James Edward Downing, 23, worked as a night cleaner at the College Street YMCA in Toronto’s central core. He lived, and died, on Ontario Street, in the east central area on the outskirts of the Gay Village. He was found lying in his bed by his 15-year-old sister, stabbed to death. She had gone to check on him after not getting an answer on the telephone.
He was murdered on October 25, 1979. His killer was arrested just three days later and pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder.
Police said Downing was stabbed in the back during an argument by James Gordon Donald Ashley, 22, of Bleeker Street. Bleeker St. is just one street west of Ontario St. Ashley had tried to take Downing’s “most prized possession,” a $2,000 stereo system, from his apartment. Two thousand dollars in 1979 is valued at more than $8,200 in 2018 dollars.
Ashley used a knife with a six and a half inch blade and stabbed Downing with such force the handle broke off.
Ashley said he and Downing were casual friends, and he had loaned Downing hundreds of dollars in the past. He decided to take the stereo as “collateral” for that debt, although Downing was not home at the time. While dismantling the system, Downing came home and started an argument.
When police arrested and questioned Ashley, Metro police Inspector Ron Meadows said Ashley suddenly confessed, and said Downing “was a beautiful guy. I loved him. Put me on murder one, put me away.”
Ashley told the inspector he was bisexual and that he and Downing had been lovers. He said he loaned $200-$300 to Downing to buy a pound of pot and when he could not pay in back when Ashley wanted it, he decided to take the stereo. Ashley consumed 20 bottles of beer and smoked between five and seven pot joints before doing to Downing’s home.
“The next thing I know, we are in the bedroom, he was lying on his side… with the knife stuck in him… All I can remember, we were in the kitchen area and I must have grabbed [the knife].” He said he followed Downing into the bedroom. Ashley testified in court that he had no recollection of attacking Downing. “I don’t know what happened,” Ashley said.
Girlfriend Jennifer MacDonald testified during the trial that Ashley told her he had killed a man because of a $200 debt. When she said “You killed for that?”, Ashley said yes.
The jury deliberated less than three hours. Ashley was found guilty of second-degree murder, and Justice Coulter Osborne sentenced him to life in prison with no chance of parole for 10 years.
Murder Village Map
Name: James Edward Downing
Date of Death: October 25, 1979
Manner of Death: Stabbed
Location: Ontario Street
Suspect Name: James Gordon Donald Ashley
Conviction & Sentence: Second-degree murder, no chance of parole for 10 years