Here's what happens when prosecutors screw up hard and there's an organized crime war going on at the same time.
Image via VICE Du Jour
Broadly speaking, in the Canadian legal system, if the state fucks up, you don't go to prison.
And rarely does the state fuck up as bad as it did in the wake of what was supposed to be the biggest prosecution in Quebec's history.
In the early hours of April 15, 2009, more than 1,200 police officers were deployed to arrest 156 members and associates of the Hells Angels in 177 separate raids across Quebec, Canada's second most-populous province, France, and the Dominican Republic.
These raids were the culmination of Operation SharQc ("Stratégie Hells Angels rayon Québec"), a Miami Vice-sounding codename for a massive three-year investigation intended to cripple Quebec's most notorious biker gang. It may have succeeded in the short term, with Hells Angels chapters closing across the province and key players looking at serious jail time, but eight years and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars later, we are seeing a very different outcome.
VICE spoke to police, prosecutors, defence lawyers, and organized crime experts about the fallout of the SharQc trials and their impact on Quebec's criminal landscape.
The charges related to SharQc ranged from drug trafficking, to murder, to conspiracy to commit murder, to distributing contraband tobacco, and it's not like there was a shortage of evidence for the Crown to build their case on. Over the course of their investigations, police amassed some 3,097,649 pages of evidence and 24,446 audiovisual files on the Hells Angels.
Robert Bonomo, one of the accused, calculated that stacked vertically, the case against the accused Hells Angels stood 145 kilometers tall, roughly 371 Empire State Buildings. That dizzying pile of evidence, and how it was handled, ended up damning prosecutors as much as it did the alleged criminals they were trying to convict, making it—quite literally—a monumental failure.
Of the 156 alleged Hells Angels members arrested and charged during the sweep, the overwhelming majority have either been released or had their sentences significantly reduced because of unreasonable delays and crucial evidence being withheld by prosecutors during mega-trials.
A mega-trial, as defined by the Department of Justice, is a trial with "such complex evidence or a number of accused such that one or both of these characteristics result in exceptionally long proceedings." That's lawyerese for a case that has so many accused and so much evidence that it requires its own set of rules.
And while mega-trials might make for dramatic prosecutions and a big "fuck you" to organized crime on behalf of the state, they are, by definition, painfully slow. The "problem" is that the Charter guarantees a speedy trial for every Canadian, and in this case, the prosecution had bitten off more than they could chew, at least according to the judge who presided over the mega-trials.
Quebec Superior Court Judge James Brunton found that allowing the trial of 31 Hells Angels to continue would infringe on this basic Charter right. Shortly after Brunton rendered this decision, the accused walked out of the courtroom free men. Brunton placed the blame squarely on prosecutors for "simply assuming" that our justice system could process such a huge trial. Clearly, it could not. The Crown appealed the decision, but the Supreme Court of Canada sided with Brunton, upholding his initial stay of proceedings.
In a separate decision involving five Hells Angels accused of murder, Brunton skewered the Crown for purposely withholding contradictory evidence from the defence—evidence that could have led to an acquittal years earlier. The only remedy, he ruled, was a stay of proceedings. And so, five Hells Angels members charged with murder were promptly released from prison.
"This abuse goes beyond negligence or even harassment," Brunton wrote. "It constitutes an attack on the fundamental principles of fairness that all criminal cases should benefit from." He then called out prosecutors for their desire to "win at all costs to the detriment of the fundamental principles that form the foundation of our penal justice system."
It's worth noting that the Crown did not appeal Brunton's decision, perhaps for fear of being further roasted by higher courts. Either way, this second case was also the basis for another 35 Hells Angels having their sentences reduced by six to eight years last month.
The Big Picture
Richard Dubé is a defence attorney who worked on the SharQc mega-trials. He says he understands the frustration of a general public that is seeing some of Quebec's most notorious criminals go free because of bloated prosecution, but insists that there were more important issues at hand for the court. For Dubé, this outcome is better than the alternative.
"The system is designed to protect individuals' rights and sometimes those individuals are members of organized crime groups," Dubé told VICE. "But the state has to play by the rules. If we start neglecting these rights for Hells Angels, they could start doing it to people in your family. We can't cut corners because they're members of the Hells Angels. That's not how things work in Canada."
The reality is that the court's hands in these cases were tied by the Charter. In fact, judge Brunton's decisions have been so strongly worded that the province's Director of prosecutions (DPCP) was forced to address them in a statement and launch an internal investigation into the "abusive" handling of evidence, as well as a separate report into the efficacy of mega-trials.
In the meantime, once-shuttered Hells Angels clubs are re-opening and police are observing more criminal activity from biker gangs who seem eager to flaunt their patches in public.
"The Hells Angels have always been a force to be reckoned with in Quebec organized crime," Sûreté du Québec (SQ) spokesman Capt. Guy Lapointe told VICE. "But now that members have been released, I can say that we've seen more activity and that the Hells Angels are definitely more present."
None of which should be surprising, Lapointe adds. "Inevitably, when you have a bunch of members being released, it's easier for them to do these shows of force," Lapointe says, citing events like the Canada Run and Kenny Bédard's funeral in Montreal. "They really wanted to show us that they're a presence."
Bédard was Quebec's most recent full patch member and died in a motorcycle accident in New Brunswick. VICE was outside of the Montreal church where his funeral was held, one that was attended by biker gangs from across Quebec, Canada, and the US.
And while most attendees were there to pay the respects to their "fallen brother" Bédard, there was also a PR vibe outside of Saint Charles church, with hundreds of bikers arriving en masse on their bikes, decked out in signature vests and patches, not to mention Bédard's very badass motorcycle hearse—the only one of its kind in Canada.
Also in attendance were various levels of law enforcement—presumably not to pay their condolences—but to get a look at handshakes and hugs between gang members, which was confirmed by Lapointe. "They're wearing their patches and we're seeing a lot of shows of visibility on their part, mostly in Montreal, but in other parts of Quebec as well," he said.
While the Hells were locked up and awaiting trial, Montreal's mafia—once at the top of the province's criminal food chain—was in disarray, with fire bombings, murders, and reports of infighting becoming an almost weekly occurrence.
Underlying all of this was the violent decline of the Rizzuto family and speculation about who could usurp their central role in the province's drug trade.
For decades, the Hells were a driving force in Quebec's drug trade, taking care of distribution across the province, while the mafia took care of importation.
André Cédillot is a journalist and organized crime expert who has been covering Quebec's criminal landscape for more than four decades.
"Before SharQc, the Hells Angels were the leaders of drugs, along with the Sicilian mafia," he told VICE."The mafia were in charge of importation and the Hells Angels were the distributors. Internationally, the mafia has a better reputation than Hells Angels because the Colombians don't trust the Hells Angels, but they do trust the mafia.
But now, Cédilot says he's seeing a new alliance between the Hells Angels and the Calabrian Ndrangheta based out of Ontario—a tectonic plate shift after four decades of Sicilian dominance. "The Rizzuto family, I think, are out of the game," he says. "They're not in control at the moment, I can tell you that. The Calabrians are in control now."
Because of the Sicilian mafia's decline after years of infighting and arrests, Ontario-based Calabrian mobsters were able to establish themselves in Montreal. But the Calabrians do not have have the local connections and channels of distribution that the Hells Angels do. The release of high-ranking Hells from prison could not be more fortuitous for them or Ontario-based crime families.
"The Ndrangheta from Ontario will have an influence in Montreal—more than the currently Sicilians do; it's a new partnership," according to Cédilot. "It's not in place right now, but I can tell you that this is in preparation."
Antonio Nicaso agrees. He's a professor and author of more than 30 books on organized crime, including Business or Blood: Mafia boss Vito Rizzuto's last war. "When the Sicilians were in power, [the Ndrangheta] never had a chance to move into Montreal," Nicaso says. "This could be an opportunity for the Ndrangheta to have a strategic alliance with a local player. I think what we will see in the future is a totally different criminal landscape."
But this is also a huge opportunity for the biker gang, he added. "The Hells Angels want to move to the next level," he says. "They want to have direct contact with the producers in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia."
The possibility of a Hells Angels-Ndrangheta connection, which remains to be confirmed, is something that the SQ is aware of. "It's one of the theories we're looking at," Capt. Guy Lapointe said, adding that the SQ cannot currently say more than that because they don't comment on intelligence or ongoing investigations.
Back in Business
Recently released senior Hells Angels won't be trading in their patches for Armani suits anytime soon, but both Cédillot and Nicaso suspect that they will be taking a few pages from the Mafia handbook, at least where handling money is concerned.
If senior Hells learned any lesson from the SharQc debacle, they say, it's that the violence and intimidation that defined them for decades will have to give way to more sophisticated criminal enterprises, because their old way of doing business was "too risky." They will also be relying on "club-écoles" (basically biker farm teams) like the Red Devils, Dark Souls, and Devils Ghosts, all of whom were present at Kenny Bédard's funeral.
According to Nicaso and Cédilot, that means more money laundering, construction rackets, and "renting" out drug turf to younger biker gangs from Quebec and Ontario who took over day-to-day drug operations while the Hells were in prison. Under this arrangement, the Hells Angels will be paid a regular "tribute," much like the Mafia. According to a recent Radio-Canada investigation, this growing diversification includes vape shops, apparel, and even the occasional rap video promoting the biker lifestyle:
Based on what Nicaso and Cédilot told us, it's not a stretch to conclude that this new reality on the street was, at the very least, accelerated by the bungled prosecution that has come to define the SharQc trials.
Police and prosecutors are obviously not inclined to draw any such inference at the moment.
When asked about the unprecedented use of police and taxpayer resources deployed to obtain evidence during SharQc, only to be withheld by prosecutors or thrown out by the courts, Lapointe remained mum.
"I can't comment on that for the simple reason that there's an internal investigation going on at the prosecutor's office," Lapointe said. "So, the SQ is going to wait to see the outcome of that before we say anything."
The Crown, for its part, essentially refused to comment on anything related to SharQc. "We're not commenting on this on at the moment," DPCP spokesman Jean Pascal Boucher told VICE. "We're waiting to hear the findings of the internal investigation relating to SharQc, as well as the Bouchard report relating to the management of mega-trials."
But André Cédillot is looking at the future in slightly bleaker terms.
"Organizations like the Hells Angels are not going to disappear because they have problems with the law," he concludes. "Trials like SharQc might have destabilized them, but not killed the organization. There will always be a next generation in organized crime, whether it's the Mafia, street gangs, or the Hells Angels—there is too much money at stake.
"You can destabilize them, but you'll never get rid of them."
Follow Nick Rose on Twitter.