BRACEBRIDGE - Bracebridge’s town crier is a model citizen. Bruce Kruger retired from an illustrious 29-year career with the OPP in 1999 and owns the Swiss Chalet and Harvey’s restaurants in Bracebridge and Huntsville.
His is a story of the kind of success hard work and dedication can bring. He’s made all the right moves and earned all the rewards. He has been married to his wife Lynn for 43 years and together they have four children and 11 grandchildren.
A prominent businessman, he’s one of the town’s elite — prosperous and respected.
But until recently he had a terrible secret. Kruger suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); he lives with anxiety, depression, guilt and rage related to his work with the OPP. He has suffered for decades with chronic nightmares, angry outbursts and crying episodes. It led to alcohol abuse.
“There’s sometimes you just can’t drink enough,” Kruger told a Toronto Star reporter about the days before he got it under control. He called himself “the great pretender.”
The trauma of his work as a police officer has left him damaged and he says the force that he gave 29 years to did not give him the support needed to face and conquer his mental illness.
In his interview with the Star Kruger traced back his PTSD to the violence he experienced as an OPP officer, which includes:
Shooting and killing a prison escapee who was pointing a shotgun at his partner in 1977.
Finding slain OPP officer Rick Verdecchia frozen solid in a snowbank with three bullet holes between his eyes in 1978. Kruger stayed with the body to protect the scene for several hours.
Coming upon the bodies of a father and his six-year-old son who had drowned in 1978, and having to row the bodies back to the shore of Healey Lake.
Before retiring in 1999, at the age of 51, he had witnessed countless other horrors, including gruesome accidents, sexual assaults and suicides, some involving children.
Kruger launched a complaint with Ontario Ombudsman André Marin and started a campaign to encourage other officers to talk openly of their own PTSD and their difficulties getting help through the force or through workman’s compensation.
“It appears finances come before human suffering,” he said of his many years spent trying to getting adequate compensation for his disorder in a macho police culture of shame, secrecy and denial.
When he put in a complaint to the Ontario ombudsman two and a half years ago, he knew he needed backup.
“I had to show that this was a system problem, not just a Kruger problem,” he said.
He asked various police associations for assistance in contacting their members across Ontario through a letter he penned, calling for other officers to come forward with their PTSD concerns.
“To no avail,” he said.
Kruger said the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, of which he is a lifetime member, refused to distribute his letter and turned down his request to appear before their board to discuss the problem of PTSD in their ranks.
“Everybody said, ‘Oh we’ve got everything under control’ when in fact it’s still not under control.”
Finally the OPP veterans association published his letter among their membership.
“That’s how the message got out, very slowly and with huge resistance.”
Kruger said operational stress injuries are a real problem, not just with the OPP but with police services across Ontario. During his battle to receive support he said many groups failed to take adequate action. He said the Ministry of Labour has done a “horrific job through workman’s comp — to properly and adequately address these issues.”
It’s been a long time coming, but as of January he has received assistance to travel to Toronto two days a week to get treatment at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. He’s takes two medications, an anti-depressant and a blood-pressure drug that helps to stop nightmares.
“It’s been a long struggle,” he said. “I started having troubles as long ago as 1984.”
But Kruger also told the Star that the seeds of his PTSD were planted in 1977, when he shot and killed James McGrath, a career criminal and escapee from Joyceville penitentiary.
McGrath, 52, had broken into the Orillia residence of MPP Gordon Smith. Smith’s wife, Jean, returned home to find McGrath looting their home.
Armed with a shotgun, McGrath stole cash and jewelry, then fled in the family Volkswagen.
He led police on a chase that ended when McGrath slammed into a tree. McGrath jumped out of the car and pointed the loaded shotgun at Kruger’s partner.
When McGrath kept advancing, Kruger shot and killed him.
He was later cleared of any wrongdoing.
Kruger says he was traumatized again in 1991 when he learned that someone had been making freedom of information requests into the shooting. That person tracked down Kruger a year later.
He turned out to be McGrath’s son, and Kruger was certain the son wanted to settle the score with the man who killed his father.
Fearing for his safety and his family’s, Kruger says, he asked the OPP for assistance but was told to deal with it himself.
When the son came to his office on Jan. 16, 1992, Kruger was so terrified that he sat with his gun in his open drawer, and a plainclothes officer posed as a secretary nearby with his gun by the typewriter.
As it turned out, the son just wanted to find out where his father was buried and if the man had any redeeming qualities. They shook hands and the son left.
“Once I got out of the OPP I was hoping things would change and the nightmares would go away — my problem with depression and isolation would finally correct itself — but it didn’t.”
He finally reached out for help when a compressor was stolen from his Huntsville restaurant. He went to the Huntsville OPP detachment to report the crime and was informed that he couldn’t do so at the detachment but would have to return to his restaurant and report the crime from there. This bureaucracy frustrated him.
“At the same time there was a picture of Ron Verdecchia above her (the OPP clerk’s) head. It devastated me. I broke down. I couldn’t handle it.”
When an officer came out to the restaurant to take the report, Kruger broke down again.
“He said, ‘Sir, does this air compressor mean that much to you?’ He was the first person, outside of family, I told that I suffered from PTSD.”
Around the same time Kruger’s friend, former Toronto police sergeant Eddie Adamson, committed suicide.
According to the Star report Adamson, a Bracebridge resident, blamed himself for the 1980 death of Const. Michael Sweet during a botched robbery at a Toronto nightclub.
Kruger and Adamson would meet for coffee.
“He and I used to sit and shoot the bull,” Kruger says. “We would discuss our horrific difficulties, from the nightmares to the drinking.”
One day in 2005, when Adamson decided he couldn’t handle the pain anymore, he took a room at the Sundial Inn in Orillia. He also took his notebooks and correspondence related to the shooting of Sweet.
He drank while poring over the notebooks. Then he pulled out a gun and shot himself in the head.
The family successfully fought the WSIB to get Adamson’s cause of death changed from suicide to PTSD. They then lobbied to get Adamson’s name on the Toronto Police Wall of Honour, something they have yet to achieve.
Adamson’s suicide got Kruger thinking that things had to change. So he wrote to the ombudsman’s office about PTSD among police officers.
“I had calls all across Canada,” Kruger told The Star. “Several came out of the States, from retirees. And the stories went on and on and on. I get an average of one to two calls per week in regards to people suffering from post-traumatic stress on the job, and they don’t have anywhere they feel safe to turn to. And there are still no mechanisms in place to guarantee their confidentiality to the satisfaction they’re looking for.
“I was not going to let this go. I was determined that I wanted nobody ever to go through the hell that I and my family have. I don’t want the next generations to go through this either.”
It was then that Kruger decided to get help.
It wasn’t until 2002, three years after he’d retired, that Kruger was finally diagnosed with PTSD, by a civilian psychiatrist.
In his complaint to the ombudsman, Kruger noted that he had been turned down by the OPP employee assistance program, which is available only three months after retirement, so he turned to the Canadian Forces website.
As a result, he received “unbelievable support and immediate contacts from several sources,” he told the ombudsman.
He was admitted to Homewood Health Centre in Guelph, spending February and March 2010 there. He paid for that himself.
In the time he was there, Kruger says, no member of the OPP visited him or any other OPP officer.
“If an officer was bleeding to death, would he have to wait to help for this length of time?” asks Kruger. “PTSD is just another method to die, although a little slower.”
He told the Star he’s out of pocket $25,000 but hasn’t been reimbursed yet, and doesn’t know how much he’ll receive.
At this point in his battle, Kruger says he thinks there has been a positive change in the way the OPP treats officers with PTSD.
“I truly believe that Commissioner Lewis and the OPP Association and the Commissioned Officers Association have all had a tremendous change of attitude and actions since I put in this complaint two and a half years ago,” he said. “These people are finally getting the picture and are going forward … unfortunately it’s taken myself and 29 other officers to get the message across.”
He said the Ontario Chiefs of Police claimed they would be a leader in reform, “and they have done nothing but drag their feet in all this time … they have never so much as come up with a definition of a diagnostic tool for PTSD specifically in police officers.”
With files from The Toronto Star