Book pokes holes in controversial “Mr. Big” police technique

Mr. Big
Exposing Undercover Investigations in Canada

By Joan Brockman and Kouri T. Keenan  

VANCOUVER – In 1995, Jason Dix and a drug-dealing gangster drove up to a motorhome in a rural area in southeastern B.C. Dix was instructed to stay in the car and act as lookout while the gangster went inside to make a deal. What followed in the community of Yaak, B.C., was a scene straight out of the Al Pacino classic “Scarface.”

Dix heard shots and the dealer ran out of the motorhome wielding a sawed-off shotgun. The man then turned, walked back toward the motorhome, blasted two more shots into the residence before heaving the shotgun into the woods.

He jumped in the car and told Dix the deal had gone bad. The buyer had tried to cheat him out of money and drugs, so he was killed, the man said.

But the “dealer” was every bit as much an actor as Pacino: The difference was that the actor was a cop, and the scene – known as the “Whack at Yaak” – was the culmination of a 13-month RCMP “Mr. Big” operation.

The whole scheme was aimed at tricking Dix into joining a fake gang and confessing to two 1994 murders in Sherwood Park, Alta., that the RCMP believed he had committed.

Despite incredible pressure and the dangling reward of joining a rich and powerful organization – Dix was flown to Toronto first-class to count out $1 million in one scenario – Dix vehemently denied being a murderer.

He later sued the Attorney General of Canada for the invasive sting, and was eventually awarded $765,000 in damages.

“They crossed the line with Dix. The message (of the fake hit) was this is what happens to people that f–k with us,” says Kouri Keenan, a Simon Fraser University PhD criminology student and author of a new book on “Mr. Big”-style police stings.

In the operations, role-playing officers – headed up by a powerful and menacing “Mr. Big” – reach out to suspects, involve them in play-acted crimes and pressure them into giving detailed confessions of a serious crime. The concept is the target should supposedly be willing to prove his or her loyalty to that ringleader and win membership in his gang.

Keenan and co-author Joan Brockman, an SFU criminology professor, studied 81 such stings for their book: “Mr. Big: Exposing Undercover Investigations in Canada.”

They say the Dix operation is the clearest example of what’s wrong with the investigative technique.

Basically, when cops act like crooks and scare the hell out of suspects, the confessions they elicit become highly suspect, the authors say.

The RCMP developed the tactic in the 1990s as a supposed last resort to catch criminals believed to be guilty of heinous crimes that would otherwise go unsolved. About 350 cases were made up prior to the end of 2008, Keenan writes, with about 75 per cent resulting in charges.

The book concludes that the Mr. Big tactic is so vulnerable to producing false confessions that it must be severely reined in, if not thrown out altogether.

Perhaps the strongest charge against the RCMP is that Mr. Big cases don’t always live up to the force’s self-imposed standards.

The authors write that in justifying the stings, the RCMP said in 2009 that “charges are always supported with corroborating physical evidence and/or compelling circumstantial evidence, in addition to any admission that may have been obtained through the undercover operation.”

Keenan says the study found that in 23 of 81 cases, the confessions were not backed up by sufficient evidence.

“Without these statements, there would have been no basis for conviction.”

Keenan says that in those cases, self-incriminating statements should be reviewed by a “false confession” expert before the accused goes to trial.

The Supreme Court of Canada recognizes the growing threat of false confessions, and has enacted a rule that confessions made to authorities must be voluntary. But Keenan says the rule is not applied to Mr. Big cases, and the courts have given the RCMP free rein to conduct undercover investigations as they please.

As a result, the force can exploit “a loophole in the criminal law” and is increasingly using Mr. Bigs in a “creeping effect” that threatens the fundamentals of Canadian criminal law.

He concedes that Mr. Bigs have caught killers who likely would still be free, as the RCMP argues in justifying the technique. For example, in 11 of 81 cases, targets disclosed new hard evidence to the RCMP – even leading to the recovery of a body in one case.

“Mr. Big was a good tool in those cases,” Keenan says.

The courts have accepted Mr. Big evidence on a case-by-case basis, with the legal test being whether the public would be shocked by tactics employed by the RCMP.

But Keenan argues that’s not a valid test, because the RCMP discloses little or no information about the actual investigations.

And the reason for the secrecy, he says, is that the effectiveness of the technique would be lowered – that is less people would be tricked – the more people knew about Mr. Bigs. It would also be difficult for police to get prior permission from courts to enact Mr. Big scenarios because interactions with suspects are improvised, Keenan says.

One of the 81 cases Keenan studied has resulted in a wrongful conviction, and others may be turned up in the appeal process, he said.

Kyle Unger was acquitted in 2009 after spending 14 years in prison for his conviction in the horrific murder of 16-year-old Brigitte Grenier. Manitoba Justice Minister Dave Chomiak said Unger was wrongfully convicted by a jury largely based on a confession he made during a Mr. Big sting.

Unger was poor and therefore vulnerable to promises of easy money if he joined Mr. Big’s gang, Keenan says.

A wrongful-conviction expert penned a report on Unger’s case that could be crucial to the public’s understanding of Mr. Big, Keenan says, but the government of Manitoba refused his freedom-of-information request to access the report.

Also controversial is the cost: The RCMP claim Mr. Big operations cost anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000, but Keenan has previously said he found several operations that exceeded $2 million.

Keenan outlines a number of reforms that would make Mr. Bigs more palatable: extending the right to silence to targets, or requiring admissions to be voluntary, for example – but that such changes would essentially render the tactic useless.

“It boils down to keeping it or getting rid of it,” Keenan says of the technique.

Pressed for a verdict, Keenan says he will need to study Mr. Big cases more before completely writing them off. But he’s very clear about his reservations.

“Unchecked, the Mr. Big tactic encourages a police culture of violence and corruption, and not the pursuit of justice.”

RCMP Cpl. Dale Carr, of B.C.’s Integrated Homicide Investigation Team, said the Mounties are in the process of reviewing Keenan’s book and are not ready to comment on the findings.

–Sam Cooper, Vancouver Province

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