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Gunsmith's family launches lawsuit against Toronto police over shooting death

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The family of a gunsmith shot and killed by Toronto police launched a lawsuit against the service Tuesday, alleging officers used excessive force and failed to serve a search warrant when they raided the man's home in southwestern Ontario late last year.

Relatives of Rodger Kotanko, 70, are seeking $23 million in damages in the wrongful death suit filed in Ontario Superior Court.

The province's police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit, is investigating. It has said one officer shot and killed Kotanko on Nov. 3, 2021, in Port Dover, Ont. 

A lawyer for Kotanko's family said the man's loved ones are "broken." 

"What happened to Rodger should never have happened," said Michael Smitiuch. "Unfortunately, Rodger was killed during the raid, so he can't defend himself, but the family will do that and they will defend his reputation."

Toronto police declined to comment, citing the lawsuit and the active SIU investigation.

The family said Kotanko was a renowned gunsmith whose clients came from all walks of life and included local police officers and soldiers. They said he was a licensed gunsmith with a squeaky clean record who was inspected often.

Smitiuch, the family's lawyer, said police became interested in Kotanko after examining two guns seized by officers in different parts of the province.

He said police in North Bay, Ont., seized one gun in a traffic stop as officers searched for alleged kidnappers and Toronto officers found another gun after a young person crashed a car in Toronto, according to the search warrant the family recently obtained.

Police alleged in the search warrant, otherwise known as the information to obtain, that the serial numbers of both guns were "professionally removed." 

Police were able to restore the numbers and traced them back to Kotanko's business, Smituiuch said, although he noted that Kotanko's skills were superior.

"Rodger had the skills and the expertise to ensure that the serial numbers disappeared if he wanted to," Smitiuch said.

The family remains devastated, he said.

"Rodger was a skilled gunsmith, who took great pride in his profession and treating customers fairly and honestly," said Kotanko's sister, Suzanne Kantor, in a statement. 

"The alleged grounds for obtaining the search warrant are not in keeping with who Rodger was and how he conducted his life."

The Kotanko family alleged in the suit that Toronto police sent a team to Port Dover on the morning of Nov. 3, 2021, along with an ambulance. The team set up nearby and began surveilling Kotanko's home.

Kotanko left in the morning with his wife, Xueqin Mai, and returned at 12 p.m., the lawsuit said.

An unknown customer was waiting for Kotanko at the time, the suit said. The pair went into Kotanko's workshop in a shed on his property while his wife went inside their home.

Then Mai was "suddenly and without warning confronted by armed members of the Toronto police," the claim said, "and detained and restrained."

The officers did not show her, or any family members, the search warrant, the claim alleges.

"After the officers restrained and detained Xueqin Mai, they suddenly and without warning confronted and attacked Rodger while he was in the workshop with the alleged customer," the claim alleges. 

"The defendant, Officer John Doe #1, shot Rodger four times with his firearm and severely injured and immobilized Rodger."

The claim alleges police would not allow Mai "to provide comfort, solace or care to Rodger in the final moments of his life as he was taken from the workshop to an ambulance."

"The family is, frankly, shocked how this went down," Smitiuch said. 

"Rodger was a peaceful fellow and they simply could have reached out to him and he would have opened up the doors to his shop and welcomed him like he had with so many other officers before."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2022.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press