Toronto police say a man and a woman have been charged after they allegedly attempted to break into the Islamic Institute of Toronto (IIT) while believed to be under the influence of drugs early Tuesday.
Emergency services were called to the educational institute on Neilson Road, near Finch Avenue East, at around 11:50 a.m. with reports of two people trying to break into the building. It was also alleged the co-accused made threats to staff.
In an update Wednesday, police said Nickodemo Bruzzese and Samantha Stone were charged with breaking and entering, threatening death and mischief to property – endangering life.
Omar Essawi told Global News Tuesday evening he was in the IIT building doing a site visit for an upcoming graduation event this weekend and had interactions with the two suspects.
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He said when he and a colleague returned to their car, they noticed a man and woman trying to get into the building — calling what he saw “strange.”
“At first we passed it off, like maybe it was a food delivery … and then we noticed they didn’t have anything in their hands and then they started getting kind of aggressive with the door, pulling it, kicking it. At which point we decided to check with the caretaker,” Essawi described.
After speaking with the caretaker, who confirmed to them the building was closed to visits due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Essawi said he called 911 and his colleague drove up to the two suspects.
Essawi said when his colleague asked the man and woman what they were doing, he said they told him they were there to detonate an explosive and began “yelling and swearing and threatening to shoot them.”
Essawi said he felt very unsafe, especially in light of the recent London, Ont., attack where officers alleged a man struck and killed a family who were out for a walk on June 6 because they were Muslim. Four members of the family were killed and the youngest son was injured but is expected to survive.
The accused in that case was charged with four counts of first-degree murder, a count of attempted murder, and terror-related charges. The charges haven’t been proven in court.
“The Muslim community is still quite fresh emotionally from the events in London, Ontario … in that instance it was a family in a public space. In this instance we were in our own space, we were in our own mosque, our own institution and to not feel safe there, was very concerning to us,” he said.
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Essawi could not confirm what the co-accused were shouting or whether it was hate-motivated in nature, but added “they were definitely targeting the building.” He said they did appear to be under the influence.
He said the situation really took him and his colleague aback, having not experienced something like it before.
“I’m born and raised in Canada. I went to school here, I went to public school and I never experienced anything like that in my life. So my initial thing was ‘is this real?’ We couldn’t believe this was happening to us right now,” Essawi said, adding that IIT is filled with a welcoming community.
“You let your guard down in a space like that, so to hear those threats being uttered … it shocked us in a lot of ways.”
A Toronto police spokesperson told Global News officers arrived shortly after they received the call and arrested both suspects.
The spokesperson said no weapons or explosives were recovered. They also said there is no evidence to suggest the incident was hate-motivated.
However, police said, “Out of an abundance of caution, our hate crime unit has been notified and will support the ongoing investigation.”
The National Council of Canada Muslims and the IIT together released a statement Tuesday evening that they are in contact with police.
The statement continued to say, “If there are Islamophobia-related aspects to the incident, we will let the community know ASAP.”
“In the interim, we urge our community not to speculate as the investigation moves forward.”
Toronto Mayor John Tory issued a statement in regard to the incident.
“I know that this is a very scary time for our Muslim community and threatening incidents like this increase people’s fear and anxiety,” he wrote in a tweet Tuesday evening.
“I want members of our Muslim community to know that we continue to stand with them and condemn this totally unacceptable and clearly criminal behaviour,” he continued.
He also thanked police for their quick response to the situation.
— With files from Alanna Rizza and Erica Vella