Man shot by police in bank hostage-taking was mentally ill, wanted to talk to Trump, inquest hears

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Khodak testified at length about what it was like to be inside the bank branch at Major Mackenzie Drive West and Dufferin Street.   (Makda Ghebreslassie/CBC News - image credit)
Khodak testified at length about what it was like to be inside the bank branch at Major Mackenzie Drive West and Dufferin Street. (Makda Ghebreslassie/CBC News - image credit)

Rebecca Khodak was working as a teller for the Royal Bank of Canada on Dec. 13, 2017 when a man walked in and held her hostage along with more than a dozen other people.

Three-and-a-half years later, Khodak recounted the terrifying hour between when Ali Zaraeeneh, 25, walked into the bank waving a handgun and when officers from York Regional Police shot him and killed him.

"My first thought was, who would pull a prank like that at a bank? That's one of the stupidest things you could do," Khodak told a coroner's inquest on Tuesday that's tasked with analyzing the circumstances surround Zaraeeneh's death. In particular, the inquest is concerned with the ways in which police handle scenarios involving people who are "emotionally disturbed."

"I realized a little bit after that that this was serious," said Khodak. "It was actually real."

In 2018, Ontario's police watchdog ruled that no criminal charges will be laid in connection with the shooting death.

Zaraeeneh's family said Monday that he had been struggling with mental health issues for several years, and apologized to the people who were at the bank. His cousin provided written testimony to the inquest in which he described Zaraeeneh as a loving and caring man.

'I don't think the guy's all there,' said 911 caller

When officers arrived at the scene in Vaughan, Ont., York Regional Police said they needed "lethal force" to gain control of the situation inside the bank, sneaking through a secondary door to get out as many employees and patrons as they could before firing their guns.

"The situation inside the bank was both volatile and dangerous," the SIU said in its report.

Four officers shot the man in the head, the SIU said, noting Zaraeeneh didn't have a chance to return gunfire or detonate the explosives. He died at the scene.

Khodak testified at length about what it was like to be inside the bank branch at Major Mackenzie Drive West and Dufferin Street.

Calls to 911 started moments after Zaraeeneh brandished a gun. In tapes played during the inquest, one man said he saw Zaraeeneh get out of his car and walk into the bank ahead of him.

Zaraeeneh then turned around, the man told the operator, and told him "to get out of here."

He said Zaraeeneh "wasn't slurring" but added, "I don't think the guy's all there."

Makda Ghebreslassie/CBC
Makda Ghebreslassie/CBC

At the time of that man's emergency call, Khodak testified she was using zip-ties to secure the other people in the bank at Zaraeeneh's request.

When she had secured everyone, Khodak said Zaraeeneh then made one man use his phone to call 911.

Man asked for crystal meth

In that call, one of the hostages can be heard saying, "We've been told to get a gram of crystal meth here and Donald Trump on the line."

The operator's confusion is clear in the call, at which point the hostage says, "I'm not in control ma'am" and Zaraeeneh takes over the call, saying he has planted six bombs to go off in six highly populated areas unless he is given the drugs and a call with Trump.

The call ends shortly thereafter.

In her testimony, Khodak said she was sympathetic to Zaraeeneh and that in retrospect can see "he was depressed because with depression you tend to focus only on the negative. And unfortunately there is a lot of negative everywhere."

She recalled that Zaraeeneh — who wore a vest with duct tape and told her it was a bomb — was very "calm and polite" except for when he spoke about the unfairness of the world.

She recounted him talking about receiving a substantial head injury six years prior.

A long road to recovery

She said he reassured her after she cried that the police, who arrived shortly after the first 911 call, would not shoot her.

When Zareeneh reiterated his request for crystal meth, Khodak said she asked him why he wanted it.

"He said, 'Cause it's the best' or something," she told the inquest. "He wants to have a good time before he dies."

Khodak testified that it's taken her a long time to recover from that day.

"At the beginning, I thought about it constantly," she told the inquest. "You know that feeling when you realize you might die? You kind of relive that randomly from time to time."

Khodak said she "could not leave the house" or spend much time in public places.

It took her two years to feel comfortable, she said, and she still finds herself more likely to have a panic attack and hyper-attuned to doors being locked.

The inquest is scheduled to continue until Thursday.

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