A 28-second fight resulted in the death of a cyclist and almost ended the career of the cocky, ruthlessly ambitious Michael Bryant. Instead, his name has been cleared, and he’s set to return to politics. He swears he’s a changed man
On the last night of August 2009, Michael Bryant and his wife, Susan Abramovitch, celebrated their 12th wedding anniversary. As date nights go, it was cheap—a dinner of shawarma and iced tea on College Street and a dessert of baklava on the Danforth before heading home to midtown in their black Saab convertible with the top and windows down.
Driving west on Bloor, approaching Yonge, they noticed a cyclist tossing garbage and holding up traffic by doing figure eights on his bike. The cyclist, Darcy Allan Sheppard, was drunk and ranting. Bryant and Abramovitch passed Sheppard and kept driving. As they neared the pedestrian crossing between Bay and Avenue, where the street narrowed for construction, Sheppard pulled up in front of the Saab. Bryant hit the brakes, causing his car to stall. When he started it again, the car lurched forward and Sheppard shouted, possibly because the bumper nudged his back wheel. As Bryant later told police, it was at this point he had his first twinge of fear—a sense the situation could escalate beyond his control. In his rush to start the car and get out of there, he panicked, causing the vehicle to stall and surge forward again, this time hitting Sheppard hard enough that he toppled onto the hood. He wasn’t seriously injured, but he became enraged, throwing his bulky courier’s backpack at the car. When Bryant tried to drive away, Sheppard clung to the driver’s side door.
For Bryant, time seemed to speed up and slow down at once. Suddenly there was no car, no road, no traffic, pedestrians or buildings—only three people fighting for their lives, and one of them was about to lose. Sheppard reached inside the car and grabbed the wheel, and the car veered into the eastbound lanes. By a stroke of luck, the street was empty. According to forensic reports, Bryant never shifted out of first gear, his car staying around 34 kilometres an hour. But when the left side of Sheppard’s torso snagged on a fire hydrant in front of the Colonnade building, it was enough to send him flying to the ground. His head hit the pavement hard.
Bryant parked his car around the corner, at the Park Hyatt, and called 911 to say he’d been attacked. He was later arrested and taken to the lock-up at Toronto’s traffic services on Hanna Avenue. He offered to take a breathalyzer and was refused. For several hours, he had no contact with the outside world, nor any idea of the extent of Sheppard’s injuries. Early that morning, the police informed Bryant that Sheppard had died in hospital. Bryant would now face two charges: operation of a motor vehicle causing death and criminal negligence causing death. The latter, more serious, charge carries a sentence of up to 14 years in prison. Bryant knew this without having to ask. He’d helped write the case law on which the charge was based a decade and a half earlier while clerking at the Supreme Court.
Unable to sleep, he planned out his next moves. First, he knew he would have to quit his job as the head of Invest Toronto, the new city-run economic growth venture, a job given to him by Mayor David Miller. Second, he needed a suit. That way, if his kids, seven-year-old Sadie and five-year-old Louis, saw him on TV addressing the scrum that would be gathered outside the police station, they would think it was just Daddy doing his job at a press conference. If they saw him in a T-shirt, he figured they’d know something was wrong.
Bryant was released from custody at 2:30 the following afternoon. On the steps of the police station, dressed in a crisp grey suit and striped tie delivered to him by a law school buddy, he gave a brief statement expressing his condolences to the family of Darcy Allan Sheppard.
When he arrived at his and Abramovitch’s house near St. Clair and Avenue Road, the curtains were drawn, and there were camera crews camped out on his front lawn. He half expected to find Abramovitch in bed on Demerol—she’d been in the car, too, after all—but discovered her surrounded by friends, including Nikki Holland, Bryant’s long-time aide, who had arrived at the scene just minutes after the incident and had stayed with Abramovitch ever since.
Abramovitch is a partner at the Bay Street firm Gowlings and one of the most influential entertainment lawyers in the country. She’d spent the day working the phones, attacking the situation like the high-functioning, crisis-managing type-A personality she is. She’d already spoken to the city’s best criminal lawyers, reassured friends, consulted with associates, fended off the press, and talked to Jaime Watt, head of the PR firm Navigator—who, being a friend, offered up his services for free.
The media, short on facts, began to speculate in newsrooms across the city. Who was the unidentified woman in the convertible, and how long had Bryant been screwing her? Was she a brunette like Bryant’s wife or a brassy blonde stranger? What fancy Yorkville restaurant had they dined at and how much booze had they consumed? Reporters called the scandal Toronto’s Bonfire of the Vanities and Bryant’s Chappaquiddick; another example of the battle between cyclists and motorists; a class war and political drama of epic proportions. It was the story of the year! Journalists who had once eaten out of Bryant’s hand turned on him like a pack of pit bulls.
Navigator responded with a Twitter feed intended to counter the speculation, but the strategy backfired. Bryant was pilloried for being image conscious in the face of tragedy. What kind of person, reporters asked, is pragmatic enough to put on a suit when his world is imploding? A guilty person, that’s who!