The RCMP's gangster 'hit list'
Skelton, Lori Culbert and Judith Lavoie
Vancouver Sun and Victoria Times Colonist
September 10, 2004
The RCMP has compiled a secret "hit list" of B.C.'s 20 most dangerous crime bosses, a list it hopes will help it put more gangsters behind bars and strike a blow against organized crime in this province, a joint Vancouver Sun-Victoria Times Colonist investigation has learned.
And while the RCMP refuses to reveal the names of the individuals on its list -- for fear of tipping off potential investigation targets -- it will reveal which group it considers the province's biggest criminal threat: The Hells Angels.
OMG [outlaw motorcycle gangs] is the top," said Supt. Dick Grattan, head of the RCMP's criminal intelligence section in B.C.
Grattan said biker-gang members make up the largest proportion of people on the force's Top 20 list, an annual ranking known as the Strategic Threat Assessment that the Mounties in B.C. have been producing for the past few years.
Asian organized-crime figures make up the second-largest group on the list, followed by Eastern European gangsters.
"The Top 20 would be the ones who have the most influence over organized crime in the province," Grattan said.
Rick Ciarniello, spokesman for the Hells Angels in B.C., denied his club is a criminal organization and said if police had evidence that it was, more of his members would be behind bars. "If it were true, they'd be charging people," he said. "Normally, when [police] investigate criminal activity, they don't put it in the newspaper what they're doing. They just go out and gather the evidence and charge people. I wish somebody would charge me with something so I could defend myself in the court of law, where it counts, instead of being tried in the media, where they don't have any proof."
To prevent leaks, the RCMP's threat assessment has been closely guarded by the force.
Even senior organized-crime investigators in the province have only been allowed to review the list and have not been given their own copies.
According to police, the list represents a shift in the RCMP's approach to investigating organized crime. Until recently, said Grattan, the force was "commodity focused" -- measuring success by the volume of drugs it seized.
The problem with that approach, however, is that it often only ensnared the smaller players, leaving many of the kingpins untouched. The goal now, Grattan said, is for police to focus their investigations on the most influential and powerful crime figures, in the hope that putting such people behind bars will destabilize criminal organizations.
And while the RCMP doesn't have the resources to launch investigations into all 20 figures on its list, Grattan said investigations are underway -- or in the planning stages -- for at least half of them.
When the Mounties decided a few years ago to compile such a list, their first challenge was who to include. A preliminary list of all the known organized-crime figures in B.C. turned up 185 names, broken down into 85 separate groups -- some just small street-gangs of a few people each.
To winnow down the list, crime figures were ranked on 19 separate factors, including use of violence, infiltration into legitimate businesses and ability to corrupt officials. That combination of factors is what landed many of B.C.'s Hells Angels members in the Top 20. A heavily edited copy of the 2003 Strategic Threat Assessment, provided to The Vancouver Sun by the RCMP, indicates how high a priority the Angels have become.
"Within British Columbia, the influence attached to the Hells Angels organization and their symbols cannot be overstated," the report states. "Since their inception in 1948, the Hells Angels organization has evolved into a structure that is designed to facilitate and protect the criminal enterprises of its membership."
Insp. Andy Richards is a biker-gang expert with the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, a group within the RCMP that's taken over many duties of the Organized Crime Agency of B.C.
Richards said what makes Angels membership so attractive to criminals is that the gang has a reputation in the criminal world for violence and power -- making it easier for members to collect drug debts and intimidate the competition.
While a gang member with a Hells Angels patch on his jacket may be an easier target for police than an Asian gangster, the association with the Angels is worth the risk, he said.
"It's the power of the patch. Once you have that patch, you have that standing out there in the criminal world that people are afraid of. Violence and intimidation is the gas that runs the engine of the Hells Angels."
A growing police fear is that the Hells Angels are infiltrating the quick-cash businesses, such as cheque cashing and money lending, although none are yet listed as owners of record.
In Vancouver and Kamloops, Hells Angels have bought cellphone stores and are rumoured to be setting up their own phone companies. In Kelowna, Hells Angels from around the Lower Mainland have large real-estate holdings and their business interests range from an up-market clothing store to a tattoo parlour.
Supt. Don Harrison, RCMP district officer of the south-east district of E Division, can drive around Kelowna, where he believes a Hells Angels chapter is about to open up, and point to expensive properties, brand-new condos and businesses owned by Angels. "These people are extremely well-organized. The profits they are making are enormous," he said.
However, while the Angels are powerful, police say they are not hierarchical in the same way as traditional organized crime, where everybody reports to a single boss. While each Angels chapter has a president who looks after club business, police say the criminal activities of the bikers are less formally structured.
"It's not like the Mafia, where everything goes to the top," Richards said.
He said Hells Angels members essentially run their own operations, with their own associates and underlings. "Once you're a full member, you're at the top, if you want to be, of your own little criminal enterprise," he said.
Richards said the Angels in B.C. have grown incredibly rich in recent years, in large part due to heavy involvement in the marijuana trade in the 1990s. "The Angels in B.C. were one of the very first groups to industrialize the marijuana business -- setting up and investing in multiple large grows and producing large shipments for export," he said. "The B.C. bud industry has made the Hells Angels, some of them, extremely wealthy."
But, as pot raids have increased, Richards said, some Angels have stepped back from growing marijuana and have taken on a greater role as brokers and middlemen, helping to ship marijuana into the United States.
One of the main reasons why the Angels are such a high priority for police is that their power and money has allowed them to infiltrate the legitimate economy. From supermarkets to clothing stores, the Angels have a stake in all kinds of businesses. Indeed, many people in B.C. regularly shop at Angels' businesses without even knowing it.
But nowhere is the infiltration of the Angels more apparent than at the ports.
Police in B.C. have often tried to play down the role of biker gangs at the Vancouver and Delta ports.
But The Sun has learned that a secret 2001 report by the Organized Crime Agency of B.C. identified by name five full members of the Hells Angels who work at the Vancouver and Delta ports, along with more than 30 known associates.
And in a speech to a meeting of provincial justice ministers in Vancouver in December 1999, Bev Busson -- then chief of the OCA, and now head of the RCMP in B.C. -- left little doubt about the influence of the Angels at the ports.
"[The] Hells Angels in B.C. . . . control much of the production and export of high-grade indoor-grown marijuana and the importation and distribution of cocaine," said Busson, according to a copy of her speech obtained by The Sun through an Access to Information request. "Millions of dollars change hands in this import-export business. Smuggling methods are diverse and include unchecked containers at the Port of Vancouver, an area under the control of the Hells Angels."
Insp. Doug Kiloh, the RCMP's major case manager at the ports, said he is aware of Hells Angels members working at the ports and said it is possible for anyone employed at the ports -- whether an Angel or not -- to commit crimes. But he played down the Angels' strength on the waterfront. "It's an unfair characterization to say that the Hells Angels run the ports," he said. "In my view, it's absolutely false."
Onkar Athwal, vice-president of operations for the B.C. Maritime Employers Association, said he's not aware of specific Angels members working at the ports, but it wouldn't surprise him. "I don't personally know of any individuals, but I am aware that there probably are some," he said.
However, Athwal disputed the suggestion that the Angels control activity at the ports. "I don't think they're controlling anything," he said.
Athwal said longshoremen are not subject to criminal-record checks or other background checks before working at the ports. However, Transport Canada has proposed new regulations that would require port workers -- like airport workers -- to be subject to background checks before working in restricted areas.
Public consultations on the new regulations -- known as the Marine Facilities Restricted Areas Access Clearance Program -- will begin Sept. 20 and the regulations will likely be implemented early in 2005.
Ciarniello denied five Angels members are working at the ports, saying he's only aware of two -- something he thinks shouldn't be an issue. "What is wrong with having a bloody job?" he said. "These guys are out there working. But because they're Hells Angels, you've got to put a twist on it."
Ciarniello added that people identified by police as "associates" may simply be friends of Hells Angels members.
"Being somebody who . . . knows the Hells Angels is not reason to assume that there is something criminal going on," he said.
After the Hells Angels, the second-highest organized-crime priority for the RCMP is Asian organized crime, which includes both Chinese and Vietnamese gangs.
Chinese gangs known as the Big Circle Boys are involved in a wide variety of activities, including drug importation and human smuggling -- but are also heavily involved in credit-card fraud and loan sharking.
Vietnamese gangs, on the other hand, are primarily involved in marijuana growing -- although they have recently begun to expand into methamphetamine labs.
Eastern European crime groups are a more recent phenomenon in B.C., but have grown steadily in the past 15 years, according to police. According to the RCMP's 2003 report, Eastern European gangsters are involved in a wide variety of illicit activities, "ranging from street-level theft and [drug] trafficking to sophisticated fraud and money-laundering schemes."
Eastern European crime groups have also been implicated in sophisticated debit-card scams.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the RCMP's Top 20 list, however, is the group that didn't make the cut: Indo-Canadian gangs.
In the past decade, more than 60 Indo-Canadian men in the Lower Mainland have been murdered in a wave of gang violence.
However, Insp. Wade Blizard of the RCMP's criminal intelligence section said that while Indo-Canadian gang members are extremely violent, they are considered by police to be far less sophisticated than other groups, such as outlaw motorcycle gangs or Asian organized crime.
Staff Sgt. Wayne Rideout, head of the RCMP's Integrated Homicide Team -- responsible for investigating many of the Indo-Canadian gang deaths -- said most Indo-Canadian gangsters are relatively small players in the drug trade, often only a few steps above street dealers.
"They're not the millionaire gangsters," said Rideout. "They don't appear to be into the huge shipments. They tend to be low- end. Most of the people we investigate have leased cars. They drive fancy vehicles, but they don't have any assets."
The closest comparison to Indo-Canadian gangsters, said Rideout, is the inner-city street gangs in Los Angeles. "They're drawn by the status," he said.
Rideout said police estimate there are 30 to 40 separate Indo-Canadian gangs in the Lower Mainland, each made up of about three or four key members and maybe a dozen associates.
For the most part, he said, Indo-Canadian gangsters don't have the money at their disposal to move up the drug-trade food chain. "They don't have the cash base to go out there and buy homes like the Vietnamese [gangs]," said Rideout.
Which means, he said, that while Indo-Canadian gangsters are often involved in ripping off growing operations, they rarely set them up themselves.
And many, said Rideout, still live at home with their families.
"They're all mama's boys," he said. "They live with their moms. Their moms wash their clothes. Their moms cook their meals. And they go out and commit murders and then come home."
The violence among Indo-Canadian gangs is also more sporadic than in other crime groups, said Rideout. While Asian gangs or bikers may carry out calculated hits or acts of extortion for economic reasons, many Indo-Canadian killings are over issues of pride or bravado, he said -- sometimes over something as simple as an insult.
"It's done more for passion than economics," he said.
Yet, despite their lack of sophistication, Indo-Canadian gangs are still a concern for police because their violence has greater potential to hurt innocent bystanders than the violence of other gangs.
"The bikers tend to take someone out in the bush," Rideout said. "But the East Indians want to let people know that they're capable of doing it, so they want to do it in the most brazen way possible."
That means shootings in clubs and restaurants -- or spraying homes with gunfire -- all of which increase the potential that innocent bystanders could get caught in the crossfire.
Rideout said police get reports of about three to four drive-by shootings a week in the Lower Mainland that are connected to Indo-Canadian gang violence. "It's miraculous that no one [innocent] has been shot in their bed," said Rideout. "It's going to happen. They're so unpredictable and bravado-driven."
Police admit that, in the past few decades, they haven't had as much success as they'd like in combatting organized crime.
The Mounties' own 2003 report cites an "historical failure" in gathering and distributing intelligence on organized-crime groups to front-line investigators. While police have gathered significant information on organized-crime figures, the report states, "little . . . has been recorded in a consistent manner or in a format and place accessible to intelligence personnel."
Richards admits the track record of police in B.C. is not great. "I've talked about the collective failure of law enforcement to recognize the bikers as an organized-crime threat," he said, noting the Angels arrived in B.C. in 1983. "They ran pretty much unfettered for a long time and became very well established."
But police are hopeful that things are beginning to change.
Police and prosecutors have racked up a handful of successful prosecutions against biker-gang members and Asian organized-crime figures in recent years -- such as the conviction of Hells Angels members Ronaldo Lising and Francisco Pires for cocaine trafficking in 2001.
And they are hopeful things will get better. "I've seen some slow and steady progress in the last few years," Richards said.
"We're beginning to see additional resources and manpower directed towards the fight against the bikers.
"I think we're beginning to get it right in B.C. I think it's becoming enough of a priority for enough people."