The Runnymede United Church near High Park in Toronto was packed for a funeral on Oct 9. More than 1,000 people jammed the aisles, entryways and basement.
Dead was David Dewees, 32, a Grade 10 teacher at Jarvis Collegiate Institute and counsellor at Ontario Pioneer Camp who killed himself on Oct 3 after being charged by police with two counts each of invitation to sexual touching and luring. Police allege Dewees had “inappropriate contact” over the internet with two young guys, 15 and 16, he knew from camp.
On Aug 17 the teens told the director of Ontario Pioneer Camp that Dewees had previously sent them sexually charged messages over the net. Dewees was escorted from the camp, the director called police and Children’s Aid. Dewees retreated to his home until his arrest on the morning of Oct 1.
Then his mug shot and the charges against him blared from mainstream media. The Toronto Star incorrectly reported that he had been charged with sexual assault against two 13-year-olds. The Star ran a tiny correction the same day Dewees committed suicide, Oct 3. The train driver says he is haunted, he made eye contact with Dewees in his last moment but was unable to stop in time.
But even after Dewees’ suicide The Star went further. Rosie DiManno, in a malicious column, assumed his guilt then painted Dewees’ as a paedophile, hardwired to molest young boys.
“Tyler,” who knew Dewees from camp, was interviewed on CFRB radio. He said in the piece that Dewees sent him a number of emails about his sexual exploits with women and wanted Tyler to respond with stories of his own. Tyler later compared notes with other campers and found five young guys who had similar internet experiences with Dewees. Tyler said Dewees’ emails “creeped him out” but that he didn’t contact police until after the story broke.
So what is it about Dewees’ life and tragic death that drew all these people — more than 80 members of the Mendelssohn Choir, hundreds of students from Jarvis Collegiate, dozens of former campers and friends — to pay heartfelt tribute to this young man who died under a cloud of scandal and suspicion?
“When I saw the image of David on the TV that night along with the sensational account of the charges I said to myself, ‘His life is over,’” says James Harbeck, a friend and longtime Mendelssohn Choir colleague of Dewees’.
“How is asking teenage boys to tell you about their sexual experiences or fantasies tantamount to child abuse?” asks Harbeck. “Oh, what he’s accused of is inadvisable and inappropriate behaviour, certainly, but when I was 14 and 15 I was in high school and had an unrelentingly dirty mind and the permanent hard-on nearly all adolescent boys have. The behaviour described isn’t destroying their innocence; it’s just creeping them out.”
NathanThompson, a former camper who Dewees’ mentored, told Xtra he met Dewees at camp when he was 15, that Dewees had become a friend and helped him through many problems over the course of seven years. [Ed’s note 12 Oct 2010 – Correction: Xtra did not actually speak directly with Thompson, rather the above passage comes from remarks he made at Dewees’s funeral. Apologies to Mr Thompson.]
From the pulpit officiating reverend Linda Levin grappled to reconcile her Christian faith with the horror of Dewees’ tragic end. Dewees, she said, was publicly humiliated, cast out, suffered and had a darkness descend on him, not unlike what happened to Jesus Christ. “Dewees never had a chance to defend himself,” she said, adding that he was mercilessly humiliated in the newspapers and on TV.
“If one good thing could come out this, it might be a change in the procedures in the justice system,” she said, suggesting that in some sensitive cases the names and photos of accused ought not be made public before a trial or a finding of guilt.
Chris Tindal ran twice as a federal Green Party candidate. He got to know Dewees enough to attend the funeral. They canvassed the corner of Church and Wellesley together during the 2008 by-election.
“The way it played it out is very upsetting and tragic no matter what way you look at it,” Tindal told Xtra. “I think the public needs to know what the police knew. They behaved in a way that suggested they believed David to be a dangerous predator and I don’t think we’ve seen the evidence to support that.”
Elizabeth Addo Noel, principal at Jarvis Collegiate, eulogized Dewees by calling him an exceptionally gifted teacher who went well beyond the call of duty.
In the end Dewees was both the victim of a sensational media frenzy and, perhaps, of a few ill-advised emails. But one cannot say if he was secretly gay. In his faith, which meant so much to him, gay sex was simply not an option. And if he did indulge, he would have have been burdened with guilt.
“We all have our demons and we all have our occasional lapses of judgment,” says Harbeck. “I don’t know whether David made the lapse of judgment he is accused of, but in one day his whole life was taken away and then came his greatest lapse of judgment: killing himself.”