Family of gunsmith killed in raid files $23M lawsuit against Toronto police board

·6 min read
Rodger Kotanko, 70, was born and raised in Norfolk County in Ontario. His family says he loved hunting and fishing, as well as skydiving in his younger years. He is survived by his wife Jessie, daughter Minying, and Colton and Conner. (Submitted by Jeffrey Kotanko - image credit)
Rodger Kotanko, 70, was born and raised in Norfolk County in Ontario. His family says he loved hunting and fishing, as well as skydiving in his younger years. He is survived by his wife Jessie, daughter Minying, and Colton and Conner. (Submitted by Jeffrey Kotanko - image credit)

The family of a renowned gunsmith who died after officers raided his workshop is suing the Toronto Police Service for $23 million, alleging the"unlawful" act led to Rodger Kotanko's "wrongful death."

The statement of claim filed Tuesday morning at Simcoe Superior Court names five "John Doe" officers, Insp. Norman Proctor, Chief James Ramer and the Toronto Police Services Board for their involvement in the Nov. 3 raid at Kotanko's workshop in Norfolk County, Ont.

CBC Hamilton previously reported that a TPS officer shot the 70-year-old while executing a search warrant.

Kotanko is survived by his wife, Xueqin Mai (also known as Jessie), daughter Minying, and sons Colton and Conner.

His family, including his wife, who was home when police arrived, raised questions about how the raid took place and why they never received or saw a search warrant until over a month later.

"No amount of money can ever make up for the loss of Rodger, but a $23-million lawsuit makes a statement," Michael Smitiuch, the family's lawyer, told CBC Hamilton on Monday.

"It makes a statement that his life mattered, what happened to him is unacceptable, and it also makes a statement as to the horrendous and significant losses his family have suffered."

TPS previously would not comment on the case, citing an active investigation by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU). CBC has contacted TPS for comment on the lawsuit. The courthouse said Tuesday that no statement of defence has yet been filed.

The claims haven't been proven in court and CBC has not seen search warrant documents.

Seized handguns allegedly linked to Kotanko

The lawyer told CBC they received the search warrant documents from TPS in December.

Smitiuch said those documents allege two pistols seized in Toronto and North Bay last year with their serial numbers shaved off were linked to Kotanko. The lawyer said police allege Kotanko unlawfully transferred the guns to someone.

Smitiuch and the family deny the allegation, saying Kotanko followed the rules and he was knowledgable enough to know shaving off the serial number and inscription wouldn't entirely remove them. Smitiuch added even if the allegation is true, he shouldn't have died because of it.

Smitiuch and Kotanko's brother, Jeff Kotanko, said the gunsmith had a log book with all of his records and transactions, but can't access it because Toronto police have it.

The family's statement of claim takes issue with the warrant, alleging officers didn't do enough research when applying for it.

Bobby Hristova/CBC
Bobby Hristova/CBC

The statement also claims officers used "irrelevant and prejudicial information" about Kotanko to get the warrant approved.

Smitiuch said TPS cited two convictions Kotanko faced when he was 19, more than 50 years ago: One was for possession of cannabis with the intent of trafficking and the other was for illegally building a gun.

Smitiuch and Jeff Kotanko point to how despite these charges, he was still a certified gunsmith for decades, passing regular inspections by Ontario's chief firearms officer.

"What is the possible relevance of those events, I don't know," Smitiuch said.

Jeff Kotanko described the gun related to that prior conviction as a flintlock pistol similar to what can be seen in Pirates of the Caribbean and said the gun didn't take any bullets.

He also said Rodger Kotanko never dealt drugs and the charge says there was intent of trafficking because of the amount of cannabis he had.

Police raid was unlawful, lawyer says

The statement of claim states TPS watched the gunsmith at his home on Nov. 2, 2021, and applied for a firearms search warrant they wanted to execute the next day on an "urgent basis." On Nov. 3, the warrant got approval and police moved.

The statement also claims members of the Integrated Gun and Gang Task Force, Firearm Enforcement Unit and Firearm Information Analysis Unit allegedly set up a staging ground near Kotanko's home and workshop on Port Ryerse Road. They also reportedly brought an ambulance, it says.

Police monitored Kotanko that morning, the statement says. Just before noon, Kotanko and his wife arrived home, where an apparent customer was waiting for Kotanko.

At about noon, officers struck, the statement says.

Bobby Hristova/CBC
Bobby Hristova/CBC

The statement says an officer shot Kotanko four times while the alleged customer was inside the workshop. It's unclear what happened to the apparent customer. The family says they still don't know the person's identity.

The statement says police would not let Mai near Kotanko as he was being put into an ambulance and sent away.

"He was a dying man and the police would not allow her to get near Rodger, and so that has caused her great sadness, grief and she is traumatized by all of the events of that day," Smitiuch said.

CBC previously spoke with neighbours and family who said they saw police arrive that day. They also said police apprehended Mai at gunpoint in front of their home, before they approached Kotanko's workshop, shot him and sent him off in an ambulance that they arrived with, and local police only arrived after the raid.

The statement says TPS seized many items, including firearms and Kotanko's cellphone, but never presented anyone with a search warrant. Smitiuch said there are doubts any of the officers had a physical copy of the search warrant when they conducted the raid, which would make the raid unlawful, he said.

The statement also states TPS hasn't accounted for more than $20,000 in cash taken from Kotanko's safe in his workshop.

"Without brave people like his family stepping forward and saying, 'This is not right,' we won't make change, we won't find out the truth," Smitiuch said.

Bobby Hristova/CBC
Bobby Hristova/CBC

The family says Kotanko's death could have been avoided with better planning. The state of claim says it didn't "consult and co-ordinate" with local police and " failed to take steps to apprehend or detain Rodger in a location that would have minimized the potential for harm."

"Why would you let someone go into a building full of guns if you're trying to do a search warrant ... you're endangering yourself, that customer, the person you're going to do the search warrant on," Jeff Kotanko said on Monday.

Since the raid, the statement says, family members "continue to suffer, physically, psychologically and emotionally." The statement says they are experiencing nightmares, flashbacks and depression, among other issues, because of the incident.

SIU, TPS investigations ongoing

SIU spokesperson Kristy Denette told CBC Hamilton investigators are still pursuing an interview with a civilian. Denette previously said the SIU spoke to seven witness officers and two civilian witnesses.

The officer who shot Kotanko declined an interview and declined to surrender his notes, SIU said, as is his legal right.

Submitted by Colton Kotanko
Submitted by Colton Kotanko

Toronto police are also conducting their own internal investigation.

Spokesperson Connie Osborne told CBC Hamilton in December the professional standards unit started at the same time as the SIU investigation.

Osborne said the investigation is ongoing and details can't be released unless the matter is heard at a disciplinary tribunal.

Kotanko was born and raised in Norfolk County and grew up on a farm with his siblings, according to his brother.

The gunsmith's 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.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting