The cross­bow killer

Brett ryan was weeks away from mar­ry­ing the woman of his dreams. He had a water­front condo, a good job and a bright fu­ture—or so ev­ery­one thought. When his mother threat­ened to ex­pose his lies, he de­cided she had to die

Toronto Life - - This City - by mark mann

iin 2007, when Brett Ryan was 26 years old, he found him­self $60,000 in debt. He was liv­ing with his fam­ily in a large de­tached house on Con­fer­ence Boule­vard, not far from where the Rouge River sep­a­rates Scar­bor­ough from Pick­er­ing. This was not the life he’d imag­ined for him­self.

Brett was al­ways smil­ing and po­lite. He vol­un­teered at Sick­Kids and ref­er­eed Lit­tle League games at the lo­cal com­mu­nity cen­tre. He was good-look­ing and gen­er­ous, and he made friends eas­ily. After high school, he’d en­rolled at U of T, but it was too much for him, and he dropped out. While his best friends built rep­utable ca­reers in fi­nance, health and ed­u­ca­tion, Brett worked as a house painter, a sum­mer job turned full-time gig. He went from job to job in an old Dodge Dakota with noth­ing but his worn paint­brush and his wide smile. But un­der­neath that ve­neer, he was be­com­ing des­per­ate.

Rather than con­cede fail­ure, he sought to patch over his prob­lems with cash. On Oc­to­ber 20, he robbed his first bank: the CIBC at 371 Old Kingston Road, just an eight-minute drive from home. He wrapped his face in hos­pi­tal ban­dages, hung his left arm in a sling and shuf­fled into the branch hold­ing a sheaf of pa­pers. At the counter, he handed the teller a note in­di­cat­ing that he was car­ry­ing a gun un­der the sling and de­mand­ing $2,000 or more. The teller quickly com­plied. Brett re­ceived only $1,115, but he made off with­out get­ting caught. He was hooked. Over the next eight months, he robbed another 12 banks along the 401 and around his neigh­bour­hood, in­clud­ing his home branch. He stole a to­tal of $28,000.

Brett owed his suc­cess to the fact that he’d never been ar­rested be­fore. The hold-up squad ob­tained fin­ger­prints from the crime scenes, but no matches ever turned up in their sys­tem. At one point they had 25 of­fi­cers sit­ting out­side banks along the 401 for three weeks, hop­ing the cul­prit might turn up. Brett em­braced the the­atri­cal­ity of his crimes. After hit­ting a sec­ond bank with the ban­dage dis­guise, he bought a high-qual­ity glue-on beard at a cos­tume sup­plier. The dis­guise earned him the nick­name “the Bearded Ban­dit” in the me­dia. He also donned a Gil­li­gan hat, glasses, a plaid shirt and a dark jacket.

After one of Brett’s heists, po­lice spot­ted his truck on an ex­ter­nal cam­era and tracked him to his home. By the time he en­tered his last bank, the TD Canada Trust at 3115 Kingston Road, the po­lice had been surveilling him for two weeks. He must have sus­pected some­thing was up: he strode into the bank, then quickly turned around and walked out, where the po­lice were wait­ing. He pleaded guilty, and spent the next seven months in cus­tody, await­ing trial.

One day in Jan­uary 2009, Brett sat in a small, win­dow­less court­room at the On­tario Court of Jus­tice on Eglin­ton Av­enue. Sev­eral of his close friends had writ­ten let­ters of sup­port, de­tail­ing his gen­eros­ity and vol­un­teer work. Jus­tice Paul Robert­son cited Brett’s “stel­lar back­ground” in his sen­tenc­ing re­port. “[He is] a per­son who has in­tegrity, who has given of him­self to his com­mu­nity, who has given of him­self to oth­ers, and who is truly a pro­duc­tive mem­ber of so­ci­ety,” Robert­son said.

“You are not a youth, but you, in my view, are youth­ful,” Robert­son told Brett. He did have a sweet face. His skin was creased from his big, goofy smile, with deep-set dim­ples that made his cheeks puff out when he mugged for the cam­era. His eyes were in­tel­li­gent and warm. When he was younger, he kept a shaggy surfer’s mane, then switched to a spiky, gelled look. He was the kind of guy you’d ex­pect to find buy­ing Beaver Tails on the board­walk, not rob­bing banks.

Robert­son con­cluded that the crimes were “com­pletely out of char­ac­ter.” He sen­tenced Brett to five years, but with time served and early pa­role, he was back home with his fam­ily in late 2010, ready to start fresh.

Oout­side prison walls, Brett found a harsher world than the one he’d known be­fore. He could no longer avoid his debt and filed for bank­ruptcy. He couldn’t hide his past from prospec­tive em­ploy­ers who googled him. He tried to re­sume his house-paint­ing busi­ness, but most po­ten­tial clients wouldn’t let him into their homes when they learned about his record. And who could blame them? As he ap­proached his 30th birthday, he couldn’t es­cape the self-in­flicted re­al­i­ties of his life: he was a bank­rupt ex-con with a high school ed­u­ca­tion and no prospects.

His fam­ily had been shocked and mor­ti­fied by Brett’s ac­tions. His fa­ther, Bill, worked as a bud­get man­ager at the Toronto Star. Bill was quiet and health-con­scious, teach­ing fit­ness classes at the lo­cal com­mu­nity cen­tre but oth­er­wise keep­ing to him­self. Brett’s mother, Sue, was bub­bly yet firm, a tough home­maker and life­long gar­dener. She was also a diehard base­ball fan: when her beloved Toronto Blue Jays won the World Se­ries in 1993, she marched up and down the street bang­ing pots and pans.

Brett was the third of four broth­ers. The el­dest, Chris, worked as a TTC fare col­lec­tor; he was shy in pub­lic but showed his goofy side to those who knew him well. Then came Leigh­land, the artis­tic one, who was two and a half years older than Brett. He played gui­tar and drums, stud­ied pho­tog­ra­phy at Ry­er­son, and re­stored vin­tage cab­i­nets. The youngest, A. J., was six years Brett’s ju­nior. He stood out for his in­tel­lect—he ex­celled so highly aca­dem­i­cally that his par­ents sent him to a school for gifted stu­dents. Brett de­clined to be in­ter­viewed for this story, but friends and neigh­bours re­mem­ber him as the out­go­ing jock of the bunch: an ex­tro­vert in a fam­ily of in­tro­verts. He suf­fered pe­ri­odic bouts of de­pres­sion, though he pre­ferred to keep his prob­lems to him­self. He wanted to project an im­age of strength and pos­i­tiv­ity. He wanted to be ad­mired, not pitied.

Sue Ryan was both­ered by the fact that their neigh­bours gos­siped about her fam­ily. “This neigh­bour­hood is bad luck,” she told a friend. She and Bill sold their large home and bought a small post­war bun­ga­low on Lawn­dale Road in Scar­bor­ough. The Ryans made the most of their new home. Sue set about trans­form­ing the front yard into an elab­o­rate dis­play gar­den, with flow­er­ing peren­ni­als, small shrubs and a statue of a cat. The project took her six years to com­plete, and de­spite her arthri­tis, she was out work­ing al­most ev­ery warm day. The whole time, she kept Brett’s his­tory a se­cret from their neigh­bours.

Lawn­dale was a quiet street, and a fa­mil­iar calm set­tled over the Ryans’ lives. Brett knuck­led down and started tak­ing the steps that, in time, could help him achieve the suc­cess he en­vi­sioned for him­self. He worked low-pay­ing re­tail jobs and, with some fi­nan­cial help from his par­ents, re-en­rolled at the Univer­sity of Toronto to pur­sue a de­gree in bio­physics. He also made a con­certed ef­fort to be more open with his fam­ily. He vis­ited a psy­chol­o­gist, who told him the chief les­son from his rob­beries was that if he wanted to avoid fur­ther trou­ble, he needed to be hon­est with those clos­est to him.

In Septem­ber 2011, a friend set Brett up on a blind date with Kris­ten Baxter, an ath­letic blond phys­io­ther­a­pist. They met for the first time at the cor­ner of York and Queens Quay, not far from her water­front condo. Kris­ten lived the kind of

bliss­fully nor­mal life Brett wanted for him­self. She had a good job and a nice home. She liked hik­ing and trav­el­ling and walk­ing her fluffy wheaten ter­rier–poo­dle mix around Har­bourfront. Her de­mure smile per­fectly matched his deliri­ous grin. They looked like the cou­ple that comes with the pic­ture frame.

Kris­ten knew about Brett’s crim­i­nal past, but his his­tory didn’t stop her from fall­ing in love with him. In Jan­uary 2013, he moved into her condo build­ing across from the Power Plant gallery. The glassy down­town tower was a dra­matic change from his fam­ily’s sub­ur­ban bun­ga­low. Kris­ten’s condo was small, only 549 square feet, but it of­fered a gor­geous view of the lake be­yond the Toronto Is­lands. Brett could bar­be­cue on the roof, watch the planes land at Billy Bishop Air­port and swim in the in­doorout­door pool on the sec­ond floor. They trav­elled fre­quently, vis­it­ing trop­i­cal lo­ca­tions.

Roughly a year after Brett moved in with Kris­ten, his fa­ther died. Brett took care of his mom, help­ing her with some of the ad­min­is­tra­tive tasks that Bill had once han­dled, and also per­form­ing odd jobs around the house for ex­tra cash. He needed the money. He’d re­cently pro­posed to Kris­ten with a princess-cut di­a­mond sur­rounded by a halo of smaller di­a­monds. Once again, his fi­nances were un­rav­el­ling, and as his bank ac­count foundered, he be­gan to build a web of lies. In 2015, he dropped out of school again. But he didn’t tell his fi­ancée. Kris­ten and his fam­ily be­lieved that he was still pur­su­ing his stud­ies.

In the spring of 2016, Brett caught a lucky break and got a job with a Toronto tech firm. At last, it looked like he would fi­nally es­cape low-wage work and start earn­ing a real in­come. He cel­e­brated his vic­tory with Kris­ten and his fam­ily. But within days of hir­ing him, his new em­ployer dis­cov­ered his pre­vi­ous life as the Bearded Ban­dit. The com­pany promptly re­scinded the of­fer. Rather than ad­mit de­feat, he let his fam­ily go on be­liev­ing that he still had a job. He needed to per­form the lie ev­ery day.

Mean­while, Brett and Kris­ten were plan­ning their wedding for Septem­ber 16, 2016, right around the an­niver­sary of their first date in 2011. They were go­ing to be mar­ried at An­caster Mill, a rus­tic creek­side venue near Hamil­ton, with $100 plated ser­vice per per­son. Brett planned a bach­e­lor week­end in Au­gust with some friends at Mont Trem­blant. The cou­ple hoped to move on from their tiny condo after the wedding. They’d en­listed the help of a real­tor and started look­ing at houses.

Brett was mak­ing his mother proud. Sue of­ten bragged of his suc­cesses to their neigh­bours. She told them about his univer­sity de­gree, his good job, his condo down­town, his up­com­ing wedding. At the same time, he was re­ly­ing more heav­ily on her for help. With so many fi­nan­cial de­mands on the hori­zon, he pressed her for more paid jobs around the house. Sue did what she could for him. She was grate­ful he’d come so far.

Even with his mother’s help, Brett’s sit­u­a­tion was be­com­ing dire. Less than a month be­fore the wedding, after a year of pil­ing lie upon lie, Brett fi­nally fol­lowed his psy­chol­o­gist’s ad­vice: he told his mother the truth about what was re­ally go­ing on. He knew he had to get a job, but he needed her sup­port un­til that hap­pened. In­stead of a bailout, he re­ceived an ul­ti­ma­tum: tell Kris­ten ev­ery­thing or Sue would do it her­self. She’d give him no more money un­til he came clean.

For Brett, telling Kris­ten the truth was the worst pos­si­ble sce­nario. She might leave him, and then he’d be forced to re­turn home to the lit­tle house on Lawn­dale with his mother and broth­ers. He’d be des­ti­tute, re­liv­ing a his­tory of fail­ure that he thought seemed ter­ri­bly un­fair for a nice guy who al­ways did ev­ery­thing for oth­ers. He was too close to achiev­ing his dream life. He wasn’t go­ing to al­low his mother to drag him down. He was go­ing to kill her.

bbrett needed a weapon. The con­di­tions of his sen­tenc­ing made it il­le­gal for him to ac­quire a firearm, so he de­cided to buy a cross­bow, which doesn’t re­quire a li­cence and can be pur­chased by any­one over the age of 18. He chose a Bar­nett Re­cruit Youth 30, one of the cheap­est and light­est cross­bows avail­able in Canada. De­signed for teenage hunters, the Bar­nett shoots at 140 feet per sec­ond. On Ama­zon, it costs around $288, but Brett bought his sec­ond-hand in or­der to avoid leav­ing a po­ten­tially in­crim­i­nat­ing record of the pur­chase.

In the days after the ul­ti­ma­tum, Brett con­tin­ued to visit his mother’s home to work on ren­o­va­tion projects. Dur­ing one of those trips, he stashed his cross­bow in the garage be­hind some tools on a top shelf. He and his broth­ers had re­cently ren­o­vated their mom’s kitchen, and the garage was a mess, with old floor­ing heaped up in the cen­tre. No one was go­ing to be pok­ing around the clut­ter.

Au­gust 25, 2016, was a swel­ter­ing day, with high hu­mid­ity and thun­der­storms. In the morn­ing, Brett and Kris­ten got ready for work—she at her phys­io­ther­apy prac­tice, he at his imag­i­nary job at a tech com­pany. The sun was pour­ing through the floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows when Kris­ten left at 7:30 a.m. Once she was gone, Brett got to work build­ing a de­vice that he hoped would pro­vide an al­ibi if he was ever ac­cused of the crimes he was about to com­mit.

First, he opened his lap­top and propped it against the wall with two five-pound weights. Then he duct-taped a wooden spoon to a black cylin­dri­cal os­cil­lat­ing fan and placed it so the tip of the spoon lined up with the lap­top’s en­ter key. He plugged the cord into a dig­i­tal timer, like the kind used for Christ­mas lights. When the timer ac­ti­vated, the fan would turn and the spoon would click on a cur­sor hov­er­ing over an icon that would open YouTube.

Next, he took two more por­ta­ble fans, also plugged into dig­i­tal timers, and screwed them to a wooden board, which he placed on the gran­ite coun­ter­top of the kitchen is­land. He taped sty­luses to the cas­ings of the fans. Then, Brett screwed a smart­phone and a tablet to another wooden board, so that the screens faced the fans. When the timer went off, the fans would turn, the sty­luses would tap the phone and tablet, and each would send out pre-typed mes­sages: one thank­ing a friend for a real es­tate tip and the other about home re­pair. The timers were rigged to go off at var­i­ous points through­out the af­ter­noon, and the de­vices were set so they wouldn’t go to sleep while he was away.

Brett de­signed all of this to leave a dig­i­tal trace that the po­lice would tri­an­gu­late to his home. No mat­ter what hap­pened that day, he would be able to say that he’d stayed at home the en­tire time, watch­ing YouTube and send­ing emails— the per­fect al­ibi for the dig­i­tal age.

De­spite the blis­ter­ing heat, Brett put on two pairs of jeans be­fore leav­ing the house. He packed his gym bag with a fa­mil­iar dis­guise kit: some spare cloth­ing, a wig and a bucket hat, just like the kind he’d worn for his bank rob­beries. He threw in a few broad­head bolts for the cross­bow.

In or­der for his elab­o­rate al­ibi to work, Brett needed to leave his condo build­ing with­out show­ing up on any of the se­cu­rity cam­eras in the el­e­va­tors, lobby and park­ing lot. That left him only one route: 14 flights down the stair­well and out through the back al­ley. There were a few cam­eras out there too, but he’d eye­balled where they were pointed and planned a path to duck them. When he left the al­ley, he headed to the GO ter­mi­nal, took a train to Eglin­ton sta­tion and walked 10 min­utes to his mother’s home. He ar­rived at 10 Lawn­dale Road around 10 a.m. Sue wasn’t ex­pect­ing him to show up that morn­ing; she’d just can­celled her plans to go to the CNE with her neigh­bour Marie. She had a cold.

Brett hoped Sue might be able to see his per­spec­tive. But she held her ground, promis­ing to tell Kris­ten ev­ery­thing if Brett didn’t. The ar­gu­ment got heated, and Sue called her el­dest son, Chris, on her cell­phone, ask­ing him to come over to help her han­dle his brother. Brett quickly re­al­ized the sit­u­a­tion was get­ting away from him. He marched out the back door and headed straight for the garage. Sue fol­lowed him.

Cross­bows are dif­fi­cult to load, and with only a few steps be­tween the house and the garage, Brett didn’t have time to cock the string and fit a bolt in place be­fore his mother en­tered the garage. In­stead, he grabbed a broad­head bolt, with three sharp ser­rated blades that form a point, and stabbed her in the cheek and the ear. Then he wres­tled her to the ground, be­hind the pile of hard­wood floor­ing left over from the kitchen ren­o­va­tions. As she strug­gled, some of the floor­ing fell on top of her. He took a piece of yel­low ny­lon rope and stran­gled her with it un­til she died.

After Brett stabbed and stran­gled his mother to death, he set about cock­ing the cross­bow. He knew his brother Chris was on his way, and he needed to be pre­pared. He braced the cross­bow nose-down on the ground and in­serted the ball of his foot into the stir­rup to hold it in place. Then he pre­pared a sim­ple cock­ing de­vice: two hooks that at­tach to the strings on ei­ther side of the bar­rel and small han­dles just above the hooks for pulling the string up to the fir­ing mech­a­nism.

A cross­bow is a sim­ple im­ple­ment. Any­one can learn to shoot with rea­son­able ac­cu­racy with the help of a YouTube video and a few min­utes’ prac­tice. When Chris came into the garage, Brett stepped up qui­etly be­hind him and fired at very close range, so that the three blades went through Chris’s neck and lodged in his mouth. Brett barely had to squeeze the trig­ger; all it needed was a light touch. His brother died im­me­di­ately.

By this point, the gravel-and-saw­dust floor of the garage was muddy with blood. Brett grabbed his brother’s body and stacked it on top of his mother’s be­hind the heap of hard­wood floor­ing, then draped a tarp over them. If he’d had time, he could have stuffed his bloody outer jeans into his gym bag and donned the wig and Gil­li­gan hat he’d packed for this sce­nario. But be­fore he could do any of that, his younger brother, A. J., came home.

Brett ex­ited the garage and met A. J. on the walk­way to the back door. He was car­ry­ing another cross­bow bolt in his fist. By this point, he re­al­ized he’d gone too far down this night­mar­ish path not to see it through. They grap­pled, and Brett stabbed A. J. in the neck. He col­lapsed onto the drive­way.

Brett’s third brother, Leigh­land, had been nap­ping in his bed­room. He heard the al­ter­ca­tion and went out­side to see what was go­ing on. When he saw his youngest brother bleed­ing on the ground, he ran to the phone to call 911. Brett fol­lowed him into the house and at­tacked him. What en­sued was a ghastly strug­gle for sur­vival. The two broth­ers stum­bled chaot­i­cally

through the house, down the hall­ways, into two dif­fer­ent bed­rooms, fight­ing and kick­ing over fur­ni­ture as they went. They snapped an end ta­ble and threw each other against Leigh­land’s bed­room door. Brett was soaked with the blood of his fam­ily mem­bers; Leigh­land sus­tained a head wound and bled pro­fusely. As they fought, they left a trail of blood on the walls, the floors, the ceil­ings.

Mean­while, A. J. crawled down the drive­way to­ward the street. He’d made it as far as the front of the house when Leigh­land es­caped from his brother and ran out­side, where he found A. J. still alive, bleed­ing in the drive­way. With Brett in pur­suit, Leigh­land ran across the street to get help from his mother’s friends War­ren and Marie. He ham­mered on the door. When War­ren an­swered, Leigh­land tum­bled into his arms. “Call 911,” he told them. “My brother’s bleed­ing in the drive­way. Make sure the po­lice come. Make sure the po­lice come.” After re­lay­ing his mes­sage, Leigh­land promptly passed out.

De­feated, Brett got a bot­tle of water from the fridge. He didn’t bother shut­ting the fridge door as he re­turned to the front stoop. He was wait­ing there calmly when the po­lice ar­rived. A. J. was still alive when the first re­spond­ing of­fi­cer came to the scene, but he died be­fore the paramedics ar­rived. “I should have driven him to the hos­pi­tal,” Brett told the po­lice. “The guys in the garage are dead. Cross­bow to the head. It was me.”

Sshortly after brett was ap­pre­hended, Toronto po­lice en­tered Kris­ten’s condo on Queens Quay and dis­cov­ered the home­made al­ibi de­vices. Un­sure what to make of them, they evac­u­ated the build­ing and called the CBRNE team—chem­i­cal, bi­o­log­i­cal, ra­di­o­log­i­cal, nu­clear, ex­plo­sive—who un­plugged the fans and re­moved the sty­luses be­fore the timers were ac­ti­vated. They say the de­vices were func­tion­ing prop­erly and would have worked if they hadn’t dis­as­sem­bled them. Their re­port con­tra­dicted Brett’s ver­sion of events: he told pros­e­cu­tors that he’d ex­pe­ri­enced a change of heart after as­sem­bling the al­ibi de­vices and that he hadn’t ac­ti­vated them be­fore leav­ing the house to con­front his mother.

Brett hired John Rosen—the Toronto crim­i­nal lawyer known as Mr. Mur­der who has a long track record of de­fend­ing ac­cused killers, in­clud­ing Paul Bernardo and mem­bers of the ’Ndrangheta or­ga­nized crime fam­ily. Brett waived the stan­dard pre­lim­i­nary in­quiry and pleaded guilty. He was con­victed of sec­ond­de­gree mur­der in the death of his mother—he claimed that dur­ing their ar­gu­ment, he went to get the cross­bow from the garage to threaten her, not kill her. He pleaded guilty to first­de­gree mur­der for Chris’s death, since he’d hid­den and waited for his brother to ar­rive be­fore ex­e­cut­ing him. And for A. J., he was con­victed of sec­ond­de­gree mur­der, since the vic­tim had shown up un­ex­pect­edly.

At his sen­tenc­ing, Brett ad­dressed the court. He snif­fled through his tears, his voice wa­ver­ing. “I can only be­gin to say how sorry I am for what I’ve done.” He said he was “sick with grief,” though he couldn’t imag­ine what his friends and sur­viv­ing brother were go­ing through. “The time now doesn’t be­long to me, but I’ll make the most of ev­ery op­por­tu­nity I’m af­forded,” he promised. “To ev­ery­one, for all of this, I’m very sorry.”

As Jus­tice John McMa­hon out­lined the rea­sons for his sen­tenc­ing, he ex­pressed ad­mi­ra­tion for Brett’s pre­sen­ta­tion in court. He com­pli­mented his elo­cu­tion, sin­cer­ity and will­ing­ness to be ac­count­able for his deeds. He de­ter­mined that Brett was not just the au­thor of this tragedy, but one of its vic­tims—a good man who’d done some­thing ex­traor­di­nar­ily heinous. Brett had been caught in “a sim­ple web of lies,” McMa­hon con­cluded. “I have no hes­i­ta­tion that Mr. Ryan is re­morse­ful for his ac­tions.” Brett re­ceived con­cur­rent life sen­tences for each of the mur­ders, plus 10 years for the at­tempted mur­der of Leigh­land. He will be el­i­gi­ble for pa­role in 2041, by which point he’ll be 60 years old.

Leigh­land Ryan, Brett’s sole sur­viv­ing brother, de­clined to be in­ter­viewed for this piece, but he told the court what it was like to see his en­tire fam­ily slaugh­tered by his brother. He de­scribed a life shat­tered by trauma. He now suf­fers from se­vere anx­i­ety. He strug­gles to leave the house at all. He can hardly sleep or con­cen­trate. Above all, he thinks about his lit­tle brother A. J., tak­ing his last breaths, bleed­ing out on the drive­way. ∫

Kris­ten Baxter and Brett Ryan dated for five years. They were en­gaged to be mar­ried in Septem­ber 2016

Brett was a friendly, pop­u­lar guy who filled his time with sports, travel and vol­un­teer work

The three mur­ders took place in the fam­ily home on Lawn­dale Road, near the Rouge River in Scar­bor­ough

Brett mur­dered his el­dest brother, Chris (pic­tured), by shoot­ing him at close range with a cross­bow

Brett used the Bar­nett Re­cruit Youth 30 cross­bow to mur­der three mem­bers of his fam­ily. It’s de­signed for teenage hunters

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