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No Justice Yet for Women Who Accused Prince George RCMP Officers of Assault

Nearly a year after BC announced an independent investigation, whistleblowers and complainants say they’ve heard nothing.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 1 Feb 2024The Tyee

Amanda Follett Hosgood is The Tyee’s northern B.C. reporter. She lives in Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

[Editor’s note: This piece contains descriptions of police violence and sexual violence.]

Nearly a year after B.C. ordered an investigation into decades-old allegations of sexual misconduct within the Prince George RCMP, and the alleged coverup that followed, those close to the matter say they have not been contacted.

For Bob Sandbach, whose daughter Celynn alleged abuse by Prince George RCMP officers before her death in 2007, years of waiting for accountability have been an emotional roller-coaster.

“I don’t get my hopes up anymore because I just get let down,” Sandbach said. “I know what happened, but as far as justice for Celynn goes, I honestly think that’s going to be in God’s hands.”

Celynn, who was of mixed Cree and settler ancestry, was one of a handful of young women who accused a B.C. provincial court judge of violently sexually assaulting them in the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2004, David Ramsay pleaded guilty and was sentenced to prison, where he died several years later. His accusers were between 12 and 16 years old at the time of the assaults, and most were Indigenous.

But witnesses who spoke to police during the Ramsay investigation also accused at least four and up to 10 members of the Prince George RCMP of similar crimes against underage girls, according to documents filed in civil lawsuits. In 2004, the RCMP struck a special task force, called Project E-Prevails, to investigate the allegations.

None of the officers was ever charged and the allegations have not been tested in court.

While the RCMP initially recommended charges against at least one officer, Crown prosecutors declined to proceed based on a lack of evidence. The force was in the process of appealing the decision when a key witness died in 2007, according to a statement of defence filed by Canada’s attorney general and B.C.’s minister of public safety and solicitor general. Sources close to the matter told The Tyee they believe this witness was Celynn.

It might have ended there.

Instead, the case resurfaced several years later when the ex-wife of one of the officers discovered videotapes containing potential new evidence in the basement of the home they had shared. Days after she reported the tapes to a senior officer at the RCMP, her ex-husband broke into the home, and the tapes disappeared.

The ex-wife, Lisa Mackenzie, was also an RCMP officer. In the 18 years that followed, she and another former Mountie have tried to get the force to properly investigate the break-in, the missing evidence and the RCMP response that followed.

In 2018, a scathing report by the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP, which the Tyee is making available in full for the first time publicly, concluded that “the force dropped the ball” and urged the RCMP to take immediate action.

“Const. Mackenzie’s 2011 allegations directly related to a major criminal investigation of Const. Kohut in 2005,” the report says, but there was no indication that they were ever referred to the RCMP’s Major Crime Unit.

The CRCC’s report languished on the desk of former RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki for another few years before being finalized and sent to B.C. Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth in March 2021, according to emails accessed through freedom of information laws.

Another two years passed before Farnworth took action. On March 8, 2023, after the report was leaked to media in late 2022, he announced an independent investigation by the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team.

“The allegations of historic misconduct of members in Prince George are disturbing and our government takes these allegations very seriously,” Farnworth said at the time.

An aged photo shows a young woman with blond hair smiling at the camera. She stands next to a man with a beard and wearing sunglasses on his head, also smiling. They are outdoors and have their arms around each other.
Bob Sandbach, right, with daughter Celynn before a court appearance for David Ramsay, a BC provincial court judge who pleaded guilty in 2004 to multiple charges related to sexual violence against underage girls. Photo via Bob Sandbach.

But nearly a year later, there’s little evidence that the investigation has moved forward. In addition to speaking with Bob Sandbach, Celynn’s father, The Tyee reached out to one of the women who made the original allegations against the Prince George RCMP and spoke with the two former RCMP officers who have pushed for an investigation.

None had heard from investigators.

Damning videotapes, a suspiciously timed break-in

“It’s heartbreaking,” Mackenzie said. “I can’t force the hand of anybody to look at this.”

Mackenzie moved from Prince George to Kamloops in late 2004 following the transfer of her former husband, Joseph Kohut. Both were then constables with the RCMP. By January 2006, the couple was divorcing. Mackenzie was cleaning the basement of the home she previously shared with Kohut when she found five or six videotapes.

While Mackenzie hadn’t previously been aware that Kohut was investigated as part of Project E-Prevails, she immediately realized the tapes might be linked to the recent investigation into sexual misconduct by Prince George RCMP officers. One of the videos contained footage of Kohut and another officer approaching a young Indigenous girl.

“These two members were making lewd comments to an Indigenous sex-trade worker whom Const. Mackenzie recognized from Prince George and urging her to show them her breasts,” according to the CRCC report. A second video contained similar content, but Mackenzie didn’t recognize the person or the location, the report adds.

A third tape included footage of Kohut and one of his previous partners, who appeared to be intoxicated. Mackenzie set it aside, intending to return it to the woman. The CRCC would later describe it as being “of a personal nature.”

Mackenzie only viewed portions of three tapes before contacting a local staff sergeant, Bill Goughnour, to report them. Goughnour had retired but was working on contract for the Kamloops detachment.

According to the CRCC complaint, Goughnour arrived at her home unannounced and told her to hide the tapes. He was present when she hid them in the kitchen and then left, “telling Mackenzie not to tell anyone of the video’s existence.”

Two days later, Kohut broke down the door to Mackenzie’s home while she was at work. She reported the break and enter to the Kamloops detachment, but Kohut was never charged.

“Const. Kohut admitted to breaking into her home,” according to the CRCC report, “but claimed that he was frustrated because Const. Mackenzie had changed the locks and he wanted to recover his belongings.”

It was only later that Mackenzie realized the tapes were missing.

It would take another five years for her to again raise the issue of the missing tapes with the RCMP. Following the break-in, she “did not know whom she could trust,” the CRCC report says.

On June 11, 2011, Mackenzie went to veteran officer Garry Kerr, who was in charge of the Kamloops serious crime and drug units, about the video tapes. She didn’t know him well, but she believed she could trust him.

Kerr contacted then-RCMP assistant commissioner Craig Callens by email the same night and talked to him “at length” the following day. Callens, who was second in command in B.C. and would later provide a statement to the CRCC, agreed that the allegations were very serious, the CRCC reported.

“As early as June 12, 2011, deputy commissioner Callens had opined that Const. Mackenzie’s allegations were of a serious nature and ought to be investigated by the Major Crime Unit,” the report says.

Kerr, who retired from the force in 2012, likens the RCMP’s handling of the allegations to “a hot potato.”

Other than preliminary email discussions and “scantily referenced notes,” there was no indication anyone within the force was designated to lead an inquiry into the allegations or that a file was created to track the matter, the CRCC determined.

Kerr continued to push for accountability.

In January 2015, he wrote to then-RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson. That September, he received a letter from Callens stating that his complaint had been reviewed and no charges would be laid. But the force could not provide a file number or any evidence of a serious investigation.

In August 2016, Kerr filed a complaint with the CRCC. When the commission released its interim report more than two years later, it concluded that the allegations against Goughnour and Kohut could amount to obstruction of justice and criminal conspiracy. But not only had the RCMP failed to investigate — it hadn’t even assessed that possibility, it said.

It recommended the force do so immediately and, if necessary, launch a criminal investigation. These things should happen “without delay,” the commission added.

It expressed concern with the RCMP’s previous delays in responding to the CRCC’s requests for files.

“Several repeated requests for information were made by the Commission in 2017 and 2018. The delays hampered a timely completion of the Commission’s public interest investigation,” the report concludes.

‘The only thing that changes month to month is the date’

Last July, several months after B.C.’s Public Safety Ministry announced that the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team would conduct an independent investigation, The Tyee asked about the investigation’s scope. Would it look at the original Project E-Prevails investigation, the alleged coverup that followed or all of it?

The ministry declined to comment, saying that providing this information could jeopardize the independent investigation.

The Tyee then requested terms of reference for the investigation through B.C.’s access to information laws. In response, the Public Safety Ministry provided a one-page letter, dated March 8, 2023, in which assistant deputy minister Glen Lewis asks his Alberta counterpart, Marlin Degrand, for a special investigation.

The letter confirmed that ASIRT would conduct an investigation into allegations related to historical sexual assaults committed in Prince George by members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and “subsequent responses.”

The letter also communicates that B.C. would co-ordinate access to contacts at the BC Prosecution Service, RCMP and “other organizations requested by ASIRT” and that B.C. would assume any costs associated with the investigation. No timeline was laid out.

Recent requests to the Public Safety Ministry for an update went unanswered for nearly two weeks. Last week, The Tyee took the opportunity to ask the minister questions directly during a media briefing.

Farnworth told The Tyee the investigation was underway but added that he could not provide an update, citing its independence.

“When I am in a position to update you, then I will do that,” Farnworth said.

When asked if he had a message for those who have waited more than 20 years for answers, Farnworth repeated the message. “The investigation is going to get done,” he said.

“That’s why it was appointed in the first place. That’s why an outside agency was brought in, to make sure that something’s done thoroughly, properly, and that families get the answers that they deserve,” he said.

Every month, Kerr gets a letter — sent by registered mail — with an update from the RCMP. The standard form letter advises Kerr that an investigation is ongoing but adds that the RCMP has “not received any status updates” from the investigative body.

“The only thing that changes month to month is the date,” he told The Tyee.

He’s skeptical about the progress of the investigation.

“It simply makes no sense,” he said. “The only way ASIRT can do the investigation is with co-operation from the RCMP. The only way this would be true, what they’re stating here, is if ASIRT has not done a single thing.”

A spokesperson for the RCMP declined to comment, directing The Tyee’s questions to ASIRT.

ASIRT executive director Mike Ewenson was not available for an interview before publication.

In an interview with the Vancouver Sun shortly after the investigation was announced, Ewenson said he was poised to make a trip to Prince George to meet with First Nations leaders.

Preliminary work to review all the files would take about two months, Ewenson told Vancouver Sun columnist Ian Mulgrew at the time. Determining investigative steps would follow, he said.

“There was an investigation at the turn of the century and that needs to be looked at. You can’t really begin an investigation until you know what was done and what needs to be done,” Ewenson said.

Cloy-e-iis Judith Sayers, director with the BC First Nations Justice Council, which is mandated to bring the province’s justice system in line with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, said there is evidence that an investigation is underway.

But she’s frustrated more wasn’t done up front to involve First Nations. She said the council wasn’t consulted prior to B.C. announcing the ASIRT investigation and there’s been no Indigenous representation on the investigation team.

But that’s about to change, she said. Steps are currently underway to add a BCFNJC representative.

“It wasn’t an easy process. The B.C. government, had they consulted or talked to us before they appointed ASIRT, we’d have insisted on that from the beginning,” Sayers said.

While the representative won’t be able to provide details of the investigation to the council, it should provide broad assurances that the investigation is moving ahead, Sayers said. The most important thing, she added, is ensuring justice for the young women who alleged sexual assaults so many years ago.

Both Kerr and Mackenzie told The Tyee the investigation offers an obvious opportunity for B.C. to engage respectfully with Indigenous communities.

“If there was ever a case for some reconciliation, this is it,” Kerr said. “Where’s the premier on this?”

Mackenzie fears the lack of action could also discourage other RCMP officers from speaking up when they encounter possible wrongdoing within the force.

“I don’t know what more information that I can give. I’ve given everything,” said Mackenzie, who left the force in 2022 over fallout from her decision to speak out. “There’s no glory in being a whistleblower. There’s no protection for me. My career is over.”

Mackenzie was quick to add that she didn’t regret her decision to become a whistleblower. “I would do it again. But I’d like to believe I didn’t do all of this in vain,” she said.

In the meantime, Bob Sandbach holds tight to his daughter Celynn’s story, hoping for the chance to share it with investigators.

He’s frustrated and emotionally exhausted, he said. But he won’t give up.  [Tyee]

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