The Spectator, March 12, 1998

Teen cadet fled before Police returned him
By Dan Nolan

One of the two runaways from a strict Wellandport-area military school who were killed by a CN freight train in Burlington on the weekend had also bolted from the school less than two weeks earlier.

Chris Brown, 16, of Stouffville, fled from the Robert Land Academy sometime between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m. Feb. 22. He was caught by Niagara police on Centre Street in Niagara Falls, around the corner from Casino Niagara, at eight that evening.

Acting Staff Sergeant Ivan Madronic of the Grimsby detachment wouldn't comment on what authority police had to return the youth, but confirmed Chris was taken back to the boarding school, about 16 kilometres (10 miles) southeast of Smithville.

Halton police and the regional coroner probing the death of Brown and fellow cadet Matt Toppi, 17, of Manitouwadge, said yesterday they knew of the report, but wouldn't elaborate.

Detective Sergeant Graham Barnes, head of the Burlington Criminal Investigation Division, said, however, it doesn't appear to be relevant to the probe. "I guess it shows a preponderance for running away," he said. "We are aware of it, but from my standpoint, it's not significant."

About 5 a.m. last Friday, Brown and Toppi were reported missing from the school -- cited as a model by Premier Mike Harris for his young offenders' boot camp. They left with knapsacks of clothes and food.

They died about 11:30 p.m. Saturday under a train thundering through Burlington.

The engineer reported that both boys were lying on the tracks near Maple Avenue and Plains Road, and that Matt got up and tried to pull Chris off the tracks at the last moment.

Coroner Peter Clarke and police want to know whether it was suicide or misadventure. Foul play has been eliminated.

Clarke and officers met yesterday to talk about the investigation and Barnes briefed Halton Police Chief Peter Campbell.

The deaths have focused attention on the 20-year-old school's discipline methods. Supporters say its tough-love approach works miracles in turning bad boys into contributing members of society, but critics call it a glorified boot camp that mistreats youths.

One of the dead cadets had been at the academy two years, the other was in his third year. A member of the governing board noted yesterday that might indicate that the boys knew what was expected of them and that its strict discipline therefore had nothing to do with their deaths.

"They were well settled in," said Bill Park, who is also a Niagara police inspector. "It's not like they were first-timers. They'd be used to the routine."

Clarke wouldn't say what's been turned up in the investigation, expected to last several weeks.

The school has 160 students, from grade 7 to OAC level, some there because of dealings with the courts.

Madronic said police won't forcibly return students to the school if they are of the age of consent -- generally over 16 -- can look after themselves and are not required by the courts to be at the academy. He said, however, that cadets missing from the school are reported on the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) computer system as a courtesy to the school and the cadets' families, in case they run to another part of the country.

Niagara police capture and return fleeing cadets who are on parole and required to be on campus, or those subject to court-issued warrants of apprehension. Such an order, signed by a justice of the peace, can be sought by parents of a boy who has had trouble with the law or is considered to pose a danger to himself.

A student at the academy in the 1980s said cadets who ran away were generally punished by being made to run for half an hour, carrying a heavy backpack.

Matthew was sent to the academy after a brush with the law in his hometown of Manitouwadge.

Toronto media reported yesterday that Christopher had earlier attended Aurora's Blue Hills Child and Family Services, a residential treatment centre for children with emotional and behavioural problems.

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