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“When an armed stranger broke into my apartment, I wasn’t sure I’d make it out alive”

My partner and I were about to turn in for the night when our unwelcome guest arrived. The next 10 minutes were some of the most terrifying of my life

By Alex Cyr| Photography by Joshua Best
"When an armed stranger broke into my apartment, I wasn't sure I'd make it out alive"

On a Sunday evening in late May, I walked into my basement apartment in Cabbagetown with my partner, Alexis. We had just returned home from dinner. I was flying to PEI early the next morning to visit family, and Alexis had agreed to help me pack and drive me to the airport at 4 a.m.

The apartment is barely 500 square feet, with a small bedroom walled off from the living room, bathroom and kitchen. I grabbed a bag and shoved two pairs of running shorts into it while Alexis scoured the place for the travel essentials: watch, passport, keys.

At 9:45 p.m., barely five minutes into packing, my front door, which we usually left unlocked until we went to bed, swung open and slammed into the wall, giving way to a man dressed in all black. Sitting on my bed, we could see only his reflection in the hall mirror. We watched, stunned and terrified, as he darted through the living room, climbed the flight of stairs connecting our apartment to the three-storey home’s main unit and kicked open the door. We screamed. He noticed us and started yelling, “I’m not here! I’m not supposed to be here!”

Alexis and I hopped to our feet. For a few seconds, it looked like he was trying to decide if he should proceed through the upstairs unit or turn back. We soon saw his steel-toed boots charging back down the stairs. He stumbled into the living room and stood by the couch, blocking the back door.

There was no way for us to hide or escape—I had to face him. I stepped out of my bedroom and looked up into his eyes, which were wide and scared. At roughly six foot three, he towered over me, his blond mohawk nearly grazing the ceiling. He looked to be about 30 years old. He was muscular all the way up to his bulging, tattooed neck, and his broad shoulders were straddled by the straps of a beat-up backpack. I’m a 140-pound distance runner. If it came to a fight, I’d lose, quick.

I was three metres away, my heart hammering. “Who are you?" I managed to ask. “What are you doing here?” Alexis stood behind me, frozen in fear. I wondered what she was thinking. We hadn’t had time to say a word to each other, let alone devise a strategy.

Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, our experience was not all that uncommon. I discovered later that there have been 71 break-and-enters in Cabbagetown in each of the last two years, which was high enough that fed-up and frightened residents created a GoFundMe page to hire private security in the neighbourhood. The page raised more than $8,000, and its organizers later posted that no break-ins, thefts, assaults or overdose deaths had been reported on guarded Cabbagetown streets. 

Despite its rough edges, we love our neighbourhood: its parks filled with maple trees, its streets lined with skinny Victorian semis, organic markets, coffee shops and Asian street food joints. We had never felt unsafe there before. Sharing a city with millions of people means brushing shoulders with criminals on a daily basis. Yet I had felt like my world was separate from theirs—until it came crashing into my living room.

The man was panting, sweating and stammering. He buried his face in his hands and clutched his temples. He seemed preoccupied but also agitated enough to do something rash. I wondered whether he had come to rob us, hurt us or ask for our help.

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He was clearly in distress. We had to do something, but what? If we tried to reason with him, he might calm down. We tried to wade in cautiously.

“Hey man, sit down and tell me what you’re doing here,” I asked again, my survival instincts manifesting in a weird calmness. I was surprised by my own composure.

He spoke fast, in broken sentences, slurring his words. He said something about being chased by a group of people for offences he had committed. Some of them, he said, were drug related, and if he went back outside, he’d be either killed by his enemies or taken away by the police. “I’m a criminal,” he said plainly as he sat down. “If they catch me now, I’m done for.” It wasn’t exactly what we wanted to hear from someone who was slowly making himself comfortable on our couch. 

“Okay, how can we help you?” I asked. “Can we help you escape?”

He was still trying to catch his breath, and he asked for a glass of water. Alexis looked at me and nodded. We figured it was in our best interest to keep him cool. I poured and passed him the glass without turning my back to him. He took a big gulp and wiped beads of sweat from his forehead.

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“You need to help me get out of here,” he said, putting the glass down near his feet. “I need to take your car, man.”

He told me that he had seen a Honda Civic as he was hopping the backyard’s 12-foot fence. My car is 12 years old and probably not worth much more than two months’ rent, but it gets me around, and I didn’t want to lose it.

I joined him on the couch, keeping to its far end. I tried to bargain with him, telling him that, instead of giving him my car, I’d help him escape through the house’s front entrance. He declined—too risky, too many enemies around, he said. I offered to call him an Uber. He shook his head and sighed. “Do you think a driver would open their door to someone who looks like me?” He lifted his sweatshirt to reveal another dozen tattoos on his chest, including a foot-long rendering of the CN Tower. “I need your car, man. That’s the only way I’ll get out.”

“How about we think of something else?” I said. “There has to be another way to get you out.” Alexis shot me a worried look, and I immediately regretted my uncooperative response.

“Well, I don’t want to hurt you,” he replied. Then he pulled out an axe with a six-inch blade he’d had tucked into the back of his shirt. “But you need to help me out.” 

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I hopped away from the couch. He put the axe on the floor a couple of feet away, then he raised his hands in an attempt to look disarming. But his message was clear: I don’t want to hurt you, but I will if I have to.

I felt like a character in a movie—the guy you scold for making the wrong call; the idiot who gets killed off first. 

He then reached into his sock and pulled out my car keys. He told me he had swiped them as he was running through my apartment: a surprisingly lucid act for someone barely speaking in coherent sentences. Now he was giving them back to me as a sort of peace offering. I reached my hand out, trying to stop myself from trembling, and took the keys while glancing back at Alexis to gauge her reaction.

“Alex, give him the car,” she said softly. 

The man started panting again, oscillating between panic and despair. I wondered if he felt guilty for scaring us or if he was just thinking of ways to convince me to give him my car. Was the axe just a decoy? Was he going to pull a gun out of his backpack next? My mind was sprinting through multiple scenarios, none of them desirable.

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I handed the keys back. He stood up, leaving the axe where it was (a small comfort), but he looked even taller and more imposing than before.

“Do you mind if I change?” he asked.

“Well,” I said, “at this point…”

He replaced his black shirt with a purple one and covered his mohawk with a purple Raptors hat. Alexis, uncomfortable in our collective silence, complimented his new wardrobe. “Purple, nice.”

“Yeah, thanks. Uh…I’m going to need my axe back,” he said calmly.

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I told him to go outside, walk up four steps, and reach back for the axe. He agreed with the plan. So I passed him his weapon as if it were a relay baton and then backed into the apartment, locked the door, and watched through the window as he climbed into my Civic and drove off into the night. Once he was out of sight, I crept outside, trying to hide along the walls of our backyard to see if he was being chased. There was nobody around.

I ran back inside to Alexis, who had teamed up with the upstairs neighbours to call 911. Her eyes were watering and her knees were shaking. We learned that the neighbours had heard most of our 10-minute interaction with the man through the busted upstairs door but had feared that calling the police when he was still in the apartment would irritate him further and cause him to do something dangerous. 

Some 10 minutes later, eight cops arrived. Alexis and I each gave our account of what had happened. We walked the police through the apartment, reconstructing the sequence of events, and gave them our fingerprints for elimination testing when they dusted the place. A detective held the water glass we had given our visitor and declared that it was covered in DNA. By 2 a.m., the investigation had concluded, and Alexis, her sister and her sister’s partner drove me to the airport. Alexis went to her parents’ home in Mississauga. My flight was leaving in four hours, and my blood was too saturated with adrenaline to sleep. All I could think was, Thank God we’re alive.

The next night, Toronto police called to let me know they had arrested the perpetrator as he tried to break into a small business building near Cawthra Park, in southeast Mississauga. They had also retrieved my car from a nearby parking lot. It was littered with used syringes and decorated with a parking ticket but otherwise in fine shape. I’m happy to have the car back, but more than that, I’m grateful and even a little surprised that Alexis and I ultimately escaped without injury.

To cope, I spent the week after the incident bingeing on Toronto news stories about break-ins. (It was either that or the thousands of true-crime podcasts recommended by my phone’s algorithm, which eerily appeared to know something about the robbery.) It might seem strange, but it’s helped me process what happened. We’ve also taken proactive steps to prevent something like this from happening again. Our landlord, who is also a friend, has installed cameras in the backyard, a fortified auto-lock on our front door and fence spikes that will double as raccoon repellents.

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So many of these stories pollute Toronto news outlets as of late, and I can’t help but feel like a statistic. Had things gone south in my living room that night, we could be statistics in another, much darker news story. For a few long and awful minutes, as our visitor fidgeted and schemed on our couch, we were afraid for our lives.

Alexis and I are doing all right now. Before the break-in, we would play a game where one of us would hide somewhere in the apartment while the other was in the shower and then jump out to scare them. We’ve paused that game for now, as we wait for our jitters to go away. We’re discussing what we’ll do if we ever find ourselves in that situation again. Our early ideas include a baseball bat and pepper spray. 

Meanwhile, I hope the man who broke in isn’t released back onto the streets until he receives the help he needs, however long that takes.

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