The Crown is seeking a two-year prison term – the maximum allowable – for Taymour Aghtai, the man who crank called the Lynn Valley Care Centre at the beginning of the outbreak of COVID-19 and caused a major staffing shortage.
But, because of time he’s already spent in custody, Aghtai won’t face any additional time in jail on the charge, regardless of the sentence handed down.
Aghtai’s hoax call to the care facility came “at a time of intense community fear,” Crown prosecutor Lara Sarbit highlighted at a sentencing hearing in North Vancouver provincial court on Monday.
Deadly outbreak at North Van care home
On March 6, 2020, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry declared an outbreak of the virus at Lynn Valley Care Centre, the first confirmed in Canada. The next night, around 11 p.m. Aghtai called the care centre, claiming to be a health officer from the BC Centre for Disease Control. He told the nurse who answered the phone that the facility was being locked down and that she should call 911 if anyone attempted to come or go from the building. Aghtai then persuaded the nurse to give him the cellphone numbers of other staff, including managers, nurses and administrators. Over the next two hours, he made 62 more calls to staff, telling them to stay away from the care centre. In some cases, he told them they had tested positive and needed to quarantine.
The next day, more than 80 per cent of the staff failed to show up to work in some sections of the facility. Night staff stayed to work overtime and family members stepped in to help. Those who stayed described the situation as overwhelming, devastating and heartbreaking, Sarbit said.
“Despite their best efforts, there was simply insufficient staff to care properly for the residents. And as a result, some of the residents did not have their basic needs met for food, medication and personal hygiene,” Sarbit said.
It was the following night that one of the residents died, the first confirmed COVID-19 death in Canada.
Suspected arrested and pleads guilty
Police arrested Aghtai on June 18, after a search of phone records confirmed the calls came from his cellphone, although he initially denied any responsibility.
In December 2021, he pleaded guilty to one charge of conveying a false message with intent to alarm related to the Lynn Valley Care Centre call. He also pleaded guilty on one count of public mischief related to a November 2019 incident in Parksville. In that case, Aghtai called Oceanside RCMP, claiming to be an employee of the Fields department store and reporting that two black men with shotguns had killed two people inside and were on the loose. The hoax call drew an armed response from police. The following day, Aghtai called the store manager at home and, pretending to be an RCMP officer, told her an employee of the store was under investigation for the hoax, the court heard.
In both cases, Aghtai’s deceit left the victims traumatized, with lasting trust issues, Sarbit said, and family members lost trust in the centre’s ability to care for their loved ones at a time when they would be barred from visiting themselves.
“And he put people’s lives at risk,” she added.
A long criminal history
Aghtai has a long criminal history, including four other convictions for similar hoax incidents. A psychological assessment prior to his sentencing for a similar offence in 2015 found he had a “high moderate” degree of psychopathic tendencies associated with criminal behaviour, Sarbit said.
Aghtai, 28, was born in North Vancouver to a wealthy family and had an “entitled upbringing,” Sarbit said.
He had no motive for his crimes “other than his own entertainment,” she added.
“His actions were morally reprehensible and require condemnation in the strongest terms,” she said.
Aghtai’s defence lawyer, Josh Oppal, agreed his client’s crimes were serious but he said his sentence should be in the range of 16 to 18 months, largely because of the conditions he’d faced in pre-trial custody. COVID-19 protocols have resulted in many lockdowns in the jail and Aghtai has been unable to access most treatment programs or have face-to-face visits with his family.
“His time in custody is harder time than average time in custody,” Oppal said, adding that a recent Ontario Court of Appeal ruling specifically took note of pre-trial conditions in setting a sentence.
Aghtai has the support of his family, who have faced great shame and embarrassment because of his actions, but they will provide him with a place to live and work in the family business upon his release, Oppal added.
Aghtai speaks in court
Before adjourning the hearing, Aghtai was given a chance to speak for himself. He told the judge he had spent seven of his 28 years in prison, which had been an unforgivable waste of time.
“I’ve let down my community. I’ve let down all the people that have tried to make me a good person. For lack of better words, I have become quite the opposite,” he said. “In all the time I’ve had to think, what I want to be is a contributing, law-abiding, respectful member of society.”
He also apologized to the victims at the Lynn Valley Care Centre.
A date for the conclusion of Aghtai’s sentencing has not yet been set. Regardless of the sentence handed down by the judge, he will remain in custody on separate charges filed in Richmond.
By the time the Covid outbreak at Lynn Valley Care Centre was declared over, in May 2020, 76 people had been infected, including 52 residents and 26 staff. Twenty of the residents had died from the illness.