COVER STORY: A shift with North Van’s serious crimes unit
Juel Ross Stanton, the former East End Hells Angel gunned down outside his Vancouver home two years ago, was a famously evasive surveillance target.
Even when traveling just a few blocks, the biker always took a circuitous route, often doubling back or steering down cul-de-sacs to make sure he wasn’t being tailed, police say.
Gord Reid discovered this the hard way when, after some shifty maneuvering, Stanton drove past his unmarked police car and gave him the finger.
That was a few years back and it was one of the rare times Reid, an RCMP corporal who’s had stints with IHIT and Surrey plainclothes units, has ever had his cover blown during surveillance.
Today’s target isn’t nearly as street-smart, but any surveillance operation requires careful planning.
It’s 5:59 a.m. and under a dawn sky, Reid, an amiable cop who used to be a high school teacher, is sitting in the front seat of a ghost car in a Lower Lonsdale neighbourhood. He has a Kevlar vest underneath his shirt, a 9-mm Smith & Wesson on his hip and he’s sipping a juice box.
“Today is very simple because we are not trying to stay with a sophisticated target for a week or something. [We’re just trying to] learn about his lifestyle for a future investigation.”
Specifically, they want to confirm where he works.
There are some basic rules for surveillance, like wearing dull-coloured clothes, Reid explains.
“You don’t want to get noticed.”
For more complex tails, officers will pack a “boot bag” that includes changes of clothing and accessories like hats. “Just so if someone sees you from a block away they don’t think it’s the same person.”
In his backpack Reid’s got binoculars, a map, notebook and range of force options — including pepper spray and a baton. He’s also carrying a ‘target sheet’ folder that includes a mugshot of today’s subject, picture of his girlfriend, information about what he drives, photos of his tattoos and list of associates.
Before leaving the RCMP detachment, five members of the serious crime unit met briefly to discuss the tactical details about the intel-gathering mission.
A few blocks away from Reid’s parked car, another team — called “the eyes” — is camped outside the subject’s residence.
6:32: “No change at the residence,” says an officer over the radio.
Moments later, a male dressed in black believed to be the target is spotted hopping into a cab. The team wasn’t expecting this. He’s now used different modes of transportation during each of the three surveillance operations.
“Taxi headed north.”
“Copy, if it’s a yellow one, it just turned west,” says Reid.
“We’ll hold the eye just in case.”
Reid pursues the cab, accelerating to keep up. “I’ve got one for cover,” he says, meaning there’s one vehicle between his car and the target’s.
The guy in the back of the cab has no clue he’s being tailed.
When the cab eventually pulls into the target’s workplace, Reid hangs back.
“Leave for Kokko there,” he says, referring his partner, Cpl. Mike Kokkoris, who’s positioned with a clear view of the employee parking lot.
“Kokko, he’s dressed all in black with a baseball cap,” advises Const. Tyler Wickware, who is part of the “eyes” team.
Kokkoris: “I’ve got the cab here, he’s just in back of me. The male is out and yes target one confirmed, baseball hat, sunglasses and he’s going into [the main entrance].”
“Copy, I saw him go in too Kokko,” says Reid.
“I’m just going to get the cab number in case we want to follow-up with how he paid or what number he used to call,” Kokkoris replies.
“That was it, we gained a little piece of intel,” says Reid as he steers out of the parking lot.
The North Vancouver RCMP’s serious crime unit is made up of seven officers and handles mostly violent crimes: home invasions, kidnappings, serious assaults, robberies — cases that require more in-depth investigation.
They usually pull four-day, 10-hour shifts. That said, if a big call comes in, so do they.
“What I like about it is it’s always varied,” Reid says.
In the past few weeks, for instance, the team has investigated found human remains, a pair of arsons and a home invasion.
“It’s fun for me trying to solve a mystery,” says Reid, who used to teach English and history. “To figure out what happened and put it together. It’s really interesting.”
Reid also gets tremendous satisfaction knowing the team is taking bad guys off the street.
Following today’s early morning surveillance, the officers meet at a coffee shop on East 8th to discuss the rest of the day.
The unit, which spends hours together each shift, is tight knit.
“[Sometimes you’re seeing] coworkers more than family and loved ones at home,” says Const. Jaime Myles, who recalls a 4 p.m. to 10 a.m. shift sitting outside a suspect’s home to make sure he didn’t leave. “Sitting watching him sleep in a dark house you learn a lot about the person next to [you],” he says.
Conversation at the coffee shop quickly turns to the pending verdict in a high-profile case that’s expected this afternoon. Myles and Reid have both invested plenty of hours in the case.
Reid believes investigators have delivered a solid case to Crown, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a guilty verdict.
Court is the ultimate litmus test for evidence-gathering during an investigation.
“Always something thrown out,” laments one officer.
To make sure that doesn’t happen, the officers must stay up on current case law and charter rights issues. Fortunately, they’ve got help.
Kokkoris, brings up a website on his iPhone. It’s a site maintained by a senior Crown counsel that discusses legal topics for Canadian police.
Here, officers can bone up on subjects like searching cellphones incidental to arrest.
“Case law is always changing,” the officers explain.
“That’s the ultimate sense of satisfaction — knowing what you did is right,” adds Kokkoris about getting a guilty verdict.
SCU shares a floor with three other plainclothes RCMP units: sex crime, economic/arson and property.
The teams often work cases together. Today, as SCU officers exit the elevator at the top floor of the detachment at around 8 a.m., they’re passed by the property crime unit, led by Const. Paul Bentham.
Bentham’s crew is waiting for a warrant that will allow them to execute a search at the apartment of a B&E suspect who left behind a fingerprint and shoe print at a recent burglary job. They want his sneakers so the ident team can try and make a match.
Reid, meanwhile, sits down in his office, a room decorated with wanted posters, composite sketches and maps, to finish reviewing an ITO — information to obtain — to gather evidence for a property crime case. When completed, it will be a detailed, 35-page document and will have taken more than a day to prepare. Some warrants run more than 70 pages.
“The level of documentation we have to do on a file is massive,” explains Wickware, a young-looking SCU member decked out in a blue-check shirt, black baseball cap and jeans.
But it’s just as important as surveillance work or interrogating suspects — especially when it comes time for a case to go to trial.
As Reid finishes up the ITO, his partner Kokkoris is working with the department’s media relations officer to finalize a press release about a grocery store bandit who has struck four times in the past three months. The officers are particularly troubled by the fact that the suspect uses a handgun during his robberies. At his desk, Reid pulls up surveillance video from one of the heists and points out how nonchalantly the man wields a handgun.
Shortly after the news release is distributed, Wickware checks his iPhone to see if it’s getting any media play. They hope some news coverage will generate some new leads.
A little later, something comes across the robbery bulletin that has the team quickly gathering around a computer.
“[He’s] still in town,” one says.
“They have a plate on that?” asks another.
It’s a bulletin from Richmond RCMP about a suspect who the SCU unit believes is connected to a home invasion in North Vancouver.
“You are the primary,” one officer says to Kokkoris, who is quickly on the phone with Richmond investigators.
Const. Jaime Myles says he likes working for SCU because it offers the “type of work [where] you get to see an entire file through, right to the court process,” unlike, say, general duty where officers may attend a call, write a report and never see the file again.
Today is a good example.
In the early afternoon, the officers arrive at the provincial courthouse in North Vancouver to hear the verdict in a case they’ve worked.
They file into Court Room 2 and take seats in the back row.
“That’s the victim right there,” whispers Reid, pointing to a man sitting a few rows up.
“That’s [one of] the accused,” he says pointing across the aisle.
The case, which took place several years ago, relies mainly on circumstantial evidence.
Reid looks down and fidgets with his hands as the judge reads his findings.
He stares at one of the accused as the verdict is read.
Only one of the two charged is found guilty.
Outside the courtroom, Reid seems dejected.
“Very disappointing,” he says. “I hoped for two convictions.”
Back at the station, SCU members are greeted by an officer from another plainclothes unit who asks about the verdict.
“A lot of good work on that file,” he says in a consoling tone.
Reid plans to get a copy of the judge’s reasons for judgement.
He’s interested in a piece of case law used to reach the verdict for future investigations.
*Some details have been changed in order to protect an ongoing SCU investigation