The cleaning lady stepped off the elevator on the fifth floor of the University of Alberta’s Henday Hall residence, and there it was: Shit.
A fully formed turd had been deposited on a sheet of newspaper and placed in front of a storage room. Disgusted, she pushed open the door. “There, at her feet, were neatly laid rows of human excrement lined up on some newspapers,” the Edmonton Journal reported on March 27, 1975.
Minutes later, someone tacked a note to Tom Engel’s door. “Engel, the shit has hit the fan,” he wrote. “Get all those logs out of there.”
It is an inelegant fact, but a fact nonetheless, that the career path of Alberta’s most controversial criminal defence lawyer was launched by an appalling scheme involving human feces.
It is a story that can only be told now. Thirty years have passed, one of the major players is dead, some statute on youthful indiscretions has expired and Engel is only moderately concerned about the effect it may have on his reputation, such as it is. Which is to say, he is a shit disturber.
Tall, mostly bald, profane and given to rants about injustice, he wears cheap sports jackets, rides an ancient mountain bike to work and drives a 12-year old Toyota Camry. A crusader driven by a deep belief in social justice, he takes on so many pro bono cases from clients alleging police brutality that it’s sometimes a financial burden on his Edmonton firm, Engel-Brubaker.
“There are only a handful of lawyers in Edmonton who will do this type of work,” Engel says. “If someone calls me and says they have been abused by police, I know that if I say no, they will have no recourse. No one else will take their case.”
At 55, he has brought forth the most high-profile police-abuse cases in recent public memory.
He filed the complaint that led to a public hearing into police actions after the Overtime restaurant stakeout incident, when a group of traffic officers attempted to catch the head of the police commission and an Edmonton Sun columnist drunk driving. He acted for Randy Fryingpan, a 17-year-old native youth tasered six times in 66 seconds by police. The judge in that case threw out the charges against Fryingpan, calling his treatment by police “cruel and unusual.” Engel has recently filed a $1-million lawsuit on behalf of Kirk Steele, who claims police shot him six times in retaliation for stabbing a police service dog.
He is hated by many police officers and feared by others because he makes more complaints against them than any other lawyer in the province. A former Edmonton Police Association vice-president once told the Edmonton Journal that Engel will represent “anyone with an axe to grind against police . . . He is constantly grating.”
Police have retaliated in kind, filing more than 20 complaints against Engel with the Law Society of Alberta, which oversees lawyers in the province. Not one has succeeded. In the most recent case, a judge ruled in Engel’s favour in September; the complaint had accused him of discreditable conduct for accusing a police lawyer of whitewashing his investigation of Supt. Bryan Boulanger in the Overtime case. Boulanger is the officer who issued a news release about that case. “If I am doing my job and I am being ethical and professional about it and somebody hates me because of it,” Engel says, “well, that just goes with the territory.”
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Engel was born in Toronto in 1953, the son of a United Church minister and his wife, who raised their son to have a social conscience. He grew up in small towns and cities in Ontario, but considers Orillia home because that’s where he graduated from high school – barely.
His best friend was Al Armstrong, now an RCMP superintendent in Vancouver. One day, they were both called in to see the guidance counsellor. Engel went first.
“She told me that I should quit school and get some manual-type labour job because that was probably the best I could do.” Engel says. “Then Al went in and she told him he had a really bright future ahead of him if he would only stop hanging around with me.”
After graduation, he and his buddies bought a beater, drove to Edmonton and landed drilling-rig jobs in the high Arctic. He liked it out west and enrolled in the University of Alberta, where he lived on the notorious fifth floor of the Henday Hall residence, where guys had nicknames like Dinkbrain and Bush.
Engel served on the floor’s house committee and was responsible for ensuring good order and a social atmosphere. According to an affidavit filed in court in support of the university’s attempt to have them kicked out of residence, he failed.
The court document claims the boys from Fifth Henday were regularly seen conducting belching contests in the cafeteria. After one meal, they howled and barked at a woman and crawled on their hands and knees, “pawing towards the person while pretending to snap at her ankles and attempting to look up her skirt.” While attending the annual seniors’ tea, they appeared “naked with pieces of toilet paper dangling from their backsides, alit, and remaining naked for a period of approximately 10 minutes.”
When the residence’s student discipline committee attempted to have them tossed from their juvenile den of sloth, they hatched a plan. “We had the same sort of attitude toward those people as the frat guys did in Animal House,” Engel says, citing the 1978 movie. “We figured they needed their comeuppance.”
Which leads us back to the cleaning lady and the turd in front of the storage room.
Engel is pretty sure the idea was his. The residence held an annual Secret Santa event, and the Fifth Henday crew decided to present each member of the residence discipline committee with a Yule log. Thus the neat rows of feces in the storage room.
Everything was ready to go. Then one of the guys – “the idiot,” Engel says – left his contribution outside, instead of inside the storage room door, before rushing off to class.
The result was a discipline hearing. The boys claimed they were having a contest to see who could pinch the best loaf. It was misguided fun, they said, not a breach that called for expulsion from residence.
The discipline committee couldn’t identify the “loggers,” though they had prime suspects – “we had solidarity on the floor,” Engel says – so the committee charged all seven of the house committee members and moved to have them expelled from residence. They refused to leave. Police said it was a civil matter, so the university sued. Engel and his co-accused got a legal-aid lawyer who argued it was unfair to target the young men because they had rights under the Landlords and Tenants Act and there was no evidence of their involvement. The shenanigans and the suit made headlines, and the university was under pressure to get them out; they cut a deal. It was sweet.
University staff moved their belongings to a Whyte Avenue hotel. They each got a room with a king-sized bed, a meal allowance and were given deferrals on their exams because they were so “traumatized” by the ordeal.
It was a frat boy’s dream come true.
Engel got a rush out of what the lawyer had accomplished. “That inspired me and it was maybe a year later that it finally sunk in that I should start to apply myself,” he says. “It was a defining moment.”
He applied to four or five law schools and was accepted at the newly minted one at the University of Calgary. Engel finally did apply himself, but not at the expense of having fun. Most notably, he appeared on Peter Gzowski’s CBC TV show with the Faculty of Law’s Gastro-electric Kazoo Band performing It’s a Gas, with Engel contributing the gag tune’s signature belches.
He excelled at law, graduating near the top of his class in 1979. He articled with Molstad Gilbert in Edmonton and began his career representing insurance companies and banks. Eventually, he switched to criminal law and started his own firm in 1995.
His interest in civil rights developed as he heard increasing numbers of stories from his clients about police abuse.
“They wanted me to do something about it, so I did,” he says. He filed his first complaint against a police officer in 1999. By 2000, so many other lawyers were receiving complaints from clients about police abuse that Alberta’s Criminal Trial Lawyers Association (CTLA) struck a committee to monitor and deal with police misconduct. Engel was appointed chair of its policing committee, a position he has held ever since.
It’s a high-profile post that has led to accusations he is a cop-hater, a publicity hound and a humourless man. That’s not true, he says. He has a life outside the law. He coaches lacrosse, is president of the Alberta Lacrosse Association and has been active for many years in his community league.
But his family has paid a price. When police learned the young man they caught smoking a reefer outside the Strathcona Hotel a couple of years ago was Engel’s son, they handcuffed him, hauled him in and strip-searched him – despite the fact they threw the evidence out at the scene. Engel sued.
The case was settled out of court.
To charges that he is a publicity hound, he counters that he has a duty, as a lawyer, to educate the public about problems with policing. The best way to do that is through the media, he says.
But even those who support the role that Engel plays for the CTLA say he is a sometimes too willing to weigh-in publicly. “His biggest weakness is that sometimes he doesn’t use discretion when he speaks,” says Larry Jackson, the former director of public complaints for the Edmonton Police Commission. “Sometimes he just launches.”
Privately, some of his lawyer colleagues also believe Engel isn’t as skeptical as he should be before advancing outrageous complaints on behalf of some clients. Engel rejects that criticism, too. “There are some stories you get from a client that are impossible . . . Those are easy to deal with.
But what about the ones that could be true, even though they sound improbable?”
He doesn’t claim to believe their stories, but he makes their version of events the foundations of his representations. “It is not my job to determine if my client is telling the truth,” he says. “That is the job of the court. As soon as you start being the judge and screening out people, then you may be screening out people who are telling the truth.”
Engel’s biggest fear is that one of the police complaints against him might stick, and then they would have the basis to discredit him. “I don’t think any of them have any merit, but it’s not a perfect system and you might be found guilty,” he says. “So any time I have a law society complaint against me, I worry about it.”
He counts a public drubbing by a judge as one of the biggest setbacks of his career. In 2005, Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Frans Slatter issued a scathing rebuke of Engel’s judgment and legal tactics in a case involving former police chief Bob Wasylyshen, which was brought by Engel’s client, Det. Ron Robertson.
“It was argued that [Engel] merely pursued a difficult case zealously on behalf of a client and this was ‘in the finest tradition of the Alberta bar,’ ” Slatter wrote. “Calling unnecessary witnesses, tendering irrelevant evidence, engaging in meaningless cross-examination and making unpersuasive arguments does not reflect any tradition of the Alberta Bar.”
Yet criminal defence lawyers laud him for taking on police misconduct and prisoner’s rights cases that are difficult to argue and rarely pay.
“Tom would not turn away someone if he feels there has been some kind of injustice done,” says Ed Molstad, the senior Edmonton lawyer under whom Engel articled. “He sets a pretty good example in terms of being prepared to represent people who might not find counsel otherwise.”
What drives him to take on these cases when few others will? Engel has a difficult time answering. After several false starts, he credits his parents and his liberal religious upbringing.
“I think you have a duty as a citizen to do it. Maybe it comes from the United Church background, as well. I was raised in a church that taught its members that you have a duty to do something about social injustice.”
In 2004, his sense of duty to the underdog earned him the CTLA’s Harradence Prize, which recognizes exceptional criminal defence lawyers. Engel was recognized for his pursuit of difficult social justice cases. In announcing the award, former CTLA president Charles Davison wrote that, “Many of the positions he has advanced have ultimately become widely accepted and followed by the courts.”
Engel was the first lawyer in Alberta to successfully argue that criminal misconduct by the police was grounds to stay a charge against an accused, and he is now challenging police and Crown prosecutors to disclose the records of complaints against officers.
Love him or hate him, Tom Engel will not be disappearing from the headlines any time soon. This month alone, he has four trials involving allegations of excessive use of force by police officers.
“I don’t hate cops,” he says. “I have friends who are cops. I have cops who are clients.
“I just want them to be good cops. That’s all.”