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Fishing for Cocaine with the Hells Angels

RCMP reticence kept the force from landing the big ones in a $330 million cocaine seizure.

By Julian Sher 26 Apr 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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Special to TheTyee.ca

This excerpt from The Road to Hell: How the Biker Gangs are Conquering Canada chronicles one B.C. story in the growth of the Hells Angels into the most powerful organized crime group in the country. Julian Sher also discussed the book with The Tyee's Scott Deveau.

The fish that got away

The paralysis plaguing the RCMP in B.C. came to a head in 2001, when the force had a chance to nail drug dealers for an astounding $330 million worth of cocaine. Instead, in one of the biggest disasters in the war against organized crime in recent years, the Mountie brass blew the case.The tale starts with Philip John Stirling, a fisherman in his mid-fifties who lives in Metchosin, a tiny suburb of Victoria. He is, by all accounts, an expert marine navigator who knows the Pacific waters-and the smuggling routes-very well. "He's a good mariner," says Pat Convey, who got to know Stirling during his thirty-five years as a Mountie, working mainly narcotics on Vancouver Island. "He can pilot a ship and park it on your front lawn."In 1989 he was sentenced to five years in a cocaine smuggling conspiracy.

He openly boasted to reporters that around 1999 he'd got the inside track on a massive cocaine importation deal between the Hells Angels and Colombians. He offered to snitch for the RCMP in return for witness protection and the tidy sum of $1 million. By law, the Mounties cannot confirm or deny if anyone was their informant; privately RCMP sources admit they struck some kind of deal with Stirling-and it looked promising.

RCMP brass backed off

But the top brass effectively sabotaged the operation. The first upset came right at the start when Richard Barszczewski, then an inspector in charge of the RCMP's Drug Enforcement Branch in B.C., suddenly nixed the deal his men had made with Stirling.Today, Barszczewski refuses to divulge any details: "The case is still an ongoing investigation," he says. But his officers in the field were furious. Pat Convey was one of the hands-on agents working the file. With his trim white hair, leather jacket and blue jeans, Convey looks a lot fitter than his fifty-five years. "It was going to be a good international bust. Then the wheels fell off," he says. "And they just kept falling."

There was nothing Convey and his colleagues could do but tell Stirling the plan was cancelled.But Stirling apparently went ahead with the drug deal anyway. Late in November 2000, Stirling had bought a $100,000, eighty-eight-foot vessel called the Western Wind. Stirling says when he left port he was planning only to go fishing when his on-board computer registered a threatening e-mail ordering him to make his way to Colombia to pick up the drugs. The police say they later found no record of such a message.

Coke sailed on Wind

What is not in dispute is that by early February 2001, after a detour off the coast of Colombia to pick up the cocaine, the Western Wind was heading back to Victoria - much to the shock of the RCMP. The Mounties had a disaster on their hands: there was a huge cargo of cocaine sailing toward British Columbia - and the waiting arms of Hells Angels. But the RCMP was caught with its pants down because Barszczewski had scuttled any deal with Stirling.The RCMP notified the Americans so that at least the boat could be stopped. As soon as it crossed into U.S. waters near Cape Alava, Washington, American authorities boarded the vessel and, according to court documents, found 101 bales of cocaine concealed in two modified fuel tanks located near the bow.

At the Seattle office of the U.S. Customs Service, they were excited. This was the biggest cocaine bust the region had ever seen-and now they had a chance to hit back at organized crime.Rodney Tureaud was the special agent in charge of the Seattle office. When he moved to the cold Northwest from the South, he had set himself several goals - he wanted to seize a helicopter and a plane for smuggling (which he did) and a dogsled (which he didn't). He also wanted to nab a biker. "I wanted to get some colours. I wanted to arrest a Hells Angel and put his ass in jail and get some colours." Maybe this would be his chance.Meanwhile, in the choppy waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the boat and its coke were in police hands. Pat Convey from the RCMP had raced down and was now on board; he and the Americans realized they could turn the situation around: they could put pressure on Stirling, caught red-handed with his boat overflowing with illegal drugs.

Smuggler given choice

Police told Stirling he could face arrest-or lead them to his Hells Angels buyers back on land. Again, in the eyes of Convey- and now the American agents on board - it looked like a surefire way to nab the big-time importers. "These types of things are like eclipses - they don't come every year. You have to take advantage and you have to respond," says one American law enforcement officer involved in the case. "You don't have time to call to Washington or Ottawa and ask, 'Mother, may I?' " But the Mounties did ask for permission. And again, Barszczewski nixed any plans to proceed.Without Barszczewski's sanction to offer Stirling witness protection, any deal was off. The police officers on board the Western Wind were stunned. "It would have been a success if not for Richard Barszczewski," says one Canadian police officer, noting it was Barszczewski who pulled the plug not once but twice on the operation.

Barszczewski again declines to give his reasons: "It's not right for me to talk about it," he says. But he does suggest that even if the Mounties had followed the shipment to port, they would not necessarily have nabbed the ringleaders. "In a mother-ship operation, getting the main organizers of that kind of event on the site for arrest is extremely rare."It is not a rationalization that sits well with the Americans. "The people on the ground level who are working the case should have been allowed to go forward with it," says Tureaud. "You don't stop doing a case. That's covering your ass." Frustrated, the Americans could do little but escort the vessel back to port. U.S. federal prosecutors opted not to bring any charges against anyone-in part, because the Mounties refused to divulge any information about their ties to Stirling as an informant.In the end, the U.S. officials destroyed the 5,500 pounds of coke, letting Stirling and his crew go, but seized the boat.

Stirling still lives

Curiously, Stirling filed papers in the U.S. District Court in Tacoma opposing the forfeiture on the grounds that at least at one point he was working for the police:"[He] was acting at the behest of the government of Canada in furtherance of legitimate law enforcement goals." That bold admission should have been a death sentence from the Hells Angels, who, after all, lost the most when their coke never arrived. "I'm surprised he's still alive," says Pat Convey. "He still owes people for two and a half tons of coke." Presumably, the Hells Angels have concluded that dead men don't pay their debts.Stirling-still an expert navigator-could perhaps be useful another day, for another drug delivery. "That's worth something. Why would you get rid of a good item and something that is working well?" Convey speculates.

Yet nearly three years after one of the biggest cocaine seizures in history, not a single person has been arrested or charged. Rodney Tureaud retired from the U.S. Customs Service without ever getting the biker or the dogsled he wanted as a catch. He still can't contain his outrage at the botched case. "It was a travesty. For two or three small rocks of crack cocaine-you're talking about something you can put on one fingertip-you go to jail for ten years or more. And we catch them with a boatload of two and a half tonnes of cocaine and then we turn them loose? It's baffling. We had an opportunity to make a significant impact on organized crime in Canada. It's an insult to everybody in law enforcement on both sides of the border."

Mountie moved up

As for Richard Barszczewski, the inspector whom many blame for blowing the Western Wind operation, he got a promotion - he's now superintendent in charge of RCMP support services, which puts him in charge of witness protection, informants and undercover operations. And he adamantly refuses to see the Stirling affair in a negative light. "The success is that two and a half tonnes of coke were taken off [the market] and even though at the current time there are no charges, it was a real big hit," the senior Mountie says.Pat Convey, for one, is convinced that Stirling could have led the police to the highest echelons of the drug importing networks. "There are a lot of questions on this case-and not a lot of answers," says Convey. "Almost everybody involved said why? Why did the wheels come off?"  [Tyee]

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