The RCMP's gangster 'hit list'

Chad Skelton, Lori Culbert and Judith Lavoie

Vancouver Sun and Victoria Times Colonist

September 10, 2004

The RCMP has compiled a secret "hit list" of B.C.'s 20 most dangerous crime bosses, a list it hopes will help it put more gangsters behind bars and strike a blow against organized crime in this province, a joint Vancouver Sun-Victoria Times Colonist investigation has learned.

And while the RCMP refuses to reveal the names of the individuals on its list -- for fear of tipping off potential investigation targets -- it will reveal which group it considers the province's biggest criminal threat: The Hells Angels.

OMG [outlaw motorcycle gangs] is the top," said Supt. Dick Grattan, head of the RCMP's criminal intelligence section in B.C.

Grattan said biker-gang members make up the largest proportion of people on the force's Top 20 list, an annual ranking known as the Strategic Threat Assessment that the Mounties in B.C. have been producing for the past few years.

Asian organized-crime figures make up the second-largest group on the list, followed by Eastern European gangsters.

"The Top 20 would be the ones who have the most influence over organized crime in the province," Grattan said.

Rick Ciarniello, spokesman for the Hells Angels in B.C., denied his club is a criminal organization and said if police had evidence that it was, more of his members would be behind bars. "If it were true, they'd be charging people," he said. "Normally, when [police] investigate criminal activity, they don't put it in the newspaper what they're doing. They just go out and gather the evidence and charge people. I wish somebody would charge me with something so I could defend myself in the court of law, where it counts, instead of being tried in the media, where they don't have any proof."

To prevent leaks, the RCMP's threat assessment has been closely guarded by the force.

Even senior organized-crime investigators in the province have only been allowed to review the list and have not been given their own copies.

According to police, the list represents a shift in the RCMP's approach to investigating organized crime. Until recently, said Grattan, the force was "commodity focused" -- measuring success by the volume of drugs it seized.

The problem with that approach, however, is that it often only ensnared the smaller players, leaving many of the kingpins untouched. The goal now, Grattan said, is for police to focus their investigations on the most influential and powerful crime figures, in the hope that putting such people behind bars will destabilize criminal organizations.

And while the RCMP doesn't have the resources to launch investigations into all 20 figures on its list, Grattan said investigations are underway -- or in the planning stages -- for at least half of them.

When the Mounties decided a few years ago to compile such a list, their first challenge was who to include. A preliminary list of all the known organized-crime figures in B.C. turned up 185 names, broken down into 85 separate groups -- some just small street-gangs of a few people each.

To winnow down the list, crime figures were ranked on 19 separate factors, including use of violence, infiltration into legitimate businesses and ability to corrupt officials. That combination of factors is what landed many of B.C.'s Hells Angels members in the Top 20. A heavily edited copy of the 2003 Strategic Threat Assessment, provided to The Vancouver Sun by the RCMP, indicates how high a priority the Angels have become.

"Within British Columbia, the influence attached to the Hells Angels organization and their symbols cannot be overstated," the report states. "Since their inception in 1948, the Hells Angels organization has evolved into a structure that is designed to facilitate and protect the criminal enterprises of its membership."

Insp. Andy Richards is a biker-gang expert with the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, a group within the RCMP that's taken over many duties of the Organized Crime Agency of B.C.

Richards said what makes Angels membership so attractive to criminals is that the gang has a reputation in the criminal world for violence and power -- making it easier for members to collect drug debts and intimidate the competition.

While a gang member with a Hells Angels patch on his jacket may be an easier target for police than an Asian gangster, the association with the Angels is worth the risk, he said.

"It's the power of the patch. Once you have that patch, you have that standing out there in the criminal world that people are afraid of. Violence and intimidation is the gas that runs the engine of the Hells Angels."

A growing police fear is that the Hells Angels are infiltrating the quick-cash businesses, such as cheque cashing and money lending, although none are yet listed as owners of record.

In Vancouver and Kamloops, Hells Angels have bought cellphone stores and are rumoured to be setting up their own phone companies. In Kelowna, Hells Angels from around the Lower Mainland have large real-estate holdings and their business interests range from an up-market clothing store to a tattoo parlour.

Supt. Don Harrison, RCMP district officer of the south-east district of E Division, can drive around Kelowna, where he believes a Hells Angels chapter is about to open up, and point to expensive properties, brand-new condos and businesses owned by Angels. "These people are extremely well-organized. The profits they are making are enormous," he said.

However, while the Angels are powerful, police say they are not hierarchical in the same way as traditional organized crime, where everybody reports to a single boss. While each Angels chapter has a president who looks after club business, police say the criminal activities of the bikers are less formally structured.

"It's not like the Mafia, where everything goes to the top," Richards said.

He said Hells Angels members essentially run their own operations, with their own associates and underlings. "Once you're a full member, you're at the top, if you want to be, of your own little criminal enterprise," he said.

Richards said the Angels in B.C. have grown incredibly rich in recent years, in large part due to heavy involvement in the marijuana trade in the 1990s. "The Angels in B.C. were one of the very first groups to industrialize the marijuana business -- setting up and investing in multiple large grows and producing large shipments for export," he said. "The B.C. bud industry has made the Hells Angels, some of them, extremely wealthy."

But, as pot raids have increased, Richards said, some Angels have stepped back from growing marijuana and have taken on a greater role as brokers and middlemen, helping to ship marijuana into the United States.

One of the main reasons why the Angels are such a high priority for police is that their power and money has allowed them to infiltrate the legitimate economy. From supermarkets to clothing stores, the Angels have a stake in all kinds of businesses. Indeed, many people in B.C. regularly shop at Angels' businesses without even knowing it.

But nowhere is the infiltration of the Angels more apparent than at the ports.

Police in B.C. have often tried to play down the role of biker gangs at the Vancouver and Delta ports.

But The Sun has learned that a secret 2001 report by the Organized Crime Agency of B.C. identified by name five full members of the Hells Angels who work at the Vancouver and Delta ports, along with more than 30 known associates.

And in a speech to a meeting of provincial justice ministers in Vancouver in December 1999, Bev Busson -- then chief of the OCA, and now head of the RCMP in B.C. -- left little doubt about the influence of the Angels at the ports.

"[The] Hells Angels in B.C. . . . control much of the production and export of high-grade indoor-grown marijuana and the importation and distribution of cocaine," said Busson, according to a copy of her speech obtained by The Sun through an Access to Information request. "Millions of dollars change hands in this import-export business. Smuggling methods are diverse and include unchecked containers at the Port of Vancouver, an area under the control of the Hells Angels."

Insp. Doug Kiloh, the RCMP's major case manager at the ports, said he is aware of Hells Angels members working at the ports and said it is possible for anyone employed at the ports -- whether an Angel or not -- to commit crimes. But he played down the Angels' strength on the waterfront. "It's an unfair characterization to say that the Hells Angels run the ports," he said. "In my view, it's absolutely false."

Onkar Athwal, vice-president of operations for the B.C. Maritime Employers Association, said he's not aware of specific Angels members working at the ports, but it wouldn't surprise him. "I don't personally know of any individuals, but I am aware that there probably are some," he said.

However, Athwal disputed the suggestion that the Angels control activity at the ports. "I don't think they're controlling anything," he said.

Athwal said longshoremen are not subject to criminal-record checks or other background checks before working at the ports. However, Transport Canada has proposed new regulations that would require port workers -- like airport workers -- to be subject to background checks before working in restricted areas.

Public consultations on the new regulations -- known as the Marine Facilities Restricted Areas Access Clearance Program -- will begin Sept. 20 and the regulations will likely be implemented early in 2005.

Ciarniello denied five Angels members are working at the ports, saying he's only aware of two -- something he thinks shouldn't be an issue. "What is wrong with having a bloody job?" he said. "These guys are out there working. But because they're Hells Angels, you've got to put a twist on it."

Ciarniello added that people identified by police as "associates" may simply be friends of Hells Angels members.

"Being somebody who . . . knows the Hells Angels is not reason to assume that there is something criminal going on," he said.

After the Hells Angels, the second-highest organized-crime priority for the RCMP is Asian organized crime, which includes both Chinese and Vietnamese gangs.

Chinese gangs known as the Big Circle Boys are involved in a wide variety of activities, including drug importation and human smuggling -- but are also heavily involved in credit-card fraud and loan sharking.

Vietnamese gangs, on the other hand, are primarily involved in marijuana growing -- although they have recently begun to expand into methamphetamine labs.

Eastern European crime groups are a more recent phenomenon in B.C., but have grown steadily in the past 15 years, according to police. According to the RCMP's 2003 report, Eastern European gangsters are involved in a wide variety of illicit activities, "ranging from street-level theft and [drug] trafficking to sophisticated fraud and money-laundering schemes."

Eastern European crime groups have also been implicated in sophisticated debit-card scams.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the RCMP's Top 20 list, however, is the group that didn't make the cut: Indo-Canadian gangs.

In the past decade, more than 60 Indo-Canadian men in the Lower Mainland have been murdered in a wave of gang violence.

However, Insp. Wade Blizard of the RCMP's criminal intelligence section said that while Indo-Canadian gang members are extremely violent, they are considered by police to be far less sophisticated than other groups, such as outlaw motorcycle gangs or Asian organized crime.

Staff Sgt. Wayne Rideout, head of the RCMP's Integrated Homicide Team -- responsible for investigating many of the Indo-Canadian gang deaths -- said most Indo-Canadian gangsters are relatively small players in the drug trade, often only a few steps above street dealers.

"They're not the millionaire gangsters," said Rideout. "They don't appear to be into the huge shipments. They tend to be low- end. Most of the people we investigate have leased cars. They drive fancy vehicles, but they don't have any assets."

The closest comparison to Indo-Canadian gangsters, said Rideout, is the inner-city street gangs in Los Angeles. "They're drawn by the status," he said.

Rideout said police estimate there are 30 to 40 separate Indo-Canadian gangs in the Lower Mainland, each made up of about three or four key members and maybe a dozen associates.

For the most part, he said, Indo-Canadian gangsters don't have the money at their disposal to move up the drug-trade food chain. "They don't have the cash base to go out there and buy homes like the Vietnamese [gangs]," said Rideout.

Which means, he said, that while Indo-Canadian gangsters are often involved in ripping off growing operations, they rarely set them up themselves.

And many, said Rideout, still live at home with their families.

"They're all mama's boys," he said. "They live with their moms. Their moms wash their clothes. Their moms cook their meals. And they go out and commit murders and then come home."

The violence among Indo-Canadian gangs is also more sporadic than in other crime groups, said Rideout. While Asian gangs or bikers may carry out calculated hits or acts of extortion for economic reasons, many Indo-Canadian killings are over issues of pride or bravado, he said -- sometimes over something as simple as an insult.

"It's done more for passion than economics," he said.

Yet, despite their lack of sophistication, Indo-Canadian gangs are still a concern for police because their violence has greater potential to hurt innocent bystanders than the violence of other gangs.

"The bikers tend to take someone out in the bush," Rideout said. "But the East Indians want to let people know that they're capable of doing it, so they want to do it in the most brazen way possible."

That means shootings in clubs and restaurants -- or spraying homes with gunfire -- all of which increase the potential that innocent bystanders could get caught in the crossfire.

Rideout said police get reports of about three to four drive-by shootings a week in the Lower Mainland that are connected to Indo-Canadian gang violence. "It's miraculous that no one [innocent] has been shot in their bed," said Rideout. "It's going to happen. They're so unpredictable and bravado-driven."

Police admit that, in the past few decades, they haven't had as much success as they'd like in combatting organized crime.

The Mounties' own 2003 report cites an "historical failure" in gathering and distributing intelligence on organized-crime groups to front-line investigators. While police have gathered significant information on organized-crime figures, the report states, "little . . . has been recorded in a consistent manner or in a format and place accessible to intelligence personnel."

Richards admits the track record of police in B.C. is not great. "I've talked about the collective failure of law enforcement to recognize the bikers as an organized-crime threat," he said, noting the Angels arrived in B.C. in 1983. "They ran pretty much unfettered for a long time and became very well established."

But police are hopeful that things are beginning to change.

Police and prosecutors have racked up a handful of successful prosecutions against biker-gang members and Asian organized-crime figures in recent years -- such as the conviction of Hells Angels members Ronaldo Lising and Francisco Pires for cocaine trafficking in 2001.

And they are hopeful things will get better. "I've seen some slow and steady progress in the last few years," Richards said.

"We're beginning to see additional resources and manpower directed towards the fight against the bikers.

"I think we're beginning to get it right in B.C. I think it's becoming enough of a priority for enough people."

B.C.'s Organized  Crime Families:

Hells Angels and Vietnamese gangs are considered the most sophisticated groups, while Indo-Canadian gangs rank among the most violent

Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs/Hells Angels

Size: There are 95 members of the Hells Angels in seven chapters in the Lower Mainland and Nanaimo. There are also dozens of "associates" who are trusted friends of club members and assist in criminal activities.

Criminal activities: Heavily involved in B.C.'s $6-billion marijuana-growing industry, importing and distributing cocaine, hashish and increasingly, methamphetamine. Extortion, debt collection.

Propensity for violence: High. The Angels rule by fear and intimidation and aren't afraid to use violence to protect turf and criminal interests. Police are concerned about the Bandidos, a U.S. motorcycle gang already established in Washington state, moving into B.C. and sparking violence.

Level of sophistication: High. This is reflected in the low number of successful prosecutions.

Geographic reach: The Hells Angels have a network of chapters across Canada, the U.S., South America, Africa and Europe.

Structure/hierarchy: Organized into chapters in various cities, but no single crime boss. Each member works as his own boss, if he wants, and in small cells to elude police detection. "They are disciplined and well led," says Vancouver RCMP Insp. Bob Paulson, in charge of major investigations involving outlaw motorcycle gangs.

Asian

Size:  Unknown. Police say there are dozens of small Vietnamese groups operating in B.C. The most prominent Asian gang in the Vancouver area is the Big Circle Boys, also known as Dai Huen Jai.

Criminal activities:   Vietnamese groups control about 85 per cent of the marijuana-growing operations in the Lower Mainland and most of the drug trade on Vancouver Island, north of Nanaimo. They have recently branched out into methamphetamine. They also use Big Circle Boys connections to export pot to the U.S. The Big Circle Boys have made the Lower Mainland a hotbed of counterfeit credit- card fraud activity. BCB's mainstay is importing and distributing cocaine and southeast Asian heroin. BCB members have been involved in murder, loan-sharking, people-smuggling, extortion, home-invasion robberies and exporting stolen luxury cars to Asia.

Propensity for violence:  Vietnamese gangsters are known for being ruthless and unpredictably violent during confrontations. Other Asian crime groups are more low-key, not wanting to attract police attention, but will resort to violence and murder to protect their criminal interests.

Level of sophistication:  High. Vietnamese have developed a marijuana-growing system that has been exported to Vietnamese groups in Ontario and Australia. Big Circle Boys have computer experts for credit-card fraud and use off-shore accounts and shell companies to launder money and elude police detection.

Geographic reach:  Vietnamese and Big Circle Boys have national networks in such major cities as Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal, and are expanding into smaller cities. BCB has a similar national network in the U.S. Some local Asian gangsters are connected to Hong Kong triads, secret societies of criminals.

Structure/hierarchy:  Asian crime groups typically organize in small groups with low-ranking members answering to a crime boss, called a Dai Lo (big brother).

Eastern European

Size:  Unknown. They are difficult for police to get a handle on because they use so many languages. Members are from Russia and other former Soviet Union countries.

Criminal activities:  Mainly known for drug trafficking and credit/debit-card fraud. But also involved in people-smuggling, money-laundering, extortion, export of stolen luxury vehicles. Also have infiltrated diamond industry in Russia and southern Africa.

Propensity for violence:  Medium. Don't usually like drawing police attention, but will use violence if necessary.

Level of sophistication:  Varies. Often rely on expertise of individuals outside the group to assist in a criminal undertaking. Three members of a Romanian crime group were recently arrested in Vancouver for allegedly being involved in a highly sophisticated automatic-banking-machine fraud. Police say they used a bogus card -reader to download magnetic-strip information from cards and recorded personal identification numbers by using a tiny, overhead camera linked to a remote video monitor. Eastern Europeans are also involved in counterfeit currency, exporting stolen luxury cars, money-laundering and smuggling women, especially from Russia, to work as prostitutes and in massage parlours.

Geographic reach:  Operate across the country but mainly concentrated in Ontario. Highly mobile with varying levels of presence in B.C., Alberta and Quebec.

Structure/hierarchy:  Operate in small cells.

Independents and Indo-Canadians

Size:  Unknown.

Criminal activities:  Independents are primarily involved in marijuana-growing operations, where profits are used to fund legitimate businesses. They often cooperate with Asians and Hells Angels to distribute their "product." Indo-Canadians operate many dial-a-dope operations, using pagers and cellphones to deliver drugs on the street. Indo-Canadian truckers are lured by quick cash to smuggle B.C.-grown marijuana across the U.S. border.

Propensity for violence:  High, mainly because members are young and show poor impulse

control. Shifting allegiances lead to violence, usually involving guns, among Indo-Canadian males. There have been more than 60 gang-related murders in B.C. involving Indo-Canadians in the last 15 years.

Level of sophistication:  Low.

Geographic reach:  Concentrated primarily in the Lower Mainland, Fraser Valley, lower Vancouver Island and Alberta.

Structure/hierarchy:  Loosely organized in small groups of friends and relatives.

Traditional (Italian-Based) Organizations

Size:  Unknown.

Criminal activities:  Involved in illegal gaming such as sports betting, marijuana-growing operations, drug distribution, overseas lottery-ticket sales, debt collection and stock-market manipulation. Invest profits in real estate and such traditional businesses as construction companies, bars and restaurants.

Propensity for violence:  Medium to high. Don't like to attract police attention.

Level of sophistication:  Medium. Most groups have existed for several generations.

Geographic reach:  Concentrated primarily in Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton and Niagara region of Ontario. While Mafia members remain low-profile in the Vancouver area, they do exist and have a symbiotic relationship with the Hells Angels in B.C. that is based on "social ties and illicit businesses," says the 2004 Annual Report on Organized Crime in Canada, published by the Criminal Intelligence Service Canada.

Structure/hierarchy:  Operate in small groups but report to a crime boss known as the godfather.

 The Vancouver Sun 2004

Prime Time Crime

Organized Crime    Gangs