The Crown has withdrawn manslaughter charges against a 59-year-old man from Collingwood, Ont., who shot and killed two masked men who zip-tied and held him at gunpoint in a chaotic home invasion.
"It was terrifying," Cameron Gardiner said, speaking publicly for the first time since the event. The details of the case had previously been under a publication ban.
It was the early-morning hours of Jan. 22, 2019, and Gardiner and his girlfriend were watching a movie in their townhouse in Collingwood, about 150 kilometres north of Toronto.
"And next thing I know, the door gets kicked in," Gardiner said in an interview with CBC News.
Three masked men forced their way into his home. One was wearing a clown mask; the other a balaclava; and the third had a scarf pulled up to his eyes. One of the men was armed with a sawed-off shotgun.
"My girlfriend tried to run for the stairs, but they tackled her and put her back on the couch," Gardiner said. "[They] zip-tied us both and zip-tied my dog to my leg with another zip tie."
The men took turns guarding the couple while searching the house. They brought a safe downstairs to the living room, and Gardiner said they began hitting him and demanding he tell them the code, but Gardiner didn't have it because the safe didn't belong to him.
"You can't give something you don't know," he said. "And my girlfriend was screaming and crying. She was terrified, and so was I."
Surveillance cameras in home
Unbeknown to the home invaders, there were surveillance cameras in the house linked to an app on Gardiner's son's phone.
Gardiner's son, who was 19 at the time, didn't live with him, but he was at the home regularly and, according to court documents, was known to sell marijuana from a bedroom on the third floor.
When he saw what was happening, he made a beeline from his home to his father's house.
He arrived just as his father managed to slip out of his zip ties. According to court documents, as Gardiner's son grappled with one of the intruders outside the back door, the shotgun was dropped. His father grabbed it, and another intruder tried to wrestle it away from him. The gun fired, and the intruder who was fighting with the son was hit.
The elder Gardiner and the intruder in the clown mask continued to struggle over the gun. It was racked in the struggle, which put another load in the chamber, and according to Gardiner, that's when it fired and killed the man in the mask.
In the court documents, Gardiner says the masked man then staggered out of the house.
In the end, two men lay dead in the snow in the backyard, both shot in the chest. They were later identified as Dean Copkov, 52, and Donovan Bass, 42.
Copkov was a longtime stuntman whose resumé included RoboCop, the Resident Evil franchise, The Incredible Hulk and the Canadian series Lost Girl. Copkov was about to be sentenced on drug charges in Montreal before he died, according to court records.
Bass was described in his obituary as a "beloved son" and "loving father."
The families of Copkov and Bass did not immediately reply to a request for comment from CBC News.
Surprised to be taken into custody
During the mayhem, the third intruder leapt out of a second-storey window and escaped. Court records also reveal that Gardiner's son left the scene with the safe and a bag before police arrived.
Gardiner defends his actions and points out that his eight-year-old daughter was also sleeping next door.
"I'm assuming that they're going to kill me," he said. "What are you supposed to think that they're just going to ... it's a what? A polite home invasion with a gun? I can't take no chances with any of that in my life. It's my kids. I'm not taking chances."
Gardiner said he was surprised when Ontario Provincial Police officers took him into custody.
"I told them that the third guy was running. If you hurry, you can catch them. They decided to come to the apartment first," he said.
Shortly after, Gardiner was loaded into a police cruiser.
"I really was in shock. Like, I just went through hell," he said.
Crown initially pursued murder charges
The Crown originally pursued second-degree murder charges against Gardiner, but in November 2020, after a preliminary inquiry, a judge decided the evidence — which she noted in her decision was largely circumstantial — merited manslaughter charges instead.
In her November decision, Ontario Court Justice A.M. Nichols said that while there was some evidence Gardiner had control of the weapon when the shots were fired, no witness saw the shootings take place. She described the evidence as "murky."
On Tuesday afternoon in Barrie, Ont., Crown prosecutor Bhavna Bhangu withdrew all charges against Gardiner during a video court hearing, saying that after a thorough review, the Crown determined there was no reasonable prospect of conviction.
Acting Sgt. Martin Hachey of the OPP detachment in Collingwood said he couldn't comment on why the charges were withdrawn.
"I can tell you that, certainly, our jobs as officers is to investigate an occurrence and, of course, lay charges accordingly based on the investigation and the evidence collected," he said.
"I don't know exactly what took place in this case or what brought about that particular decision, but on our end ... that's the job we [had] to do, and that's what we did in this case."
In a statement, the Ministry of the Attorney General said, "The Crown has a duty to assess the strength of a case ... and after careful consideration, the Crown determined that a withdrawal of these charges was appropriate.
Lawyers worry about 'chilling effect' for others
Toronto criminal lawyers Robb MacDonald and Elliott Willschick, who represented Gardiner, said they're pleased the charges were withdrawn.
"I think it's an indication that at the end of the day, the Crown attorney, the Crown attorney's office, finally sees this case for what it is. And it was a man defending himself and his house and his loved ones," MacDonald said.
But Willschick said he worries people may see what his client went through and hesitate to protect themselves in similar situations.
"It may have a chilling effect on people," he said. "You don't want people to think when someone is facing a home invasion and a gun's at their head and they have to think, 'Well, if I do this, am I going to spend a few months in jail? Am I going to be punished criminally?'
"It's a dynamic situation. You have someone who's in shock, whose adrenaline is pumping. And so, essentially, you have someone who did the right thing. He was trying to protect his family."
WATCH | Ontario man describes when 3 intruders entered his home in 2019:
As for Gardiner, he said that while he is relieved the charges were withdrawn, the event left him traumatized.
"I'm always worried about the door, always looking at the door or seeing [if] someone else is going to kick in. But it's just something you don't forget," he said.
"I got to try and forgive myself and move on with my life."