Hamilton·In Depth

Renowned gunsmith killed in Toronto police raid. Family, experts want to know why

Toronto police raided the home of a renowned gunsmith in rural Ontario two weeks ago while executing a firearms search warrant. Now, Rodger Kotanko is dead, raising questions from legal experts and the 70-year-old's family.

'When you enter the shop of a gunsmith, what the heck do you expect to see?' asks Kotanko family lawyer

Rodger Wayne Kotanko was known to be a quiet guy and a master gunsmith. The Ontario man died on Nov. 3 after Toronto Police Service executed a search warrant at his property. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Jeffrey Kotanko says he was planning to visit his 70-year-old brother Rodger on Nov. 3 and go fishing with him later that day.

The two brothers met almost every day for the past 14 years. They lived minutes away from one another in Norfolk County, deep in southern Ontario near Lake Erie.

But that Wednesday, they didn't go fishing.

Instead, Jeffrey found himself racing to his brother's house after hearing from Rodger's wife, Jessie.

"She said there's guys there with guns and Rodger's hurt," Jeffrey told CBC Hamilton.

Hearing about Rodger being near guns wasn't unusual — he was a world-renowned gunsmith, known as one of the best in Canada and someone local police officers trusted to fix their firearms, according to people who knew him.

Kotanko's home on Port Ryerse Road in Norfolk County sits left to his workshop. His family's lawyer, Michael Smitiuch, says Kotanko did work for local police, the military and international clients. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

But hearing his brother was hurt had Jeffrey rushing to Rodger's home on Port Ryerse Road.

By the time he arrived, Rodger was already dead — shot in his workshop next to his home, according to friends and family, and then taken away by paramedics.

What exactly occurred has prompted an investigation by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), Ontario's police watchdog, and, two weeks later, many unanswered questions.

'Unusual' police actions 

Toronto Police Service said that day at noon — in broad daylight — its officers carried out a search warrant on the property. It's unclear what information they had and how many officers were at the scene, but the service said it was looking for guns. Family said no warrant was left behind. 

Quentin Dixon, Rodger's longtime friend, said officers bearing assault rifles had Jessie at gunpoint while she was unloading groceries from the vehicle.

Some officers were wearing plain clothes while others wore tactical gear, according to family, friends, neighbours and Michael Smitiuch, the family's lawyer, all of whom CBC spoke with this week. 

They say Toronto police brought their own ambulance and paramedics with them when they first arrived, a move Toronto defence lawyer Kim Schofield, who has worked on numerous cases involving the SIU, said was "very unusual." 

Schofield said officers are also usually required to give the family a copy of the search warrant.

"This is craziness," she said upon hearing about the case. 

Quentin Dixon, with a picture of Kotanko, says his longtime friend loved his family and was hoping to retire in a few years. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Friends and family also say Rodger was with an apparent customer in his workshop when police arrived. They separately shared the same details of what they say occurred. 

"The group of police officers moved over to the shop door entrance and nothing was said ...  within seconds, four gunshots rang out," Dixon said.

Fraser Pringle, Rodger's next door neighbour, said he heard two of those shots.

"I came out here and they were rolling him out on a gurney, threw him in an ambulance and took him," he said.

"His wife was standing on the porch crying."

Fraser Pringle, Kotanko's neighbour, says he heard two gunshots before walking over to Kotanko's home and seeing police at the scene, next to the gunsmith's crying wife. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

By the time Jeffrey got there, about 20 minutes after the shooting, Ontario Provincial Police officers were also securing the scene.

The SIU says it's investigating one officer and has three officers who were witnesses. An autopsy also took place, but the investigation could take four months, it said.

Family kept 'in the dark': lawyer

Smitiuch said the SIU and Toronto police have kept the family "in the dark."

"I was retained when the family felt they weren't getting answers," he said in an interview Wednesday afternoon, ahead of a news conference he was expecting to host at the family's home Thursday to bring attention to the case. 

We're seeking answers and accountability ... the problem we have is we don't have an actual witness we've been able to speak to who saw all the events.- Michael Smitiuch, lawyer for Rodger Kotanko's family

"We're seeking answers and accountability ... the problem we have is we don't have an actual witness we've been able to speak to who saw all the events."

The family and Smitiuch have no copy of the search warrant police used and don't have enough information to get a copy. He added he has not heard from Toronto police or SIU.

Smitiuch said they haven't been able to track down the apparent customer who was with Rodger and the SIU couldn't confirm to CBC News if a second person was in the workshop.

"Rodger's phone is with the police now and no one else in the family spoke to this individual, there's no certainty as to exactly who this person was."

Experts question police approach

Smitiuch also said that based on the limited information he does have, Toronto police had little to no communication with local OPP, even though OPP reportedly knew Rodger. Provincial police declined to comment.

While police and the SIU didn't confirm if this was a no-knock raid or "dynamic entry" — when police enter a residence with a search warrant but without giving prior notice to residents — lawyers familiar with those cases say it sounds like one. Toronto police do hundreds of surprise raids per year.

The mailbox outside Kotanko's home has his last name on it. He lived with his wife, who moved from China a few years ago, according to friends, family and neighbours. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Ottawa criminal lawyer Lawrence Greenspon said the degree of lethal force used jumps out at him.

"What possible justification could there be for them to fire four bullets, killing the guy?" he said.

Stephen Metelsky, a criminology professor at Mohawk College in Hamilton and a retired police sergeant, said he wonders why the search warrant was done at noon instead of at 3 a.m. or 5 a.m.

"The reason they do that ... the element of surprise, most people are in bed and it's for the safety of everybody involved ... and the second part is the preservation of evidence." 

Smitiuch said he has questions about why police waited for Rodger to be in his shop, which would have been full of guns, instead of approaching earlier in the day or elsewhere. 

"If they showed up at a butcher shop and a butcher was working with a knife, they shouldn't be surprised by that ... When you enter the shop of a gunsmith, what the heck do you expect to see? You're going to see guns.

"The family is devastated, they're heartbroken but they're also outraged and they're fearful ... the police are supposed to serve and protect, not surprise and kill," Smitiuch said.

Dixon said Rodger's death was avoidable.

"All it would've taken was a knock at the door."

Rodger remembered as master gunsmith

Rodger was born and raised in Norfolk County, and grew up on a farm with his siblings, according to his brother Jeffrey. He enjoyed fishing and hunting. His passion for guns started when he was young.

He worked as a certified gunsmith for decades, passing regular inspections by Ontario's Chief Firearms Officer (who declined to comment). 

His company — Dark International Trading Company, also known as RK Custom Guns — operated out of his workshop. He repaired and modified guns while also shipping and selling them, according to the website.

Rodger mentored Dan Nagy, owner of Eli's Guns & Archery.

"He was known all across North America and other countries in the world ... I'd argue he was one of the best pistol smiths in this country," Nagy said.

Smitiuch said Rodger had an immense reputation as a gunsmith and since he was a certified gunsmith, his criminal record was "squeaky clean."

Kotanko, 70, loved hunting and fishing, and in his younger years, skydiving, those close to him say. He is survived by his wife Jessie, daughter Minying, and sons Colton and Conner. (Submitted by Jeffrey Kotanko)

Rodger married his third wife, Jessie, in China in 2012 before she moved to Canada. He had two sons from his previous marriage, Colton and Conner, and a daughter, Minying.

Dixon said he planned to retire in the next few years and move to China with his wife and daughter.

Rodger's family said they will fight to honour him and hold police accountable.

"Jessie doesn't even care about the money. She wants justice," Rodger's brother Jeffrey said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bobby Hristova

Reporter/Editor

Bobby Hristova is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email: bobby.hristova@cbc.ca

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