‘He was just a kid, and he didn’t have a chance’
Soon after his body was found last year, people who knew Kevin Dickman resolved to confront the man who had sexually abused him as a child
Early last November, Pam Hand was sitting on her couch at home when she stumbled upon the news that a man’s body had been pulled from the Don River. As her eyes raced over the details, the victim’s identity sent a pang through her chest. She knew that name.
He was once the boy across the street in the Brampton neighbourhood where they both grew up. Kevin Dickman was a few years older than she was, and she’d seen him sparsely since high school. But her mind raced to those moments.
There were the times around 1990, in her rookie years as a Peel police officer, when she’d run into him out on foot patrols. That was when he confided in her, telling her that not long after his father died in his childhood, he was sexually abused by a cop assigned to him as a Big Brother. He identified the officer by name, but asked her not to act — just to listen.
A few years later, Hand saw Dickman again, in court. He was facing charges, and appealed for compassion and aid. “He stood right in court and said, basically, ‘Your Honour, I was abused by my Big Brother. He was a Peel police officer. It messed me up. I really need help,’ ” she recalled.
Looking back to that day, she regretted not doing anything to try to get Dickman some help, to vouch for him. “I should have gone to the Crown. I should have done something, but I didn’t.”
Others who remembered Dickman soon read the news, too. Childhood friends, an old hockey teammate. Facebook messages began to fly. Dickman’s life had spiralled in adulthood and he wrestled with homelessness and addiction. One of his former caseworkers told Hand that Dickman regretted never trying to talk to his abuser as an adult.
“Well, I could do that,” Hand thought.
Ten months to the day after Dickman’s body was pulled from the river, Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit announced charges against the man he’d long blamed for scarring his life.
Long-resigned Brampton police officer Frank Kohler, 74, was charged with two counts each of indecent assault and gross indecency — the Criminal Code charges in place at the time of the alleged sexual assaults, which the SIU says happened between 1967 and 1972.
The SIU didn’t identify Dickman, and made only brief reference to what tipped off their investigation. The historic abuse was brought to their attention by a civilian — the only official hint at the push for justice Dickman’s childhood friends made in the months after his death.
Presented earlier this fall with a detailed account of the allegations Dickman made over several decades, Kohler — who now lives in Nova Scotia, where he spent years as a church pastor — responded in a brief statement through his lawyer.
“Mr. Kohler is terribly remorseful and repentant for his actions that occurred around five decades ago. Knowing that he did not have to volunteer any information and that there were no surviving witnesses to his offence, he gave a full confession to the police,” the statement reads.
“He is not the same person he was at the time of these offences and he intends to take full responsibility for these reprehensible acts. Nothing more can be expected from a man in his situation.”
On Thursday, Kohler appeared via Zoom before a Brampton courthouse. He pleaded guilty to all charges.
Kevin Dickman was born in Belleville, but adopted by a family in Brampton. Friends who knew him back then remember a jovial kid, a busy kid — always moving — with a mischievous grin. Always up for another game of ball hockey.
That all changed when his father died in the mid-’60s, childhood friend Phil Anderson said. It wasn’t expected — something went wrong in some routine medical procedure. Dickman was around 10 years old and soon retreated into himself, Anderson remembered. So his mom turned to a Brampton Big Brothers program. “That’s when Frank Kohler came into the picture,” Anderson said.
Both Anderson and Hand say they remember Kohler from their younger years. He had a presence in the community, Anderson said, adding he seemed “fairly normal” at the time.
Dave Finn briefly played with Dickman on a house league hockey team in 1971 and 1972. Kohler was their assistant coach and would sometimes bring Dickman to their games, he said. In an old team photograph, the two of them were pictured side by side. Dickman would have been about 13.
“Frank, at the time, was a Big Brother for a young kid that was in real need of a father figure,” Finn said. Kids would call the officer Frank “The Narc” Kohler, he remembered. Lots of younger people interacted with Kohler at the time, and “everybody knew him as a narcotics officer,” Finn explained. Hand, too, recalled the nickname.
Finn didn’t hear anything untoward about Kohler or his interactions with youth while on the team. There were rumours a year or two later, Finn said, but, to his knowledge, nothing came of it.
Ron Lehman, an 88-year-old who was among the first volunteer Big Brothers in Brampton, met Kohler a year or two after he joined the agency in 1967. It has since become Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Peel. Kohler, by his recollection, seemed to be a “normal cop” when they met.
But at some point during his time as a volunteer, Lehman claims he heard Kohler had been investigated by police over allegations linked to a little brother. Lehman said he never knew the name of the complainant, nor the outcome of the probe. “We had no problems with him until when the allegations landed,” Lehman said. “I never got the full details of what happened.”
Kohler, again through his lawyer, offered no comment on Lehman’s memory.
It was only when Dickman was around 15 that he told Anderson that Kohler had molested him, and had done so for some time. From there, Anderson remembers Dickman’s life began to spiral and his mental health deteriorated. He turned to drugs and alcohol “to numb everything,” Anderson said. By his late teens, Anderson said, Dickman had dropped off the radar.
Around the same time, Kohler quit the Peel Regional Police — which had amalgamated with the former Brampton Police Force in 1974. When presented with questions about Kohler’s past, and whether he’d been investigated before, a Peel police spokesperson said the service’s retention period for documents associated with retired and resigned officers had long expired.
Anderson, like Hand, ran into Dickman as an adult — but just once. Dickman was in his 20s, and in one of his early periods of homelessness. He seemed confused while they talked, Anderson recalled. He didn’t seem to be in touch with reality. “It was heartbreaking because all I was thinking of was the person he could have been,” he said.
Paula Tookey, who met Dickman in the ’90s while working at a transitional housing project, said the trauma he felt translated into angry outbursts, petty crime and substance abuse. He was no longer in touch with his family, she said.
“At one point, Kevin mentioned that the abuser was on the East Coast,” she told the Star. “I don’t know if Kevin knew all along where his abuser was, but whenever he was doing badly and was really angry, he would kind of rant about the abuse and the fact that his abuser is allowed and able to have a life, and he wasn’t. That was a very hard place of resentment for Kevin.”
In 2004, Dickman spoke about the alleged abuse in a documentary for the CBC, describing the way the memory had reverberated into his adult life. “I got a Big Brother, and he was a molester. And he was with the police department, an officer, and it was not too good,” he said in the film.
“It became a sort of a sickness having to deal with the memories,” he added, noting that when a rape occured, “that’s something that stays with your emotions and on your soul and it just doesn’t wipe away, and it’s something that stays with you forever.”
Tookey has kept a series of handwritten letters Dickman wrote her during various stints in jail. In them, he wrangled with his past, and his despair.
“I feel so badly hurt I guess I keep trying but I don’t know if it’s worth it anymore,” Dickman wrote in 1999, telling Tookey he didn’t have family to support him, a partner or a home to return to when he was released. “I feel like a goof writing this letter when I had high hopes.”
And in 2000, he told her about his fear that his past would continue to torment him if he didn’t find peace with what happened. “I just figured to let the thing go about when I was a kid cause it was like a curse if you don’t forget it, it could haunt me forever,” Dickman wrote.
At Dickman’s funeral, Tookey recalled him breaking into schools or garages, searching for a roof overhead so he could get some sleep. His last proper home, a transitional housing program for older men on Queen Street East, fell apart in the final months of his life.
Those who knew Dickman still don’t know exactly how he wound up in the river on Oct. 5 last year. Tookey believed at the time that Dickman just gave up. “If Kevin had a place to go, a place to be, he would not be dead,” she said in the fall.
Toronto police confirmed to the Star this month that the case is now considered closed — a non-suspicious drowning.
When Hand’s phone rang on Nov. 14, it had been 40 days since Dickman’s body was recovered.
She had started her search for the former officer by email, sending messages to three addresses with the name Kohler linked to churches in Nova Scotia, where she’d been told he became a pastor.
If this email has reached the same Frank Kohler who served on the Brampton police force all those years ago, it’s in your best interests to call, she wrote.
She recorded the call when it came a day or two later, and shared the 15-minute tape with the Star.
“This is Frank Kohler,” the voice on the line said.
Presented with details of the call, Kohler and his lawyer told the Star they did not intend to comment further.
“I’m just wondering if you’d heard that Kevin Dickman passed away,” Hand asked, as the conversation began.
“No, I didn’t know that until this morning when I got your email,” he responded.
Her next question was far more pointed: “How come — when you quit the police department, did they fire you because of what went on between you and Kevin?”
“I don’t think I know you well enough to be able to converse about the long-distant past,” he replied. “I don’t know motives. I don’t know Kevin’s life since he was 17 years old. That’s the last time I saw him or had any contact. I tried to contact him when I was in my 30s, and I went to the police department in Brampton to see if I could get a hold of Kevin to find out what his life was like — my wife and I — and they advised me not to do that.”
But Hand didn’t drop it. You wrecked Dickman’s life, she told him — “I don’t know, Frank, how you live with yourself,” she said.
He told her: “I certainly did a lot of things in my youth, in my younger days, that I have great regret for.”
“Do people in your present life know what you did in your past life?” she probed.
He didn’t answer. He instead told her police had investigated “a whole pile of accusations that were made” about him after he left Ontario, involving a different boy. “There was nothing to it. You know, it was all unfounded as not being true. But people create stories.”
He and Dickman had lived together, in 1973, after he’d had some trouble with his mother, the man said. “He had his own room. I had my own room. And he left under great terms. He moved to northern Ontario, I saw him one more time after that. I co-signed a note for him to buy a motorcycle, which I ended up paying off myself … And I never heard from him again, from the time he was 17 years of age on.”
He told Hand he thought the world of Dickman.
“So you’re saying you did not abuse Kevin Dickman, you did not sexually abuse Kevin Dickman?” Hand asked. “Is that what you’re saying?”
“No, I’m not going to say that either,” the man replied. “I don’t know you. I really don’t.”
“I would say to you that I lived a very foul life in my 20s, until I went back to Nova Scotia,” he
continued. “And there I found Jesus Christ as my lord and saviour. And all the things that I had done as a policeman, all the things that were wrong in my life, he healed.”
Then, his clearest denial: “These accusations are not true.”
After the call, Hand felt a sense of unease. Why hadn’t he more fervently denied the accusations? “If someone said to me, you sexually abused a child, I would be denying it with every last breath,” she remembered thinking.
Later in November, Hand told Anderson she’d reached Kohler by phone. “Pam being a retired policewoman did the smart thing and recorded the call,” Anderson told the Star. After Dickman’s death, he said he’d been thinking about how to get justice for the boy he once knew; the call was a spark.
He contacted the SIU, and asked if they would probe allegations from a half-century ago. About a week later, investigators visited his home to take a statement. He told them he believed what Dickman told him, back when they were teens — that he’d been molested by Frank Kohler, an officer and Big Brother.
Spurred by Anderson, Hand also arranged to meet with the SIU. She said the meeting lasted roughly an hour and a half; she gave them a copy of the tape.
The SIU declined to comment on the case: “In consideration of the fair trial interests of the accused, the SIU will make no further comment pertaining to this investigation,” spokesperson Monica Hudon said in an email.
In August, the Star reached Kohler by phone. He confirmed he had been charged over his
relationship with Dickman, but declined further comment. “I don’t understand, after all these years, the advantage of doing this,” he said. “You’re reporting something that’s very old and Kevin is dead.”
In a later call, he referred the Star to his lawyer, Lakin Afolabi, who provided a statement saying Kohler had co-operated with police and intended to take responsibility for what happened.
After three decades as a Peel officer, including work with the sex offender registry, Hand knew that when she set out to confront Kevin Dickman’s alleged abuser that a charge — let alone a conviction — was a long shot. According to Statistics Canada, fewer than half of sexual assault cases in adult criminal court in 2016-17 resulted in findings of guilt.
“It’s tough enough getting a conviction when the victim is alive,” she told the Star.
Historic cases are particularly tough because prosecutors also can’t rely on evidence like DNA, torn clothing, or text messages, said Karen Bellehumeur, a former Crown attorney with experience in child sexual abuse cases. However, in a case in which a victim is no longer alive, the Crown can make applications to enter statements made by the victim during their life, she said.
In a case like Kohler’s, the defence could feasibly point to complications like Dickman’s struggles with addiction and mental illness as reasons to be cautious accepting such evidence, she said. But the Crown could point to those exact struggles as consistent with child sexual abuse victims, she argued.
In Nova Scotia, the news of Kohler’s charges sent shockwaves through the church network where he served as interim regional director until his resignation in November last year. Kohler cited personal reasons for stepping aside at the time, said Doug Campbell, current regional director of Fellowship Atlantic. Then, in August, he told them about the charges.
“He hasn’t been trying to hide from it,” Campbell said. “Frank is one of the finest men I’ve ever met.”
Foster MacKenzie, who serves as chair of the elders’ board for the Lake Echo Fellowship Baptist Church where Kohler was a pastor from the ’90s until a few years ago, said Kohler stood up to address the allegations in front of a pandemic-thinned congregation on Aug. 9.
“He said he was going to plead guilty,” MacKenzie said. Some members of the church had questions. Most, he said, have been supportive of the man they knew as their pastor for more than two decades. While they were shocked to hear the allegations, MacKenzie said he believed that Kohler was now a different man than he used to be.
“What Frank did almost 50 years ago is something he’s willing to take responsibility for.”
On Thursday morning, Kohler pleaded guilty to two counts each of indecent assault and gross indecency.
“I agree with the details,” he said, speaking remotely via an audio call from Nova Scotia.
According to the statement of agreed facts read out in court by Crown attorney Roger Shallow, Kohler started abusing Dickman about a year after becoming his Big Brother, when Dickman was 11.
Over five years between January 1967 and December 1972, Kohler subjected Dickman to mutual fondling and masturbation on at least 30 different occasions — including twice at Kohler’s parents’ home in Nova Scotia. He also took Dickman on other trips, including snowmobiling, water skiing and one three-week trip to Europe.
In 1974, the Big Brothers program received an anonymous tip alleging that Kohler was a dangerous predator. According to the agreed facts, the organization confronted Kohler, he then instructed them to tell police and police initiated an investigation the same year.
Kohler next warned Dickman — who had moved to Northern Ontario — about the investigation and pleaded with him to deny any sexual contact. Dickman told the authorities anyway.
According to the agreed facts, Kohler admitted telling investigators he had repeatedly abused Dickman. He then resigned.
“The investigation concluded with the accused resigning his position with the police service.
No charges were laid,” Shallow said, reading from the agreed facts.
Last year, soon after Dickman’s death, Kohler received an email from Pam Hand asking him to call, which he did, Shallow said. The next month, a few days after Christmas, Kohler voluntarily went to Halifax police and gave a video confession.
The revelations of the case infuriate Hand. “Not only was he brave enough to tell the police, but then they didn’t do anything,” she said Thursday, through tears. “I just hope that the officers that interviewed him, and found out that he was abused, and then they did nothing, I hope that they’re still alive to read that and realize what harm they caused to him.”
Earlier in fall, as Kohler’s first court date was nearing, Hand found herself poring over old yearbook pages, wondering who her childhood neighbour might have become if the abuse never happened. Dickman smiled back gently from the yellowed paper. He was still a preteen then. He was trying to grow a moustache and sideburns. His nickname was “Stink.”
He hoped to be a pilot one day. Hand blames Kohler for the way Dickman’s life derailed instead — from the time he was a teenager until his death last fall.
“He was just a kid, and he didn’t have a chance,” she said.