Yesterday, in a downtown courtroom, the prosecution of six former Toronto police drug squad officers came to an abrupt and surprising teary end when Justice Ian Nordheimer stayed the charges, blaming the Crown for its inept handling of the prosecution.
“No explanation for the glacial progress of this prosecution has been offered,” said Nordheimer, in his 54-page ruling. “The vast majority of the time that has passed in this prosecution resulted from the crown’s inability to make full and complete disclosure (of the evidence).”
Immediately after the ruling, the packed courtroom erupted in applause as many of the six officers, Staff Sgt. John Schertzer along with Constables Steve Correia, Joseph Miched, Raymond Pollard, Richard Benoit and Ned Maodus, broke down in tears after realizing the investigation into their alleged misdeeds that began a decade ago was finally over.
“My life has been hell for the past 10 years,” said Miched, who quit the force in frustration as the case dragged on in the courts, and is now selling cars. Like the others, he had an unblemished police record before he was accused of stealing money from drug dealers and falsifying search warrants.
“It’s been a long, stressful and painful journey for us all,” said Schertzer, who also retired in frustration from the job that he loved.
He has a lawsuit pending against former chief Julian Fantino, and members of the special task force that spent more than $3 million, accumulating nearly a million pages of evidence in what then-RCMP Chief Supt. John Neily, the head of the task force, called a “precedent setting criminal investigation … the largest police corruption scandal known in Canadian history.”
Schertzer’s wife, Joyce, also a police officer who attended nearly every court appearance, rushed from the gallery after court ended, hugging her husband as the officers tearfully embraced one another and their lawyers – Peter Brauti, John Rosen, Harry Black, Joanne Mulcahy, Earl Levy, Pat Ducharme and Alan Gold.
The six veteran officers had been charged with obstruction of justice, perjury, extortion and assault after allegedly falsifying notes, not getting search warrants, beating up drug dealers and stealing their money while investigating Toronto street gangs.
The usually loquacious Brauti, the lawyer who filed a two-metre high stack of briefs in his Charter of Rights motion to have the charges dropped for “unreasonable delay,” which was accepted by Nordheimer, was almost at a loss for words.
“These men dedicated themselves to the justice system,” he said later. “They certainly deserved better prosecution.”
During a party afterwards, Brauti said all the officers were furious that some 200 cases their squad investigated were tossed from the courts after they were charged.
“They can’t believe that drug dealers got a free walk while police officers and their families were put through a decade of hell,” said Brauti.
The six went to court yesterday, expecting that only the charges against Benoit, whose part in the alleged scandal was minor, would be dropped.
But their spirits lifted as Nordheimer continually zeroed in on the Crown and the investigators who handled the case over the course of the three hours that he read his judgment.
Nordheimer described how many of the six suffered psychological trauma, with several needing medication for depression.
Most had joined the force right out of high school. They had been originally charged in 2000, charges that were dropped, only to be re-charged in 2004.
The six were immediately ostracized by the force, several marriages ended, their children were bullied at school and even the fathers of two of the officers became estranged from their sons after they were charged.
The day before his ruling, Nordheimer told the court that he had found “two clear-cut instances of misconduct” by detectives with the special task force that laid charges against the six, along with former police union head Rick McIntosh and Const. Bill McCormack over alleged extortion of bar owners in the Entertainment District, in a separate case still before the courts.
To a man, at a celebration party last night, they were enraged over comments from Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory, who called for an investigation into what went wrong with the case.
“Everyone keeps assuming we were guilty. There should be a public inquiry all right, but it should be focused on the cops who investigated the cops,” said Schertzer.
“We had the gangs in this city under control,” said Schertzer. “Now look at what is happening. Gunplay almost daily, along with shootings and murders.”
In his ruling, Nordheimer said that “certain investigators” with the task force deliberately leaked information to the media “on more than one occasion,” an apparent bid to “encourage adverse publicity,” which further prejudiced their right to a fair trial.
In one of the leaks, it was alleged that the money supposedly stolen by the squad was put into offshore bank accounts, an accusation that Nordheimer said during a pre-trial hearing was totally false.
Rosen said that while the officers were relieved that the charges were stayed, they were “saddened by the fact they weren’t able to face their accusers … and be vindicated in the courtroom. But the main thing is that they have suffered enough and that’s what the court has found.”
He said it was up to Chief Bill Blair to decide if the six should face internal police charges, but added “I would hope that this case is over.”
The Crown has 30 days to decide if they will appeal the ruling. Lead prosecutor Milan Rupic declined to comment.
Nordheimer said in his ruling that a year before the charges were laid in 2004, Neily, the head of the task force, wrote to the attorney general, outlining his concern that prosecutors were botching the case.
“I remain extremely concerned with what appears to be a lack of any overt action to review our court briefs, review our materials … or to work with us to formalize a prosecution strategy,” wrote Neily, said the judge.
“We cannot continue to wait months and months for action on your part,” he said about the prosecutors. “I have said this to you time and again and yet there is no change.”