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Victoria police ‘misled’ justice system officials, collapsing $30M drug case

VicPD allowed officer who was under investigation at the time to play an active role in drug probe
A court decision outlines how VicPD allowed an officer who was under criminal investigation to be involved in a drug activity investigation. (Jake Romphf/News Staff)

None of the three people charged in a months-long drug investigation will be going to trial after a judge said Victoria police officers misled justice officials and obscured information on how they went about their probe.

Central to charges being stayed for the three accused in the case is VicPD knowingly allowing an officer to have an active investigative role when he himself was under investigation.

In December, 2020, the capital city department touted how its Project Juliet led to the seizure of $30 million in drugs, firearms and more, along with the arrest of three suspects.

However, court documents reveal that just four days prior to that announcement, Crown lawyers were telling VicPD to shut down its case against two of the accused because of how police handled the investigation. Charges against the first two men, Bryan Balla and Vu Bao Nguyen, were stayed Feb 17, 2023. VicPD on Wednesday (Feb. 14) said the third and final man charged through Project Juliet, Brent William Van Buskirk, has had his charges stayed as well.

Court documents indicate the case crumbled starting with the involvement of former VicPD officer Edward Robb Ferris. VicPD learned about serious allegations against Ferris, a member of the Strike Force unit, in 2019 and enlisted the RCMP to investigate.

He was arrested in June 2020 by the RCMP’s anti-corruption unit (ACU) in connection with 19 allegations between January and May of that year. The alleged misconduct included improperly accessing police databases, lying to investigators and providing sensitive information to suspects of police investigations.

Ferris never faced charges, despite a police watchdog substantiating all 19 counts, and resigned before his dismissal from the force could take effect. VicPD on Wednesday said its officers tried to minimize Ferris’ involvement in the drug investigation at the time, but court documents take a much different tone.

Judgements from last year outline how the Strike Force unit knowingly let Ferris participate in an investigation that became Project Juliet, even as it knew the officer was himself under investigation. The unit initiated its investigation into the “Dobell group” in May 2020 and involved Ferris as if it was business as usual “to not alert him to the fact that he was under investigation.”

That investigation was terminated when Ferris was arrested on June 18, 2020, but the Strike Force resumed it under the Project Juliet banner just five days later. Court documents said VicPD claimed it wouldn’t utilize any information from the investigative work that preceded Ferris’ arrest.

The court said hundreds of pages of disclosure provided to defence lawyers made zero reference to VicPD’s initial investigation, nor was there any mention of the officer’s misconduct. It also found that when the Strike Force unit was tasked to document how it selected Project Juliet targets and how it obtained key developments, officers concealed how that information actually came from the investigation that involved Ferris.

“Not only did police not mention the first investigation, they obscured it,” Supreme Court Justice Catherine Murray wrote in a decision from last October.

Ferris’ involvement in the initial investigation included attending briefings, performing surveillance, working with informants and helping the unit get judicial authorizations for things like phone warrants. The judge gave several examples about how the Strike Force members obtained judicial authorizations for its renamed investigation, but concealed information and the authorizations it received before Ferris’ arrest.

“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,” Murray wrote.

Police scrutiny relating to Project Juliet didn’t end with Ferris’ dismissal.

At one point, a lawyer for one of the accused found a report dated months before the Strike Force claimed it started its investigation. That led to a Crown lawyer asking the VicPD unit’s primary investigator about the discrepancy. Murray reports the investigator responded that it was “an admin oversight” and “there is no investigative or administrative material whatsoever prior to June 23, 2020.”

Court documents state the disclosure issues led to the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (OPCC) getting involved with the officer being investigated for allegations of discreditable conduct and neglect of duty.

Crown counsel first learned of the investigation that preceded Ferris’ arrest in December 2020. On Dec. 12, 2020, prosecutors instructed police to shut down the investigation into two suspects who were the Strike Force’s primary targets. Four days later, a VicPD news release announced Project Juliet’s drug and firearm seizures and said “three men have been arrested.”

“In early June, VicPD’s Strike Force team identified an organized crime group trafficking fentanyl in Victoria,” the release stated.

VicPD Chief Del Manak said in the 2020 release that the Strike Force conducted a “complex, high-level investigation.”

“The results speak for themselves,” he said.

On Wednesday, Manak apologized and said VicPD is disappointed in the file and the resources that went into it.

“It is clear that there were several points of failure in our processes,” he said.

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Jake Romphf

About the Author: Jake Romphf

In early 2021, I made the move from the Great Lakes to Greater Victoria with the aim of experiencing more of the country I report on.
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