Two blocks up from the St. Lawrence River, just outside the spring flood zone, in the Montreal suburb of Chateauguay is a non-descript 1960s–style bungalow. It was probably the last place police expected to find the headquarters of northern Quebec’s biggest drug-trafficking ring–or its more unlikely kingpin, a retired rcmp officer.
As an undercover narcotics officer in the RCMP’s Montreal detachment, Michel Leblanc acquired intimate and extensive knowledge of Quebec’s underworld, which came in handy when he began discreetly building a business smuggling cocaine and hashish into the Inuit communities of northern Quebec and Nunavut. Leblanc, 51, was clearing an estimated $1.5 million annually by the time he and a half-dozen of his cronies were arrested last May. That was on top of the cut he gave his sponsors, the Hells Angels. The former narc, with more than 15 years of experience as a Mountie, quickly pled guilty to four counts of trafficking and possession of coke and hash. He got six years in jail.
In Quebec, a dangerous new breed of criminal is emerging: cops-turned-gangsters–more than you can shake a nightstick at. When Michel Leblanc was arrested last year, it was just the latest of 49 different charges against Quebec ex-cops in the last decade. And this past April, Montreal police were rocked by another scandal: a 23-year veteran Montreal Urban Community (MUC) police officer and his former partner were arrested and accused of passing confidential police information to biker gangs and other organized crime groups.
It’s not just individual cops gone bad either; the province’s police forces and government institutions are being infiltrated by agents of the bikers. In recent months, suspected moles have been fired or suspended from the Surete du Quebec (SQ), the provincial revenue department and the automobile insurance board for leaking confidential information to biker gangs. In February of last year, the newspaper La Presse quoted anonymous RCMP sources saying that Quebec’s anti-biker police units and the SQ had been penetrated by biker informers. According to La Presse, a biker mole was responsible for the murder of an RCMP agent who had, in turn, infiltrated the Hells Angels. Then, last fall, Montreal police announced that a group of about 10 workers at the Port of Montreal were in cahoots with the bikers and the powerful West End Gang. “They are able to get the drugs out faster than the legitimate goods,” complained one officer.
Even a review of newspaper reports shows the number of ex-cop criminals has steadily climbed through the past decade–from 20 busts of ex-cops between 1991 and 1995, to 29 between 1996 and 2000. Of these cases, II had ties to organized crime–five were connected to the Hells Angels, one to the Rock Machine and the others to Montreal’s West End Gang, Colombian cocaine cartels and the Sicilian Mafia.
These numbers might not represent a crime epidemic, but to cops in the rest of Canada the phenomenon is nothing short of astounding. Phil Moriarty, a former Vancouver police officer who headed an intelligence unit specializing in organized crime, thinks it’s shocking that so many Quebec ex-cops have been jailed. In his 15 years as a policeman, Moriarty said he hadn’t heard of a single former cop in British Columbia collaborating with biker gangs.
“In general, the landscape in Quebec is sort of a world unto its own,” said Moriarty, who is now a private investigator. “Quebec bikers have always been somewhat rogue, even by biker standards. They are obviously still infiltrating the policing community.”
ORGANiZED CRiME iS UNDOUBTEDLY A SERiOUS PROBLEM in Quebec. A key outpost on the fabled French Connection heroin pipeline, Quebec straddles one of the continent’s great drug gateways and is home to one of North America’s busiest and most corrupt ports, Montreal.
The body count in the biker war long ago ceased to amaze most Quebecers. Yet, the pace of killing is astonishing compared to even the cruelest U.S. mob bloodbaths. The infamous Gallo Brothers war, which shook New York in 1963, claimed just 15 lives. Some 30 gangsters were killed in New York’s so-called Banana Wars, in which Mafia boss Joe Bonano battled the rest of the mob from 1964 to 1969.
By comparison, Quebec’s biker war has seen 159 murders, 175 attempted murders and 15 disappearances, according to police figures. Last year alone, there were 28 murders and five disappearances. Few have been solved by police. And the violence only promises to get worse as the Hells Angels and their rivals, the former Rock Machine gang (now prospects of the Bandidos motorcycle club), consolidate a series of new chapters in Ontario.
This spring, federal Justice Minister Anne McLellan introduced Bill c-24-, tough new anti-gang legislation that, among other things, would grant police officers and their informants the power to commit crimes in the course of their investigations.
Just days before the minister unveiled the new legislation, police arrested more than 100 full-patch members of the Hells Angels and other motorcycle gangs, including Maurice “Mom” Boucher and 12 of his close associates, in the largest raid the province has seen since the war began. It made for dramatic TV news, but it’s still unclear whether the evidence will stand up in court.
Since the mass arrest, many commentators have claimed that the existing legislation isn’t strong enough, citing previous cases in which the biker leadership has managed to escape prosecution. Proponents of the legislation, including Toronto police chief Julian Fantino and Quebec Public Security Minister Serge Menard, hope that the stronger laws, stiffer sentences and expanded police power the act promises will allow cops to stop the biker war once and for all. But civil libertarians, crime experts, and even some police say the new anti-gang measures are dangerous and do little to stop the bikers. In fact, C-24–especially its provisions for expanding police powers–may actually exacerbate the problem because the new legislation opens up more avenues for corruption.
REViEWiNG THE MiCHEL LEBLANC CASE, THE OBViOUS QUESTiON iS: how does an ex-cop gain the confidence of the bikers in the first place? “You don’t leave policing and suddenly join the Hells Angels,” said Moriarty. “You undergo a background check with the Hells Angels that’s more stringent than police do. They would never trust you. They’d have to know you were trustworthy and you would have to show you were trustworthy along the way. You would have to be bad while you were still doing your job.”
Police refused to release details about Leblanc’s ROMP personnel file, but one SQ officer who knows Leblanc well said he resigned from the force in 1987 under a cloud. “They showed him the door. He was a shady character. He knows a lot of shady people in Abitibi,” said the officer, who requested anonymity. Several attempts were made to contact Leblanc for comment, but his lawyer did not return calls.
Leblanc’s former colleagues in the ROMP were troubled by his biker ties. “It sure doesn’t help us in our investigations,” said RCMP Sgt. Yves Durepos, who first met Leblanc in 1978. “If there is an ex-cop on the other side, they are going to use him for all the expertise he has. He knows about surveillance, the way we work, what we are looking for,” said Cpl. Steve Avoine, of the RCMP’s detachment in Saint-Jerome.
“He was very, very careful in his way of doing business,” said Cpl. Alain Debonville, the Surete du Quebec officer who led the investigation. Few of Leblanc’s dealers up north ever met him in person. Many didn’t even know his name, or simply knew him as “Mike.” Police arrested 50 lower-level members of Leblanc’s gang in 1998 and 1999, but a growing supply of hash and coke kept flowing north. None of those arrested was willing or able to tell police who was in charge of the gang.
Leblanc’s luck finally ran out in early 2000. During a routine drug bust, police found a package with a Chateauguay address written on it and traced it to Leblanc. Investigators soon realized that it wasn’t the first time the ex-Mountie had been picked up. In 1994, RCMP officers arrested Leblanc in Saint-Jovite, Quebec. He had half a pound of cocaine hidden between the seats of a YJ Jeep. Cpl. Avoine said they suspected Leblanc had biker links even then. Leblanc pled guilty to possession for the purpose of trafficking and got a 23-month sentence.
“We were feeling pretty weird because we knew he went to the same school as us,” said Cpl. Avoine. “He seemed like he didn’t care–no emotion at all.”
By May of last year, when Leblanc was nabbed, police said his monthly revenues had soared to $330,000. This was mostly due to his Inuit clients; drug prices are four times higher in northern Quebec and Nunavut than they are in Montreal.
ONE OF THE FEW PEOPLE WHO HAS STUDiED THE EVOLUTiON OF POLiCE corruption in Quebec is Frederic Lemieux, a doctoral student in criminology at the Universite de Montreal. Lemieux reviewed all the major cases of police corruption in Quebec over the past 25 years in his 159-page masters thesis and concluded that police corruption is getting worse. He makes a distinction between two types of corrupt police officers: “herbivores,” the kind who takes the odd $50 bribe or free restaurant meal, and “carnivores,” who look for bigger payoffs, take bigger risks and commit more serious crimes.
“Do you think a police officer who earns $50,000 would risk his career for a $50 bribe?” asked Lemieux. “They’re not as tempted by small crimes. More and more, the petty corruption has stopped or slowed. We’re increasingly seeing a ferocious corruption.”
It’s worth noting how similar Quebec’s situation is to a growing trend in police corruption south of the border. Joseph McNamara is a leading critic of the U.S. war on drugs. The former chief of police of San Jose, California and Kansas City, Missouri, blames the drug war for a wild new style of police corruption and a slew of corruption scandals. McNamara says most American cops privately believe that the drug war is futile and, for that reason, feel little remorse when they break the law.
“The sheer hopelessness of the task has led many officers to rationalize their own corruption,” he told the Washington, D.C.-based National Drug Strategy Network in a 1998 article. “They say, `Why should the enemy get to keep all the profits?’”
McNamara sounded the alarm six years ago at a drug policy conference in Santa Monica, California. “There’s something very, very wrong going on in American policing,” he said. “We have experienced a wave of police scandals over the past five to 10 years that are quite different than anything we’ve seen historically.”
In 1998, a report in the Los Angeles Times revealed that the number of known U.S. law-enforcement officers in prison increased fivefold in four years, from 107 in 1994 to 548 in 1998. The increase was largely due to drug-related corruption. In recent years, massive corruption scandals linked to the drug war have shaken police departments in Los Angeles, New York City, New Orleans and other U.S. cities. It makes you wonder what might be brewing in Quebec.
THE LATEST CALLS FOR TOUGHER ANTi-GANG LEGiSLATiON CAME iN the wake of the attempted murder of Journal de Montreal crime reporter Michel Auger last September. Although police quickly blamed the Hells Angels, eight months later, the shooter has not been captured.
Auger has become the new poster boy for expanded police powers. In January, he shared a panel at a journalists’ forum in Montreal with Toronto police chief Julian Fantino, head of a national anti-biker task force. Fantino publicly challenged the Liberal government to fight the bikers harden “Organized crime was part of the federal government’s Red Book Three. We’ll have to see if that translates into meaningful outcomes,” he said.
Fantino called for biker gangs to be outlawed, harsher sentences and–why not?–tougher immigration rules (although it’s hard to see the relevance of the last one to bikers). “I suppose when all is said and done,” he said, “our society will get the quantity and quality of law enforcement it is willing to support.”
Not to be outdone, Quebec Justice Minister Serge Menard has called on Ottawa to invoke the “notwithstanding” clause in the Constitution to suspend bikers’ Charter rights and outlaw motorcycle gangs.
Just a week after Fantino’s challenge, federal Justice Minister Anne McLellan announced she would introduce new antigang legislation in Parliament in coming months. The new bill, which was in first reading at press time, would grant vast new powers to cops and their informants, permitting them to commit crimes in the course of investigations. Murder and sexual assault would be prohibited, but offences like buying and selling drugs, using or selling counterfeit documents, communicating for the purposes of prostitution, physical assault (as long as it doesn’t cause bodily harm) and the destruction of property would be permitted as long as they were “reasonable and proportional” under the circumstances, and undertaken for legitimate law enforcement purposes.
Immunity from prosecution is a controversial item on the police wish list that predates Michel Auger’s shooting. Cops have clamoured for the immunity ever since a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that denied officers the authority–with rare exceptions–to break laws in the course of investigations.
The court ruling was related to the case of a group of alleged Ontario drug kingpins caught in an RCMP “reverse sting.” Undercover officers posing as drug suppliers offered to sell nearly $1 million in hash to the suspects. After the deal was made, the buyers were charged with trafficking. The defence argued that the evidence should be thrown out because the police themselves had been trafficking in illegal drugs.
The Supreme Court agreed. In response, the Liberal government quickly passed a law authorizing reverse stings. But that didn’t satisfy the police lobby. Now, the government is proposing to go much further and authorize criminal acts–not just by officers, but also their agents.
While the original case was about drug trafficking, the sweeping new immunity protection will cover many other crimes The unprecedented expansion of police powers in the proposed legislation has stunned many crime experts.
“My problem with this is they are legitimizing police behaviour that goes beyond the original problem, namely sting operations,” said Jean-Paul Brodeur, a criminologist at the Universite de Montreal. “Where are the controls going to be? No other country has anything like this.”
“Corruption always starts with little things. Once the moral fibre starts breaking down, it is harder to resist,” said Yves Manseau, coordinator of the Quebec police watchdog group Mouvement Action Justice. He said the proposed legislation could actually make things worse. “It’s exactly the opposite of what we should do. We have to improve the values of police officers … The last thing we should do is encourage them to commit crimes.”
Police and prosecutors have long complained that the existing law is unwieldy and costly to apply. Don Stuart is a law professor at Queen’s University and one of Canada’s foremost authorities in criminal law. He is the long-time editor of Criminal Reports–a leading publisher of law reports of criminal cases. Stuart noted that Canada’s current organized crime legislation has “turned out to be counterproductive and too wide. It ropes in mostly lesser players. It’s a waste of money and has resulted in punitive treatment of the accused. In the end, there have been mostly acquittals.”
“What’s needed isn’t new laws–it’s evidence,” said Stuart. He said the Criminal Code already prohibits criminal conspiracy, while the anti-gang legislation loosens up the standard of proof. “It’s guilt by association. It runs counter to all our legal traditions in this country. Now, with the new legislation, there is going to be an even wider [definition of gangs]. It’s not going to solve the problem of biker violence.”
Stuart added that Canada could cut down its legal bills if the burden of proof was shifted onto the accused. “The presumption of guilt would also be cheaper,” he said. “[But] these are essential notions here. Other countries get by without this legislation.”
Critics also point out that the anti-gang legislation could be equally applied to Mohawk warriors or, say, anti-globalization protesters. “When we give police more power, they can use it against gangsters, but also political groups,” said Jean-Claude Bernheim, a criminologist, and the president of Quebec’s Prisoners’ Rights Committee. “The police also play a role of gathering intelligence for the state.”
Another point of concern is that the new federal legislation increases police asset forfeiture powers. Right now, in Canada, assets can be frozen in advance of a trial and seized if the person is found guilty. The U.S., however, has a different system. American cops don’t even have to charge, let alone prove, that a specific crime was committed. Once probable cause to freeze property is established, the burden of proof is shifted onto the owner, who must prove that the goods were acquired legitimately.
Canada is slowly adopting the U.S. model. Last year, the feds adopted Bill C-22, the first step towards American-style civil forfeiture. This new money-laundering legislation allows Customs officials to seize assets from travelers crossing the border if they suspect the property has criminal origins. The onus is then on the traveler to prove it was legally acquired. The new bill, c-24, also emphasizes tougher asset forfeiture rules.
The American experience has proved that these measures can be extremely dangerous. In the U.S., asset forfeiture is one of the leading factors in growing police corruption, in part because in the U.S. informers and individual police officers often get a percentage of assets seized.
There have been a slew of scandals in which police targeted suspects simply because they were eyeing their property. In 1992, for example, 30 cops raided the Trails End ranch of Donald Scott, 61, in Malibu, California. Acting on an informer’s tip that Scott was growing marijuana, they busted down his door and shot him dead in front of his wife. No drugs were found on the premises, and an inquiry later revealed that police used an invalid search warrant to raid the $5-million (USD) ranch in an attempt to seize it under U.S. drug-asset forfeiture laws.
According to York University criminologist Margaret Beare, a former director of police policy and research at the Solicitor General’s office: “There is a wealth of literature that documents the abuses and the U.S. is now trying to step back from [asset forfeiture].”
EVER SiNCE THE EARLY 1020S, QUEBEC HAS BEEN FAMOUS FOR iTS nightlife. While the rest of North America thirsted for booze, Montreal’s bars, gambling dens, strip bars and brothels partied late into the night, their doors guarded by moonlighting off-duty cops. But the nightlife has come with a price: heavy-duty organized crime and corruption.
Although a succession of provincial inquiries in Quebec have condemned the province’s police forces as inept and out of control, politicians have been reluctant to implement reforms that actually get at the heart of the problem.
“The experience of the U.S. shows clearly that prohibition doesn’t prevent trafficking. You can eliminate a trafficker or 10 traffickers or 100 traffickers. There will always be more of them. They build that into the cost of production. It’s a business like any other where there are risks,” said Berheim.
“If we really want to make sure crime groups have less impact, we have to decriminalize drugs. As long as drugs remain very profitable, anti-gang laws won’t have any impact.”
Back in the 1920s, Fiorello La Guardia–then a member of U.S. congress–famously remarked that it would “take a police force of 250,000 to enforce the Prohibition Act, and another 200,000 to police the police.” And the situation is remarkably similar today.
Prohibition actually led to more alcohol abuse, more corruption–the U.S. Bureau of Prohibition was so corrupt it was widely called a training academy for bootleggers–and a well-organized and wealthy Mafia. The drug war has been similarly beneficial for the Hells Angels. They’re no longer the scummy outlaws that Hunter S. Thompson hung out with in the sixties. They’re serious business types in suits, with huge sums of cash at their disposal. Expanded police powers and harsher crackdowns will likely fail as miserably as they did back during Prohibition. Far from discouraging the Hells Angels and their rivals, the anti-gang laws on the table could actually enable them to infiltrate the police forces further–and encourage more cops to start working for the other side.
Service record: Officer in the Surete du Quebec from 1977 to 1991, including time on the drug squad. Rivest resigned two weeks before a police disciplinary board was to rule on a complaint of assault filed against him.
Criminal charges: Two counts extortion (pled guilty, 2001); one count extortion (charges withdrawn, 2001); two counts uttering threats (withdrawn, 2001); assault (withdrawn, 2001); fraud (pled guilty, 2001); loansharking (pled guilty, 2001); obstruction of justice (charged, 2001, still pending); two counts uttering threats (charges dropped, 1996); criminal conspiracy (charges dropped, 1996)
GAETAN RIVEST IS ONE OF QUEBEC’S MOST NOTORIOUS EX-COPS. He left the SQ in chaos in May, 1996 when he publicly announced that he and his former police colleagues had routinely tortured confessions out of suspects, manufactured evidence and committed perjury. Rivest’s allegations sparked an outcry and played a big role in convincing Quebec’s Public Security, Minister Serge Menard to hold an inquiry into the so-called Matticks Affair. (In June 1995, a judge dismissed drug-trafficking charges against two of Montreal’s most powerful gangsters, brothers Richard and Gerard Matticks. But it was the SQ that ended up on trial when it came out that the cops had planted some of the evidence.)
Rivest has publicly admitted he trafficked contraband cigarettes and committed numerous other crimes while he was an officer. During the Matticks Affair inquiry, Rivest testified that he had used violence and intimidation in the majority of his investigations as a cop, including at least half of the 50 or more cases he handled in his six years as a criminal investigator. Rivest also admitted that he had lived off his police pension and cigarette trafficking for two years after leaving the SQ. And last March, he pled guilty to charges of extortion and uttering death threats in two separate loan-sharking cases and was sentenced to 10 months in jail. (In one of the cases, Rivest allegedly loaned a man $2,500 at an interest rate of over 400% per year, then threatened to kill him for the money.)
Rivest may have been right about the problems in the SQ, but there is little doubt he had ulterior motives. Rivest has been tied to some of Montreal’s most notorious crime figures, including two influential biker-linked loansharks, Andre “Dede” Desjardins and Robert “Bob” Savard (both of whom were murdered last summer). Savard, a close friend of Hells Angels boss Maurice “Mom” Boucher, was Rivest’s partner in a short-lived tabloid newspaper called Le Juste Milieu in 1998. At the height of a police crackdown on the warring bikers, their tabloid made wild allegations of wrongdoing by the police and Crown prosecutors. Rivest has also admitted to investing in a bar with an organized crime figure.
Serge Menard has suggested Rivest’s allegations were part of a well-orchestrated campaign to disrupt the police. At the commission studying the Matticks Affair, Menard revealed that he met privately with Rivest to discuss his allegations. Three days after the meeting, the SQ intercepted a conversation between Mom Boucher and a Hells associate. From the conversation, Menard testified, it was plain that Boucher was already aware of what was discussed between the minister and Rivest.
“That shed new light on this meeting,” Menard said. “Based on the conversation [with Boucher], which lasted some time, one could see a strategy of organized crime to destabilize the forces of justice, a media strategy.”
Service record: Officer with the Montreal Urban Community police force from 1966 to 1974.
Criminal charges: four counts possession of stolen property over $5,000 (charged, 2000, still pending); assault with a weapon (withdrawn, 1999); kidnapping (withdrawn, 1999); extortion (withdrawn, 1999); robbery (withdrawn, 1999); criminal conspiracy (withdrawn, 1999); uttering threats (withdrawn, 1999); laundering drug profits (pled guilty, 1995); drug trafficking (withdrawn, 1995)
POLICE DESCRIBE GUY LEPAGE AS A TRUSTED COMPANION, CHAUFFEUR and bodyguard of Mom Boucher, and one of the main behind-the-scenes powers in the biker world. He’s also a former MUC police officer. Police officials wouldn’t release Lepage’s disciplinary record, but a veteran Montreal crime reporter who requested anonymity said Lepage had a reputation as a “rock-and-roll cop. He wasn’t happy in that job.”
Since leaving the force, Lepage has lead a colourful life. He was the founding president of the Boucher-god-fathered Rockers biker gang. He has also owned or leased two biker clubhouses, including a fortress for the Hells-affiliated Jokers biker club in a chateau northeast of Montreal. In February, 1994, the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) allowed Lepage to take over a $105,000 mortgage on a warehouse in Montreal’s middle-class Rosemont neighbourhood. The property was converted into a clubhouse for les Hells–complete with bullet-proof glass, double steel doors and a battery of security cameras.
One month later, Lepage was arrested as part of a Canada-wide, cocaine-trafficking network. Lepage pled guilty to laundering drug profits, which got him two years less a day and a $200,000 fine. A second charge of trafficking was dropped.
The coke ring had been under RCMP investigation for some time when the BDC agreed to transfer the federal loan to him. But even when Lepage was arrested, the BDC took no steps to cancel it, despite the fact that the armoured bunker was obviously not the vending-machine distribution and repair business Lepage’s official declaration claimed it was. One year after the loan transfer, a large bomb exploded on the bunker’s doorstep, blowing out windows in nearby homes.
Lepage, meanwhile, had adjusted splendidly to life behind bars. Originally imprisoned in B.C., he became the first person in Quebec penal history to pay out of his own pocket for a transfer to a Quebec prison. When he decided he didn’t like the overcrowded Bordeaux provincial jail in Montreal, he managed to arrange yet another transfer–within 15 days–this time to the Club Med of Quebec prisons, the Waterloo Rehabilitation Centre. Lepage was soon elected president of the prisoners’ committee and it wasn’t long before he was out on day passes.
When, in 1995, Quebec announced it was planning to close Waterloo to save money, Lepage began working with the prison warden to privatize the facility and start a recycling business that would employ detainees. Even after his release, Lepage continued to promote the scheme. “Waterloo is the only prison where they do this type of rehabilitation. I profitted from it myself,” he said, adding that he had changed his biker ways and was now selling children’s clothing.
Before long, however, Lepage was again arousing police suspicions. In 1999, the Montreal weekly Hour reported that he had been meeting regularly with Mom Boucher and a group of cohorts at a cafe in an east end Montreal mall that also houses the headquarters of the MUC organized crime squad.
A few months later, the biker-turned-salesman had another brush with the law. Lepage and fellow coffee-klatcher Bob Savard were charged with assault, uttering death threats, extortion and kidnapping. Police said the alleged victim owed Lepage and Savard tens of thousands of dollars and had neglected his payments. The man claimed Lepage and Savard beat him when he refused to stage an armed robbery to pay off his debt. But again, Lepage’s good fortune held up. The Crown suddenly withdrew all charges. No explanation has been made public.