Nearly a year after Darren McKim was critically burned in a tent fire in Rosedale Valley, an Ontario coroner has classified his manner of death as “undetermined.”
McKim, a 50-year-old Indigenous man, died in Sunnybrook Hospital on May 1, 2018, four days after passers-by rescued him from a blazing tent under the Mount Pleasant Bridge, near one of Canada’s wealthiest neighbourhoods.
While McKim’s official cause of death was attributed to complications from severe burns, the “unknown circumstances” of how the tent fire started as well as facial injuries suggesting McKim was assaulted led coroner Dr. Kumar Gupta to conclude the means — or manner — by which he died was undetermined.
Police originally investigated McKim’s death as a criminal matter but later changed their minds, ruling it accidental. McKim’s adoptive family disagrees with the police conclusion and felt that detectives ended the investigation prematurely.
“At this point we feel we will never have the answers as to what happened,” said McKim’s sister Lori McKim-Lang, who with her mother, Carroll McKim Castle, met regional supervising coroner Dr. Bonnie Burke in Toronto in early February to discuss the case and Gupta’s findings.
“We must move forward but it is with regret,” continued Lori. “Regret that the Canadian system of which we are so proud is not better. We fear it will continue to let vulnerable people down.”
A 2018 Star investigation into how McKim’s case was handled by police raised questions about fresh, bleeding wounds on McKim’s forehead — two lacerations were sutured in hospital; and a mystery woman in McKim’s tent who was heard yelling at him shortly before the fire but who was never located.
The Star found that the police investigation seemed to lack urgency. Officers didn’t return to the fire scene to search for the mystery woman until two days after the blaze; nor did they locate McKim’s family before he died, despite the fact that his mother’s phone number was programmed into his cellphone, which was found at the scene and was not password-protected.
Toronto police did not respond to several questions for this article but previously told the Star that the investigation was “conducted as thoroughly as possible” and that it was closed after the force received information from first responders, the Centre of Forensic Sciences and the coroner’s office.
In his final report, Gupta writes that McKim’s death last May was considered a “sudden and unexpected death.” He also notes that after he examined McKim’s body at Sunnybrook hospital, he decided the death should be treated “suspiciously” because of a lack of information about how the tent ignited and because McKim’s facial injuries were “suggestive of an assault.”
“In view of the unknown circumstances regarding how the tent became engulfed in flames, along with the unknown mechanism of blunt force injuries (which were not causal to death), I have classified the manner of his death as undetermined,” Gupta states in his report, called a “Coroner’s Investigation Statement,” and which was given to Carroll and Lori.
Carroll said “I just felt more loss” when she read Gupta’s report. “I don’t know how to describe it. It just didn’t seem right for Darren.”
The manner of death seeks to answer: by what means did a person die?
In Ontario, there are five manners of death the Office of the Chief Coroner can assign following a death investigation: natural, homicide, suicide, accident or undetermined.
Manner of death is different from cause of death. The medical cause of death in McKim’s case was “complications of thermal injury” as a result of the tent fire, with ethanol (alcohol) intoxication listed as a contributing factor, according to Gupta’s report.
Cheryl Mahyr, a spokesperson for the coroner’s office, said a “finding of ‘undetermined’ may be a positive and appropriate finding, after a full investigation and careful consideration of all the evidence. It should not be considered a failure to reach a conclusion.”
In his report, Gupta notes that the fire investigation (conducted by the Office of the Fire Marshal) concluded the blaze was “accidental.”
“It is opined that the deceased’s pants caught on fire and this transferred to the cardboard lining the inside of the tent. The exact sequence of events is unknown. No volatile ignitables were found,” it reads.
Gupta’s report details how on April 27, 2018, at around 5:30 p.m. a man who lived in another tent under the Mount Pleasant Rd. bridge heard an argument coming from McKim’s tent, notably a female voiced which yelled, “Don’t you ever touch my f—ing friend again.” An hour later, a jogger passing by saw McKim’s tent on fire and, with the help of other bystanders, pulled the burning McKim out of the tent. An off-duty paramedic passing by doused him with a bag of saline.
“The deceased said he had been drinking beer and was tolerating the pain well. He was responsive,” Gupta’s report says, noting that McKim also had “several lacerations on his forehead.”
During its investigation, the Star spoke to a friend of McKim who recalled seeing him either the day of or the day before the fire. The friend said McKim had no forehead injury at the time.
At Sunnybrook, McKim was found to be suffering third- and fourth-degree burns to 42 per cent of his body surface area. Doctors amputated his right leg above the knee and then his left leg below it in an effort to save his life.
But it was not enough. McKim died in hospital on May 1 without any of his family members knowing what had happened.
The day after McKim died, his mother, Carroll — who lives in Stratford but often visited her son in Toronto — phoned police after she received a Facebook message from an Indigenous community member urging her to reach out. She learned later from the investigation’s lead detective, Stephane St. George, that her son had been burned in a fire and died.
Carroll said it remains painful that her son died alone. She said she still doesn’t know how her son’s cellphone — which contained two phone numbers for her — travelled from the tent fire scene to a police evidence locker. (The phone apparently did not come with him in the ambulance. A spokesperson for Sunnybrook said “there were no items that accompanied Mr. McKim” when asked if McKim had his phone when he arrived.)
Toronto police did not respond to written questions about the phone’s chain of custody.
Carroll said the family will not pursue an inquest.
“We just feel there’s nothing else we can do.”
Kenyon Wallace is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @KenyonWallace or reach him via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mary Ormsby is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Reach her via email: email@example.com