On Sept. 16, 1995, a boy went for a walk through the woods near Hope, B.C., an hour's drive east of Vancouver. He made a gruesome discovery. Bill Bedford, a local cocaine dealer, had been taped to a tree and then shot in the head, execution-style.
Aside from the body, there was no evidence left at the scene, nothing that could help police with their murder investigation.
The RCMP had cellphone receipts for the area; investigators believed that an alleged crackhouse operator named Kevin Simmonds had been around the crime scene when Bedford was murdered. Simmonds was questioned but denied any knowledge of Bedford's demise. The police investigation stalled, and the case soon went cold.
Four years later, Simmonds walked into an elaborate police sting, one of a series of controversial but increasingly common undercover operations developed by the RCMP in B.C. called "Mr. Big".
The police call it role playing: they pretend to be criminals. Twenty to 25 times a year, with little notice, selected undercover operators are sent into the criminal netherworld to make friendly contact with a murder suspect, and then lure them into a fantasy world of cash, booze and crime.
Each meeting, called a scenario, is predetermined and planned. The ultimate goal is to elicit from the suspect a murder confession.
It is dangerous, demanding work. The officers must develop different criminal identities and dress the part. They then approach the suspect and curry favour with him. Soon enough, in all likelihood, their "target" will be put in front of "Mr. Big".
Simmonds met a tough-looking biker in early 1999. The guy trash-talked and knew all about guns. He said he was an enforcer. He invited Simmonds to assist him in what appeared to be criminal endeavours. Simmonds was paid small amounts of money. Once, he helped his new friend count out $970,000 in cash. He was told he could make $15,000 to $25,000 in a pending deal, if he played his cards right.
Simmonds suspected nothing. In April, 1999, he was introduced to the organization's "boss," Mr. Big. The encounter was secretly videotaped.
Mr. Big was another undercover RCMP operator. He told Simmonds he was very connected, that he even had police sources. He said knew Simmonds was getting "heat" for something that went down near Hope, years earlier.
"Well, what the f--- happened?" Mr. Big asked.
Simmonds gave him a few details, about a guy who'd been shot, how the RCMP were once all over him for it, and how things had cooled down.
"Why did you whack him?" Mr. Big demanded.
"He owed ninety grand [and] he wouldn't pay the ninety grand," Simmonds said. "I shot him once underneath the eye and once in the chest, yeah... I didn't lose any sleep over it."
Simmonds' damning statement led to a first-degree murder conviction. He is now behind bars.
Al Haslett is an RCMP sergeant based in Kelowna, B.C. He helped develop the unique criminal role-playing techniques 14 years ago. "I was probably the one who started it," he says. "I was just thinking outside the box, trying to see how far we could go."
They go further than you might imagine. Assaults and kidnappings are staged, and shootings sometimes faked, to win a target's confidence. Luxury vehicles and jet aircraft may be engaged in a bid to woo a suspect. Alcohol is considered an important prop. Once, an undercover officer was "prepared to drink and drive," to maintain his criminal persona.
Such investigations may last months, and more than a dozen undercover officers in a variety of settings may take part.
RCMP in B.C. say their role-playing scenarios, while highly unconventional, are effective. About 180 of the stings have been conducted in B.C. since 1997. According to Peter Marsh, the RCMP's director of undercover operations for B.C., about 80% were considered successful, by which he means they either produced evidence for the prosecution or eliminated a target as a suspect.
The latest sting concluded three weeks ago, with the arrest of a man in the interior of B.C. Timothy Dean Easthope, 29, was charged with second-degree murder in the 1995 death of Matthew Hobbs. His lawyer, Paul Danyliu, says his client is innocent and will plead not guilty. "He is very susceptible to a sting operation, because he has a severe head injury," Mr. Danyliu says. "These sort of sting operations are just asking for false confessions."
Canadian courts have repeatedly ruled that undercover police officers may resort to "dirty tricks" and "deceit" to apprehend suspected criminals, if their techniques do not "shock" the community's sense of decency. That is the line that has been drawn.
Lawyers for Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay argued unsuccessfully that RCMP undercover operators went too far when they launched a Mr. Big-style investigation against their clients in Vancouver 10 years ago.
Burns and Rafay were suspected of killing Rafay's father, mother and sister in Bellevue, Wash. With no physical evidence linking the two to the murders, Bellevue police asked for help from the B.C. undercover unit.
A series of Mr. Big scenarios was launched in 1995; Burns, then 19, was the primary target. An undercover operator approached him outside a Vancouver hair salon, and introduced him to his "boss." They soon had Burns "steal" a car, and to "launder" money.
At one point, Burns tried to wriggle free. "I don't know if I'm gonna have time to do what, you know, you might think is appropriate for me to do," he told the two RCMP operatives, according to recorded transcripts entered as evidence in court. "I guess, the thing is, [I'm] almost not that motivated right now, because like as I said, right, I just got things to do.... I sort of have things on my plate.... Like I say, I'm totally busy."
The "crime boss" did not accept this.
"Don't take me for a f---ing stupid man," he told Burns, during a videotaped meeting in June, 1995. "I f---ing uh, I got your f---ing, uh, basically your f---ing future in the palm of my hand if I want it anyway but you're gonna make money for me.... Don't ever let your f---ing friends sell me short, 'cause if they start selling me short, you being in the middle is gonna get hurt."
Staff Sgt. Marsh says his officers "don't make a habit" of issuing direct threats to targets. In the Burns and Rafay case, he says, threats were merely implied. The suspects came to "believe" they might be killed if they refused to confess. This, Staff Sgt. Marsh concedes, is "probably" what the RCMP wanted them to think. "That's different than telling someone he will be killed," he says.
In a meeting with Burns, Mr. Big claimed to have knowledge of explosive evidence that he said police in Bellevue planned to use against Burns. He produced a memo on Bellevue police letterhead that said hair matched to Burns was found at the murder scene; the hair, the memo said, was mingled with the blood of one of the Rafay murder victims.
"The police f---ing know you killed these people," said Mr. Big. The f---ing DNA is being cultured right now and they're puttin' together a big f---ing case against you. So I'm not gonna have this bullsh--, you lying to me now...."
Mr. Big said he could have the DNA destroyed by sources inside the Bellevue police, but only if Burns confessed to the murder. Details were needed, said Mr. Big, so that his sources knew what to look for when they went to destroy the DNA evidence.
It was all a ruse. The memo was fake. But Burns haltingly confessed. Atif Rafay was soon introduced to Mr Big; prompted by Burns, he confessed as well. Their statements sealed their extradition to Washington.
In the United States, police may not issue threats or offer suspected criminals promises, money or alcohol in exchange for confessions. Such techniques are considered coercive and an infringement of an individual's rights.
False confessions expert Richard Leo, a criminologist at the University of California, says that if Burns and Rafay had been U.S. citizens, their confessions would not have been admitted as evidence at their trial in Seattle. "Mr. Big scenarios do not occur in the U.S.," he says.
Because they are Canadians, and because they had confessed to Canadian police in Canada, a Seattle judge allowed their confessions into evidence.
This year, a Seattle jury convicted them on three counts of first-degree murder. They were each sentenced to life in prison. They are preparing an appeal.
Staff Sgt. Marsh confirms his B.C.-based undercover unit has exported the Mr. Big scenarios to other regions of Canada. Undercover operators have given role-playing training to the Ontario Provincial Police, he says. OPP officials refused to confirm or deny this. RCMP officers in Manitoba are known to have used the method, with mixed results.
In 1998, Manitoba-based undercover officers launched a Mr. Big-style investigation directed at George Mentuck, a man suspected of killing a 14-year-old girl. Acting as a member of a criminal network, an RCMP constable recruited Mr. Mentuck into a variety of scenarios, paying him $1,800 over seven days and offering him alcohol.
The officer told Mr. Mentuck that his organization "knew" he had murdered the teenaged girl, Amanda Cook. He insisted Mr. Mentuck confess. Doing so, the officer said, would not only establish a sense of trust between Mr. Mentuck and the organization, but would lead to benefits worth at least $85,000.
Mr. Mentuck denied the allegation at least 12 times.
In one meeting, the officer complained that his "boss" had given him "sh--" because Mr. Mentuck had not confessed. "My ass is on the f---ing line here," groused the cop. "I could lose my f---ing job."
"Let's go have that beer," Mr. Mentuck said.
"What are you tellin' me," snapped the undercover officer. "Tell me, George, huh?"
"I guess I did then," Mr. Mentuck said. He then offered up a vague confession, riddled with inaccuracies and contradictions.
Two years later, a trial judge acquitted George Mentuck. "I conclude that the confession, if not false, was certainly too unreliable for acceptance as an admission of guilt," noted Mr. Justice Alan MacInnes. "In my view, the police must be aware that as the level of inducement increases, the risk of receiving a confession to an offence which one did not commit increases, and the reliability of the confession diminishes correspondingly. In this case, in my view, the level of inducement was overpowering."
Another Manitoba man convicted of murder following a Mr. Big-style sting may soon be free. Kyle Unger has always maintained a 1991 murder confession he gave to RCMP officers posing as criminals was false. Three months ago, DNA testing concluded a strand of hair found on a murdered teenager did not come from Mr. Unger, as had been believed.
Mr. Unger's lawyer, Lawyer James Lockyer, says his client's experience shows Mr. Big stings "are dangerous to rely upon. They require substantial corroborative evidence to be considered reliable."
In this case, there was none. There was only a confession extracted by undercover officers who had offered Mr. Unger a lucrative-sounding job in exchange for "the truth."
The case has been referred to Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, who has been asked to consider whether Mr. Unger was the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
Despite the controversies, the RCMP in B.C. will continue to employ their aggressive undercover methods, Staff Sgt. Marsh says. They will also continue to pass along the technique to police from other countries. "We invite foreigners to our training courses in Vancouver," Staff Sgt. Marsh says. Recently, one officer from Belgium came to Vancouver for role-playing lessons.
The RCMP's undercover scenario techniques have also been exported to the Australian state of Victoria. Sgt. Haslett helped train officers there a decade ago.
The techniques have only recently become public knowledge Down Under; Australian trial lawyers and civil rights activists have condemned them. They "completely short-circuit the safeguards that operate within our system to protect people charged with crimes," Chris Dale, president of the Victorian Law Institute told reporters in September.
Until lawmakers decide otherwise, however, the techniques will remain in play, in Australia, and in their country of origin, Canada.