Arrest of money launderer was 'a real coup' for officers

David Baines

Vancouver Sun

September 13, 2003

 

For RCMP officers Bill Majcher and Mike Arnold, who combine 30 years of police service -- much of it undercover -- the bust of former Vancouver lawyer Martin Chambers was the "number one" accomplishment in their careers.

"It is the most satisfying project we have worked on," said Arnold, 44, a sergeant with the RCMP Integrated Proceeds of Crime unit. "Chambers is a well-known organized crime figure. To successfully bag a criminal of his stature is a real coup."

For more than two years, Majcher, 41, until recently a corporal with the proceeds of crime unit, played the role of Bill MacDonald, financial front man for a Colombian drug cartel with millions of dollars of cocaine money that needed laundering.

On a luxury boat arranged by the FBI and moored in a marina in Fort Lauderdale, he played host to a parade of prospective money-launderers. He gave them prawns, he served them booze, he fed them baloney. They swallowed it all, lugging out hundreds of thousands of dollars of U.S. bills in duffel bags so heavy they could hardly carry them.

Little did they know, but the boat was wired with electronic surveillance gear that was listening to every word and watching every move.

Meanwhile, Arnold was hovering close by in plain clothes, part of a support team consisting of a half dozen FBI SWAT team members and an equal number of surveillance personnel. Two others, including an FBI agent who served as the boat captain, were positioned on the vessel. Their job was to make sure the sting was unfolding as they had planned, and provide as much security as they possibly could in such a fluid and potentially volatile environment.

Not only did they have to watch Majcher, they had to watch to see whether Chambers brought his own "muscle," or counter-surveillance team. And perhaps most difficult of all, they had to blend into the environment for four or five hours at a time without drawing any suspicion.

The accompanying surveillance photos chronicle Majcher's first meeting with Chambers, who arrived with his common-law wife, Queenie, and Vancouver stock promoter Kevan Garner on April 11, 2002.

At that meeting, Chambers agreed to launder up to $2 million US per month through Keywest Swiss Investment Bank, which was run by a long-time associate, Michael Hepburn of the Bahamas.

On May 24, Chambers returned with Garner, and this time they left with $500,000 US stuffed in a duffel bag. On June 20, Chambers returned again, this time with Hepburn, who ran $200,000 US through a money-counter and toted it out the door.

The photos shows a bombastic, cigar-chomping Chambers who is clearly unaware that he has been pulled into an FBI-RCMP sting operation, code-named Bermuda Short.

For Arnold and Majcher, they provide delicious irony: on Aug. 14, 2002, Garner, Chambers and Hepburn were arrested in the United States and charged with money-laundering offences.

In April, Garner pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 87 months in jail. On Sept. 4, Chambers was convicted on all five counts and will be sentenced in December. Hepburn, whom the jury viewed as the fall guy, was acquitted on all counts.

In an interview this week, Majcher said he has been working undercover for 13 years in drug, money-laundering, terrorism and murder cases. He says that, to be an effective undercover operative, you have to be a role player rather than an actor.

An actor, he explains, works from a script. If the situation changes, the script becomes useless and the actor is lost. A role player, on the other hand, lives and breathes the part and can adjust to changes as they arise. Just as important, he is able to keep track of lies he tells.

Majcher recalls one situation where the boat captain (actually an FBI agent), looked at him and remarked, "You Canadians don't know how to drink." Chambers picked up on the comment and said, "I thought you were American?" Although a seemingly insignificant question, it required a plausible answer or suspicions would be raised. Without missing a beat, Majcher replied that he had been born in Canada, his father was in the military and because they had lived in both Canada and the United States, he was able to acquire dual citizenship.

More lies that had to be remembered.

There were also moments of suspense, some bordering on sheer terror. Majcher recalled that, on one occasion, he was scheduled to meet with Chambers, Garner and Hepburn on the boat. But those plans were upset when Garner arrived and announced that Chambers wanted to meet him in the car.

"To be credible, I jumped in the car. When I left that marina, I realized I was on my own," said Majcher.

They drove to the Sheraton Yankee Clipper Hotel in Coral Gables, just outside Miami, parked the car and went up to sixth floor of the hotel. By that time, the cover guys had lost him.

"I was wearing a recording device, going into a hotel room with an individual who had already committed a criminal act and would resort to violence in a heartbeat. I tried to position myself close to the door, so if trouble developed, I could bolt."

He said Chambers told him he was going to fund out whether he was really Bill MacDonald. He said he was going to check him out and would find out by the end of the day.

But Majcher said his cover story held up. "Obviously it went well. Martin did all the things we wanted him to do, to facilitate laundering my money."

On another occasion, when they were walking outside, Chambers became angry when Majcher was unable to deliver the amount of cash that he wanted. He launched into a tirade: "You know something, you better check out who I am and how I do business. I'm not at the level of f---in' Kevan and [Vancouver stock promoter Jack Purdy, an alleged co-conspirator]. You know I want somebody f---ed in Miami, I can have him as quick in Miami as you can f---in' have him in Vancouver, so let's just get over this bullshit."

"I was shocked," said Majcher. "I thought, this guy is really showing his true nature, he is really a world-class organized crime figure. Here I am, fronting for a large Colombian cocaine cartel in Miami. He's on my turf, but far from making peace, and he is going on the offensive."

For Arnold, who was providing back-up support, it was a tense moment.

"We control the boat and we have FBI operators on it, but there are times when we don't have the luxury of being in a totally controlled situation."

In this instance, he could hear Majcher, but not see him. Chambers was in a rage, but without being able to observe his body language, it was difficult to determine whether Majcher was in any imminent physical danger.

It placed Arnold in a high-stakes conflict: "If I have to go in, then the jig is up. If I don't, he could get hurt. It's a fine line as to how long to let an undercover operation go before you go in and say, 'That's enough.' "

Compounding the stress, Majcher and Arnold were running a parallel sting operation in Toronto. The main target was Toronto lawyer Simon Rosenfeld, who was also charged with money-laundering offences and is now awaiting trial.

"We were flying back and forth between here and Toronto. It was a lot of work, long hours and hard on the family because we were away a lot," says Arnold.

But it was also highly productive. Arnold said they encountered a "spider's web of criminality with targets coming out of the woodwork. We were surprised at the number of people that would come on board so willingly."

It added up to their most rewarding experience as law enforcement officers. For Majcher, there was an additional bonus. He was promoted to inspector in charge of the Vancouver RCMP Integrated Market Enforcement Team, a new RCMP initiative to combat stock market crime.

Surveillance camera tells the story: Scenes from RCMP surveillance tape: Martin Chambers (above) examines a liquor bottle while meeting an RCMP undercover agent on a luxury boat in Ft. Lauderdale.

 

Hepburn runs the cash through money counter as Chambers walks by

 

Chambers lights a cigar as Vancouver stock promoter Kevan Garner leaves with a bag containing $500,000 US

 

Undercover agent puts bundles of cash on coffee table

 

Chambers and common-law wife Queenie chat with the undercover officer.

Copyright  2003 Vancouver Sun