Residents gathered at a Brockville neighbourhod watch meeting on Wednesday evening for the opportunity to speak with Police Chief Scott Fraser, who came to the Front House Lodge as a guest of the newly re-formed group.
Although leaders of the event tried to keep the focus on organizing a neighbourhood watch group, attendees quickly turned their focus to a recent mysterious death and a youth “gang” apparently roaming the streets of Brockville.
Nathalie Lavergne is the co-creator of the neighbourhood watch program. She formed the group last year when she noticed smaller crimes popping up around Brockville — like a group of tourists getting their shoes stolen and a wayward bike dropped in her backyard. Last year, Lavergne said the group didn’t catch on. This second time around, about 50 people showed up.
“After the incident that happened lately in Hardy Park, we’ve just decided that it was time to have a second meeting to invite Chief Scott Fraser and the mayor to come to talk to the citizens, to maybe listen, help calm a little bit of the spirit, and see what’s next for us as a neighbourhood watch program,” Lavergne said.
Lavergne is referring to the death of 33-year-old Damian Sobieraj.
On Sept. 14, Sobieraj was found dead in the St. Lawrence River. The day before, he was walking his dog in Hardy Park when he called Brockville police about a disturbance.
When police arrived, they found a group of youths at Hardy Park, and Sobieraj’s dog tied to a tree, but Damian had disappeared.
Since Sobieraj’s death, rumours about a group of youths calling themselves the “Burr Gang,” and their alleged involvement in Sobieraj’s death, have been permeating social media in Brockville — rumours that came to a head on Wednesday evening.
“For too long, this has been shrugged off as a bunch of high school kids and it’s not a big deal. They took down a grown man. That’s a big deal,” said Tara Chenier-Beach.
Despite that allegation, police have not released any information linking the group to Sobieraj’s death, nor have they deemed his death a murder.
Fraser told people at the meeting that he understood people were concerned, but he reminded them not to sentence anyone before all the information is released.
“A lot of people have already jumped to conclusions as to what happened. However, the facts aren’t out yet — we don’t even have all the facts yet.”
Fraser specifically mentioned social media and the rumour mill as a large part of the investigation, saying police have to monitor all the comments shared online, and these comments have slowed police down.
“The way I look at it, it’s a puzzle, and we’ve got to put the puzzle together, and you can’t put it together if you don’t have all the pieces,” said Fraser. “We have a lot of people who have done the puzzle, except half of the puzzle’s missing.”
Nevertheless, Brockville police admit they have been dealing with this group of youths over the last several months, and parents at Wednesday’s meeting said they knew of children who have had run-ins with the self-named Burr Gang.
A man in the crowd at the meeting stood up, saying his son had been targeted recently.
“My son was involved in an incident,” he said. Now he advises his children to stay in a group when they go outside.
Chenier-Beach said she knew of four people who have been allegedly targeted by the same group.
For Chenier-Beach the rise of this youth “gang” is a consequence of inaction.
“This is not a this happened last week problem, this is an ongoing problem that has been building for a year.”
Brockville police told Global News the group of teens had been involved in several incidents before Sobieraj’s death, but did not specify which ones.
But on Friday, police released information about a large group of youths, some of who belonged to the Burr group, who had allegedly been preparing for a fight in a parking lot.
When police arrived, they said most of the youths scattered, but two were arrested. One teen was released, but an 18-year-old man was charged with drug possession and breaching of his undertaking.
It’s incidents like these that have Carol Bruck worried. She volunteered at I’m Alive Rescue, an animal rescue run by Sobieraj’s mother. Bruck said she knew Sobieraj’s as a kind and gentle person, and came to the neighbourhood watch meeting on Wednesday to make sure that his death was not forgotten.
“Everyone keeps saying ‘let’s not talk about gangs,'” Bruck said. “But what everyone keeps forgetting in all of this is, Damian’s life was tragically taken on Sept. 13. So I wanted that to be known, and brought to this meeting.”
Bruck says she doesn’t disregard the work that Brockville police do, but she believes there are issues in the community that need to be resolved.
“Everyone keeps saying call the police. Damian called the police,” Bruck said with tears in her eyes. “His mother picked up his ashes this week. That phone call didn’t help save his life”
Bruck was not the only person to question the police’s response to the group of teens. Some suggested installing cameras in parks and along the waterfront where youths are known to hang out. Others said police should be present on school grounds when they get out from class.
WATCH: Missing Brockville man leads to mysterious death
Fraser said police work hard to be present in Brockville schools, but it would be impossible to have constant surveillance over students.
“You can’t be everywhere all the time with every child,” the chief told the crowd.
Fraser also said Brockville police couldn’t handle the extra work, since the force only has 40 officers. Fraser added since January, police spent 76 hours patrolling Brockville schools. One person in the crowd called that “laughable.”
But Fraser didn’t go without support on Wednesday.
“We can’t put all the blame on police,” said a man in the crowd.
Another woman spoke up and said it was parents’ responsibility to make changes in their own household.
“The kids who are having these issues, let the police deal with it,” she said. “We need to take care of our own children, empower them to feel safe and strong in their own community.”
All in all, Fraser took the negative comments in stride because it meant community members were engaged in keeping Brockville safer. This is why Fraser hopes people will sign up and participate in the neighbourhood watch.
“Let’s start neighborhood watch and let’s keep it going,” said Fraser.