Questions swirl about how Toronto woman fell from balcony as family points fingers at police

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Questions are swirling about exactly what happened to a woman who apparently fell to her death from an apartment balcony in Toronto's High Park neighbourhood on Wednesday.

What began as a 911 call for help for Regis Korchinski-Paquet ended in her death, her family told reporters at a news conference on Thursday.

Korchinski-Paquet was an active member of her church, a talented gymnast and proud of her Ukrainian and Nova Scotian roots, her family's lawyer Knia Singh said Thursday. But in the last five years, Singh said she began experiencing epilepsy, and the family sometimes required help from police.

Speaking outside the apartment building, Singh said Korchinski-Paquet's mother called police around 5:15 p.m. ET to the family's apartment at 100 High Park Ave. after a conflict that left the 29-year-old in "distress."

"I asked the police if they could take my daughter to CAMH, and my daughter ended up dead," said Claudette Korchinski-Beals, referring to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

Police Chief Mark Saunders told reporters Thursday that officers received a "frantic" call reporting an assault and were at the scene within four minutes.

Grant Linton/CBC
Grant Linton/CBC

They arrived on the 24th floor where they met Korchinski-Paquet, her brother and mother in the hallway. As they made their way down the hall, Singh said, "words were exchanged" between Korchinski-Paquet and police.

Korchinski-Paquet then told police she had to use the bathroom, Singh said. Police allowed her into the unit, and her brother witnessed "multiple" officers going in behind her. He tried to go in as well but was stopped from entering.

'How can a call for assistance turn into a loss of life?'

Within a minute or two, Singh said, the family heard commotion. Then, they heard Korchinski-Paquet cry out, "Mom help. Mom help. Mom help."

Moments later, there was silence. Police soon confirmed she was dead.

"How can a call for assistance turn into a loss of life?" Singh said.

The family's news conference comes after video of Korchinski-Paquet's mother and cousin emerged on social media alleging police pushed her from the balcony.

"The police killed my daughter," Korchinski-Beals said in one video.

In the days after those comments, the family's lawyer later said it is "waiting on evidence from the investigation before any further conclusions can be made." Singh added that statements made prior to May 28 are not part of the official Korchinski-Paquet statement.

Ontario's police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit, said in a news release Wednesday night that while officers were inside the apartment unit, they "observed a woman on the balcony."

"A short time later, the woman fell from the balcony to the ground below. She was pronounced dead at the scene."

In a second release Thursday, the SIU said it is "aware of allegations made by certain family members of the deceased" and is looking to speak with anyone with information. An autopsy was scheduled for Thursday afternoon.

Sannah Choi/CBC
Sannah Choi/CBC

Family calling for any footage to be preserved

What happened inside is still unclear. No family members were inside the unit at the time of her death, and it's unclear if anyone witnessed her fall.

Through their lawyer, the family is now calling for any video footage, including from the apartment's hallway, to be turned over to police. They also called for the officers involved to be named publicly.

They also worry race may have played a role in Korchinski-Paquet's death, citing the case of Andrew Loku, a father of five from Sudan diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder who was shot dead within minutes of police arriving at his apartment in 2015. Police found Loku wielding a hammer, with the officer who fired the fatal shots later testifying he feared for his life.

Korchinski-Paquet's family also cited the case of D'Andre Campbell who was fatally shot by Peel police in Brampton, Ont., in April, after what the SIU called a "domestic situation." Campbell's family said he suffered from mental illness.

"The family is extremely concerned that in recent times people with mental health distress issues across North America are ending up dead after interactions with the police," Singh said.

Police chief urges witnesses to contact SIU

Meanwhile, Toronto's police chief is urging any witnesses to contact the SIU.

"We know this incident has caused a great deal of concern, and our thoughts are with the family and the community," Saunders said in a statement. "Let me be very clear that we want the facts as much as anyone."

Saunders said the force is co-operating with the SIU but is not "legally permitted to discuss the incident at this time."

At a news conference Thursday, he suggested no body cameras were in use at the time, saying, "This might be a textbook case in which body cameras should be provided."

Yan Jun Li/CBC
Yan Jun Li/CBC

Toronto Mayor John Tory offered his condolences to the family of Korchinski-Paquet while acknowledging their questions.

Tory said he supports the SIU's investigation, emphasizing the police watchdog is separate and independent from the Toronto police.

"I know that any delay in getting answers is incredibly frustrating for people, myself included, who want to know what happened," he said in a statement. "But this independent investigation is necessary to provide our community with all the facts and to ensure full accountability and transparency."

Meanwhile, an online petition has been launched calling for transparency in the investigation. So far, it has amassed over 9,500 signatures.

'What happened for her to be on the ground?'

Outside the building on Wednesday night, Roy Dawson, a pastor of Peace Community Church of Jesus Christ told CBC News that Korchinski-Paquet was an active member of his congregation who came to virtually every church cookout.

"She was a delight," he said.

"She was very kind. She'd give you anything. She'd give you the shirt off her back if she had to."

Dawson said he was getting ready for a virtual Bible study when he got a call from family members saying, "Please come now. She's dead.' I was hoping it was not true," he said.

Like the family, Dawson has questions about just what happened.

"What happened for her to be on the ground? The sad thing is I couldn't get that answer because it was only police and her alone in the apartment. And for me, that makes me really uneasy."