CANADA_

Drugs, deals and death

An informer says police forces have failed to protect him

PAUL KAIHLA April 28 1997
CANADA_

Drugs, deals and death

An informer says police forces have failed to protect him

PAUL KAIHLA April 28 1997

Drugs, deals and death

CANADA_

An informer says police forces have failed to protect him

PAUL KAIHLA

John’s eyes are nervous, his hands fidgety, as he recalls the exact point at which his life went into a tailspin. One night, early last year, he pocketed a fast $300 by acting as a middleman in a small drug buy at a bar. He insists that he had no history of drug dealing; his preppy wife, who is sitting beside him, and John’s cleancut boy scout demeanor, certainly do not fit the stereotypical image of a drug dealer. But a few weeks after the coke deal, police stopped John in his car, charged him with trafficking and presented him with a fateful choice: he could go to jail—or walk, if he shared information that led to another bust. “I helped them once they assured me—100 per cent—that my identity would not be revealed,” John told Maclean’s in an interview. “It was the biggest mistake of my life.”

A little more than a year after he “rolled over,” John finds himself embroiled in an international—and bloody—cocaine trafficking conspiracy. He says that his identity has been exposed and that he is the target of death threats. At the centre of the drug conspiracy is a trial currently under way in Ontario provincial court in Toronto in which 10 suspects—seven of them born in Colombia—are accused of importing 1,000 kg of cocaine into Canada. John—the name is a pseudonym—blames the police for luring him into the mess. In fact, he and his wife are suing the RCMP, the Ontario Provincial Police and the Waterloo Regional Police for $4.5 million in damages, claiming that investigators exposed John’s identity and ruined the couple’s lives. That action, in turn, has led to the absurd spectacle of the three Canadian police forces launching countersuits against each other. “They reneged on all their promises,” says John. ‘We’d had a beautiful home, good jobs and now we’ve lost everything. The police will tell an informant whatever they want to get information, and if it costs you your life—oh well.” John is painfully aware that hit men under the direction of Colombia’s powerful Cali cocaine cartel have killed two RCMP informants linked to the same investigation.

As first reported in the March 31 issue of Maclean’s, one of the victims was Eugene Uyeyama, a former Vancouver-based cocaine trafficker who became an RCMP informant on Sept. 27, 1995. His career was shortlived—on Dec. 21, 1995, after the Cali cartel had dispatched a team to investigate leaks within its smuggling organization, Uyeyama and his wife, Michele, were strangled to death, then set on fire in their $400,000 ocean-view home. But prior to his death, Uyeyama had given the authorities a tip that paid off.

On Feb. 12,1996, Vancouver RCMP seized a sea container of Colombian cookware that held 400 kg of high-grade cocaine— one of the force’s largest seizures ever on the West Coast. When undercover RCMP

officers subsequently orchestrated a controlled delivery of the container to a Toronto warehouse rented by Colombian mules, the seizure led to a second break in the case. Hidden in the Toronto warehouse was a stash of thousands of mops that had been shipped from a Colombian factory—and that contained cocaine.

But the investigation was hampered by mishaps. On March 7, a second RCMP informant, Ernesto Albornoz, was shot to death in Montreal. And while the force kept the Toronto warehouse under surveillance for the next three months, RCMP officers lost track of suspects leaving the building with cocaine on at least three occasions. The most controversial incident was on March 17: officers followed a U-Haul truck that suspects had loaded up with mops—and then either released it from surveillance or simply lost track of it.

At that point, by sheer coincidence, John became a player in the drama. Two days after the truck disappeared, police arrested him in a small town in southern Ontario for the coke buy in the bar. He was questioned by Const. Lee Woodman, an investigator from the OPP, and Const. David Bishop, an undercover officer with the local police in Waterloo region, 100 km west of Toronto. After the officers promised to drop the charge and protect his identity in return for information, John played his card by giving police a tip that would lead to the largest bust in the careers of the small-town cops who questioned him.

On March 22, Waterloo Regional Police and the OPP raided an auto-glass shop in

Cambridge. On the second floor, they discovered a trio of Colombians, clad in surgical masks, removing cocaine from plastic rings hidden in the heads of mops—and 38 kg of the narcotic that had been pressed into bricks. The police also discovered more than 10,000 discarded plastic rings, and according to an agreed statement of facts filed in Ontario Court last December, the trio had already processed and distributed 348 kg of cocaine—believed by police to be from the Toronto warehouse. Four months ago, the trio of Colombians received sentences of 12 years each for the Waterloo bust and now they are on trial in Toronto with seven co-accused on cocaine importing and conspiracy charges.

For John, the first sign of danger came shortly after the Cambridge raid. John claims that Bishop told him to spread the word that he had been interviewed by the police—an attempt to mask John’s role among all of the other suspects and witnesses who fell under scrutiny. But when police disclosed their evidence to defence lawyers for the preliminary hearing in the Waterloo case, there was one glaring omission that, John says, was like a finger pointing straight at him. The material did not include a transcript of an interview with him—creating doubts about his previous claim that he had been a suspect. By that time, he says, a pair of mysterious men had already asked an acquaintance for a photo of him, saying “there was a bullet with my name on it.” Then in July, a defence lawyer stunned the federal prosecutor by identifying John in casual

conversation as the confidential informant.

That day, Waterloo police showed up at John’s home and told him that he and his wife were in danger and would have to move. According to John, they promised to give the couple a new identity, take care of their finances and find them a residence as nice as their own. But while the Waterloo police have moved John and his wife and are subsidizing them, the couple still do not have new identities. Their lawyer, Barry Swadron, says that the local police lack that kind of expertise—and insists that the RCMP, which runs Canada’s Witness Protection Program, should take the young couple under its wing. So far, the Mounties have refused. Swadron has begun legal proceedings on the couple’s behalf in the Federal Court of Canada to force RCMP commissioner Phil Murray to make a decision on whether to accept John and his wife into the program. “The RCMP know what dangers are in our midst, and yet they won’t provide us with protection,” says John. “One of the most significant informants they ever had is a dead man and they could have prevented it. It makes me wonder if we’ll ever get out of this.”

John’s lawsuit against the three police forces, filed in February, has prompted a flurry of litigation. On March 25, the Waterloo police filed suit against the RCMP and, in the person of Woodman, the OPP, for any damages that a judge may award John and for all of the force’s legal costs. The same day, the federal justice department, acting for the Mounties, filed a suit declaring that the other two forces were liable for any damages and legal bills. Then the next day, Woodman countersued both the RCMP and Waterloo police.

In their statements of defence, the three police agencies have also denied any breach of conduct in their handling of John. The Waterloo force adds that it has asked the Mounties to take John and his wife into the Witness Protection Program. But documents filed by the RCMP say it will only do so if Waterloo pays part of the cost. “It’s like there’s three fire departments and they all agree that the fire should be put out, but they’re squabbling over who should pay the bill,” declares Swadron. The RCMP’s lawyer, James Leising, said that neither he nor the force would comment on the case. “My client deals with litigious issues in court, not in the press,” said Leising, who is a highly respected federal prosecutor.

There may be more clouds on the horizon for John. Defence lawyers would like to call the informant as a witness in the Toronto trial. In a motion filed last week, they allege that the RCMP “fraudulently and intentionally misled the authorizing judge” when applying for a series of wiretaps in Toronto and Vancouver—and privately say that John’s story would undermine the credibility of the affidavits. But John is dead set against taking the stand—and appearing in full view of men he helped put in the prisoner’s box.