Robyn Doolittle is showing me the bullet holes. Dressed down in a sweater and Uggs, her hair in a messy topknot, the 29-year-old Toronto Star reporter seems completely at ease on the 17th floor of 320 Dixon Road, a musty building with faded green-and-gold carpet.
Since she became the first reporter to hear about the infamous Rob Ford crack video, Doolittle has spent many days and nights here, sometimes watching police break down doors, sometimes just hanging out with sources. Her work has stirred up an international scandal and brought her both sudden celebrity and vicious threats, but on this chilly December day, she doesn’t seem daunted. As we turn a corner and spot three young men in puffy coats ahead, huddled together in private conversation, it seems like a good time to get out of Dixon. “Great! Sketchy dudes!” Doolittle sings out, striding forward.
By now, everyone from Jay Leno to J. Law knows the strange, surprising saga of Toronto’s mayor, Rob Ford: Gawker announced it had seen a cellphone video of Ford smoking crack; Ford declared, “I do not use crack cocaine,” only to admit, months later, that he had tried the drug, “probably in one of my drunken stupors.” What’s less known is the story of how a young journalist, just seven years out of university, played a crucial role not only in the video’s emergence, but also in uncovering the truth about the dangerous double life of one of Canada’s most popular politicians.
To reach Dixon Road from Toronto, you must drive on looping, elevated highways, near Pearson International Airport, past signs for the Holiday Inn and Pakistan International Airlines. The area, more formally known as north Etobicoke, is all strip malls and parking lots. The grey of the concrete and exhaust fumes seems to have seeped into the sky. Planes descend perilously close to the highway. On our drive, Doolittle breezily navigates rush-hour traffic in her Zipcar, occasionally cursing out drivers who get in her way. “You are going to get the tour of your life,” she tells me, in a voice that somehow sounds both cheerful and ominous.
Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve, and she’s celebrating the fact that she’s about to submit the final pages of Crazy Town, her eagerly awaited book about Rob Ford’s scandal-plagued rise to power. (Anticipation is so high that, in a rare move, Penguin Canada is also distributing it in the U.S., and producers have already approached Doolittle for the movie rights to her story.)
To get the scoop, Doolittle spent many nerve-racking days in the coffee shops and parking lots of north Etobicoke. Most of the time, she hung out with a man she calls Mo. He first phoned her at 9 a.m. on Easter Monday while she was trying to sleep in. He’d found her name on the Star website accompanying a story she’d co-written about the mayor’s alleged drinking problem. Mo—real name Mohamed Farah—a sombre, intense man in his early 30s, wanted to meet with her; he claimed to have “incriminating information” about a politician. When they met at a park near her Toronto apartment, he pulled out his iPad, showed her a photo of Ford flanked by three young men and identified the tall guy holding a beer bottle as Anthony Smith, who had been shot and killed a few days ago. (Doolittle later learned that the men pictured were members of a gang, the Dixon City Bloods.) Now Smith’s friends were scared. They wanted to sell this video to make enough money to get out of town.
“What’s on the video?” she asked.
“Rob Ford smoking crack,” Mo told her, “saying racist, homophobic stuff.”
“Can I see it?” For the past year, Doolittle had heard stories about the mayor getting hammered, seen photos on Twitter of him buying bottles of vodka, even tracked down a bus boy who claimed to have seen the mayor snorting coke at an Entertainment District pub. But if doing blow in a bar seemed to fit with the frat-boyish mien of the mayor, the idea of him smoking crack with gangsters sounded insane. Mo let her know he was only the broker, and she’d have to meet with another guy, who could give her the video—in exchange for $100,000. “That’s never going to happen,” Doolittle said. But the two decided they should go and discuss options with the Star’s editor, Michael Cooke. Mo offered to drive her. On the journey to the paper’s waterfront offices, Doolittle asked Mo about his girlfriend and showed him photos of her Pomeranians, Mozart and Chester. She had memorized his licence plate and furtively texted it to Cooke in case she disappeared.
At the Country Style on the corner of Kipling Avenue and Dixon Road, Robyn Doolittle orders her usual, a rainbow-sprinkled doughnut. The coffee shop is lively, a modern, melting-pot version of the old-fashioned small-town barbershop; here, like in many of the places in this neighbourhood, the languages spoken are often East African. “This place was my home base,” Doolittle tells me, as we buy paper cups of coffee. Beside us, a man in an embroidered beanie rises, walks over to the wall and begins to pray, bending forward and back. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen another woman sit down in here before,” she says.
After the tip from Mo, Doolittle’s editors told her to pull back from city council meetings and focus on finding out more about the video. Kevin Donovan, the Star’s 51-year-old senior investigative reporter and investigative editor, would team up with her, as would Jesse McLean, 26, who had worked under Doolittle’s tutelage at their college newspaper. “She was an inspirational figure for me, and remains so for a lot of younger journalists,” McLean tells me. “She’s persistent and dogged, and she can be equally charming and intimidating.” He notes her knack for disarming her wary subjects with a “fiery charm.” Donovan agrees: “She’s exuberant. Tireless.”
It was the kind of story that could topple a mayor—and make her career. “I was the primary contact for this guy for weeks, so I was worried I would say the wrong thing and drive him away,” she says. “I thought, What if this is a hoax and I end up embarrassing my paper?” At times, Mo seemed noble in his demands, wanting to expose the injustice of a mayor engaging in an activity for which so many young black men are incarcerated. Other times, he just seemed greedy, insisting on piles of cash. Doolittle called him on it: “If you really want this video out, just give it to the Star.” After a few weeks, he promised to introduce her to the dealer, but then he’d say the guy flaked, changed his mind, slept in, left town, and she’d end up back at the Country Style, having one more doughnut, one more cup of weak coffee.
“It was a really lonely month.”
Doolittle grew up far from this milieu, two-and-a-half hours from Toronto in an idyllic lakeside town called Forest, a place, she says, “with two stop lights, a rink and a Tim Hortons.” Her mother worked in human resources; her father created window displays for Eaton’s. “I was Little Miss High School,” she says, rattling off a long list of accomplishments: student council, yearbook committee, soccer team, drama club, figure skating. She even landed a column at the local paper, the Sarnia Observer, after walking into the offices and asking for a meeting with the editor. Doolittle loved performing and wanted to study theatre in Toronto.
Then came prom night.
For four years, she’d dated a handsome, athletic First Nations boy, from the nearby Kettle & Stony Point reserve. On the evening of the dance, he rented a tuxedo, and together with a group of friends, they arrived at the school in a limo. Her boyfriend was among the sober few in a group of tipsy, rowdy teenagers, but the police singled him out and told him to leave the prom. “I’d made this Moulin Rouge mural for the dance, and I pulled it down, yelling at them to let him go,” she recalls. “It was the first time I’d dealt with injustice. It was the first time I’d felt powerless.”
So she chose reportage over the stage, and her run-ins with authority continued in the halls of Ryerson University, when, in 2002, she was accepted into the country’s best journalism program. As editor-in-chief of independent student weekly The Eyeopener from 2006 to 2007, she was furious when John Miller, a professor, cut back her staff. Doolittle ran the headline: “Fuck You John Miller.”(Years later, when Miller retired, the school gifted him with a mock paper bearing the headline: “Fuck You Robyn Doolittle.”) With a girlfriend, she started a magazine called Minx, a “female version of Maxim.” While in university, she also worked as a proofreader at the Toronto Sun and began interning at the Star; she spent her summers in the radio room, listening to the police scanners and doing pickups (“a dreaded assignment they give the interns—someone dies and you have to go to the family and get a photo”). It was in the homes of mourning families where she discovered she was good at getting people to talk to her. A friend of hers had died in high school, so when Doolittle went to talk to the families, she says, she “could remember that grief, that feeling of, How could this possibly have happened? I had empathy for them. It wasn’t fake.” In 2007, the Star sent her, a young summer intern, to Chicago to help cover the trial of publishing mogul Conrad Black. She tracked down a juror’s address and sat on the woman’s porch all night, in a dodgy part of Chicago’s South Side, waiting to talk to her. Doolittle got the interview. “That’s the reason I got the Star’s year-long internship,” she says, “which I was hired out of.”
The Star eventually put her on the crime beat. “Robyn has a natural way with people that helped get cops, victims and witnesses to open up,” says Graham Parley, then the deputy city editor. “It probably didn’t hurt that she’s attractive. Made it a bit more difficult for cops to tell her to get lost.” At the beginning of the 2010 municipal election campaign, Parley decided to move her to city hall. “It was a promotion,” he tells me, “though I’m not sure she saw it the same way.” There, Doolittle worked with another young reporter, Daniel Dale, and the two soon became close friends. He noticed her skill at getting the story. “She’s tenacious; not in the cliché, ruthless way, but in a very likeable, creative way.” (He remembers a particularly chaotic Ford press conference where the media was jockeying for prime spots in the scrum: “She’s quite small, and in this room full of politicians and aides, she crawled through people’s legs and under cameras and ended up at the front.”) The same year she started at city hall, Rob Ford was elected as mayor, beating the more liberal candidates with a promise to “cut the gravy.” Doolittle felt a little bored in the often stuffy, tedious meetings at council. In Crazy Town, she recalls, “I thought my days of chasing criminals were over.”
That’s Elena Basso on the left,” says Doolittle, gesturing out her window at the lone woman on a wintry Etobicoke street. We’re on our way to check out 15 Windsor Road, the home pictured in the photograph of Ford with the three members of the Dixon City Bloods. Basso, who, according to police documents, is nicknamed “Princess,” lives there with her mother and two brothers, one of whom, Fabio, is a high school friend of Ford’s.
Tassels on Basso’s woven ski cap dangle over a face set in a scowl. In one of Crazy Town’s most harrowing scenes, Doolittle reveals what happened when, after staking out the Basso house for a few days, she “tried the old-fashioned knock-on-the-door tactic.” Basso came to the door and, after shoving her frail, elderly mother out of the way, lunged at Doolittle, shrieking, “You scavengers!” It’s a moment in the book when you begin to fear for the intrepid reporter, like in horror films when the audience yells “Don’t go in there!” at the endangered heroine. It’s also one of the many instances in Crazy Town when Doolittle vividly captures the epic cast of hundreds, from the Star intern sleuthing on Facebook and Twitter to get crucial info about gang members to the well-educated, white-shoe politicians outsmarted by Ford’s manoeuvring. Yet Basso, who has convictions for prostitution and drug trafficking, is one of the few female main characters in the Rob Ford story. There’s Ford’s sister, Kathy, a former heroin addict who’s been shot in the head. And there’s his wife, Renata, who is rarely seen by his side, rarely seen at all.
Nine minutes from Dixon, there are treed lanes and well-lit gardens and grand homes built to resemble castles. We’re in south Etobicoke, where Ford grew up, the son of a politician and entrepreneur father. Doolittle has done her legwork here as well; in her book she offers a sympathetic, illuminating look at Ford’s privileged childhood, locating it as the source of his shaky relation- ship with the truth, ceaseless ambition and self-destructive streak, as well as the complex rivalry with his look-alike older brother, Doug. On the day of our drive, it’s Doug, a kick-boxer and city councillor who favours slicked-back hair and gold chains, who seems to cause her a certain unease as we approach the home where Ford grew up and where his mother, Diane, currently lives.
The Fords have made no secret of their dislike of Doolittle, and their primary outlets for trashing her are the popular talk radio shows avidly listened to by “Ford Nation,” their fiercely loyal supporters. When I call Doug for an interview, he’s perfectly polite, but says, “I don’t have a second for Robyn Doolittle. She chases my 80-year-old mother.” His voice rises, and he repeats himself, angrier this time. “I don’t have a second for Robyn Doolittle.”
The relationship wasn’t always so hostile. When Doolittle began covering city hall in 2010, she says that Rob Ford, then a city councillor, was always ready to give her a quote. At the 2011 Pan Am Games in Mexico, she took a photo with the beaming mayor. After she sent a copy of the photo to both Rob and Doug, Doug teasingly began calling her “Rob’s girlfriend.”
A few years later, Doolittle and Donovan began hearing stories about the mayor’s drunken behaviour at the Garrison Ball, a gala celebrating Canada’s military community, and pursued the lead, seeing it not as the private problem of a troubled man but as a matter of public interest, since, as she points out, “he has a large say in the Toronto Police Services Board. He oversees a $9-billion budget.” Once the Garrison Ball story ran, she says, she “became public enemy No. 1 to some.”
Doolittle and Donovan finally arranged to meet Mo and the video dealer on May 3. The two reporters drove to a strip-mall parking lot, near Istar Restaurant and an adult-video store. They waited 45 minutes. Was she excited or frightened? “I just wanted to see the damn video.”
At around 10:30 p.m., Mo pulled up. “Leave your phones,” he told them. “Leave your purse. Get in my car.” He drove them to the parking lot behind 320 Dixon Road. It was a dark, warm evening, the sky dotted with pinpricks of light from a few stars and the airplanes above. A skinny man got in the car. “The guy was very nervous,” Donovan recalls. “He thought I was a cop.” He showed Donovan a small phone, refusing to let go of it. Doolittle had expected the video to be grainy and blurry, like a celebrity sex tape, but the images were crisp and bright. Ford was “slurring, rambling, wobbling around in his chair, sucking on what looked like a crackpipe,” she recalls in Crazy Town.
After the journalists were driven back to their car, they sat in silence, scribbling down everything they’d seen, then compared notes. “We just looked at each other,” she says, laughing, “and said, ‘Holy shit.’” Later, Doolittle went to a bar and met up with a friend: “I was so hopped up. I just kept saying, ‘Oh my god,’ because the video, it’s unbelievable. It really is. It’s unbelievable.”
But Mo and his cohort were holding out for cash, and her editors had made the decision they weren’t going to give money to anyone in the drug or gun trades. They wanted more background, and a fleshed-out, legally vetted investigative piece.
Mo was threatening to take the video elsewhere if the Star didn’t pay up. On the evening of May 16, Doolittle learned that he had. Gawker editor John Cook had flown to Toronto and had been shown the same video, on the same phone, in the same parking lot. In a Gawker article that would soon amass over one million views, Cook, unburdened by the proprieties of print media, summed it up: “He was fucking hiiiiigh.”
It’s very modest,” Doolittle says tactfully as we drive up to Ford’s grey 1950’s-style bungalow, where he lives with Renata and their two school-age children. His Cadillac Escalade is parked on the street; a weather-beaten plastic snowman stands forlornly on a sparse patch of lawn. It’s a home that’s more in line with Ford’s budget-slashing, football-loving Everyman image, a home that has none of the opulence one might expect from the mayor of a major city. After the Gawker story broke, the Star reporters rushed to get their own account of the video into print, and by early morning Ford found himself in front of this home, besieged by reporters. The stories, he insisted, were “absolutely not true. It’s another Toronto Star whatever.”
American media loved the story of the man comedian Jon Stewart joyfully called “the crack-smoking mayor of Toronto,” and overnight, Doolittle found herself besieged as well. “For at least two weeks, I could have spent my entire day doing American interviews. I was getting dozens and dozens of requests to talk about this.” Photogenic and poised, she appeared on CNN, speaking with Anderson Cooper and the combative Piers Morgan. When I ask if she was nervous about appearing in front of an audience of millions, she says, “I don’t really get nervous. I’ve been a figure skater my whole life. There’s nothing more nerve-racking than falling down, getting up, continuing to smile.” At the Star, her co-workers took photos of her face on-screen and proudly tweeted them. Her mother told her she should stop fidgeting with her hair.
But as she became the face of the story, Doolittle also endured a surprising amount of hostility. “I understand how someone can say, ‘I don’t care what the mayor does in his personal time.’ That’s completely valid,” she says. “But you don’t need to say, ‘I bet you’re a heroin-using prostitute.’” If the often crass insults from Ford Nation were expected, the critiques from other journalists, including her former Ryerson professor John Miller (who excoriated the Star in a blog post for rushing the story into print and not explaining why the sources were granted anonymity or what their motives were), were not.
A Huffington Post Canada columnist mocked her for having “gone Hollywood,” noting her “alabaster skin” and “frictionless smile” and comparing her to Harvey Levin, ring leader of the tabloid-ish gossip site TMZ.
Other attacks were more private, more menacing. Doolittle opened a piece of mail to find an image of a woman’s face getting ejaculated on, with a Toronto Star logo superimposed over it. Scrawled under the photo: “So you fucken pathetic ignorant cunt that you are, how about this for a headline? Robin Doolittle caught on cell phone video sucking cock!!! How does this feel now?”
One evening, when Doolittle was at a coffee shop near her apartment, her phone rang, and she answered. “He said, ‘I know where you work, I know where you live. I’m coming to get you, and I’m going to rape you.’”
I asked Cooke if he ever considered pulling her off the story. “She wouldn’t allow that,” he replied. “Reporters get threatened all the time.”
Doolittle began having trouble sleeping. She purchased an armful of bear spray, a stronger form of Mace that hunters use to deter bears. On a summer night soon after the call, Doolittle gathered three of her close friends—two journalists and an old pal from university— and together they went down to the train tracks, where they practised shooting it, holding the cans high, letting the spray soar up into the sky.
On June 13, Doolittle was back in the 320 Dixon Road parking lot, this time at 2:30 a.m. Star investigative reporter Jayme Poisson had tipped her off that something big was about to go down, but it was still stunning to watch as 40 vans pulled up and police busted into the building. Among the 44 charged in the Project Traveller raids that evening were her source, Mo, and Mohamed Siad, the man in the backseat who’d shown her and Donovan the crack video. The arrests of those likely in possession of the footage suggested it would never surface, giving credence to Ford’s claim that “the video does not exist.” Even after the arrests, the Fords continued to insist the Star story was a vendetta organized by “a bunch of maggots” determined to bring down a man of the people. Ford’s approval ratings were as high as they’d ever been. One poll revealed that 48 percent of the city believed the video did not exist. The Star reportedly lost more than $500,000 in cancelled subscriptions. “That nearly half the city would think a newspaper would sit around and conspire to make something up was heartbreaking,” Doolittle says. “To me, there was so much supporting evidence that what we were reporting was true, including the photo of the mayor in front of a crack house with a guy who’d recently been shot dead in an alleged gunfight.”
Then, on Halloween, Toronto police chief Bill Blair held a press conference, announcing that police had recovered “video images which appear to be those images which were previously reported in the press.” Five days later, Ford confessed, in an impromptu press conference as he walked into his office.
“I was in the scrum, thank god,” Doolittle recalls. “My mouth fell open in shock.” The unpredictable, blustery, oddly charming confession was, she admits, “very Ford,” but, she says, “I won’t say I felt vindicated. We always knew our reporting was accurate. More than anything, I was surprised. There was no celebration. Just more work.”
Soon after, confidential police documents went public, revealing the cops had spent months conducting surveillance on Ford and Sandro Lisi, his friend and occasional driver. (Lisi was later charged with extortion.) Over the next month, Ford’s behaviour grew increasingly erratic, including his uttering the phrase “eating pussy” in a press conference.
Doolittle, meanwhile, was off the beat, holed up in her apartment. An agent had approached her to write the book in May. She soon landed a publisher, but was given only three months to complete a manuscript on a story that was still taking new twists and turns every day. As she tried to write a measured, careful take on Ford’s rise to power, to give a larger look at the changing history of a city and a political culture, the circus continued in real time. A blogger suggested Rachel McAdams play her in the inevitable movie. Jimmy Kimmel started following her on Twitter. Jennifer Lawrence and Jonah Hill read Rob Ford’s drunken-stupor speech on the Late Show With David Letterman. As the spectacle grew weirder, she stayed inside, working from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. “All I did was think about Rob Ford,” she tells me. “I have this corkboard in my condo, with all these pictures, strings, stickers and timelines. People would come over and say, ‘Is this Homeland?’”
We have driven out of Etobicoke and are heading back to Toronto proper. Doolittle lives in West Queen West, a neighbourhood filled with many of the things Rob Ford has publicly spoken out against: cyclists, streetcars, libraries. It’s early evening now, so Doolittle and I head to The Rhino, her local bar, where, she says, she always goes “to decompress after my Ford fiascos.”
It’s next to a vintage clothing store and just down the road from the Gladstone Hotel, the indie culture hub she’s chosen for her book launch. “I’m a bit of a rah-rah Canadian, so I like to wear Canadian stuff and drink Canadian beer,” she says, ordering a Creemore. She tells me she’s a vegetarian and hopes to one day report on food issues, inspired by the groundbreaking investigative work in the male-dominated worlds of crime, sports and terrorism by Christie Blatchford, Rosie DiManno and Michelle Shephard.
Her own book, she says, “will be more politics-heavy than people expect. If they’re hoping for a big, gossipy thing about his wife, this is not going to be it. There is a city at stake here. He has a lot of influence and power. It’s not just funny.”
Doolittle tells me she’s dating a teacher now, someone she’s known for years. “I stopped online dating,” she says. “If you are under 35 and interested in current events and live in downtown Toronto, there’s probably a one in 10 chance you’re following me on Twitter, which always makes for an awkward first date.”
For the time being, Doolittle’s true romance may be found back on the beat, in parking lots waiting for a source to arrive, in the bullet holes, in the newsprint ink on her fingertips. “I like to hold something in my hand,” she says. “I like to spread something out in the morning with my coffee. My iPad’s great, but I can’t feel it beneath my fingers the way I can a paper.”