Leonardo Rizzuto and Stefano Sollecito walked out of the Montreal courthouse on Monday, February 19 as free men. That this caused surprise among organized crime observers is understandable. That it caused extreme frustration among law enforcement is probable, given that this is yet another case against Quebec-based organized crime figures botched by the cops and the Crown.
The two alleged high profile Mafia leaders had their charges of conspiracy to traffic cocaine and gangsterism tossed out of court after Quebec Superior Court Judge Eric Downs ruled that key evidence was inadmissible. That evidence stemmed from wiretaps planted by police in 2015 in the office of lawyer Loris Cavaliere—wiretaps that the judge said violated the sanctity of solicitor-client privilege. The accused argued that investigators didn’t put in enough safeguards to guarantee the privacy of Cavaliere’s other client. The judge sided with them and threw the wiretap evidence out, leaving the Crown with little else to prove Rizzuto and Sollecito’s guilt.
“The judge recognized that you don’t enter a law office like you do a warehouse” to plant wiretaps, said Sollecito’s lawyer Daniele Roy, according to the Montreal Gazette.
Pierre de Champlain, an organized crime expert and former civilian analyst for the RCMP, says the result is another humiliation for cops and the Crown.
“This isn’t the first time this has happened,” he told VICE. “We’ve had Operation SharQc with the Hells Angels and Operation Clemenza, where all the charges were withdrawn, so really, these last few years haven’t been lucky ones for the Crown.”
Operation SharQc was an investigation into the Hells that culminated in the 2009 arrests of over 150 people—including almost every known full patch Hells Angel in the province—and the seizure of over $5 million in cash plus large quantities of cocaine, cannabis, and pharmaceuticals. While over a dozen men would plead guilty to charges of murder and conspiracy, dozens upon dozens more went free due to procedural abuse by the Crown and delays in getting the case to trial. Operation Clemenza was the arrest of almost 40 alleged members or associates of the Montreal Mafia in 2014 on charges ranging from arson to drug trafficking to gangsterism. Those cases fell apart last year, when the Crown stayed the charges after questions arose about the method police used in gathering evidence—especially its use of collecting PIN-to-PIN Blackberry messages—and other legal issues.
The constant thwarting of high profile cases is symptomatic of a deeper malaise within Canada’s overall strategy in fighting organized crime, according to Antonio Nicaso, a well-respected authority on the mob and a lecturer at Queen’s University. He describes last week’s acquittals as “a short circuit in the system.” The electronic intercepts were authorized by judges in the first place, so the fact that the evidence they gathered was deemed inadmissible by another is puzzling.
“It’s the legislators’ fault,” he says. “We grant too much discretion to judges. If you clearly stated what police can do or not do during an investigation, you’d eliminate this discretion.”
Nicaso believes that the interception of communications is essential to fighting organized crime because it’s the only way to establish hierarchies of command and to figure out just how widespread and pernicious its influence is.
“If you want to dismantle a criminal organization, you have to investigate the links a criminal organization establishes with people outside the organization,” he says—meaning the lawyers, the accountants, the bankers, the politicians and the union leaders who regularly do business with the mob. “There’s no other way to fight them.”
Both men say that the acquittals mean the instability that has gripped the Montreal underworld since the death of Vito Rizzuto—Leonardo’s father—in December 2013 won’t be abating any time soon. Since the late don’s passing, there has been a sharp spike in the number of Mafia-related murders. Among them was the brazen 2016 shooting of Stefano Sollecito’s father, Rocco, reputed to have been a close associate of Vito Rizzuto.
Things have been quiet lately but with the return of two alleged leaders of the Montreal Mafia’s Sicilian faction to the scene, de Champlain says “some adjustments” may be coming at street level.
“No real leader has emerged” since Vito Rizzuto’s death, he says. “There are a several smaller clans which are sprouting up all over Montreal, but they are all more or less independent from one another. With everything that’s happened over the past few years, tensions have been very high and the police presence has been very strong.”
He believes the pair will be keeping a low profile while the much-weakened Sicilian faction struggles to maintain a position of prominence among its newly emboldened peers. In the meantime, Leonardo Rizzuto still has to face firearm and drug possession charges from January 2016. He’ll be back in court for those in late March.
“What is clear is that the war to fill the void left by Vito Rizzuto is not over yet,” says Nicaso.
Follow Patrick Lejtenyi on Twitter.