Aug 31, 2009 04:30 AM
Seven years before Toronto drug squad officers were charged with shaking down suspects, a senior member of the Montreal Police force sent a "red flag" complaint about the behaviour of two squad members.
A Toronto Star-CBC investigation has revealed that in late 1997, two members of the now infamous Central Field Command Drug Squad travelled to Montreal to work a case but made police there suspicious with an alleged single-minded focus on gaining access to a suspect’s safety deposit box.
Today the dramatic and costly case against the Toronto drug squad officers see-saws yet again when prosecutors try to revive charges thrown out by a judge in 2008. The charges were tossed because the Crown took too long to bring the case to trial.
The detectives, most of them now retired, had not been charged with anything related to events in Montreal. John Schertzer, the leader of the squad and one of the two detectives looking to gain access to the safety deposit box in Montreal, told his supervisor two weeks later he did nothing wrong.
Travelling with Schertzer to Montreal in 1997 was Det. Const. Steve Correia. The trip and ensuing complaint came near the beginning of what prosecutors later charged was a crime spree in which Schertzer’s crew allegedly robbed suspected drug dealers, conducted illegal searches and covered it up by falsifying their notebooks.
Schertzer, who retired as a staff sergeant, and Correia have insisted they are innocent. Both were unavailable for comment.
It was not until 2001 that Julian Fantino, then the newly appointed chief, struck a special task force to investigate what had become the biggest corruption scandal to hit Toronto Police. That probe resulted in charges against six of the officers in 2004.
But for members of the now disbanded task force, the Montreal incident is significant, especially for a case that has long been perceived by the public as resting on claims by untrustworthy drug dealers.
"We had lots of people that made allegations, that had checkered pasts, criminal records, who would be viewed questionably," said Jim Cassells, a retired Toronto police sergeant and former task force member. "So when you had police officers coming forward with concerns that were similar … to me, it was like a home run. … On the credibility scale, that’s pretty high. Doesn’t get much higher."
The Montreal Police document tells one version of how the confrontation between the two police forces unfolded. It is a version believed by several members of the task force, which interviewed many of the people involved.
The story begins in 1997 with arrests made in Toronto by Schertzer’s squad. The suspects were originally from Montreal. The squad ended up with a key to a suspect’s safety deposit box in Montreal and other information pointing to possible suspects in that city.
Responding to a request for help, Montreal Police raided a home on Jarry St., seized 44 grams of cocaine and made two arrests. Schertzer and Correia went to Montreal with the safety deposit box key.
The document says Montreal detectives expected money seized from a safety deposit box would be sent to Toronto via the Montreal Courthouse. Schertzer and Correia insisted they take the money back themselves.
"It is necessary to mention also that the two detainees and all the other evidence pertinent to their Toronto arrest three days previous were of absolutely no interest to the Toronto officers," the Montreal Police report says.
"They did not even want to question these two individuals, or even look at the seized evidence directly related to their case. Their only interest was whatever contents were in the safe deposit boxes."
Andre Bouchard, former commander of the major crimes unit for Montreal Police, who was not involved in the incident but knows which Montreal cops were, said after reading his department’s account of Schertzer’s and Correia’s behaviour: "That’s not the way things work. … It’s got to go back in front of that judge (who signed the warrant). They wanted to grab the money and just go back to Toronto. It’s not proper procedure."
The document says Schertzer and Correia made their Montreal colleagues "suspicious," that the Montreal police refused to follow through with search warrants and contacted Toronto to complain. It also says the two asked for RCMP help in getting a warrant for the bank box but were denied.
A senior Montreal officer "called through to Toronto to voice his concerns," according to a source familiar with the task force investigation. "He’s the one who says, `That’s it. It’s finished. We’re not going any farther with these people from Toronto.’ He was pretty agitated."
If the Crown’s appeal is successful and it goes to trial, it is not clear if the Montreal officers who had concerns about Schertzer and Correia would testify. Attempts to reach those officers were unsuccessful.
The document was delivered anonymously to the media, and its contents were verified by Cassells and other members of the task force. Montreal Police confirmed it investigated the incident but would say nothing about the document.
Meanwhile, Schertzer told a much different story. In a report dated two weeks after the Montreal trip, he says he was shown evidence from the Jarry St. raid, that he had to explain to local officers how to store the evidence, and that he disapproved of their unwillingness to charge the two Jarry St. suspects. Schertzer said a "rude and ignorant" Montreal cop was upset the two suspects were not going back to Toronto with the drug squad.
He complained that Montreal officers did not offer him coffee, and said it was the Montreal officers who were fixated on the money.
"They were only interested in the safety deposit box and the cash inside of it. To hold on to only the money and release everything else when it is not even their investigation does not make any sense."
Schertzer said he went to the RCMP for help but was turned away by an officer who "basically threw us out of his office."
Schertzer’s lawyer John Rosen told the CBC that Toronto Police has a "complete file" on the incident, adding the officers "proceeded with full knowledge and direction from their superiors and acted on advice from a senior federal prosecutor. A full report was made following the trip to Montreal."
Rosen said court rules prevent him from letting the media see the "complete file."
The Montreal Police document says the complaint went to Schertzer’s supervisor, then-detective sergeant Bob Spires.
In a phone interview, Spires, now retired, says he recalls talking to a high-ranking Montreal officer who took the matter seriously and requested to speak to someone above Spires in the chain of command.
According to Spires, the complaint reached then-deputy chief Mike Boyd, a claim Boyd denies.
Boyd, now chief of Edmonton Police, said in a brief email that he "was never in receipt of a complaint from the Montreal Police related to this case."
The document makes no mention of Boyd.
Task force member Cassells does not know what else was done by Toronto Police to address the matter after Schertzer filed his report.
"I understand that there was some correspondence … between the participants," he said. "I think when an independent police agency, a credible police agency, raises a red flag about behaviour, … I think a lot should be done. In police work, we call that a clue."
Spires takes issue with any suggestion Toronto Police did not pay enough attention to the complaint.
"These people say that police did not do enough about it, … I don’t see how they can make that comment. Do they know what was done? Did they ever see the correspondence between deputy Boyd and the inspector of Montreal? How do they make that conclusion?"
But aside from Schertzer’s report, Spires offered no specific information about other reports or actions resulting from the complaint. "I don’t remember today what took place 12 years ago," he said.
Over 2 1/2 years, three dozen officers with the task force interviewed hundreds of witnesses, executed dozens of search warrants, obtained three wiretaps and analyzed the accused officers’ finances.
Maybe the most damning allegation against the squad involved the arrest of Christopher Quigley: He was taken to 53 Division, interrogated and allegedly beaten over the next nine hours until he told an officer he kept money in his mother’s safety deposit box. Schertzer and Correia went to the bank.
The bank manager later told investigators he was surprised at how many $100 bills were in the safety deposit box. The officers allegedly seized $22,850 in $50s and $1,000s but made no mention of taking $100 bills. Quigley said there was $54,000 in the box – a shortfall of $31,000.
Prosecutors claim Quigley suffered a broken rib and "extensive bruising." Police reports said Quigley attacked an officer when told his mother’s home was searched, and that he suffered a "bloody nose and sore ribs."
When told about the Montreal incident, which occurred six months before his arrest, Quigley said the public needs to hear evidence that another police force had concerns.
"This is a pattern," he said in a phone interview. "It’s relevant and a judge should hear it."
For Cassells, who investigated the Quigley case, the Montreal incident is important because it "foreshadowed" later alleged crimes.
"These are officers that have high credibility and not hearing from them, and having the public believe that the only concerns that were raised were by drug dealers, and the public never hearing that there were other people that had concerns, would be a big injustice," he said.