Just weeks after Ontario police officers gathered twice to mourn two of their own, they lined the highways and streets once again — this time to honour Const. Devon Northrup, 33, and Const. Morgan Russell, 54, the officers killed Tuesday night in a shocking “exchange of gunfire” inside a home on a quiet residential street near Lake Simcoe.
“Words cannot describe our grief,” South Simcoe Police Service Acting Chief John Van Dyke said at an emotional news conference at Innisfil Town Hall on Wednesday. Later, about 150 members of the community held a vigil at a local church for the slain officers.
The two officers were shot “upon arrival” to a call about a disturbance inside the Innisfil home at around 8 p.m. Tuesday, Van Dyke said.
According to the Special Investigations Unit, the shooter, a 23-year-old man, was pronounced dead at the scene after an “exchange of gunfire” with the South Simcoe officers.
A source close to the investigation has identified the shooter to the Star as Christopher Doncaster; a man with that name is listed as a resident of the home on Somers Boulevard through court and loan records.
Multiple neighbours confirmed to Simcoe.com that Doncaster lived at the home with his grandmother.
In a 2020 social media post, Doncaster’s grandmother identifies Christopher Joseph Doncaster as a private with the Canadian Armed Forces.
A spokesperson for the Department of National Defence told the Star in an email: “We can confirm having someone by the name of Christopher Joseph Doncaster, who was a CAF member from May to December 2020 … He was a Private with no deployment history.”
The SIU, which investigates all deaths involving Ontario police, has not identified the shooter, saying his family did not consent to the release of his name.
SIU spokesperson Kristy Denette confirmed the dead man was a resident of the home, and said someone from the home made the initial call to police about a disturbance involving the man. She did not confirm whether he was killed by the responding officers or took his own life.
“There is an autopsy scheduled for Friday that will hopefully be able to shed some more light on the cause and the manner of this man’s death,” she said.
Denette confirmed the gun recovered at the scene was an SKS semi-automatic rifle. It was not immediately clear whether the weapon was legally owned. The Liberal government was criticized in 2020 after the SKS, used in a double homicide in B.C. in 2019, was not part of a ban on many semi-automatic guns.
On Wednesday morning, yellow crime scene tape could be seen criss-crossing the road outside the home located a few blocks from Lake Simcoe, lined with tall trees, detached homes and wide driveways.
A witness who lives nearby told reporters they heard several shots Tuesday night. “They were in such quick succession,” the man said. “It was ‘pop, pop, pop, pop, pop’ — very quick.”
The wounded officers were rushed to a local hospital, where Northrup died. Russell was airlifted to St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, but also died.
Northrup, a six-year member of the service assigned to the community mobilization and engagement unit, and Russell, a 33-year veteran of the service and trained crisis negotiator who was assigned to uniform patrol, are the third and fourth Ontario police officers to be killed in the last four weeks.
Toronto police Const. Andrew Hong was shot dead at a Tim Hortons while getting coffee last month and York Regional Police Const. Travis Gillespie was killed in a head-on crash on the way to work.
“Const. Northrup is survived by his partner, his parents and his many close friends within the service and in the community,” Van Dyke said. “He also served as a member of our mental health crisis outreach and support team and the emergency response unit.”
Russell leaves his wife and two adult children.
A gofundme was set up hours after the shootings to help the slain officers’ families.
“This is personal for me,” Van Dyke said at the Wednesday news conference, veering off his prepared remarks. “I went to police college with Morgan 33 years ago.”’
He added that York Regional Police have been asked to investigate the circumstances of this incident.
“We recognize that the community has questions, as do we.”
After the news conference, Innisfil Mayor Lynn Dollin told reporters it would be an understatement to say the community is devastated.
“Innisfil and Bradford are small towns, so Simcoe Police are beloved in our communities, so well respected by everyone. We’re just broken,” Dollin said, her lower lip quivering.
“It’s a dark day and it’s going to take us a long time to process this but we will be there to support our South Simcoe police colleagues and … the impacted families and friends.”
In a statement, the Police Association of Ontario described the killings of Northrup and Russell as a “stark reminder of the dangers our members put themselves in every day to protect the communities they serve. This is a reminder of the unwavering courage, bravery and devotion they display every time they put on their uniform.”
The bodies of both officers were taken under escort to the Ontario Coroner’s office in Toronto, where autopsies are anticipated.
En route, colleagues from several nearby police services lined highway overpasses to salute their fallen comrades.
Later, on Wednesday evening, there were hushed tones and some tears in the sanctuary of Innisfil Community Church during a vigil organized for the slain officers.
For lead pastor Steve Bradley, the vigil was an opportunity for Innisfil and all those affected by the officers’ deaths to grieve together.
“It is a beautiful thing,” Bradley told the Star of the community supporting each other during tragedy. “It’s through prayer, through stories and through conversations with one another (that) we try to find a way to move forward.”
About 150 people gathered inside the church;. Some laid flowers at the front of the sanctuary while others stood in silence, heads bowed, holding battery-powered tea lights.
“One of the greatest gifts that this church has is community. And you may not know it right now, but you and I need community, not for all the answers, but for the support,” Bradley said during the vigil.
He referenced a Bible verse that says “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
“Last night, Const. Devon Northrup and Const. Morgan Russell showed us that love,” he said.
Social media accounts belonging to a Chris Doncaster linked to the Innisfil home appear to show a young man who was interested in mixed martial arts and popular first-person shooter video games.
Photos taken this year show him with friends, flashing luxury clothing items. He describes himself as an “entrepreneur.”
In one nighttime photo, posted to Instagram in September 2021, Doncaster can be seen smiling as he sits on a South Simcoe police Jet Ski, tied up at a dock.
In 2018 Doncaster was charged with mischief under $5,000, and two counts of failing to appear in court. The charges were withdrawn.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted Wednesday: “I’m sending my deepest condolences to @SouthSimcoePS this morning, as they mourn the passing of two officers who were killed in the line of duty. My thoughts are also with the loved ones of these officers and the entire Innisfil community.”
Premier Doug Ford tweeted that he was “heartbroken.” He added: “We are praying for the officers’ families and all the police officers who put their lives on the line to protect our communities.”
With files from Wendy Gillis and Eli Ridder
Janis Ramsay is an award-winning journalist covering Simcoe County for more than 22 years. She is mom to two boys who are into sports and tech.
Alyshah Hasham is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and court for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alysanmati
Betsy Powell is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and courts for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @powellbetsy