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On a recent Wednesday evening in Kelowna, a row of Harleys was parked outside the Hells Angels clubhouse on Ellis Street.
The biker gang was holding its weekly “church” meeting at the clubhouse, despite the fact the B.C. Civil Forfeiture office is fighting in court to get the nondescript stucco building, across from a log yard, forfeited to taxpayers.
The government case to seize the Kelowna, Nanaimo and (Vancouver) East End Hells Angels clubhouses as sites of criminal activity has been winding its way through B.C. Supreme Court for almost a decade.
It started on Nov. 9, 2007, when Mounties broke down the door of the little white building on Victoria Avenue in Nanaimo that housed the Hells Angels clubhouse there.
Cops seized decorative plaques, posters, bar stools and clothing emblazoned with the infamous death’s head logo. They also took Hells Angels documents, including some related to police activities, counter-surveillance efforts and intelligence the bikers had gathered.
A decade and counting
Thus began the legal odyssey that might finally determine whether a B.C. judge believes the Hells Angels are a criminal organization.
The civil trial was supposed to begin on May 1, but was adjourned again until April 23, 2018.
The government’s amended claim against the biker gang, filed in March, alleges that if the Hells Angels get to keep the clubhouses they will be used “to enhance the ability of a criminal organization, namely the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, to commit indictable offences.”
The Angels have filed a counter-claim, seeking to get B.C.’s Civil Forfeiture Act declared unconstitutional.
Police and government officials have long held that the Hells Angels are the most powerful and sophisticated criminal organization in B.C.
Lack of success
But prosecutors have so far been unsuccessful in getting the biker gang convicted on any criminal organization charges in this province, despite four separate attempts in B.C. courts in the past decade.
The latest misfire came last year when B.C. Supreme Court Justice Carol Ross dismissed criminal organization charges against Hells Angel David Giles and several associates.
She had already ruled to limit the testimony of Jacques Lemieux, a retired Mountie whom the Crown called as an expert on outlaw motorcycle gangs to support the criminal organization charges.
Ross said Lemieux’s expertise was out-of-date and lacked supporting documentation. He retired in 2008, but was still being used in court years later.
“Mr. Lemieux was first qualified to testify as an expert witness in 2000; however, it appears that nothing changed in relation to his preparation and maintenance of a file relating to his opinion after that time,” Ross said.
She said that Lemieux would not be able to testify about his view that “the organization’s main purpose is to facilitate the criminal activities of its members” or other opinions about the club’s nefarious origins.
It was a crushing blow to the criminal organization part of the Crown’s case, despite the fact that Giles, Hells Angel Bryan Oldham and their associates were later convicted of other charges related to a large international cocaine conspiracy stemming from an undercover police probe.
Giles died on July 1, just three months after he began serving a record-long sentence handed to him by Ross in March.
Giles’ lawyer Paul Gill said in an interview that he knew there were problems with the Crown’s expert when Lemieux testified about stumbling on binders of supporting material in his garage.
“It was like he was moving boxes around and he found these binders,” Gill said. “It was dated stuff. So he had this ossified frozen-in-time canned pitch to give and the justification was, well, it has worked in the past, I have been qualified all these other times.”
He said Lemieux should have had more current experience and an up-to-date curriculum vitae.
“I think the ground has shifting in terms of what the court expects,” Gill said.
He said Giles was concerned about a possible criminal organization conviction.
“They (the Crown) treated this as one of the biggest drug cases out of their office and maybe it was. And they certainly got him good, but I was very worried that the ‘crim org’ count was going to essentially bury him alive,” Gill said a few days before his client died of liver disease.
Gill said it was clear that the focus of the Crown’s case was the Hells Angels in a sting orchestrated by the undercover cops posing as South American drug brokers.
“It was really about the Hells Angels and their role in this stuff and they worked the file with that at the forefront,” Gill said. “That was the common denominator knit through the whole thing.”
Nathalie Houle, who speaks for the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, said she couldn’t comment on the dismissal of the criminal organization charges in the recent case.
“The court rulings in previous cases speak for themselves in terms of the reasons for dismissal of particular charges, the limiting of testimony to be given by expert witnesses, and the elements of criminal organization offences,” she said. “It would not be appropriate … to engage in out-of-court discussion about particular individuals or entities and their status as or association with a criminal organization.”
Lemieux was also called as an expert witness a decade ago when prosecutors had three B.C. cases stemming from an earlier $10-million investigation into the Hells Angels dubbed E-Pandora.
In the first, Giles and two other associates, David Revell and Richard Rempel, were charged with trafficking and possessing cocaine for the purpose of trafficking in association with a criminal organization.
On March 27, 2008, Giles was acquitted on all counts, dooming the criminal organization case, though Revell and Rempel were convicted of trafficking.
In the second case, a jury heard months of evidence from E-Pandora about the criminality of the Hells Angels before convicting four bikers on a series of charges on July 13, 2009.
But the jury also acquitted the Angels quartet on all the criminal organization counts, prompting B.C. Crown counsel Mark Levitz to say at the time “it’s unfortunate the jury wasn’t able to conclude what judges in other parts of Canada found — that the Hells Angels is a criminal organization.”
In the third care, Martha Devlin, then a federal prosecutor, didn’t even get to introduce her evidence in November 2009 that two Hells Angels were part of or working for a criminal organization.
Justice Peter Leask granted a defence motion to dismiss the counts because of the jury’s ruling in the July case.
To date, judges in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec have ruled the Hells Angels are a criminal organization.
Brad Stephen, a retired Vancouver police biker specialist, has no doubt that the B.C. bikers are a criminal organization.
“The Hells Angels are involved in every aspect of criminal enterprise in British Columbia, specifically the drug enterprise, because they control a good quantity of the product and they control territory and they have incredible international contacts and influence,” Stephen said in an interview.
And while many Hells Angels have been convicted of other charges in B.C. in recent years, Stephen thinks a criminal organization conviction has eluded police and prosecutors because of a failure to groom new police experts on the biker gang.
“We have not had a sustained, resourced and committed long-standing effort against the Hells Angels in B.C.,” he said. “It has been a roller-coaster ride of commitment, and of success and failure.”
He said in other Canadian jurisdictions, law enforcement agencies “have committed to sponsoring a particular police officer to educate himself to go through all the protocols in order to become an expert.”
“British Columbia has been unable to have any succession planning with regards to biker experts,” Stephen said.
He said that in order for police officers to get promoted, and thus earn more, they need a varied resumé. So they transfer to different units to gain a wider range of experience.
Officers don’t always see the benefit of staying long-term in specialty units, like the one investigating outlaw motorcycle gangs in B.C., he said.
But he believes the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, a multi-police-force anti-gang unit in B.C., is now developing a new long-term strategy targeting the bikers, which he applauds.
“When you drill down to do a quality investigation, a quality prosecution, you need police that are talented in writing affidavits. You need police officers that are talented in handling informants and agents, and police officers that are technically sound in all the latest gadgetry,” Stephen said.
“In order to attract police officers to these sections, you need respectful leaders. You need leaders that are progressive, innovative, that want to really put bad guys in jail — leaders that will take risks, that won’t necessarily take the easy road. That attracts quality police officers.”
There have been a lot of changes in the Hells Angels since the Nanaimo civil forfeiture case was filed in 2007.
• Longtime Nanaimo Angel Robert (Fred) Widdifield, named in the original suit, has since been convicted of extortion and theft.
• Several defendants in the later suit filed against the Kelowna and East End chapters have also now been convicted of criminal charges. Giles, also a named defendant, is dead.
The Hells Angels lead lawyer in the forfeiture case, Joe Arvay, declined to comment for this story. The Hells Angels spokesman, Rick Ciarniello, did not respond to a request for an interview.
Phil Tawtel, the director of the B.C. Civil Forfeiture office, said in an email that he was also unable to comment.
The lack of a criminal organization designation in B.C. has meant the Hells Angels have continued to flourish here, Stephen said.
They have opened two new chapters in the past five years — the most recent, Hardside, in March. The West Point chapter, which opened in 2012, recently rented a house on acreage in south Langley, which they are using for a clubhouse, Postmedia has learned.
There are now 121 Hells Angels in B.C., up from about 100 three years ago.
“The Hells Angels know the gains to be made far outweigh what the consequences would be here in B.C. When there is an expansion, that is a slap in the face to law enforcement,” Stephen said.
He is also concerned about the increasing number of “puppet clubs” — biker gangs that also wear three-piece patches like the Hells Angels and that seek permission from the older gang before starting up.
“When you go over to the (Vancouver) Island, it is infested with outlaw motorcycle gangs. It is expanding like crazy. So why are they expanding? They see the market. The market is there. The punishment or the consequences are such that it has become a very attractive arena for bikers to thrive in.”
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