Thunder Bay·In Depth

An Ontario coroner ruled Adam Danko's death was accidental. His family believes he was intentionally overdosed

The Thunder Bay, Ont., family of Adam Danko claims the drug-related overdose death of the 43-year-old in 2021 was never fully investigated by police, and is speaking out against a coroner’s ruling that he died accidentally.

Police, coroners say it’s hard to lay criminal charges in intent-to-murder and other overdose deaths

Ontario mom disputes coroner’s findings in overdose death of son

4 months ago
Duration 2:33
A Thunder Bay, Ont., mother says she believes her son died from an intentional overdose, despite a coroner’s report ruling it was an accidental death. She fears he was killed by drugs intentionally laced with a lethal dose of fentanyl or other synthetic opioid.

Kim Moore and her three daughters gather in the living room of their family home in Thunder Bay, Ont., as if waiting for a family meal.

But someone's missing — Adam, Moore's oldest child and only son.

His memory brings laughter, and his absence draws tears. When Moore's ready, she points to the coroner's report explaining why he isn't there.

The report says 43-year-old Adam Danko's death a year ago was accidental, but his mom doesn't believe it. Moore said that when she found Adam's body, his doors were unlocked, his apartment had been ransacked and belongings were stolen. 

Days earlier, she said, he was trying to dodge one guy who kept calling.

"We're certain it was a hot shot."

Hot shotting is defined as drugs being intentionally laced with a lethal dose of fentanyl or other synthetic opioid. 

Danko's family shares stories about him in the family home in Thunder Bay. It has been a year since his death, and they're still searching for answers. (Logan Turner/CBC)

Amid what the family says are the suspicious circumstances surrounding Danko's death, Moore insists local police never fully investigated the case and the coroner reached his conclusion too quickly.

A spokesperson with the Thunder Bay Police Service (TBPS) said the investigation is ongoing, but would not provide additional details, citing privacy issues.

But Danko's family, advocates in Thunder Bay and a recent report to Ontario's auditor general detailing issues with TBPS sudden-death investigations have shared concerns these overdose deaths are slipping under the radar of authorities. 

Last year, 152 people died in the northwestern Ontario region from a drug overdose, according to preliminary data. That's about two people dying every five days and a 50 per cent increase from 2020 — with fewer than 150,000 people, and on a per-capita basis, that puts the health unit among those most affected by Ontario's worsening drug crisis.

Police and coroners tasked with investigating overdose deaths say it's taking a toll on their resources, and add they're particularly challenging cases when it comes to laying any charges.

"It's frustrating, because I know nothing will be done for justice. For Adam," Moore said.

A love of motorbikes and photography

Growing up, Danko was always a tad quirky, his mom said. 

He had a fascination with trains and transport trucks that led to a short career hauling freight and later driving cabs. His love of motorbikes lent him the nickname Harley. He gifted his taste in music to three younger sisters.

An amateur photographer, Danko left behind thousands and thousands of photos when he died.

"We were looking at a couple of them one day, and we're going, 'How did he take that? Like, where could he have been taking this picture?'" Moore recalled.

He could often be seen pedalling through the city streets with his camera on this bike. The bike was good for Danko's back, which was curved after he developed psoriatic arthritis in his teens and later further spinal issues, Moore said.

Danko's family remembers him as a talented photographer. Here's a selection of some of his photos. (Submitted by Kim Moore )

During his first marriage and while experiencing chronic pain, Danko started using illicit substances, Moore said. 

After the divorce, she said, Danko was in recovery and clean for about 13 years before he ran into some old friends after the pandemic started and began using again. 

Twice over a year, Danko's home was taken over by drug dealers, his mother said, a common issue in Thunder Bay. The first time, it involved people from Montreal, and then guys from Toronto took over his home, she said. Each time, Danko was promised $200 in drugs every night to let them stay and use the house, Moore said.

"They were there for five days. I don't think he was able to eat or sleep. When we saw him after that, he looked horrible. He was so thin and just looked like death warmed over."

Danko would cycle between heavy use of cocaine and "down" — a deadly mix of heroin, fentanyl and other substances — for a few months, and then going to his mom's couch to try to quit.

"I would say, 'Adam, just quit. You've done it before, you can do it again,'" Moore said.

"And he says: 'You don't understand. It gets in your brain and you just can't get it out. It's there all the time.'"

But Moore said the sickness and the physical ache he would feel when withdrawing from the drugs were just too much.

She said that at the time of his death near the end of April 2021, her son told her he was trying to quit. 

Fentanyl levels 7 times lethal dose

That's why Moore can't wrap her head around the toxicology report.

It said Danko had 21 nanograms per millilitre of fentanyl in his system when he died. Greater than 3 ng/mL is fatal, according to the report.

A few days after she found her son's body on the floor of his third-storey apartment, Moore said, she and her daughters went to the police station and told them what they knew — including people Danko spent time with, and who they thought could have been with him when he overdosed.

According to Moore, police said they didn't know where he got the drugs from, no one he associated with was talking and they didn't know where to look.

"They said, 'Who knows. Five years down the road, somebody might be in jail and try to make a deal, and say they have information on who killed Adam Danko.'" 

That answer wasn't good enough, she said. 

"They didn't investigate it," claimed Danko's sister, Jenna Danko. "We tried to do our own thing. We drove around to a couple of places we figured these guys might be staying. We went through every single little piece of anything in his apartment, anything that had writing on it.

"Took pictures. Sent it to the cops. It was just, 'Oh, be patient with us.' But never any response. No investigating of their own. Just, 'Whatever, the junkie died. Who cares,'" Jenna said, sharing how she felt the police treated her brother's death.

Danko's family created this collage, showing scenes from his life. His mom remembered him as a funny man who passed on his love of music to his sisters. (Logan Turner/CBC )

In response to questions about the TBPS investigation, a statement to CBC said officers immediately began their work, including members of the major crimes unit and the forensic identification unit, in co-ordination with a local coroner.

The investigation "remains open and ongoing," and investigators are "open to any new details that could move the investigation forward," but no further details were provided "due to issues of privacy," according to the statement.

The statement added a sudden-death investigation is always treated as suspicious, until evidence has determined otherwise.

But that response doesn't reassure Moore or give her the answers she's still seeking a year after her son's death.

"I'd like to know what happened. Like, if he shot himself up, if they shot him up. If he was afraid. If he knew it was coming … that really bothers me when I think about that," she said.

Overdose deaths hard to investigate: police

Opioid overdose deaths in Ontario nearly doubled over the pandemic — there were almost 2,900 deaths from opioid toxicity in 2021, according to provincial data. 

"I totally understand and appreciate the families that are going through the trauma of losing a loved one," said Tim Farquharson, co-chair of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police substance advisory committee and acting chief of the Peterborough Police Service.

"They expect the police to lay charges and do a full investigation. That can't always be done."

Farquharson said every case is unique, but investigating overdose cases can be difficult, due to a lack of evidence, no cellphone, no video in the area and no witnesses, for example. 

WATCH | Peterborough Acting Chief Farquharson discusses challenges of overdose investigations:

Peterborough Acting Chief Farquharson discusses challenges of overdose investigations

4 months ago
Duration 1:33
Tim Farquharson, the acting Chief for the Peterborough Police Service and the co-chair of the substance advisory committee with the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, says it can be difficult to investigate sudden deaths caused by drug overdoses.

As well, Farquharson said, proving intent to murder in an overdose death can be difficult. 

There's no set, standard practice, and no policies across Ontario or Canada, to investigate overdose deaths, he said, but generally, police services are shifting their focus away from criminalizing "social sharing" of drugs and trying to target higher-level traffickers and dealers. 

Alicia Gordon said she can understand the difficulty of investigating overdose deaths and determining whether they were accidental or intentional.

But as an outreach worker in Thunder Bay who is in her own recovery from addiction, Gordon worries some deaths are being mislabelled as accidental, and sliding under the radar of police investigators and coroners.

"I've had a number of clients come up to me and say, 'Somebody tried to hot shot me last night, or so-and-so tried to do this to me and hot shot me.' So it is happening. People are bringing it forward," Gordon said.

Generally, the rare instances of hot shotting can be hard to prove, Gordon added, but she believes there are times when drugs are intentionally laced for "robbery schemes" or "payback."

WATCH | Outreach worker Alicia Gordon details when she was robbed by someone on fentanyl:

Frontline worker Alicia Gordon shares a story of being robbed with fentanyl

4 months ago
Duration 0:35
Alicia Gordon, an outreach worker in Thunder Bay, Ont., describes a time when she was using drugs, and was robbed by someone using fentanyl.

"It's easy for people to be like, 'Oh, they're just an addict.' But the reality is that addicts are people with a disease that is inflicting every aspect of their life, and it's important to start bringing more light to the situation," Gordon said, adding their deaths deserve to be fully investigated.

A confidential report for Ontario's attorney general that was leaked to several media outlets, including CBC News, in March raised the same concern.

The report, compiled by an investigative team that reviewed more than two decades of sudden-death cases in Thunder Bay, included reviews of 16 investigations that were deemed incomplete and failed to meet standards.

The vast majority of the cases focused on Indigenous deaths, but one drew attention to police and coroner treatment of a 2019 fatal drug overdose. The case summary says the coroner almost immediately ruled no foul play was suspected, and neither police nor the coroner seemed to investigate the source of the drugs or if criminal charges should be considered.

There were suspicious circumstances surrounding the death, including the presence of a suspect associated with an earlier drug-related homicide and two other persons of interest, the report said. It recommended the case be referred for a coroner review, given "the lack of resources and strategies to properly investigate and curb these occurrences."

Ontario's chief coroner, Dr. Dirk Huyer, said his office is still awaiting direction or recommendations by the provincial attorney general before undertaking a review of that case.

Since 2017, all coroners are expected to complete a standardized investigative form for suspected drug-related deaths, and coroners work to try to determine provincial trends or patterns, Huyer said.

"Hopefully, as we learn more, we can help to support [harm reduction and preventive] interventions that will reduce the dangerous trend of increased overdoses." 

Still, between 2018 and 2020, none of the suspected overdose deaths in the province have been ruled a homicide, according to the most recent data. Eighty-seven per cent of overdose deaths during that period were ruled accidental, 10 per cent were ruled to be suicide and three per cent were deemed undetermined.

For Danko's family, the difference between those manners of death means everything as they're still trying to piece together what led to his death.

While Moore and her daughters look for answers, they hold tightly to the songs, photos and memories he left behind.

Members of Danko's family, shown outside their home in Thunder Bay a year after his death, say they're holding on to memories of the 43-year-old as they continue to look into how he died. (Logan Turner/CBC )