As Sergeant Ryan Russell lay dying on Toronto’s frozen streets in the early morning hours of Jan. 12, a local priest was running late for his morning mass.
Father Fausto Bailo, a chaplain at the downtown Ernescliff College student centre on the University of Toronto campus, recalls approaching the intersection of Avenue and Davenport roads — and finding an unexpected scene of chaos.
A police car in the middle of the road with its door open. A man lying motionless on the ground. A growing swarm of officers and curious onlookers. A tragic snapshot in time that would later form the heart of a bizarre murder case.
At the time, Fr. Bailo was not sure what he was looking at, but he knew one thing: The man on the road was not long for this world.
“I saw that he was badly hurt. It was so fast, the whole thing. I thought that he was dead,” the soft-spoken Catholic priest recalled in a heavy Spanish accent.
As more police cruisers screamed up Avenue Road, Fr. Bailo says his religious instincts kicked in, prompting him to deliver a final blessing.
“It was an instant reaction, the moment I saw him,” Fr. Bailo explained.
He performed what is known as a conditional absolution, a blessing to absolve the dying officer of his worldly sins, regardless of his religion. The ritual requires no direct contact, so Fr. Bailo was able to stand on the sidelines, praying for Sgt. Russell as panic and confusion reigned around him.
“It was a very emotional moment…. On a personal level I had a reaction that I should have basically gone to the man and talked to him, but I was overtaken by the whole situation,” Fr. Bailo recalled.
He was at the scene only a few minutes before police began ushering curiosity-seekers away.
Fr. Bailo says he did not immediately realize the fallen man was a police officer. On his way back from morning mass, about 7:30 a.m., Fr. Bailo turned on his car radio.
“I heard what happened in the car, and then I realized it was a policeman,” he recalled. “My first reaction was to pray again for him. I was quite shocked.”
Sergeant Angela Theriault of 52 Division, where Sgt. Russell worked, acknowledged there were many witnesses on scene that day, but no way to verify whether Fr. Bailo was among them. She said Sgt. Russell formally received his last rites from a police chaplain shortly before he was pronounced dead in hospital.
“It’s tough,” Sgt. Theriault said, asked how officers were coping a week after more than 12,000 police and emergency workers descended on Toronto for Sgt. Russell’s funeral. “We have little reminders now and again of him and his personality, and things that he could have been involved in with us, but we’ll get through it.”
The man accused of running down Sgt. Russell while driving a stolen snowplow made a second court appearance Tuesday. Richard Kachkar, 44, had not yet obtained a lawyer, and is to return to court Thursday.Too often we take priests for granted. Stories like this remind us that priests are truly a gift from God.