remarked, “They barricaded the Tree Men employees and that should have caused the police some concern right from the start. They should have questioned them as to their motives because they essentially engaged in vigilante justice. Usually that kind of activity irks police. The police don’t want civilians doing the work that they’re supposed to be doing. The police seemed so intent on taking action against the employees and later Dan Knox. The investigation was myopic.”
By the time Dan and Sherry finally arrived Calvin and Harrison were both cuffed and sitting in separate police cruisers.
“I saw Harrison in the back of the police cruiser that I had parked beside,” explains Dan. “He was motioning me over. So I went over to open the door to see what was going on. As soon I opened the door I was hit with an incredible blast of heat, considerably hotter than the outside air, which was itself rather hot. But before I had a chance to say anything to Harrison someone screamed from behind for me to get away from the car. It was Constable Nicolle. So right away I backed away and started walking towards Nicolle who was comfortably in the shade interviewing these ladies that had detained my Tree Men crew. Meanwhile, my son was cooking in the backseat of Constable Nicolle’s metal oven. Harrison did not get out of the oven, staying where he was. Calvin was also basting in sweat and thoroughly done by this time. I calmly walked towards Constable Nicolle to see what was going on. I had not taken more than two steps and he says ‘get on the ground, you’re under arrest’. And I say ‘for what? I didn’t do anything’. As soon as we get within arm’s reach he grabs my arm and I told him ‘don’t touch me’ and then he says ‘you’re under arrest for assault’. And then I hear a guy behind me saying ‘get on the ground’ and it’s Constable Posteraro with his taser in my face and I’m asking him ‘what for’ and that’s where the video starts.”
“Some people are going to watch the video and say ‘well if he didn’t resist that wouldn’t have happened’,” remarked Charney. “People need to know that you are lawfully allowed to resist arrest when the police are doing something that is illegal like unlawfully arresting you. Also, the taser- you can see it being used. It’s kind of a cliché to ‘shoot someone in the back’ but that’s what happened. He turned his back on the police. He’s not obviously of any danger. He’s not trying to flee. He’s just trying to not be arrested. He was trying to engage and talk with the officers and then he got shot in the back. People need to appreciate how dangerous the use of a taser is.”
A report released in 2013 indicates that 9,174 tasers are in use in Canada. Between 1998 – 2013, 33 taser deaths have been reported.
Knox was tased twice in the back. The second time he was tased he was on the ground with the probes still attached to his back. “It’s really shitty,” remarked Dan of his experience. “Like a heart attack. You just shut right down. I felt completely helpless. I don’t recommend it for anyone. All they wanted to do was subdue me from the moment I was there. I know I’m big but I’d never strike an officer. I’m not an idiot. There’s no reason to be afraid of me. I’m a business owner, a father, a grandfather. They have to be able to figure some shit out- they’re making over a 100 grand a year for crying out loud.”
Dan was arrested and led to the police cruiser where he hesitated trying to fit in the confined quarters of the backseat. “I got out of the dirt, cuffed criminally tight and was led to another cruiser oven. I’m trying to figure out how to accommodate my 6’2” frame into a space that allowed for 5” or 6” of leg room when someone starts kicking me in the back of the ankles as hard and fast as they can, while officer Posteraro and Nicolle hold me in place. These guys are just too good to each other.”
Reports described the force used to persuade Dan into the vehicle as ‘shin rakes’. “Go figure,” said Dan. “Where I come from that’s called a ‘boot fucking’. After they finished beating the shit out of me this little guy gets into the front of the crusier, turns around and says to me ‘I thought lumberjacks were supposed to be tough’. Can you imagine that? I informed him that we were, in fact, arborists or urban foresters but I did not convey that I was pretty certain that my dear daughter would likely hammer him had she the right to defend herself.”
As Dan was sitting in the cruiser he had a front row seat as Sherry was taken into custody. Sherry, who was recording the incident with her cell phone, can be observed on the video alternately encouraging her father to do as the officers were ordering and questioning the officer’s proclamation of arrest. She was next to Dan when he was first tased. When Constable Posteraro tased Dan a second time she pushed him away from her father.
In the Statement of Claim, Charney writes: Sherry acted lawfully to prevent further use of the taser against Knox. Her conduct was reasonable, necessary, and for the lawful purpose of defending Knox against excessive use of force by police.
At point 29 and 30 in the Statement of Claim, it is indicated that: Sherry was grabbed, pushed around, and then bent over the hood of a police cruiser by Constable Van Den Deipstraten, Posteraro and Nicolle. She was handcuffed to the back. The handcuffs were incredibly tight and Sherry was injured. Sherry’s phone was knocked out of her hand during her arrest. One of the Defendant police officers deliberately and maliciously stepped on the phone and destroyed it. This officer destroyed material evidence and acted with the intention of doing so.
Dan’s charges- two counts of assaulting a peace officer and two counts of resisting arrest, and Sherry’s charges of obstructing a peace officer and assaulting a peace officer, would later be dropped by a judge in the Ontario Court of Justice.
Sherry’s son, then 18 year old Daniel Campbell, having witnessed the incident that caused damage to the Tree Men vehicle had begun taking photographs, as directed by his mom, for insurance purposes. As the events spiraled out of control that afternoon Daniel continued to collect images. Daniel was advised to attend the OPP station later that day. He thought he was going to be asked to provide a statement. Instead, as reports indicate, Constable Nicolle advised Daniel that taking pictures of the Vanderloo and Wagner vehicle could be interpreted as criminal harassment and Daniel was pressured to delete all the days photo’s from his cell phone.
Perhaps it is most poignant that the judge’s final decision to drop all charges against the Knox family was thanks to the efforts of the Vanderloos cell phone video of the tasing incident. Such occurrences in policing behaviour are becoming more common. Video’s captured on cell phones or surveillance camera’s turn up presenting pretty indisputable chain of events footage. In Dan’s situation various accounts indicate that he was acting like a “madman” “cursing” “aggressive” and kicked the officers after he had been tased. The video demonstrates otherwise.
Charney believes that the prevalence of video and social media has not exposed a new trend in policing but rather has captured the realities of policing culture in Canada. Of the approach employed by the OPP on June 11th, 2014, Charney thinks it’s anything but extraordinary.
“What we saw with this incident isn’t an example of cops that are ‘rogue officers’. This is a systemic problem. This isn’t one incident in one place that we are seeing excessive force or a misguided, negligent investigation,” commented Charney. “The use of excessive force is part of police culture. That’s how they are trained and that’s how the culture within the police force directs them. They are trained to use force much more so than being trained not to use force. They should be relying more on their abilities to negotiate, deescalate, to treat people humanely and with dignity. That would avoid the escalation which sometimes leads to tragic consequences.”
One of the most controversial issues in Canada –as in all of North America, is the use of police force against racial minorities. However, there is little empirical evidence regarding the use of force by police in Canada and whether or not force is applied against minorities with greater frequency.
Publicized shootings in Ontario and Quebec including Sammy Yatim, Allen Gosset, Sophia Cook, Dudley George, Jeffrey Roedica, Lester Donaldson, Buddy Evans, Wade Lawson and Marlon Neal, raise the point that closer examination of the use of police force is overdue and also indicates an uncomfortable level of comfort in the use of force among police.
As Charney points out during his interview, there is not one entity in Ontario or Canada that keeps statistics of the number of people killed by police. “That’s all part of the problem,” says Charney. “Lack of police accountability gives police the license to use force, sometimes unlawfully.”
America may be slightly ahead of Canada when it comes to addressing the practice of excessive police force. The Obama administration recently released reform recommendations that “encourages officers to work harder to explain why they are being stopped, questioned or arrested. The report implies that more training, diversity and communication will lead to enhanced police community relations, more effective crime control and greater police legitimacy.”
Dan is pretty reflective about the nations policing culture stating, “Much has been made recently that police brutality no longer consists of simple, isolated incidents but, rather, endemic throughout Canada and the U.S. Our freedom is a threat, under siege from the same people sworn to uphold it. Locally we are in trouble because it’s not merely a few bad apples, it’s the whole damn bushel of Sault Ste. Marie and area’s OPP. Top to bottom, bottom to top!”
In Sault Ste. Marie, police have a special relationship with the mainstream media. The release of names and personal information of people charged by police to the media is hardly a new thing. In fact it’s getting pretty old and some publications are refusing to participate in the naming and shaming game.
Dan was quite aware of the police practice as well as the media’s eagerness to pick up police logs and publish the information as newsworthy items. Before leaving the station after his release the evening of June 11th, 2014, he begged the supervising officer to keep what had happened out of the news. Later that evening the details of the day hit the local media as well as the next day and the day after that. Details of the family’s arrest even ran on a local radio station parallel to their own Tree Men ad.
In the first week following the publicized arrest Dan absorbed $10,000 worth of cancelled jobs and an unknown amount of bucks from people just not calling at all. More so Dan’s reputation as was his family’s, was tarnished and the experience was humiliating. Add to that Dan’s frustration from not being able to tell his side of the story –“the truth”, he says. “In fact I wish that it would have gone to court because we could have spoken. We would have done well in court.”
Dan has been haunted by the portrayal of his family in the media. “To have my kids assaulted by the police and then lied about… I had to watch Van Den Diepstraten put my crying daughter in the back of his SUV after he and his cohorts assaulted her three or four feet away from me while I helplessly watched. And Harrison is gentle and gentlemanly. He is the youngest certified arborist in Canadian history. Apprentice at 13 years old, crew leader and foreman at 20 years old and college instructor at 23 years old.” There’s a tremble in Dan’s voice. “So many people think we are pieces of shit. We’re not. This has worn me out so much.”[scribd id=294901233 key=key-ydoC1r6f6YuHpGtS4ps6 mode=scroll]