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Charges stayed in drug-trafficking case amid police-misconduct allegations

One of the officers who participated was under investigation for misconduct at the time.
A replica assault rifle, fentanyl, other drugs and cash were seized in Operation Juliet. VICTORIA POLICE DEPARTMENT

Charges have been stayed against three men — once referred to as at the top of the fentanyl-trafficking pyramid in B.C. — after allegations of police misconduct tainted a sweeping 2020 investigation that resulted in the seizure of $30 million in drugs, firearms and cash.

Court records reveal the original police investigation included an officer who was himself under criminal investigation at the time. After he was arrested, Victoria police began a new investigation with the same officers — save one— on June 23, 2020, dubbed Project Juliet.

The investigation brought together the Victoria Police Department’s Strike Force and Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit of B.C., which targets gangs.

Victoria police said the probe began in June 2020, when Victoria police discovered an organized-crime group was trafficking high-concentration fentanyl in Victoria. Court documents show it began as early as April of that year.

The documents show Strike Force Const. Robb Ferris, now retired, was under criminal investigation by the RCMP’s anti-corruption unit for breach of trust and obstruction of justice.

Supreme Court Justice Catherine Murray said in her written judgment that Victoria police were aware in 2019 of the allegations against Ferris, and despite that, he was allowed to participate in the investigation so as not to alert him that he was under investigation.

Ferris was arrested on June 18, 2020, by the RCMP. Days later, VicPD restarted the investigation under a new file number with all the same officers — except Ferris — and named it Project Juliet.

Court documents say officers realized the allegations against Ferris were serious and decided not to use any information learned from the first investigation, and committed to relearn anything learned before.

In a 347-page report to Crown counsel, however, police not only did not mention the first investigation, “they obscured it,” Murray wrote in her ruling.

“Through their actions investigators misled the Crown, defence and the justices that issued authorizations and warrants into believing that the investigation commenced in June 2020,” she wrote.

Her decision was published this week.

On Feb. 17, 2023, prosecutors stayed charges against Bryan Balla, who lived in Victoria and was originally from Calgary, and Vu Bao Nguyen, a Surrey resident. Charges were stayed against Brent William Van Buskirk, originally from Vancouver, last month, according to CBC News.

Victoria Police Chief Del Manak said Wednesday he is disappointed with the decision in a case that “involved a significant amount of resources and dedication from our officers.”

“It is clear that there were several points of failure in our processes,” he said. “There were decisions made that should have been made differently and changes that can be made to the way we do our work, and I apologize for our contribution to this outcome.”

Manak said police were dealing with an “extremely complicated” file that included three investigations, “and I can assure you that each decision made in the course of these events was made in good faith, and with the intention of reducing the impact of drug and organized-crime activity on our streets.”

Prior to the start of the investigative effort, his department discovered that Ferris might have been involved in “corrupt practice,” Manak said.

“VicPD immediately requested assistance from the RCMP Anti-Corruption Unit, which conducted an investigation into those allegations,” he said. “This led to his arrest and suspension.”

The arrest came in June 2020, and was followed by the department notifying the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner.

The unit found that Ferris “was associating with and providing sensitive information to suspects of police investigations,” the department said in a statement.

With the Ferris situation arising at the same time as an investigation into drug activity, Manak said that ­officers tried to minimize his involvement while maintaining the integrity of the probe into his actions.

He said he doesn’t regret letting Ferris be involved in the drug investigation because more evidence was needed to have a complete case against him.

Manak said charges were not brought before the court but 19 counts of misconduct under the Police Act led to Ferris’s dismissal, although Ferris resigned before the dismissal was enacted.

The 19 counts included 13 counts of improper disclosure of information, three counts of deceit, two counts of discreditable conduct and one count of neglect of duty.

“I am proud of my staff for their work in identifying the activities of this officer, and for their commendable effort to continue the investigation of serious crime despite the impact of Mr. Ferris on the department,” he said.

Police remain committed to ensuring the community is safe “and will implement the lessons learned from this process to ensure a more impactful outcome in the future,” Manak said.

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