column was published in the North
Shore News on
Aug. 1, 2001)
By Leo Knight
THE sentencing last week of two members of the Hells Angels East End chapter brought to a close a saga which started five years ago.
Project Nova began in the wake of an extortion investigation into two senior Hells Angels called Project Breakpoint, which ended without prosecution, much to the frustration of police investigators angered by the decision to terminate a wiretap intercept warrant just days into the authorization.
Robert Molesberry had been a doorman at the Number 5 Orange strip bar in the Downtown Eastside. That was the legitimate part of his life. He also ran a marijuana grow-op for one Hells Angel and sold cocaine for two others.
He had a piece of bad luck when someone "ripped the grow," leaving him empty-handed and trying to explain the situation to the biker he worked for. He was "fined" $10,000 for his perceived transgression. He also owed two other Angels $1,500 for a fronted ounce of cocaine.
When he couldn't come up with the money he got kicked around behind the strip bar in a less than gentle reminder about his need to pay the assigned debt. This made him mad; after all, he had worked for the bikers for over two years and made them a ton of money. He found, much to his chagrin, that there is a price to be paid when you sleep with the devil.
Molesberry also ran an after-hours club for the bikers in Vancouver which was used by the Angels to move a lot of dope through. He later told police, "F*** these guys. I made them so much money over the years and they do this to me. Well f*** them."
With that, Molesberry became an agent for the Vancouver police. But, this also presented a problem for the two officers who interviewed him. They were concerned that the police and the Attorney General's office may be compromised and had no confidence that a long-term project could be run. Then-Vancouver Police department Const. Al Dalstrom, testified in court about the situation saying there were security concerns in the police community and "we wanted to take our investigation and work off-site somewhere away from the police community."
Dalstrom and his partner, Andy Richards, took a proposal to then-VPD Chief Constable Ray Canuel. They laid out what they needed and outlined their concerns. Canuel made a decision to fund an investigation from his contingency fund, then about $200,000. He also arranged for a team to be detached from Strike Force to work the file on a full-time basis, assigning Inspector Peter Ditchfield to oversee the investigation.
The last problem was the security issue and the possibility of the Hells Angels having compromised the police community. Canuel arranged to use an intercept room at regional CSIS headquarters as a base for the crew. Project Nova was born.
The subsequent years were a roller-coaster ride for the police officers involved. It only ended last week when East End chapter members Francisco "Chico" Pires and Ronaldo "Ronnie" Lissing were sentenced to four and a half years in federal prison for conspiracy to traffic in cocaine.
But, they weren't the only victories claimed by Project Nova. In fact, the investigation yielded an impressive score. By the time the operation was concluded the police had seized over $12 million in drugs, cash, property and weapons, 57 search warrants were executed and 76 people were charged with various offences. Most pled guilty including the last one in February, Romano Brienza, the former president of the Regulators. His brother is Vincenzo "Vinnie" Brienza, a senior member of the Haney chapter of the Hells Angels. He was arrested with a kilo of cocaine, 30 pounds of marijuana and a gun.
But the most important thing produced by Project Nova was the destruction of the Hells Angels' ability to say the police were wrong about them being an organized criminal group. In fact, on a radio talk show before Nova was terminated, Vancouver Chapter member and frequent spokesman for the bikers, Rick Ciarnello, dared Dalstrom to prove they were criminals. That's exactly what Dalstrom and his colleagues did.
In explaining the results of Nova to me, Dalstrom, now a sergeant with the Organized Crime Agency of B.C., said, "Nova showed the distinct networks of the Hells Angels and how their structures worked. For the first time, we were able to prove in court what we always said, the Angels are as much organized crime as the Mafia."
Realistically, Nova could have gone much further, but there was no more money. Said one of the investigators, "if the funding had been there we could have gone up the food chain. It's a lot less intensive to run an agent-based wire than to run a full-blown wire op. We control the agent and the meets. It takes money to play in this game and we didn't have it."
In fact, the agent, Molesberry, now in the witness protection program, made six hand-to-hand ounce-level cocaine purchases from the Angels. But when the agent couldn't come up with the money to make bigger purchases, the Angels determined he wasn't worth their time and handed him down to two "employees" further down in their network, losing the opportunity for the police to continue using the agent to make buys and climb the ladder of the organization. That's when they turned it into a full-blown wire/surveillance operation.
The officer shook his head at the irony of it. "We're the police and we couldn't afford to do business with them."