A notorious gunman killed in a Toronto police raid. Family, experts want to know why

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

The two brothers have met almost daily for the past 14 years. They lived minutes away from each other in Norfolk County, deep in southern Ontario near Lake Erie.

But that Wednesday, they didn’t go fishing.

Instead, Jeffrey found himself rushing to his brother’s house after hearing Rodger’s wife, Jessie.

“She said there are guys out there with guns and Rodger’s injury,” Jeffrey told CBC Hamilton.

Hearing about Rodger near guns was not unusual – he was a world-renowned gunman, known as one of the best in Canada and some local police officers relied on to repair his guns, according to people who knew him.

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

But hearing that his brother was injured had Jeffrey rushing to Rodger’s home on Port Ryerse Road.

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

What exactly happened 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 is 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 carrying assault rifles had Jessie at gunpoint as she unloaded food from the vehicle.

Some officers wore simple clothing while others wore tactical tools, according to family, friends, neighbors and Michael Smitiuch, the family’s attorney, with whom everyone spoke to CBC this week.

They say Toronto police brought their own ambulance and paramedics when they first arrived, a move by Toronto defense attorney Kim Schofield, who has worked on many cases involving the SIU, said was “very unusual.”

Schofield said officers should also usually give the family a copy of the search warrant.

“This is madness,” she said upon hearing of the case.

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

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

“The group of police officers moved to the store door and nothing was said … within seconds, four shots rang out,” Dixon said.

Fraser Pringle, Rodger’s next-door neighbor, said he heard two of those shots.

“I got out here and they rolled him out on a boardwalk, threw him into an ambulance and took him,” he said.

“His wife was standing on the porch crying.”

Fraser Pringle, Kotanko’s neighbor, says he heard two shots before walking to Kotanko’s home and seeing police at the scene, next to the gunman’s crying wife. (Bobby Hristova / CBC)

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

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

Family held ‘in the dark’: a lawyer

Smitiuch said SIU and Toronto police kept the family “in the dark.”

“I was detained when the family felt they were not getting answers,” he said in an interview Wednesday afternoon, ahead of a press conference he was expected to host at the family’s home on Thursday to draw attention to the case.

We are looking for answers and responsibility … the problem we have is that we don’t have a real witness we could talk to who saw all the events.– Michael Smitiuch, lawyer for Rodger Kotanko’s family

“We’re looking for answers and responsibility … the problem we have is that we don’t have a real witness we could talk to who saw all the events.”

The family and Smitiuch have no copy of the search warrant police used and do not have enough information to receive a copy. He added that he had not heard from Toronto police or SIU.

Smitiuch said they could not track down the apparent customer who was with Rodger and the SIU could not confirm to CBC News whether a second person was in the workshop.

“Rodger’s phone is at the police now and no one else in the family has spoken to this individual. There is no certainty about exactly who this person was.”

Experts question police access

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

While police and the SIU did not confirm whether this was a unstoppable attack or “dynamic entry” – when police enter an apartment with a search warrant but without giving prior notice to residents – lawyers familiar with those cases say it sounds like such. Toronto police do hundreds of surprise attacks a year.

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

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

“What possible justification could there be for them to shoot 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 conducted at noon instead of at 3 or 5 p.m.

“The reason they do that … the element of surprise, most people are in bed and it’s for the safety of everyone involved … and the second part is the preservation of evidence.”

Smitiuch said he has questions about why police expected 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’s and a butcher’s working with a knife, they shouldn’t be surprised … When you walk into a gunman’s shop, what the hell are you waiting to see?

“The family is destroyed, they are heartbroken but they are also angry and they are afraid … the police must serve and protect, not surprise and kill,” Smitiuch said.

Dixon said Rodger’s death was preventable.

“It would just knock on the door.”

Rodger was remembered as a master gunner

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 began when he was young.

He worked as a certified gunman for decades, passing regular inspections by the Chief Gun Officer of Ontario (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 he also shipped and sold them, according to the website.

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

“He was known all over North America and other countries in the world … I would argue that he was one of the best pistol smiths in this country,” Nagy said.

Smitiuch said Rodger had a huge reputation as a gunman and because he was a certified gunman, his criminal record was “squeaky clean.”

Kotanko, 70, loved hunting and fishing, and in his younger years, parachuting, say those close to him. He is survived by his wife Jessie, daughter Minying, and sons Colton and Conner. (Sent 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 honor him and hold police accountable.

“Jessie doesn’t even care about the money. She wants justice,” Rodger’s brother Jeffrey said.

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