Get a sneak peek at Steve Ryan's insightful memoir, The Ghosts That Haunt Me, about his time as a detective in Toronto’s homicide squad for over a decade. Steve Ryan is now a Crime Analyst on CP24. Order your copy of The Ghosts That Haunt Me on our website or your favourite local bookstore today!
It was the summer of 1977. The pavement hissed in the sunshine like the cymbals in Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” over the staticky radio in my mother’s kitchen. I was eight years old and on summer break from school in Etobicoke, a community just far enough away from downtown Toronto to feel quiet and calm on a weekday morning. Neighbours watered their lawns as the cool, damp scent of the lake floated in from the shore each morning. My mother fried up thick slices of bologna in a greased pan on the stove and sandwiched them between two pieces of white bread for breakfast. My brother and I sat at the kitchen table eager to gobble our food. The sooner breakfast was done, the sooner we could rush to the door, slide on our sneakers, and run outside into the fresh morning air.
We woke up in the summer mornings keen to spend our days outside — batting tennis balls against the brick walls of the apartment complex with the palms of our hands, turning over heavy rocks to see the pale bugs crawling underneath, lying in the long grass to stare at clouds as they floated above, pedalling our bikes around the neighbourhood until the shadows grew long in the hot afternoon as we glided beneath the patterns of shade and sunshine on the tree-lined streets. Summer days felt like an eternity of adventure as we raced about, exploring and finding healthy amounts of trouble to get ourselves into. It felt as if we’d be young forever.
Returning home for dinner at the end of the day, scraped, bruised, sunburnt, and bug-bitten, I stashed my bike as I always did behind our building before walking downstairs to the door of the small basement apartment my parents rented. The air inside was almost as hot and humid as outside. My mother stood, as she always did, over a hot pot at the stove, sweat beading on her brow as she stirred our dinner with a wooden spoon. The radio hummed in the background beneath the sound of her chopping and the pots bubbling. Only when she went to sleep did she turn off the radio. It kept her company throughout the day while my father worked and my brother and I adventured.
Both of my parents were born and raised in St. John’s, Newfoundland. They met in their early twenties, fell in love, and soon set off together to Ontario to seek work and new possibilities. Shortly after they settled in Toronto, I was born, followed by two more children: my brother, Jason, and my sister, Nicole. We were certainly a full-time job for my mother thanks to all the trouble we got into. My father was employed at the sales desk of a trucking parts company as his day job. On evenings and weekends, he was the superintendent of our little apartment complex. When he finished work for the day, he would recline on our living room sofa to rest his aching back and turn on the nightly news. He would sit, as he always did, eyes locked on the television behind his thick-lensed glasses.
The news was always on in our house. I often crept into the living room to watch it with him, pretending I was old enough to understand what was going on, old enough for it to matter to me. It was a window outside our tiny apartment, a connection to other places farther away than my feet could pedal me to on my bicycle. That sort of connection — that feeling of being “tuned in” — was hard to attain before the advent of the internet. So many of us spent our lives quite literally unplugged. So one night, as I often did, I crawled up onto the couch next to my father, whose gaze was fixed unwaveringly on our television set, to watch the evening news alongside him.
That night a man with a moustache wearing a suit jacket appeared on the square screen before us. He spoke with an assertive voice, reciting headlines I’ve since forgotten. Usually, I didn’t pay attention to what the anchor said. After all, I was only eight, and the concepts in a news report alien to me, unless it was about how the Toronto Blue Jays were doing. Then I was all ears.
But that evening something was different. Something startling was announced on the news that I still remember to this day. I recall the anchor suddenly looking sombre. He stared sorrowfully at the camera before reading the next lines of his announcements. The words that followed hung heavy in the hot air: The body of a young boy has been uncovered on a rooftop in downtown Toronto. The picture on the screen cut to a video of Yonge and Dundas Streets where the boy had been working shining shoes before he went missing a few days earlier, lured away by unidentified persons.
At the time, I had no true conception of death, but I knew it was scary. I knew that grandparents died, and so did pets. I knew that when things died they could never come back. I knew, most importantly, that children didn’t just die. And certainly, twelve-year-old boys didn’t just show up dead on a rooftop without explanation. Especially not in Toronto, somewhere everyone thought was a safe and pleasant place to live. I had never heard of such a terrible thing. To my knowledge at the time, nothing like this had happened in Toronto before. Of course, as an adult, I know this wasn’t the first time a child had been taken and brutally murdered in the city. But back then it was a shock. It was something no one in my generation would ever forget — a sudden loss of innocence.
The boy on the rooftop, Emanuel Jaques, was just a few years older than me. His picture on the screen showed him gazing at the camera with big smiling eyes. I had photos like that of me taken in school on picture day, wearing a collared shirt with my hair swept to the side by my mother’s careful hands. I realized then, studying Emanuel’s face as it looked at me from our television, that he was just like me, just like my little brother, just like my friends. No one, when I was a boy, thought the streets of Toronto weren’t safe enough for children to roam freely alone. Emanuel Jaques could have been any child that summer. I’d been running around in my lakeshore community unsupervised all afternoon for weeks, returning home only for dinnertime. We all wandered free back then. We all thought we were safe.
My mother had made her way into the living room and was standing behind us, arms crossed in the doorway, a dishtowel still draped over her shoulder as she observed the broadcast carefully in a way she usually didn’t care to do. “Jesus,” she whispered, shaking her head sadly.
I glanced at my father, usually rather stoic and unaffected by the grimness of the evening news. But he seemed stunned. We all stared straight ahead in silence, alarmed at the news of poor Emanuel Jaques. Who would have thought this could happen?
My mother broke the quiet that had settled over us by suddenly announcing, “Dinner’s ready,” before turning back toward the kitchen. I swore I saw a tear in her eye as she hurried from the living room. My father got up numbly and flicked off the TV set, the image of the news anchor who had moved on to sports flickering to black. I rushed to my supper.
That night, my typically loud and cheerful Newfoundlander parents ate in silence at the dinner table. I was silent, too, mulling over what it meant for a boy’s dead body to be found on a rooftop. Who could have done this and why would anyone want to hurt a little boy? It was on all our minds. In the days to come, it would feel as if a dark shroud had been placed over the entire city. Parents held on to their children tighter, we kept closer to home when we went outside, and Emanuel’s smiling face was plastered on every front page in the city, watching all of us with haunting irony. Everyone in Toronto held their breath, fearing another child would disappear. No one knew who had killed him. It could have been anyone’s neighbour, anyone’s friend.
Toronto had lost its innocence. The sense of security we had as children playing in the park alone, as parents who felt their neighbourhood streets were safe enough for their children, was shattered into a million pieces. Never again would anyone say, “Oh, that sort of stuff doesn’t happen where we live.” Because now it had. We soon learned how Emanuel Jaques ended up on that rooftop. He was abducted, sexually assaulted, and then murdered. Four men were charged with his homicide. One pled guilty, two were found guilty at trial, and the fourth was acquitted.
For many nights after Emanuel’s body was discovered, I lay in my bed in the room I shared with my little brother, Jason, listening to the sounds of the city outside our bedroom window. A city that was once so familiar to me, now entirely unknown, and scarily strange. The shadows in the darkness seemed more menacing, the distant sirens wailed more earnestly than before, the silence in the aftermath felt more eerie as if something would come along and make a startling bang at any moment. I suppose I was young and scared, so small both in stature and in the grand scheme of the world — there was nothing I could do to stop that reaction. I often thought about Emanuel, wondered if we would have been friends had we ever met, speculated if he, too, liked to watch the Blue Jays play baseball, had a bike to ride through his neighbourhood. It was there, alone in the startling quiet but for the sound of my brother’s soft snoring in the bed beside mine, that I resolved I wanted to help people like Emanuel.
I wasn’t quite sure what the job was exactly, or if it even was a job. I figured that out many years down the road, but at the time, just simply knew that what happened to Emanuel wasn’t fair, wasn’t right. And if there were ever others like him, I wanted to help rebalance the scales that had been tipped so wildly, so inequitably.
I had no way of knowing then, as a boy in my bedroom on a summer’s night in 1977, that there would be many others like Emanuel Jaques in the years to come. Nor did I know I would come to meet many of those others like him in my professional life, nearly twenty-five years into the future. That night, however, oblivious to my future career or the sad and untimely deaths of the people I would investigate, I buried my face in my soft pillow and drifted off to sleep.
Years passed from that day in 1977. But I never forgot; no one did. The whole city changed after Emanuel’s death. I grew up and entered my teenage years, a passage of time that Emanuel never got to experience.
In what felt like the blink of an eye, I was eighteen years old, waking up to my alarm clock blaring at me as my house buzzed with morning chaos. My father had already begun hollering for us to get up as he paced around tying his tie and spraying his cologne. He was still working at the trucking company but was now a sales manager. While my father got ready for work, my mother made breakfast in the kitchen downstairs as my siblings and I competed for time in the washroom to get ready for school before rushing out the door. It was a frustrating battle each morning.
In high school, I was restless; most people are at that point in their lives. I attended Michael Power • St. Joseph High School in Etobicoke, where each day I tied my tie and buttoned my blue uniform blazer with listlessness. There were five years of high school then, which dragged on for what seemed like an eternity. I was eighteen years old and still being told what to do by my high school teachers. I felt too old to be there but still too young to know what to do with my life. I’d sit at my desk, my school uniform growing increasingly uncomfortable, as I watched the seconds tick down on a large clock over my classroom door, each tick nearer to the final bell of the day. I couldn’t wait to leave class, hop in my car, and cruise back home. It would be even better, I fantasized, when I got to leave school for good. The sound of the last bell ever would sound so sweet to my ears. But, of course, graduating from high school implied a future existence. The thought of what came after a life that was, thus far, spent entirely in the confines of a school was equally as scary as it was exciting. What was I going to do next? It was a question my father had been asking me with increasing frequency and was now on the forefront of my mind. As the months counted down to my graduation day, it was all I could think about.
Leaving school felt like marching off a track I’d been following for years into the brush without a map. I had applied to a number of universities in the province, but it just didn’t feel like the path I was supposed to be on. Nothing really did. Looking back, I understand that’s normal. Rarely do young people know precisely what they want to be or who they want to be from the time they’re eighteen years old. But then it felt like such an overwhelming dilemma. I hated that I thought about it all the time.
It wasn’t until a career day in the fall semester of grade thirteen that I figured it out, or rather, stumbled upon it. Career days were meant to help us organize our lives, but they often left me more confused than before I attended them. I entered the crowded school gymnasium to see booths of employers set up in rows, handing out pamphlets to students. I remember drifting from booth to booth aimlessly, half expecting never to find a career that interested me, in the melodramatic way teenagers so often think. I recall, after some time had passed, looking down at my hands and realizing the extreme volume of pamphlets I’d accumulated absentmindedly as they were passed to me — a stack of papers at least three inches thick.
I figured I should study them to see if anything piqued my interest. After all, I was on a quest to determine my path in life. But shuffling through a few of the pamphlets sparked no excitement or intrigue. On the contrary, the careers presented in the pamphlets before me filled me with dread. Nothing was enticing. The prospect of doing any of those careers for the next forty years made me shudder. I thought, Even with a stack of papers this thick you can’t find a job you want to do. I was on my way to the trash bin to pessimistically throw the pamphlets away, vowing never to attend another career day again, when I glanced down once more at what was in my hands. I realized the one now sitting on top of my stack, after I’d shuffled them, was an advertisement to join the Metropolitan Toronto Police’s cadet program. A career in policing.
My mind immediately hurtled back to Emanuel Jaques and my boyhood desire to help people like him when I was grown up. As cheesy as it might sound, staring at that pamphlet in my hands in the middle of my school gymnasium, I suddenly felt as if I’d found a path for myself. I was only a teenager, I really knew nothing about policing at that point, but I felt a strange pull, like a magnetic force, drawing me to apply, as if suddenly I’d found the place where I was going to belong. My mind was made up in the definitive way teenagers do so based on no logic, created on nothing but a feeling.
I threw the rest of the pamphlets in the trash as I strode out of the gymnasium that day. When I returned home, I pinned the cadet advertisement on my parents’ refrigerator. I was going to apply to the Toronto Police. I was going to be a detective. I was going to fulfill the mission I’d set for myself as a boy. I was going to help people.
Little did I realize then that the road to my dream career would be long. There would be lots of studying and tests involved in my training before I ever conducted an interview or made an arrest. From my eager teenage years to my first day in Homicide, there would be a nearly fifteen-year span, and I would do many different things as a police officer in that time.
But that night, sitting at the dinner table with my family gazing at the pamphlet I’d pinned so proudly on the fridge, I didn’t think about all that. I felt a conviction to this career and that I’d suddenly found a purpose. I dreamed about my future job — the excitement of it, the people I thought I could help. Not once did the tragedy I’d encounter cross my mind, nor did it occur to me that I’d meet people so heartbroken and forlorn that no amount of detective work in the world could make them feel helped ever again. Perhaps it was best that I didn’t know all of that then; perhaps it would have scared a younger me off the career he would eventually devote his life to. No one can ever truly be prepared for the stressors and traumas of working a homicide investigation.
Steve Ryan began his career with the Toronto police at eighteen years old. After nearly thirty years of policing — two thirds of that working as a detective — Steve retired and began a career with CP24 as a crime specialist. He now travels around the GTA reporting on crime. Steve lives in Toronto. Learn more here.