Mafia Inc.: The Long, Bloody Reign of Canada's Sicilian Clan - André Cédilot, André Noël (2011)
Chapter 7. HASH AND COKE
THIS WAS THE GENIUS OF Vito Rizzuto: if a transaction was likely to involve any risk, he subcontracted it; he would put up the money for his partners, offer them guidance and put them in contact with suppliers, but he never—or very seldom—got his own feet wet. On the phone, he spoke in code; in person, he often limited himself to a nod or shake of the head. But anybody who needed to know, knew exactly what he meant. And it galled the police to no end. The baron of Antoine-Berthelet Avenue was never going to repeat the errors of Paolo Violi, the hapless Calabrian who had braided his own noose by yammering on like a magpie in his bugged ice cream parlour.
No shortage of young wannabes were clamouring to go to the front lines for Vito Rizzuto, galvanized by considerable sums of money. And Vito encouraged them. One such aspirant was Christian Deschênes. Intelligent and ambitious, he had studied administration at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. He was strong and agile and had fared well on campus hockey and football squads. After leaving school, he went to Lebanon, telling friends that he’d joined up with the Christian Phalangists, the far-right militia who would sadly become famous for having perpetrated the September 1982 massacre of between 700 and 3,500 (estimates are contested) men, women, children and elders in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, in Beirut, while members of the Israeli military had the sites surrounded.
On his return from Lebanon, Deschênes went to work at the Castel Tina, a strip club in Saint-Léonard that belonged to Paolo Gervasi, an associate of the Sicilian clan. Unlike those at Chez Parée downtown, the fanciest such establishment in Montreal, the doormen at Castel Tina weren’t the tuxedo-clad type. Back in the 1970s, the charred bodies of two repeat offenders suspected of a triple murder had been found, one lying on top of the other, in the trunk of a car abandoned at the rear of the establishment. In 1980, Mafioso Nicolò Morello had been gunned down in a stairwell. “It wasn’t a dive, but it wasn’t exactly high-class neither,” recalls one gangster-turned-informant.
The Castel Tina’s seedy reputation wasn’t about to keep Vito Rizzuto from hanging out there. He would regularly be seen at the bar raising a glass with friends, but socializing wasn’t his only reason for visiting. He often retreated to an upstairs office to make phone calls. Whenever he did, the doormen—Deschênes among them—were under orders to screen arriving patrons. Deschênes also did other jobs for Vito. One of them began on September 22, 1986, when Deschênes and an accomplice, James Morgan, flew to Larnaca, Cyprus, with a stopover in London. In Cyprus, they travelled to the port city of Limassol and boarded the Petros Z, a cargo vessel with Pakistani registry. The skipper was an Ontarian named Thomas Malcolm Johnson. The freighter sailed to Lebanon, where the party was met by Christian Phalangist generals. Among them was Samir Geagea, a key leader of the Christian militia, which had fought a bloody war in the country’s mountainous central region against forces loyal to the Progressive Socialist Party of Walid Jumblatt.
Deschênes oversaw the loading of twenty-four tonnes of hashish onto the Petros Z, and the smugglers settled in for a long, uncomfortable voyage, first through the Mediterranean and then across the Atlantic Ocean. During the trip, Deschênes boasted to the captain, Johnson, that he had got into the hashish importing business using money he’d earned as a Phalangist mercenary. The real story was that he’d borrowed $400,000 from the owner of a gas station in Laval, north of Montreal, to buy the hash that now sat, tightly packed in bales, in the hold of the Petros Z. Others had invested the rest of the money, chief among them Vito Rizzuto. On October 19, as an ocean storm raged, the cargo was transferred from the mother ship to the Sandra & Diane II, a small fishing vessel registered in the Magdalen Islands, a tiny archipelago in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence that is part of Quebec.
The hash was off-loaded at Dock Number 3 in the Acadian village of Chéticamp, on the western coast of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, then divided up and put onto three rented Ryder trucks. At around five-thirty in the morning on October 20, one of the trucks swerved off the road eighty kilometres farther south, near Baddeck, and got stuck on the shoulder. Police arrived at the scene and got a look at the cargo. Poorly hidden amongst freshly caught perch and sacks of other fish were eight tonnes of hashish.
The alert went out, and a second truck was stopped on the Trans-Canada Highway near Florenceville, New Brunswick. A search revealed another eight-tonne load of hash, as well as weapons. Deschênes was following close behind in a Toyota Cressida with his girlfriend, a barmaid from the Castel Tina, and two other men. All were arrested.
Nine days later, Montreal police located the third white Ryder truck. It had been abandoned in the Rivière-des-Prairies neighbourhood, on the eastern tip of the Island of Montreal. The keys were still inside, but the licence plates had been removed. There was no sign of the hash. All that was left in the truck box were sixty-nine crates emptied of the fish they had contained. Investigators painstakingly went over the truck and lifted fingerprints from a single individual. Police later estimated that the remaining eight tonnes of hash had earned the traffickers a cool $22 million, while the cost to purchase the drugs plus travel and other expenses would have been in the neighbourhood of $7.5 million. In other words, even though police had seized two-thirds of the goods, the estimated profit was still fourteen million dollars.
A thorough search of Deschênes’s Toyota and his personal effects turned up a bonus for investigators: the number of a Swiss bank account and a slip of paper on which was scrawled the name “Vito” and a telephone number. A second note said, “Crédit à Vito: 280 000 $” (“Credit to Vito: $280,000”). The RCMP asked Swiss authorities to run the bank account number. They found that millions of dollars had been transferred to that account from the Caisse Populaire Notre-Dame-de-la-Merci, a Desjardins Credit Union branch in northeastern Montreal. Police ramped up their investigation.
The money was often conveyed to the credit union branch in small-denomination notes, stuffed into attaché cases or hockey bags. Dima Messina, one of Vito Rizzuto’s laundrymen, had persuaded the assistant manager to issue bank drafts payable to the bearer. The drafts were then sent to Switzerland, Dubai, New York, Hawaii, Italy and Spain. Those arriving in Spain were cashed by an Egyptian named Samir George Rabbat, reputedly one of the top ten hashish brokers in the world.
Rabbat had been arrested in Montreal in 1982, just as he was about to move into a newly built home only blocks away from Vito Rizzuto’s residence on Antoine-Berthelet Avenue. He had excellent connections with hemp producers in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. After leaving Montreal, he had settled in Marbella, the resort town on the Costa del Sol in southern Spain. Besides running drugs, he was heavily involved in weapons smuggling, not only in the Middle East, but also in Colombia, where the FARC rebels were his clients.
The captain of the Petros Z decided to talk to police, and his testimony was damning. Among other things, he indicated that the Phalangist chieftains had demanded large sums of money before allowing the ship to leave Lebanon. In the fall of 1988, Christian Deschênes was sentenced to ten years in prison. He avoided a further five-year term by paying a $500,000 fine. Part of that sum came from the $266,636 in cash that he had in his possession at the time of his arrest in New Brunswick. He was then paroled barely two years later, on January 9, 1991. In the eyes of the RCMP, the premature release was suspicious. “The unusual parole process followed in this case resulted in two subsequent investigations,” a confidential report states. “Those investigations revealed that influential persons were in favour of Christian Deschênes’s early release.” The report does not name any of those “influential persons.”
Slips of paper appearing to incriminate Vito Rizzuto—especially the note mentioning $280,000 in credit—had been found, but this was not enough to bring charges against him; indeed, he was never even questioned in the case. The partial botching of the hashish importing operation led by Deschênes didn’t trouble Vito, either. He had plenty of other partners with whom he could embark on similar ventures. The Christian Phalangist militia leaders in Lebanon were all too keen to supply him with hashish, tonnes of it at a time, in exchange for weapons and money. In truth, the Montreal Mafia had a long history of dealing with Lebanese contacts. A decade earlier, in 1975 and 1976, police had listened in as Frank Cotroni telephoned Suleiman Franjieh, then president of Lebanon and part of the country’s Christian minority, at his home. Cotroni had gone to Cyprus to negotiate a shipment of 550 kilos of hashish. The RCMP estimated that at the time, 90 percent of the hash imported to Canada was being transited through the wartorn island nation.
In 1980, the FBI learned of the theft from a Boston armoury of a huge quantity of firearms and ammunition, including M16 automatic rifles. They were smuggled to Montreal and then sent on to Lebanon, where they were traded for hashish. Police informants told of an “incident” during which Mafia members, eager to demonstrate the efficiency of the weapons they were preparing to hand over to their Lebanese clients, shot at occupants of a Palestinian refugee camp.
Not long after the arrest of Christian Deschênes, RCMP officers intercepted a conversation between Vito Rizzuto and his right-hand man, Raynald Desjardins, who by now had bought a home on Gouin Boulevard in the same upscale neighbourhood as Antoine-Berthelet Avenue. Although they spoke in code, the police understood this much: the two men had recently sunk quite a large amount of money into a huge hashish buy in Lebanon, but the remainder of the operation was dragging on needlessly.
Sometime in the fall of 1987, the Charlotte Louise dropped anchor in Trinity Bay, on the northeast coast of Newfoundland. The vessel, a thirty-metre fishing trawler, was laden with sixteen tonnes of Lebanese hashish. Three moonlighting fishermen hired by a man named Gerald Harvey Hiscock hefted the bales onto a speedboat, which then ferried the precious cargo to an abandoned island in the bay called Ireland’s Eye. Barely three square kilometres in size, the island contains a natural harbour well protected from North Atlantic storms. Fishermen first settled on the island in 1675, but by the time Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949, the community was disappearing. In the late 1960s, a government plan sent the island’s remaining inhabitants—sixteen of them—to be resettled in larger communities. Several houses and sheds remained standing, in the shadow of the picturesque St. George’s Anglican Church, offering an enterprising smuggler a perfect place to stash his booty.
Gerald Hiscock had family ties to the area and knew the island well. He also had a certain amount of criminal experience. In May 1980, he’d been busted for importing seventy kilos of hashish. He was aided and abetted in that particular enterprise by none other than the man then in charge of the RCMP drug squad, Staff Sergeant Paul Sauvé; the two were arrested when police raided Sauvé’s downtown Montreal apartment. The Mountie was fired and sentenced to five years in prison. Hiscock collaborated with the police and was rewarded with a mere two-year term. Once released, he’d returned to his reprobate ways: when he supervised the transfer of the hashish from the Charlotte Louise to Ireland’s Eye, he was out on bail following charges in another massive cannabis importing scheme.
The captain of the trawler, Brian Erb, was also on police files for involvement in drug smuggling. But he was especially renowned as a colourful latter-day adventurer. A dozen years earlier, he had made headlines by purchasing and salvaging a hundred-metre freighter that had been stranded in the St. Lawrence River. He refitted the old tub and renamed it Atlantean No. 1. Before long, though, it was impounded by creditors for nonpayment of debts and auctioned off. Convinced he had been swindled, Erb rounded up a crew of twenty-or-so teenagers, boys and girls, boarded the ship on a guarded dock in Quebec City and set out down the icy St. Lawrence, hoping to reach international waters, where they would be safe from capture. The RCMP and the Coast Guard pursued the ship for eleven days before the modern-day freebooter and his ragtag crew, slowed by the ice floes, finally gave up.
In late October 1987, RCMP officers boarded the Charlotte Louise at Blanc-Sablon, a small Quebec fishing community just across the Strait of Belle-Isle from Newfoundland. After an extensive search, they hit pay dirt: five hundred kilos of hashish sealed in waterproof sacks and stashed in the ship’s water tanks. They arrested three men and a woman from the Montreal area, but Captain Erb escaped and dropped out of sight. The police were convinced, however, that a far larger amount of hashish had recently landed in the region.
In the fishing communities around Trinity Bay, people had been noticing some odd comings and goings on the water. Hiscock and his three labourers were busy moving the bales of hash out of the ruined buildings of Ireland’s Eye to an isolated location on the mainland and reloading them onto a truck with Quebec licence plates. The RCMP descended on the tiny island, while other officers caught up with the truck on the Trans-Canada Highway, some fifty kilometres to the west, near Gander International Airport. The drugs were hidden under a layer of onions.
Investigators returned to their transcripts of the wiretapped conversations between Vito Rizzuto and Raynald Desjardins. Some time before the seizure, Desjardins had called Rizzuto from Newfoundland, saying he would soon be back in Montreal, and when he was, he would fill him in on some details. He added that “something [would be] happening next week.” The men were again choosing their words carefully, but the police would later insist to crown prosecutors that “something” obviously meant the transfer of the hashish.
The hash had indeed arrived at Ireland’s Eye one week after that conversation. Desjardins had been spotted in Newfoundland with one Michel Routhier, owner of a restaurant in Belœil, Quebec, and Routhier had been seen with Hiscock before the bales were transferred from Ireland’s Eye to the truck ostensibly carrying onions.
Rizzuto was arrested and charged along with Desjardins, Routhier, Hiscock and the latter’s three hired hands. Rizzuto spent the Christmas holidays behind bars. In March 1988, after he was freed on bail, he was seen with Dima Messina, his main money mover. Vito didn’t appear to be especially bothered by the fact that he was facing serious charges for hashish smuggling. He rode around town in his current vehicle of choice, a $250,000 Ferrari Testarossa registered to Messina, and kept on doing business, seemingly unfazed. The police did learn, however, that he was furious—not with them, but with one of his front men, Antonio Calabrò. The careless underling had siphoned money from the till of a South Shore bar to fund a deal that had gone sour. In his world, such an indiscretion was grounds for immediate termination. Before long, nobody could find Calabrò anywhere. His body was never located, and his family refused to assist police in their investigation of his disappearance.
The trial of Rizzuto, Desjardins and their accomplices for the importing of sixteen tonnes of hashish to Newfoundland began in October 1990 at the courthouse in St. John’s, the provincial capital. It turned out to be an unmitigated disaster for the government, thanks to a monumental blunder committed by the RCMP.
During the trial, Rizzuto had taken to eating at Newman’s, a restaurant on the ground floor of the Radisson Plaza Hotel in St. John’s. RCMP officers, having heard that Vito had another hash smuggling operation in the works, had secured authorization to conduct electronic surveillance on him, whatever the location. They knew that he took his meals in the company of his lawyer, Jean Salois, and the lawyer defending his co-accused, Pierre Morneau. The Mounties should have known the eavesdropping was a risky option: such conversations are protected by lawyer-client privilege, and obtaining a warrant to listen in on them requires a special procedure. Apparently, they weren’t too worried about the potential breach of protocol. Officers decided to hide a bug in the base of a table lamp at Newman’s. Corporal Terry Scott of the RCMP detachment in St. John’s discreetly asked the restaurant manager to seat Rizzuto and the lawyers at table six, on which sat the bugged lamp.
One evening, a New Brunswicker came to the restaurant for supper. His name was Guy Moreau—a name that, to an English-speaking Newfoundlander, is easily confused with that of Pierre Morneau, so Moreau was seated at table six. When Morneau and his guests arrived a few minutes later, the manager realized the error and asked a waiter to take the lamp from table six and switch it with the one at the table where the Morneau party was sitting. When he picked up the lamp, the waiter found it strangely heavy. He examined it more closely and found it had some suspicious dents in it. He spoke about it to a co-worker, who wrote a note for the lawyers that read, “Be careful, you might be bugged.” Then he slipped the note onto the table. Two days later, the lawyers were back at table six and so was the doctored lamp. The lawyers inspected it and found the hidden microphone.
Back in court, they were incensed—all the more so because they had learned that two of their hotel rooms had been subject to electronic surveillance as well. The RCMP countered that they were not interested in recording their conversations, but in gathering information on another suspected plot. The protest fell on deaf ears. Their handling of the operation had been so abysmal that it irreparably discredited the case against the suspected smugglers. Judge Leo Barry of the Newfoundland Supreme Court ruled that the police had stepped outside the bounds of their warrant. On November 8, 1990, he told Rizzuto and his three suspected accomplices, Desjardins, Hiscock and Routhier, that they were free to go. The only men found guilty in the case were two of the three labourers, Robert Trépanier and his son Robert Jr., of Laval, Quebec. They were handed nine- and seven-year sentences respectively.
The young waiter who had tipped off the lawyers about the bugged lamp, meanwhile, lost his job.
It wasn’t the only botched police investigation involving Rizzuto. In October 1988, a year after the boarding of the Charlotte Louise at Blanc-Sablon and the Ireland’s Eye bust, Sûreté du Québec officers arrested drug dealer Normand Dupuis at the airport in Sept-Îles, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence. Dupuis had just taken delivery of 587 grams of cocaine. He was not only a dealer but a heavy user with a serious addiction problem, and a father of three. He decided to co-operate with the police, confessing to the investigating officers that he was involved in something bigger: a scheme to import thirty-two tonnes of Lebanese hashish. The mastermind of the operation, he revealed in a thirteen-page affidavit, was none other than Vito Rizzuto.
Dupuis had worked as a fisherman on the North Shore, and he knew the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence like the back of his hand. The previous summer, he said, he had met the owner of a boating store in Montreal, who introduced him to Vito Rizzuto. “He was a tall, slim guy who drove a BMW or a Porsche,” Dupuis told police. “He was introduced to me as Monsieur Vito Rizzuto, le boss.” He said Rizzuto had fronted him $80,000 through a middleman to buy an old thirty-five-tonne boat, the Jeanne-D’Arc, and outfit it for high-seas navigation. Dupuis was to rendezvous in international waters with another ship that had sailed from Lebanon, take delivery of several tonnes of hash and bring it in to port at Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan, Quebec, a village between Sept-Îles and Blanc-Sablon. The cargo ship had run into mechanical trouble off the Azores, and the huge consignment, with a street value of $280 million, had never made it to Quebec.
Dupuis named his price for co-operating and agreeing to testify against Rizzuto: he told his handlers he wanted $10,000 to move away from the North Shore; a new identity and a passport; $120 a month during his jail time; and the money necessary for him and his girlfriend to complete a drug rehab program in Oka, west of Montreal. He pleaded guilty to the charges of cocaine possession and conspiracy to import hashish, and received a reduced sentence, serving his time in a wing reserved for informants at the Parthenais Detention Centre in Montreal, where he easily obtained day passes. The following summer, he telephoned Jean Salois, Vito Rizzuto’s lawyer, and asked for an appointment with him. Salois was leery, fearing some sort of trap. He agreed to meet with Dupuis but had the man photographed upon entering and exiting his office. He also arranged to have their conversation recorded.
Dupuis made Salois an offer that, to the informant’s mind at least, was attractive: he would agree not to testify against Salois’s client in exchange for a “lifetime pension” worth $1 million. Salois said nothing in response to the offer. But the interview had provided him with the means to discredit the star witness at his client’s upcoming trial, and it wasn’t going to cost him a cent. He handed the photos and the recording over to the prosecution.
Dupuis was sentenced to a further thirty-two months in prison for obstruction of justice. The key witness for the prosecution had been exposed as an opportunistic clown. Without his testimony, the government suddenly didn’t have much of a case. It went ahead regardless, and in December 1989, a practically insouciant Vito Rizzuto showed up for the trial at the courthouse in Sept-Îles. Two witnesses, one of whom was among his co-accused, swore that Vito had nothing to do with the planned hashish deal. “Every time Dupuis met the boss, it wasn’t Vito; it was Val,” claimed Pierre-Louis Lepage, of Magog, Quebec, referring to Valentino Morielli. Quebec Court Judge Louis-Charles Fournier ruled that, while there had undoubtedly been a plot to smuggle drugs, there was “not an iota of evidence with regard to the participation of Vito Rizzuto,” adding that not only had it been impossible to corroborate Dupuis’s testimony at the preliminary inquiry, but it was also contradicted by witnesses called to trial.
With the verdict pronounced, Rizzuto rose, politely thanked the judge, shook his lawyers’ hands and walked from the courtroom, free as a bird. A year later, he would be let off just as easily in the Ireland’s Eye hashish case and, in a rare display of receptivity to a reporter’s question, observed laconically: “One word can mean so much, especially when that word is ‘acquittal.’ ”
Vito, it seemed, was as untouchable as the halo around the moon, and after these initial acquittals, that aura would envelop him for years to come. It also seemed to protect a number of his most trusted associates. In July 1990, police seized twenty-seven tonnes of Lebanese hash at Baleine, on the eastern tip of Cape Breton Island. The drugs had a street value of around $280 million. Long-time Rizzuto crony Antonio Volpato was the Sicilian clan’s investor this time, in partnership with Montreal’s West End Gang. Leaders of the latter group were arrested and charged, but not Volpato. The series of busts convinced Rizzuto that it was time to tread carefully. “I need to make myself scarce for a while,” he told a close associate. He had another good reason to ease up on the hashish-importing component of his business portfolio: his Middle Eastern sources were drying up because of war. In October 1990, Syria invaded Lebanon, crushing the Christian forces. It wasn’t a serious blow to the Sicilian clan, however: a temporary dip in the supply of one drug could easily be offset by ramping up their traffic in another. One with a far more attractive cost-benefit ratio: cocaine.
At 11:30 P.M. on November 17, 1992, North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) operators based in Florida picked up a suspicious aircraft movement on their radar screens. A Convair 580 had taken off from somewhere on the Guajira Peninsula in northern Colombia, some 1,850 kilometres from Miami, with no flight plan filed. This was no light plane ferrying a handful of tourists; a Convair 580 had passenger seating for up to forty. Two U.S. Coast Guard surveillance aircraft, a Falcon and a Piper Cheyenne, were dispatched to intercept it. The pilots observed that the Convair’s navigation lights were turned off, further proof that this was no regularly scheduled flight. The sophisticated radar tracking on-board the Falcon and the Piper enabled the Coast Guard to shadow their quarry effectively regardless of weather conditions.
At the controls of the Convair was a forty-four-year-old Quebecer named Raymond Boulanger. He had previously managed a hotel in Bonaventure, on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, before relocating to Colombia, where he now worked for a cocaine transporter named Luis Carlos Herrera-Lizcano, who dealt indiscriminately with the rival Cali and Medellín cartels.
Boulanger flew over the Dominican Republic on a heading that would take him across Bermuda. Units of the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, went on alert. A third surveillance plane took over for the Falcon and the Piper, and settled in to shadow the Convair at a distance of fifteen kilometres. The Americans notified Canadian authorities that the Convair was due to penetrate their air space south of Halifax. Two CF-18 fighters took off from Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Goose Bay, in Labrador, and closed in on the turboprop at Mach 1.8.
The pilots made their first contact with the Convair above Saint John, New Brunswick. They performed several manoeuvres, signalling the pilot to stand down, then eased up alongside, so close that they were able to repeat the order to Boulanger using hand signs. Boulanger refused and flew on westward, over Quebec. Their fuel running low, the CF-18s were forced to land in Fredericton, New Brunswick. It was 7:15 A.M. Nine Bell OH-58 Kiowa helicopters left CFB Valcartier, near Quebec City, and CFB Saint-Hubert, just east of Montreal, to give chase, but they could only do so at low altitude and at their maximum speed, which was less than 225 kilometres per hour.
Around nine in the cold November morning, Boulanger put the Convair down on a strip at an abandoned Canadian Forces base at Casey, in the heart of Quebec’s boreal forest, about 350 kilometres north of Montreal. At the height of the Cold War, the base had been part of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, which ringed Canada’s Far North as a defence against incursions by Soviet bombers. Not much was left of the facility, save the frayed wires and decaying walls of its former radar stations. A tracery of bumpy forest roads linked Casey to the small town of La Tuque, 150 kilometres to the east.
The daring pilot taxied away from the runway in a vain attempt to camouflage his snow-white aircraft. His three Colombian companions fled into the forest, clad only in jeans and T-shirts. The outside temperature was minus twenty-seven degrees Celsius. Boulanger holed up in a cabin that belonged to a mining company and attempted to reach his partners by telephone, without success. Three hours later, the army located the Convair. A helicopter landed in front of the cabin, and Boulanger was arrested on the spot.
After a lengthy search, Canadian Forces soldiers and RCMP officers found the three Colombians, by now suffering from hypothermia and only hours from death. In the evening, around nine o’clock, officers stopped a van on a forest road some eighty kilometres to the south. The two occupants claimed they were on a hunting trip. One was carrying a driver’s licence in the name of Denis Lévesque, but police quickly confirmed his true identity: he was none other than Christian Deschênes, the most adventuresome of Vito Rizzuto’s point men. The other man was named Antonio Sforza. They had made it as far north as Casey but were now attempting to escape in the opposite direction.
In 1986, Deschênes had been sentenced to ten years in prison for his part in unloading a twenty-four-tonne shipment of Lebanese hashish on the coast of Cape Breton Island, but had resumed his smuggling ways after being granted a curiously early release.
The van was registered to a numbered company in Laval. Inside, police found containers of aircraft fuel, a .12 gauge rifle, a .38 calibre revolver and fifteen thousand dollars in cash. When investigators examined the Convair, they found the forty or so seats had been removed and replaced with forty-five fuel drums and two containers. The Convair 580 has a standard range of 1,800 kilometres, but the flying distance from Colombia to Quebec was more than 4,500 kilometres, requiring the crew to replenish the aircraft’s fuel tanks while in flight. It was an extremely risky method that could have meant a premature end to the trip, in the form of a mid-air explosion. A bigger surprise, however, awaited police when they opened the containers: 3,919 kilos of cocaine divided into 152 packets, each wrapped in a large aluminum pouch. Being the good businessmen they were, the suppliers had affixed a note in English on each one: “Perfect Quality for Our Best Customers.”
At the time, it was by far the biggest single cocaine seizure in Canadian history. Police estimated the street value of the drugs to be a staggering $2.7 billion and pegged the cost of the smuggling expedition alone at between $15 and $20 million. At least nine criminal organizations, with Montreal’s Sicilian clan at the top of the pyramid, had financed the operation. Raymond Boulanger stood to earn $1.2 million, and Christian Deschênes $1 million, had the job been successful. The cocaine was to have been distributed throughout Canada and into the eastern United States. The mega-bust caused a temporary shortage of the drug on the streets of Montreal, and its wholesale price spiked from $32,000 to $38,000 per kilo. Deliveries soon resumed, however, and the market returned to normal.
At his court appearance in La Tuque, Boulanger winked slyly at reporters, who had dubbed him “le pilote de Casey.” He pleaded guilty, as did his Colombian accomplices. The conspirators were handed sentences ranging from twenty to twenty-three years in prison. Christian Deschênes was headed back behind bars as well. In late April 1993, he was sentenced to twenty-three years, with no possibility of parole before serving ten years. Oddly, he would be released in November 2001, after only eight and a half years.
In May 1992, police became aware of regular meetings between Vito Rizzuto’s right-hand man, Raynald Desjardins, and Maurice “Mom” Boucher, along with other members of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. Historically, the Mafia brain-trust had looked down on biker gangs. They did, however, appreciate their tattooed brawn, efficient intimidation tactics and propensity to pull triggers first and ask questions later, and they were not above retaining bikers’ services ad hoc. But brawn doesn’t always equal brains, and the bikers seemed prone to regular demonstrations of their limited intelligence. Their abusive shows of force goaded the Quebec government and police forces into striking back, with uncommon vigour.
In March 1985, members of the Hells Angels’ breakaway North Chapter had slaughtered five of their Laval “brothers” in a clubhouse in Lennoxville, near Sherbrooke, for “interfering with the smooth running of the club.” They had also gotten rid of a “hang-around” whom they suspected of being on the police’s payroll, in Saint-Basile-le-Grand, a South Shore suburb of Montreal. Their preferred mode of corpse disposal was to weigh down the victims with barbell plates and dump them off a dock into the St. Lawrence River. The method lacked finesse, to put it crudely, and no one was surprised when the axe of justice eventually fell. Three bikers decided to turn state’s evidence, including Yves “Apache” Trudeau, a founding member of both the original Montreal Hells Angels and the breakaway North Chapter. Trudeau ratted out forty-two cronies and pleaded guilty to forty-three counts of manslaughter. As a result, some two dozen club members and sympathizers went to jail.
By the early 1990s, however, the Hells Angels were on the rebound.
Mom Boucher was a key architect of the biker gang’s renaissance. Born in 1953 in the small Gaspé town of Causapscal, he had two things in common with Vito Rizzuto: he was charismatic and he wielded a natural authority over his men. But the resemblance ended there. Boucher had clashed with his abusive father, a construction worker, from a young age; Rizzuto respected his father and had invited him to build a house next to his. Boucher’s son, Francis, grew up a white supremacist, eventually organizing a neo-Nazi gathering called Aryan Fest 1992; two of Rizzuto’s children became lawyers.
Maurice Boucher attacked his enemies with his head down and thought nothing of having prison guards killed. Vito Rizzuto, as his father had done during his ascension to power in Montreal, preferred tactics more suited to a chess player. Settling disputes over a round of golf or a few drinks was more his style. That didn’t keep him from committing or sanctioning murders, but when he did so it was always in a calculated fashion, never impulsively. Boucher had barely finished eighth grade, and by his late teens was a hard-core substance abuser, ingesting everything from hashish to Valium, speed, coke, heroin and LSD. The drug cocktails rendered him paranoid, to the point that he slept with a .303 calibre rifle. He eventually fell in with what, to him, passed for a family: the SS, a feared street gang that dealt drugs in their home base, Pointe-aux-Trembles, and elsewhere in east-end Montreal. By the time he was thirty years old, Boucher had served lengthy prison terms for armed robbery and sexual assault.
Like many smaller clubs, the SS folded under pressure from the Hells Angels. Some members were assassinated; others turned their lives around. Others went solo. The rest were amalgamated (“patched over,” in biker parlance) into the Hells Angels. Boucher was part of the latter contingent. He decided to quit using drugs: no more destroying his brain cells. And in turn, he followed the credo “healthy mind, healthy body”: he replaced his addiction to substances with workout sessions, spending several hours a day sculpting his physique in the gym. Mom Boucher soon rose to become the leader of the Hells Angels in Montreal.
The leaders of Quebec’s two most powerful criminal organizations were in agreement on one principle: they stood to make far more money by working together than by sparking a war to control the rapidly growing drug trade. Demand for drugs seemed endless. The two kingpins inaugurated their partnership with, among other things, an ambitious venture to bring in massive amounts of cocaine from South America. The bikers would be in charge of transportation, with the Mafia as the principal venture capitalists. Working together, the two outfits plotted to import no less than five thousand kilos of coke in a single operation involving multiple loads. To set it up, Raynald Desjardins—who by then had reached the ten-year mark of his tenure as Rizzuto’s closest criminal associate outside of his family circle—teamed with several outlaw bikers, including Richard Hudon and André Imbeault, two full-patch members of the Hells Angels’ Quebec City chapter.
The RCMP had a mole in place from the beginning, however, and followed every step of the unfolding conspiracy. They learned that Richard Hudon was leaving for South America to negotiate the deal with the suppliers. They also saw Boucher hand over a suitcase, which they suspected held one million dollars—the biker consortium’s share of the purchase price—to Desjardins in an east-end Montreal park. The cocaine left Venezuela by sea early in the summer of 1993. On July 9, Desjardins picked up his cellphone and called Rizzuto, telling him he needed to see him right away. One of the few people who could raise his voice to the boss and get away with it, Desjardins was heard screaming into the phone. Circumspect as usual and aware that the conversation was almost certainly being recorded, Rizzuto answered simply: “Okay, we’ll meet.”
On July 14, four Hells Angels left Marystown, Nova Scotia, on board the Fortune Endeavor, which rendezvoused with a ship in international waters, where 740 kilos of cocaine were transferred. Unbeknownst to them, the skipper was working with the RCMP. The dope was stowed in the Fortune Endeavor’s hold, in waterproof packets hidden inside nine cast-iron sewer pipes, each three metres in length and twenty-five centimetres wide. The lengths of pipe were in turn wrapped in fishing nets. The initial plan was to dump them overboard off the shores of Anticosti, an island at the entrance to the St. Lawrence River. A trawler, the Annick C II, would then locate them using sonar, haul them up and bring them in to port. A crew of divers was ready to assist.
But the Fortune Endeavor ran into mechanical trouble, and the bikers on board had a bad feeling that they were being followed. Their intuition was correct. On August 6, with no choice but to accept a tow from a Coast Guard vessel, they resigned themselves to jettisoning their cargo early, off Sheet Harbour, Nova Scotia. RCMP officers were watching from shore.
Luc Bordeleau, a Hells Angels “prospect” who was also an experienced deep-sea diver, had got his hands on a camera system that would survey the ocean floor, a hundred metres down, and transmit live pictures to a screen on board a boat at the surface. The smugglers never got a chance to put the high-tech gear to use.
Police swooped in at 5 A.M. on August 25, raiding thirty-nine separate addresses in Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador, and arresting nineteen people. Their targets included the Hells Angels’ clubhouses on Taschereau Boulevard in Longueuil, on the South Shore of Montreal, and in a town then known as Saint-Nicolas, across the St. Lawrence from Quebec City. The ground floor of the Saint-Nicolas bunker was so well fortified that members of the RCMP tactical unit had to break a window on the floor above to enter the building.
The police seized four trawlers and a speedboat, as well as an extravagant yacht, the Matthew D., docked at the marina next to the Château Montebello, the “luxury log cabin hotel” near Ottawa where Winston Churchill had once met with Allied leaders during the Second World War. The yacht belonged to Raynald Desjardins. Then aged forty-three, Desjardins was nabbed in his luxury home not far from the “Mafia Row” of Antoine-Berthelet Avenue.
The police weren’t the only ones employing an infiltrator. Just prior to the August 25 arrests, Officer Jean Lord, assigned to the RCMP’S VIP protection section, telephoned Desjardins to tell him he had first-hand information for him, in exchange for a substantial cash payment. Desjardins was convinced it was a trap and, once he was arrested, told the Mounties they had a mole in their midst.
He had hoped that exposing Lord would help him reach a plea deal, but his gambit failed. The officers who interrogated him were eager to get him to spill details on Vito Rizzuto’s involvement in the scheme. But Desjardins wasn’t about to rat out his boss.
“Vito’s my buddy; I’m going to do my time,” he told them coldly. “And when I get out, I’ll go shake his hand.”
The RCMP, incidentally, mounted a sting against the corrupt cop, which involved a double agent baiting him with a kilo of cocaine. Lord was found guilty and received a fourteen-year sentence. “I was fed up with being poor,” he said to the colleagues who collared him. He was a twenty-three-year veteran of the Mounted Police.
After months of searching, the Canadian Navy submersible Pisces IV detected the cocaine-stuffed sewer pipes off Sheet Harbour, perched at the lip of an underwater cliff, fifty-five metres down. On November 14, 1994, the pipes were hauled up onto the deck of the dive support vessel HMCS Cormorant. The 740 kilos of coke would have fetched between $500 and $700 million on the street.
“The removal of Raynald Desjardins, loyal right-hand man to Montreal Mafia chieftain Vito Rizzuto, deals a particularly costly blow to the Italian clan,” commented Staff Sergeant Denis Dumas of the RCMP drug section in Montreal. “He is the key man in the Sicilians’ drug importing and distribution network, both wholesale and retail.”
Desjardins pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a fifteen-year prison term as well as ordered to pay a $150,000 fine. In his ruling, Quebec Court Judge Jean-Pierre Bonin emphasized the severity of the punishment, noting that Desjardins was a high-ranking member of an organized crime network and the orchestrator of the smuggling plot. Luc Bordeleau and several other outlaw bikers were also sent to prison. Neither Mom Boucher nor Vito Rizzuto faced any charges, however.
The start of his long incarceration was apparently rather trying for Desjardins, a man used to celebrating, giving orders and appreciating fine wines in upscale restaurants. Weeks after he began serving his time at the Leclerc Institution, a medium-security facility in Laval, north of Montreal, he was already pegged as a rabble-rouser. An internal inquiry by Correctional Service of Canada found him responsible for violent clashes that broke out between two groups of prisoners. The inquiry determined that Desjardins was at the head of one clan vying for control over the inmate population. Then, he was apparently at the centre of a plot to drug the institution’s employees. His accomplice, Antonio Morello, whose father had been killed at the Castel Tina strip bar, allegedly asked an inmate assigned to kitchen duty to lace the prison staff’s food with phencyclidine (PCP)—a powerful hallucinogenic also known as “crystal” and “angel dust,” among other street names. The inmate refused. The next day, he was found in his cell whacked out on an excessive dose of the drug, too much of which can lead to cardiac arrest. After doctors saved him, he said that another inmate had tried to force him to drug the employees. “This threat resulted in a great deal of concern among personnel,” noted a Correctional Service of Canada officer, clearly a virtuoso when it came to understatement.
In spite of these escapades, Desjardins was treated like a king in prison. He had a computer in his cell, set into a shelving unit custom-built by a cabinetmaker and lit by an attractive lamp “borrowed” from the prison gym. One day, he decided that the running track in the prison courtyard needed refurbishing. He telephoned a building contractor friend of his, then allegedly announced to the prison administrators, “It’s on me.” The next day, the workers showed up with all their gear. While they worked, Desjardins and several Hells Angels chatted with the boss as he sat in his truck.
Some time later, another truck arrived, carrying seafood. A small party was in progress in the prison. “We heard what was going on,” an investigator with the Montreal police told La Presse. “We contacted the prison administration and told them to turn the truck around. Things can only go so far, after all.”
A committee looked into the matter and concluded: “The balance of power has been broken. Influential prisoners with links to organized crime, and their entourage, enjoy conditions of detention exceeding established standards.” The investigation revealed that Hells Angels, members of their affiliated biker gangs and Mafia members easily secured permission to be housed together in the same cell blocks of the prison. They were allowed many more visits than the average inmate, and far more conjugal visits with wives or mistresses, in cabins specially fitted out for privacy. Most of them didn’t eat in the cafeteria and forced other inmates to give up their allotments of food from the prison canteen. The bikers and Mafiosi were given the most interesting jobs—salaried positions in the gym, with the social work department, at the canteen or in the radio room—while other prisoners were stuck with less gratifying tasks in laundry, kitchen and housekeeping services. The committee’s report cited the example of one block at Leclerc where access to the telephone was “controlled by inmates identified with the Hells Angels, to the point that some inmates were unable to make calls.” Members of organized crime groups possessed furniture, clothing and luxury items that were normally forbidden to inmates.
The affair grew into a scandal. Despite denying all the accusations against him, Desjardins was transferred to the high-security Donnacona Institution near Quebec City. He expected to be paroled after serving one-third of his fifteen-year sentence. Unusually, he ended up having to serve two-thirds of the term and was not released until 2004.
Another man fairly high up in the Rizzuto organization, Pierino Divito, had assisted Desjardins in the failed Fortune Endeavor operation, but the police wouldn’t learn of his involvement until they completed another sting a year later. The fifty-six-year-old Divito was a long-standing member of the Montreal mob. He had gone before the CECO inquiry in 1976 and sworn that he did not know Paolo Violi (no one believed him). After the Sicilians sidelined the Calabrians, Divito had joined Emanuele Ragusa’s family. While helping Desjardins bring the 740-kilo load of cocaine into Canada on the Fortune Endeavor, he was simultaneously preparing a scheme of his own to import another load seven times as large.
Divito knew that once he’d persuaded the Colombian sellers that his was a serious offer, buying and moving that much coke would take a small army. He enlisted the services of a middleman with the requisite clout. Pasquale Claudio Locatelli was an Italian crime boss famed at the time for a daring prison escape in France tailor-made for a newspaper headline: “Sprung by helicopter from roof as stunned guards looked on.” He had a fleet of nine sea-going vessels, including a twenty-seven-metre yacht, which he used to run drugs, weapons and all manner of illicit merchandise. One of his ships, the Jadran Express, had been seized in the Adriatic, loaded to the gunnels with Russian arms destined for the Bosnian Serb militias. Locatelli, then aged forty-two, was a key middleman between the Italian Mafia and the Cali drug cartel.
The Pacifico, a ninety-metre freighter registered in Cyprus, was purchased and rechristened Eve Pacific, and it set out for the northernmost point of Venezuela. At a predetermined rendezvous point, Colombian planes flew low and dropped more than five tonnes of cocaine into the water. The cocaine was recovered by some of the fifteen members of Eve Pacific’s multinational crew (which included two women) and stowed in the hold. Jurgen Kirchhoff, the German skipper, then set course for Canada. Once the ship reached the North Atlantic, it was followed by five Lockheed CP-140 Aurora long-distance patrol aircraft from CFB Greenwood, Nova Scotia. Two hundred and fifty kilometres from the Canadian coast, the cargo was transferred onto the Lady Teri-Anne, a thirteen-metre fishing trawler, while some two hundred police officers and Canadian Forces and Coast Guard personnel kept a close eye on the proceedings from shore. As the Eve Pacific came within one hundred kilometres of the coast, the Canadian Navy destroyer HMCS Terra Nova took over for the planes. Kirchhoff and his co-conspirator Raymond Leblanc, an Acadian from Bouctouche, New Brunswick, had no idea they were being tracked.
When the Lady Teri-Anne reached Shelburne, Nova Scotia, on February 22, 1994, they found the roads leading from the docks blocked by five RCMP vehicles. Armed officers rushed the boat and started arresting the smugglers. The coke seized from the hold tipped the scales at 5,419 kilos, a tonne and a half more than the 3,919 kilos found in the Convair at Casey. A new record.
At the same time, HMCS Terra Nova intercepted the Eve Pacific and, with military helicopter support, escorted her to CFB Shearwater, in Halifax. The fifteen crew members, including an unfortunate African passenger who had nothing to do with the smuggling operations, were arrested. Police also collared Pierino Divito, in an unusual location: a hospital bed in Halifax. He’d been admitted the night before, suffering from chest pains. Also caught in the dragnet were Divito’s son Mike, aged twenty-eight, and Raymond Leblanc.
Pasquale Locatelli and his right-hand man, Marc Fiévet—a one-time informer for the customs service of France, who owned a number of shipping companies—were picked up in Spain. Pierino and Mike Divito received lengthy prison sentences. They were also wanted by U.S. authorities on charges of importing cocaine. The Divitos’ lawyer fought the subsequent extradition request in vain.
Some of his troops had fallen on the battlefield, and several thousand tonnes of hashish and cocaine had been lost, but the commander-in-chief, Vito Rizzuto, could still muster plenty of resources. “If sold on the street, the cocaine, hashish, marijuana and heroin seized in Canada in 1993 alone would have earned criminals between $1.5 and $4 billion,” a 1995 Montreal police force document stated. “Amounts seized correspond to about 10 percent of imports,” Pierre Sangollo, director of special investigations, elaborated, “which means drug sales generate earnings of approximately $30 billion a year for organized crime, mostly in Quebec: money that leaves the country, or disrupts economic structures here at home.”
Data compiled by the Montreal police pointed to Quebec criminal networks as the primary customers for around 90 percent of the cocaine and hashish seized in Canada since 1988. “The leaders of the Sicilian Mafia in Canada are in Montreal,” Sangollo added. “The Mafia has built alliances with other groups, such as the Hells Angels, and is behind massive importations of narcotics for the entire country … Quebecers should be aware of the power and impact of organized crime. The underground economy is one reason why governments are in debt.”