‘To think my kid died for a cigarette’: Two teens plead guilty in brutal Toronto killing of 19-year-old Aaron Rankine-Wright

Aaron Rankine-Wright, 19, was killed while biking to work.

Aaron Rankine-Wright spent the afternoon at Cherry Beach with friends then went home to get his bike to go to work at 5:30 p.m. on June 9, 2018.

Minutes later, the 19-year-old was murdered — first knocked off his bike by a teen driving a stolen SUV and then stabbed, kicked and punched. Almost two years later, two male teens — one 17 at the time Rankine-Wright was killed, the other just 13 — have pleaded guilty to separate charges on the eve of what would have been their joint trial for first-degree murder.

Neither teen can be identified under the Youth Criminal Justice Act. A third male youth, the one who fatally stabbed Rankine-Wright, has never been identified.

Rankine-Wright had barely left the Dundas Street West apartment building where he was staying with family friends in Little Portugal when the 17-year-old teen chased him down in a stolen SUV, lost control of the car and ran into him, according to two agreed statements of fact filed in court this week.

The 17- and 13-year-old teens were in the car when the still-unidentified youth left the front passenger seat and stabbed Rankine-Wright as he stood up from being knocked off his bike. The 17-year-old, who had been driving, then exited and kicked Rankine-Wright in the head before running away. The 13-year-old, who was in the back of the SUV, got out and saw the unidentified youth punching Rankine-Wright in the chest several more times. That youth said he had stabbed Rankine-Wright and told the 13-year-old to take the knife — the murder weapon — and dispose of it. The boy was captured on surveillance video running away with the knife and tossed it into the grass.

Rankine-Wright died from the stab wounds in the hospital.

“I know what happens when you stab someone in the heart,” Rankine-Wright’s mother Diane Wright said in an emotional victim-impact statement Thursday. “The heart fills up like a clogged drain and then you are left gasping for air, drowning on dry land.”

Looking directly at the younger teen, now 15, sitting in the prisoner’s box she continued: “I gave him everything. My love, my time, my whole heart. And they stabbed him in it and left him to drown in his own blood.”

On Tuesday the SUV driver, now 19, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. A sentencing hearing is set for the spring.

The younger teen pleaded guilty Thursday to accessory after the fact to murder. He was sentenced to time served — one year and eight months — and six months’ probation. When asked if he had anything to add at the end of the sentencing hearing, the teen said his lawyer Ari Goldkind had said it all.

In a “senseless act of violence in the name of vigilante justice” many lives were changed, said Superior Court Justice John McMahon in his sentencing decision.

He said the sentence, jointly proposed by the Crown and defence, was fair given the teen’s “momentary involvement” and young age, although his actions helped obstruct justice. The boy did not know Rankine-Wright and had no animosity towards him, McMahon noted.

Goldkind said the 13-year-old boy made a “stupid decision” to take the knife as he was told to by the killer.

“This should not destine a young person to be scarlet-lettered for the rest of their life,” he said.

The events that preceded Rankine-Wright’s murder started months before in March 2018, according to the agreed statement of facts read out by prosecutor Karen Simone. The 17-year-old teen had gotten into an fight with another person over cigarettes one night on Yonge Street. There was a “heated verbal exchange” with a friend of Rankine-Wright. Next, Rankine-Wright intervened and sucker-punched the teen in the face, breaking his jaw on both sides. It required surgery to fix.

After the fight, the 17-year-old tried to identify Rankine-Wright, threatening to kill him. But the threats stopped and the hunt for revenge fizzled out after someone close to the teen died.

On June 8, 2018 — the day before the murder — the 17-year-old was asked by a female teen to move an SUV from a hotel parking lot with keys she’d stolen from a much older man. The teen kept the car the next day — he didn’t think it would be reported stolen because the man wouldn’t want to admit to sleeping with an underage girl. He and the still-unidentified teen were driving around the city when they were joined by another teen and the 13-year-old, who had been tagging along. They then went to pick up another friend who lived at the same Dundas West apartment building where Rankine Wright was staying.

The 17-year-old was practising parking and waiting for his friends to come out when, by chance, he saw Rankine-Wright leave the building.

“That’s the guy who broke my jaw,” he said in shock, according to the agreed statement of facts.

After a short discussion, the 17-year-old decided to chase Rankine-Wright down. He accelerated down a “U-shaped laneway” after Rankine-Wright and lost control of the SUV, knocking him off his bike.

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Rankine-Wright was a gifted high school athlete in both football and his main passion, wrestling. His mother Diane said she had been working hard — getting a university degree and a good job — to get them a “forever home.” Instead “the first place he got to call home was a grave site in North Toronto,” she said. The money his father Wayne Rankine had saved for him to go to university instead went to his funeral.

Wright said she initially had compassion for the “children who killed my child,” but along the way, she said she realized justice would not be done for her son in the courts.

“These people will never see real time and will be back on the streets ready to wreak havoc on another life,” she said in her victim-impact statement.

Outside court, she said she hopes the 17-year-old will be sentenced as an adult so that there is a message of accountability sent to other teens who commit acts of violence in the city.

Just last month, a 15-year-old boy was charged with the second-degree murder of 15-year-old Safiullah Khosrawi near the high school they both attended — “Another mother without her baby,” Rankine-Wright’s mother said.

Her family’s sense of security in the city has been shattered, she said.

“I no longer feel safe in the city I was born in,” said one of Rankine-Wright’s siblings in her victim-impact statement. “All I can focus on now is not dying so that I don’t put my family through any more pain.”

Wright said she is struggling to understand how the two teens could have been allowed to plead guilty to lesser charges without naming the person who stabbed her son. She is still hoping he will be found.

“I desperately want him to be caught,” she said. “And at the same time, I am desperately afraid of what I have to go through again. It’s been two years.”

The spot where Rankine-Wright was murdered remains the site of a memorial with a ghost-bike, photos, candles and flowers. It is still maintained and seasonally decorated by his family and friends.

Rankine-Wright’s mother said her son was always a “protector” — looking out for his friends and like a big brother to younger boys.

“It all started over a cigarette,” she said, shaking her head. “To think my kid died for a cigarette.”

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