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How Byron Sonne’s obsession with the G20 security apparatus cost him everything

The police raided Sonne’s parents’ cottage in Midland (top) and the house he shared with his wife (middle). At the cottage, Sonne kept a potato gun crafted from a PVC tube (bottom) (Images: Colin McConnell/Getstock)

In late 2001, John Peterson sold DSC Group to Massachusetts-based Tyco International for $90.2 million (U.S.). The next fall, Sonne and Peterson were married in an intimate 50-guest cere­mony in her parents’ backyard, followed by dinner at Zucca near Yonge and Eglinton. After a week-long honeymoon on a houseboat in Amsterdam, the couple returned to Toronto and began looking for a home. In early 2003, Peterson’s parents bought them a Tudor house for $880,000. It has a charming yard full of gnarled trees and is 10 minutes away from Peterson’s parents’ home on Glencairn Avenue.

Sonne continued to take contract security jobs. He says that Peterson told him not to worry about finances—she wanted to use her share of her family’s new-found wealth to allow her husband the same freedom that she now had. Peterson volunteered as a docent at the Art Gallery of Ontario and enrolled in the Masters of Visual Studies program at the University of Toronto. She began to create installation art projects that played with lines and dimensions, putting on solo and group exhibitions at Spadina House, Convenience Gallery and campus art spaces. She and Sonne shared an interest in good food, and Peterson leafed through cookbooks, went through a phase of wheat-free eating, and experimented with developing her own recipes, referring to their favourites as “Death Row” meals. Another pastime was travelling, including a trip with Sonne’s parents, Bue and Valerie, to Denmark. Paid computer security work became just one of the many things Sonne spent his time on.

Sonne’s list of hobbies is so long it’s almost absurd, and many of them happen to involve chemicals with potentially explosive properties. By the time he started thinking about building rockets, he was already growing deep blue crystals out of copper sulfate. He and his wife are both avid gardeners and in their garage stored urea, ammonium nitrate and potassium nitrate, which he claims he used as fertilizers. He also had the ingredients to make triacetone triperoxide, an explosive compound commonly used by suicide bombers. The main ingredients of TATP are hydrogen peroxide (which he had for his rocket experiments) and acetone (a solvent he kept in his garage). Separately, they’re relatively harmless, but together they form an unstable concoction known to blow up from the slightest miscalculation. Sonne maintains that he never attempted to mix any explosive substances, and the quantities he owned were legal.

He has a restless energy, and one of his favourite pastimes is mountain biking. He spent many hours and thousands of dollars in the Don Valley, building and maintaining public trails—some of them part of the city plan, others that just seemed to him like a good idea. The G20 wasn’t the first time he had posted photos of tools on the Internet: years before, he was using the discussion forum section of the website to share his opinions on the best rakes, saws and screws for trail building with other mountain bikers, and to mull over the ethics of reshaping the Don Valley without government sanction. He used a camp stove fuelled with hexamine tablets (another ingredient that can be used to make explosives) to boil water for coffee on long rides.

Sonne traces his obsession with technology to a pivotal childhood experience. His dad worked at Northern Telecom for decades, and in the early 1980s, Bue Sonne decided to build a computer. Apple’s early home computers were gaining in popularity, but they were expensive for the average family. Using a homemade motherboard and makeshift components, Bue and a group of technicians and engineers from Nortel put together an unwieldy device that used tapes for memory and made constant beeping sounds. When Bue brought it home, Byron was entranced. He tried his hand at rudimentary programming, and he and his younger brother, Kristopher, insisted they needed the machine to learn their multiplication tables. Then, says Bue, “the boys burnt up the board on me,” so the family bought a Commodore.

In Sonne’s high school yearbook he’s labelled “most likely to become an inter­national terrorist”

In elementary school, Sonne was pronounced gifted and skipped a grade. He was small in stature when he started Grade 9 at J. A. Turner Secondary School in Brampton and an easy target for bullies. In one incident, some older students zipped him into a duffle bag and hung it on a doorknob. He was a member of the audio-visual crew that operated lights and sound equipment for assemblies and plays. He was also a prankster. Once, at age 15, he tossed an artfully constructed combination of modelling clay, wires and a digital watch down the book return chute at the school library. Panicked school officials evacuated the building. Sonne approached the principal himself to explain that it was a joke and was nevertheless suspended. His classmates labelled him “Most Likely to Become an International Terrorist” in the yearbook.

A number of Sonne’s long-time friends showed up at his recent court appearances and bail hearings. “He’s the same guy he was in high school,” says Mark Allingham, a former roommate of Sonne’s brother, Kristopher, who considers them both among his closest friends. “He’s always liked to test people and rules. If you say, ‘You stay in that square,’ he’s the guy who’s going to have one toe out of it just to see if you notice.”

In the years after the 9/11 attacks, Sonne developed an interest in what skeptics call “security theatre,” a term used to describe expensive, large-scale measures that restrict individual freedom but have, in their view, a minimal effect on actual safety. He began to question the usefulness of CCTV cameras. Some research shows that CCTVs in the U.K. have reduced such crimes as parking lot break-ins but have little effect on crimes people really worry about, like violent assaults. Sonne also saw surveillance technology increasingly used for racial or class profiling—“paranoid Caucasians having to keep an eye on coloured folks or hobos in their precious lily-white urban enclaves, waiting for them to do something,” he told me. He was also disturbed by how security measures could be used to gather information about perceived enemies. This, he says, is when surveillance becomes a weapon. He engaged in debates with friends and colleagues about how the public was being observed and what exactly it would take to get “a visit from the men in black.” He decided he should find out. His plan: engage in borderline illegal activities, attract the attention of law enforcement and establish proof of the limits of Canadian freedom.