On a mild winter night in February, Christopher Husbands lay bound with duct tape in a bathtub. The faucet was on, and young men from the Regent Park gang he ran with repeatedly beat and stabbed him.
The motive for the intra-gang violence is unclear. There’s talk of Husbands being robbed, of a brutal gang ritual, and of a spat over a girl.
What’s clear is the blood swirling down the drain that night triggered a months-long outburst of gun violence, terrifying residents of the downtown housing project.
The Star has learned that between March 26 and May 28 police counted close to 90 bullets fired in five different incidents in Regent Park.
Internal gang strife culminated with Husbands accused of firing a barrage of bullets in the crowded Eaton Centre food court last Saturday.
Sources tell the Star that the man killed, 24-year-old Ahmed Hassan, was involved in Husbands’ torture.
It’s not clear whether a 23-year-old man who is fighting for his life and can’t be named under a court publication ban was also in the empty public housing unit at 407 Gerrard St. E., where Husbands was attacked.
But sources say all three were members of what police call Regent Park’s Sic Thugs gang.
The Eaton Centre shooting, which left several bystanders wounded, including a 13-year-old boy, forced a city to take note of the violence that has plagued Regent Park residents for the past several months. There, intra-gang violence has added to what police say is a gang war between Sic Thugs and Project Originals, a group based in the Alexandra Park public housing project near Dundas St. W and Spadina Ave.
Early Friday police arrested Nicholas Dillion-Jack, 18, over a stabbing, and shooting incidents in the rival Dundas St. W. area. A source says he’d been on a “suicide mission” and has ties to the Sic Thugs.
As usual, reputation, turf, drugs and money are at stake, and gang members are playing by the code of the street.
“You are not going to suffer insults, you are going to protect your honour, you will use violence to protect your reputation,” says University of Toronto criminologist Scot Wortley.
The Sic Thugs are believed to have emerged from Point Blank Soldiers, a now-defunct Regent Park gang linked to the 2005 Boxing Day shooting death of bystander Jane Creba, 15, just north of the Eaton Centre.
The police crackdown that followed brought periods of relief from gang violence. But the problem has not gone away, the root causes not suitably addressed.
Issues like funding for youth workers, poverty, lack of opportunity, inadequate housing and perceptions of racial and class bias have been largely absent from news coverage.
“Enforcement alone is not going to stop this problem,” says Wortley, who has interviewed more than 200 current and former gang members.
Predictably, another police crackdown is now underway.
The epicentre of the latest violence is a historic public housing neighbourhood being rebuilt — a rejuvenation that saw a marked decrease in gun crimes.
But a month after the February stabbing of Husbands, 23, bullets began to fly. Not that any hit their mark.
Farhia Osman lives in a Regent Park row house at Dundas and River Sts. On Monday, May 28, she sat down in her kitchen to a supper of rice, chicken and broccoli. Her husband watched the 6 o’clock news in the living room.
One of her young sons finished his homework and prepared to join neighbourhood children playing out back.
Osman then heard sounds she thought were firecrackers. Next thing she knew, the dishes in her drying rack exploded.
“The bullet went through the (back) door and hit all the dishes, and all the dishes came flying at me,” Osman says. “Pieces were falling on top of me while I was sitting there.”
Her son and husband came running. “I said, no-no-no, this is a real gun, it’s a real bullet — don’t come.”
Originally from Somalia, Osman has lived in Regent Park for all but one of her 17 years in Canada. It’s not the first time she’s heard gunfire.
“It happened before, but this time, when it comes to your door, it’s different,” she says.
“Now, my kids cannot even go into the kitchen, they are so afraid,” adds Osman, the mother of five children aged 8 to 16. “They have nightmares.”
“We don’t feel safe, that is what’s going on,” she says.
That evening a bullet also entered a neighbour’s home two doors down, bursting through the bedroom window of Dirsty Bakth’s 11-year-old sister.
“It fell on the bed,” says Bakth, 19, a health studies student at the University of Toronto.
The only warning came from a frightened neighbour.
“My mom heard someone scream and then the woman next door was telling her kids to go inside because there was someone running around just firing bullets,” Bakth says.
Bakth, her parents and three sisters moved to the row house a few months ago. The family felt safe, despite a stabbing nearby. Now, they’re thinking of moving.
“The whole city lately has just been messed up. Just look at the Eaton Centre,” Bakth says.
Police believe the bullets that flew during the supper hour on May 28 — and on the morning of April 1 — were intended to hit a young man living nearby, suspected of being involved in the torture of Husbands.
Behind the row houses is a parking area considered a Sic Thugs hangout by police. On April 21, some 40 shots were fired into vehicles and at least one house in what police believe was a shootout related to the Project Originals rivalry.
Regent Park is the scene for three gang battles. One is the internal Sic Thugs beef that appears to have led to the Eaton Centre shooting. Another is the inter-gang rivalry with the Project Originals, which has simmered for several years. Lastly, there’s turf in play.
Regent Park is bounded by Parliament St. in the west, the Don River to the east, Gerrard St. E. in the north and Shuter St. in the south.
Gangs have traditionally split turf into north and south areas, with Dundas St. serving as the dividing line. Construction has thrown that into flux.
Sic Thugs are apparently sorting out who controls the new steel and glass condo towers gleaming in the rejuvenated portion of the Park. It’s there that another group, known as Click Clack, may also be involved.
“It’s a war over the new Regent Park,” says a well-informed community source.
The Sic Thugs have been on the police radar for several years. The rivalry with the Project Originals came up at a community meeting in September 2010. Members of both groups were “actively involved in drug trafficking, assaults, robberies and firearms-related offences,” according to minutes of the 51 Division Community Police Liaison Committee.
An internal police report after the Creba shooting identified five street gangs operating in Regent Park, including Point Blank Soldiers.
The public face of the Soldiers was that of a celebrated rap group of the same name.
One man named in the internal police report as a member or associate of the gang is Michael Gibson, “a.k.a. ‘Tyke.’ ”
It’s important to note that the line between who is in a gang and who is not is often blurry, says Adonis Huggins, director of a media arts program in Regent Park.
“It’s not as organized as people tend to think,” he says when asked whether a Sic Thugs gang exists in Regent Park. “A lot of it is related to rap (music) groups, and to what extent they’re also dealing (drugs) or involved in those activities, I don’t know.”
Gibson, who did not respond to a Star email, later became one half of a rap duo calling itself TnT Sick Thugz. Google search Sick Thugz online and up come videos of Gibson and partner Chad Briand, better known as Tyke and Turk.
One video, “We In the Hood,” features Blue Jays ball-cap wearing rappers toting a bottle of Grey Goose vodka in the dark and pointing their fingers as if loaded guns.
If you dis, you disappear if it’s a problem / We in the hood, watch what you get involved in
Videos on the pair’s YouTube channel pay tribute to dead colleagues gunned down — like 18-year-old Alwy al-Nadhir, shot and killed by police in 2007 during a botched mugging.
One of the Eaton Centre victims — allegedly a Sic Thugs gang member who remains in critical condition — has a tattoo on his arm commemorating al-Nadhir, who was known on the street as Alweezy.
TnT Sick Thugz’s MySpace site also has photos of thick bundles of $20s, $50s and $100s stacked on what looks like a living-room floor.
Lawyer Susan von Achten represents Gibson and Husbands but insists the two don’t associate.
“The Sick Thugz is not a goddamn gang,” she told the Star in a telephone interview.
“I have been saying this for years in the court . . . If you’re a young male, black, in Regent Park, they call you a Sic Thug gang member and it does not exist.”
She says police have stolen her client’s music label — registered in 2010, she says — and attached it to violence in the neighbourhood. To add insult to injury, she says, they’re not even spelling it right.
On Feb. 19, 2010, police raided a building housing the artists’ recording studios on Polson Pier. They found large quantities of crack cocaine, oxycodone and marijuana, as well as two loaded handguns, according to reports at the time.
Gibson and eight others were rounded up and charged, but were all acquitted, according to von Achten. The seized items were found under ceiling tiles in another area of the building others had access to.
In 2011 Briand and another man were arrested for firearms charges and fleeing from police following a high-speed chase on Hwy 401. Briand may still be in jail, according to an Internet campaign by friends who would like him freed.
Ryan Tucker, project director for MY Regent Park, aimed at preventing gang activity, says the anger groups rap about, and sometimes act on, stems from deeper issues affecting vulnerable youth.
“If we’re working to change the young people, but not the world around the young people, then we’re fighting an uphill battle,” he says, noting youths can lack parental supervision or be exposed to violence at home.
“The question in my mind really is why was the young man holding a gun in the first place?” Tucker says of the Eaton Centre shooting. “When you start to look at answering that question, you have to start to peel back the layers.”
He says youth workers need more resources to identify kids at risk and intervene before conflict begins.
Huggins, the director of the media arts program in Regent Park, says both Husbands and Hassan were regulars in his centre when they were in their early teens.
“We’re about prevention, so it’s a real disappointment,” says Huggins, whose program helps young people make videos, record music and take pictures. “It forces us to say, ‘What could we have done if we had the resources to track these kids, to continue interacting with them throughout their teens?’ ”
Gangs give youths at risk a sense of belonging to a group where everyone faces the same stunted future, adds Huggins, who has worked with Regent Park youth for two decades.
“They don’t see themselves as being able to be successful in life in the typical way,” he says. “They know they’re not doing well at school, they know they’re not going to graduate (and) they know they’re not going to be able to get the kind of dreams that most people have — a car, a house.”
Christopher Husbands was supposed to be under house arrest on St. Clair Ave. the night he found himself bound with duct tape in a Regent Park tub. He was charged with sex assault in November 2010, and his trial is pending. Curiously, he was being tortured in a unit that was once registered to one of the sureties that got him bail. She no longer lives there.
For a spell, Husbands was left alone and managed to turn on the tub faucet, apparently in an effort to attract help. When his captors returned, they beat him and stabbed him about 20 times. They took his money, too.
Internal gang violence is hardly a rare occurrence, says U of T criminologist Scot Wortley, author of the 2010 report Youth Gangs and Violence.
“Despite the language of brotherhood, of friendship, of family, often gangs involve individuals who are not very nice people. They’re selfish, they’re violent, and they turn against each other.”
Somehow, Husbands staggered to the street, where a bystander called an ambulance.
Husbands’ father says he had troubles as a youth, but showed signs of turning his life around. He’d gotten a job working in an after-school program for children and had been attending George Brown College.
Just after 6 p.m. on Saturday, June 2, shots in the crowded Urban Eatery food court at the Eaton Centre sent terrified people running for their lives.
The bullets found their mark.
What was to be a community barbecue June 16 in Regent Park celebrating a decline in crime is now being rebranded to emphasize gun and gang awareness.
The young boy who was shot in the head is expected to make a full recovery.
Dillion-Jack, who briefly eluded police after an intense manhunt this week, made a brief court appearance late Friday. He is a close acquaintance of the suspected Sic Thugs member critically wounded at the Eaton Centre. He was remanded in custody and is set to appear in Old City Hall courtroom 111 on June 25.
Police have launched what they are calling Project Post in the wake of the Eaton Centre shooting. It will mean the deployment of more officers into the affected downtown neighbourhoods.
Police and politicians have urged the public to see the shooting in a crowded public space as a rare event, the work of “one idiot with a gun,” as Acting Deputy Chief Jeff McGuire put it.
In Regent Park, it doesn’t seem that way.
—The Toronto Star