This story is part of CBC's One Bullet series. Each instalment takes a close look at a shooting from somewhere in Canada — who was hurt or killed; who was held accountable; and how did the fallout impact friends, family and first responders.
Someone called around midnight saying they had heard gunshots.
It was a sticky, hot night in early summer 2001, but quiet, recalled Peter Sloly, who was Toronto's top cop on duty at the time. And the site of this possible shooting — in the downtown core, around Sherbourne Street and Bloor Street East — straddled two or three police divisions.
Cops rolled in from different divisions, "buzzing around, trying to locate whatever they could," said Sloly.
"But not a lot of success."
That intersection is an odd part of town. North of Bloor, there's wealthy, verdant Rosedale; south, the crowded, high concrete towers of St. James Town, then overrun with gangs and crime. The perpetually busy Yonge Street is just a few blocks west. East, the land falls away into the Don Valley, a deep stretch of trees, rail lines and traffic jams. There were, and still are, lots of places something bad could happen without being seen.
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Sloly himself went out to look, prowling the area in a cruiser, trying to "confirm or invalidate" the call. Was there any sign, anywhere, that someone had fired a gun and, if so, had anyone been hit?
"We don't want to drive away without being certain one way or the other," he said.
He ended up on Rosedale Valley Road; two lanes with trees and other greenery high on both sides that just happens to link one of the city's wealthiest neighbourhoods with one of its busiest expressways. There's even a wooden foot bridge overhead that connects Rosedale with Bloor Street.
Sloly pulled over, stopped and collected his thoughts. That's when the first drops landed on his windshield.
At first, he thought the humid night was turning to rain. Then, he realized, no, that's blood. There was blood dripping on his car, coming down from the foot bridge.
He radioed in that there might be someone hurt up there.
"And it turns out that this was, in fact, a crime scene."
'Back in 10 minutes'
Earlier that evening, just a few blocks away, Audette Shephard was at home in the St. James Town apartment she shared with her 19-year-old son, Justin.
He was there with his girlfriend, Latanya Langford, who by that time was impatient for their Friday night to get underway. After being together for about 10 months, they were finally going on a proper date to the movies. Then, Justin got a phone call.
"I heard his phone ring," Audette recalled.
He came into her room a moment later.
"He said, 'Mom, I’ll be back in 10 minutes.’"
Langford didn't know where he was going, but she wanted to come along.
"He was agitated. He's like, 'No, you're staying here. I'll be right back,'" Langford recalled.
Justin left. His mom and girlfriend waited: 10 minutes, then 15, 25.
I was just bawling. I said, 'Not my child. Not my child.'
- Audette Shephard
Audette tried calling him — no answer. Langford called people in the neighbourhood — no one had seen him. They got in Audette's car and drove by his usual haunts. “Had anyone seen Sheep?” they asked, using Justin’s nickname.
"It was horrible because, where did he go?" said Langford. "Where did he disappear to? Who called him? Why isn't he calling me back?"
Eventually, they gave up and headed home, hoping he'd resurface the next day. That morning, Langford called the police, planning to pose as Justin's sister, so they would tell her whether he'd been picked up.
The police said they were coming to her. Langford didn't like the sound of that. When police pay a visit, she said, "It's usually for a bad — something bad."
Soon after, Langford got a call from Audette, who was just getting out of church. They'd agreed to touch base in the morning, to see if the other had heard anything, and it sounded like Langford wasn't sure what to tell her.
"She said that — that someone got killed at the bridge," Audette recalled. "And she says the police are coming."
Audette got into her car. A news report repeated what Langford had just told her: someone had been shot on the Rosedale foot bridge.
"I was just bawling. I said, 'Not my child. Not my child,'" she said.
"I just kept saying … ‘It's not him. It's not him.’"
Justin Shephard was pronounced dead at St. Michael's Hospital in the wee hours of June 23, 2001. He had been shot twice in the head.
It was reportedly one of three fatal shootings in the city that weekend — all the victims were young men — and its 19th homicide of the year. The number would reach 59 by the end of the year, according to police statistics, about average for the late '90s and early '00s and far from the record-setting 89 killings a decade earlier, which was broken in 2018.
These numbers represent 'total firearms, use of, discharge, pointing,' according to Statistics Canada.
The photo released by investigators at the time shows a young black man with cornrows, a faint goatee and wide-set eyes. He's not smiling. Audette says her son had grown "rougher" since they moved into the neighbourhood, from suburban Mississauga in the late '90s.
Though the case would go on to generate a lot of press, the initial reports were brief. CBC reported that Justin had died just a few days before he would have graduated high school, and his vice-principal said he was shocked and saddened. A homicide detective said Justin was known to police — he had a record from his youth — and added that, at the time, there was no information linking the case to gangs or drugs.
Audette called for witnesses, perpetrators, anyone with "any kind of a conscience ... any kind of love in your heart," to come forward.
And that was it. Except for the basketball. If there was an angle to the story in the early days, it wasn't that Justin was bright and well liked or that there was a lack of leads in the case. It was that Justin had landed a prestigious basketball scholarship at a preparatory school in Maryland and was widely thought to be bound for the NBA. There, he probably would have crossed paths with his older, six-foot, 11-inch tall half-brother, Jamaal Magloire, then the centre for the Charlotte Hornets.
Magloire and Justin shared a father, who by this time had split from Audette. Magloire was undergoing shoulder surgery when word of the shooting arrived. His team broke it to him when he woke up from surgery. He dropped everything and came home with his arm in a sling.
"I envisioned, you know, him being a professional athlete," he said of Justin. "I envisioned him going to college and being a star."
Justin was smaller but fast and nimble, Magloire said, "a lot better than I was at that age."
On the day of Justin's funeral — it was a big event, hundreds of people turned up — the school in Maryland called Audette. They wanted to know why Justin hadn't checked in. She told them she had just buried him.
The investigation did not go well. There seemed to have been only a few, faint leads, most notably that Justin had been seen, after leaving the apartment, at a nearby Jamaican restaurant with three young men. They were joking and laughing over patties and soda, according to a woman who worked there and spoke to investigators.
Other people reported seeing a vehicle parked near the bridge around the time of the shooting. A man had come running, jumped in, and it tore off, going the wrong way down a one-way street. It might have been beige, or not, maybe an SUV or a van or something smaller.
If you know something, why aren’t you saying anything? If that’s your friend, what happened?
- Latanya Langford
But no one from the neighbourhood would talk to police, including the three young men seen with Justin — whom CBC is not naming because their knowledge of, or involvement in the killing has never been proven.
Langford says she knows the three and that they were a constant presence in Justin's life — "always up to no good," though she says she's not sure if they were involved with gangs or drugs.
"You know bad company from bad company," she said.
She said she was "disgusted" by their refusal to talk to police.
"If you know something, why aren’t you saying anything? If that’s your friend, what happened?"
The police put up a $50,000 reward for information, which Magloire matched. Still nothing. Magloire even tried to get his own answers, canvassing the area, hoping people would be more likely to talk to him than to the police. He was wrong.
Asked point blank by CBC if his good friend Justin was caught up in gangs or drugs, Carlton Cohen wouldn’t say.
But Cohen, a former gang leader who now works with troubled and special-needs kids, says he knows the three who were with Justin that night and says they have been involved with street crime.
"They’re serious," he said. "All those three names are serious people."
Cohen says he was in "the game" for years. He got out eventually, but he remembers those days — "in the limelight" — as an infinite loop of parties, basketball and making money.
"Lot of hustling … We wake up; we come to the block; we play basketball; we go party; we comes back; we make money. That was life," he said.
You can't talk ... Because if they know that you snitch, they are coming for you.
- Carlton Cohen
Cohen was in prison at the time of Justin’s death but says he did his best to find out what he and the others had been up to and what happened on the bridge.
"I heard that they went to meet on the bridge to do some type of transaction … between weapons and drugs" he said.
But he also admits the information he gathered is "all speculation, all accusation."
One thing he is certain of, though, is why no one, least of all the three young men who were with Justin, will tell police what happened.
"You can't talk," he said of "the code" that exists within St. James Town and some other neighbourhoods.
"That's the code, and it is serious. Because if they know that you snitch, they are coming for you.”
Cohen said he has felt that pressure to stay quiet himself. On Nov. 4, 2008, he was at home — not far from St. James Town — watching Barack Obama win the U.S. presidency. Someone knocked on his door and put three bullets through it when he came to answer. One went into his torso.
Cohen said he remembers calling his mom and 911 — in that order — and then hearing a nurse at St. Michael’s Hospital say they were losing him.
He says he eventually learned who had shot him but didn’t tell police. At the time, he admits, he wanted revenge, although he says he has since found religion and forgiven his assailant.
"Things happen on the street. Things happen."
Justin Shephard's killing remains unsolved and is one of roughly 600 cold homicide cases on file with the Toronto police.
Det.-Sgt. Stacy Gallant, the officer who oversees those cases, says, at this point — after what was an extensive investigation by some of the city's top homicide investigators — a break in the case would probably mean someone would have to come forward.
"This is a case that basically cannot be resolved without a witness," he said.
"There's no forensics that are going to solve this case."
No useful DNA was found. Search warrants and phone records turned up nothing. Surveillance cameras were scarce back then, so video was no real help.
Ballistics was a dead end, too. Gallant suspects the gun was disposed of, because it has never again been used in a crime in Canada.
Sometimes, though "not often enough," people come forward to unburden themselves, Gallant says.
"The hope would be that, as people grow and mature, and become mothers or fathers themselves, they might then have that moral responsibility click in," he said.
Nobody is ever prepared. Nobody ever is OK.
- Audette Shephard
Meanwhile, the effects of the shooting are still being felt. Audette went on to co-found an organization that helps mothers who have lost children to violence.
She says she was struck, during her ordeal, by how little support was available for bereaved parents.
"Nobody is ever prepared. Nobody ever is OK," she said.
Justin’s death was her "call to action." Before that, she didn't know where police headquarters was. Now, she's well known in police circles and speaks casually about her friendly working relationships with the city's mayor and chief of police.
Sloly, the police officer who was on duty that night, says in the wake of Justin's death, Audette "propelled herself and many others in a very productive … and widely enabling way."
Could she have had such a positive impact on her community without suffering that loss?
"It's hard to tell … which way the scales would have balanced out, with the loss of potential, of one life, and the impact from the passion of the other," Sloly said.
Audette grew closer to Magloire and started volunteering by leading prayer groups for young men in prison.
Magloire retired from professional basketball in 2012 — after stints with the Miami Heat, the Dallas Mavericks and other teams — and is now an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors. He formed and runs a foundation that hands out college scholarships to disadvantaged kids and works with charities, including a children's breakfast program and a group that helps women transitioning out of prison.
He says Justin's death changed his relationship with the city and his community.
"I try to, you know, help people more than I might have if I didn't have to go through that ordeal. It kind of brought me close to this city," he said.
He thinks about his half-brother every day.
"I mean even now that it's 17 years later, it's still very difficult each day to process it and ask questions — ‘What if?’"
Langford thinks about Justin, too, and worries her children might meet a similar fate. She has four, and one is the age Justin was when he died.
"I fear for his life every single day," she said, "because he has friends that, you know, are up to no good."
The ripple effect that can come from a shooting is never far from her mind.
"That one bullet — you don't know whose name is on that bullet,” she said. “And it affects people's lives just as much as it does for, you know, the family itself."
Last year, Audette found renewed hope that Justin's killing might be solved. During one of her visits to prison for her prayer group, a young inmate approached and asked if she'd pray for him. He had an upcoming court appearance.
While they were talking, she spotted another inmate out of the corner of her eye. He'd picked up her pen and was writing something on a scrap of paper.
"He said, 'Miss, take this,'" she recalled.
She couldn't. It's against prison rules. He said, "Miss, just read it then."
It said: "The man who killed your son was," and then a name.
The man who was identified by the inmate was shot and killed about a year after Justin. CBC is not naming him in order to protect the identity of his sister, who agreed to talk to us.
She says she knows that her brother, who was 21 when he died, was involved in street violence but finds it hard to believe he could have killed someone.
"I can't see or picture my brother, you know, pulling the trigger and taking another person's life. But again, I can't, I couldn’t say for sure," she said.
"[There are] a lot of pieces of the puzzle missing.”
Audette still has the note — she broke the prison rules and took it with her, which got her suspended from the volunteer program. It's fragile and stays in her purse, worn through where it’s been folded and refolded.
She Googled the man’s name but didn't recognize his face.
But Carlton Cohen says he knew him and saw another side of him than his sister.
"I know that that guy [was] a killer," Cohen said. "So brutal, so cold, so malicious."
Audette says she passed the man's name along to Toronto's chief of police in October 2017 but hasn't heard back.
Gallant, the cold case investigator, said he didn’t know anything about the note. He would not say whether the man was ever a person of interest during the initial investigation.
That man's homicide has not been solved.
Radio producers: Joan Webber, Jessica Linzey | Copy editors: Kazi Stastna, Andre Mayer, Sherry Noik | Digital lead producer: Ruby Buiza | Development: Rebecca Viegas | Art director & animator: Ben Shannon | Statistics/research: Olivia Pasquarelli | Videos: Sinisa Jolic, Jessica Linzey (Justin Shephard), Peter Scobie, Jessica Linzey (Donna Irwin), Sinisa Jolic, Ruby Buiza (Tom Sharkey) | Video editors: Sinisa Jolic, Phil Leung |