Undercover in Vancouver

By Mike Howell-staff writer

Viewers who tuned in to the national news on Jan. 24 witnessed disturbing images of thieves beating two elderly men in a Downtown Eastside alley.

One man was knocked senseless by a forearm smash to the head, leaving him to fall hard to the ground. The other man was stumbling and attempting to stop blood from spurting over his face and clothes.

The thieves quickly picked through their victims’ pockets, looking for cash and valuables. Unfortunately, there was no audio to the amateur footage captured by the person who filmed the violence.

But Vancouver police Const. Al Arsenault has no doubt the victims were told they would be beaten again or killed, if they reported the attacks.

Arsenault should know, since he sat in those alleys over two nights and was robbed by some of the same thieves.

Employing a technique not commonly used by police, Arsenault volunteered to be a decoy, a piece of human bait. The 52-year-old fit martial arts expert changed his appearance and acted like an injured old man with a mental illness.

It took less than 45 minutes to be robbed on both nights. Thieves used knives, razor blades and scissors to cut Arsenault’s bag from around his neck. He pretended to be asleep, while his cover team of officers kept watch.

“One guy was so close to me, I could smell the crack [cocaine] on his breath. I was thinking, ‘What if the guy decides to slit my throat?’ My heart was pumping pretty fast.”

Arsenault survived unscathed, and chalked up the project as a “calculated risk.” The job though doesn’t exactly have a waiting list of officers willing to take that risk.

Undercover work-whether it be posing as a decoy or infiltrating an organized crime group-is dangerous, stressful and can lead to strained relationships with partners and families.

In the case of Vancouver RCMP Cpl. Derek Flanagan, it led to his death in Thailand in 1989. The 35-year-old father of three children fell from the box of a pickup truck during a struggle with a heroin dealer.

Yet, undercover work continues to be done by police all over the world, including by a veteran RCMP officer who agreed to share anecdotes for this story as long as his name and current project aren’t revealed.

RCMP Insp. Bill Majcher, who spent 13 years undercover, can only now talk about some of his secretive projects, including his last one that ended in Florida in 2002.

After more than two years posing as a frontman for a Colombian drug cartel, Majcher and his cover team snared the “Lex Luthor” of Canadian crime, Martin Chambers, in a money laundering probe.

Despite the risks, Majcher and his police colleagues say undercover work is necessary to catch bad guys who otherwise couldn’t be caught.

“A lot of [criminals] know how the law works, and they know how they can protect themselves by using the law. In many cases, it seems we have all the rules and no money, and they have all the money and no rules.”

When Arsenault took to the alleys in January, it fulfilled a desire he had as a rookie more than 20 years ago.

At the time, he heard about fellow officers lying on benches in the Downtown Eastside, pretending to be drunk and flashing money to lure thieves.

“If memory serves, there were some hairy situations, but I knew it was something I wanted to try some day. It would be a test for me to see how good I would be at something like that.”

Project Oldtimer, as it was called, was hatched by Arsenault and partner Sgt. Toby Hinton. Using a decoy, they believed, was the only way to catch the thieves.

Arsenault volunteered knowing a team of officers would be hiding in nearby businesses and watching him from a distance. His cover team would also be talking to him through a receiver in his ear.

A make-up artist spent two hours transforming Arsenault into an old man. Once he dressed in bulky clothing-his protective vest underneath-and put on a helmet, he became that old man (pictured on the front page of this newspaper).

The helmet concealed a camera, which filmed the half dozen criminals who robbed Arsenault. The helmet helped complete the look of a senior on a motorized scooter.

During the project, Arsenault ditched the scooter, but kept the helmet on. “The helmet was more for in case they decided to pipe me over the head. I’m willing to take a shot, but losing some teeth is one thing, sipping cream of beef soup for the rest of my life is another.”

When he was robbed, he was lying in alcoves in the south alley of Hastings, between Abbott and Main streets. Five men and one woman, all in their 20s, were charged with robbery.

“Not everybody wants to do this work,” he says. “But if anybody should do it, it should be me because I’ve got the most experience on the street. I know what the street feels like and sounds like and looks like-and I’m a pretty good actor.”

Arsenault is a long-time Downtown Eastside cop. His connection to the community’s residents allowed him and Hinton to film Through a Blue Lens, a documentary that chronicles the lives of drug addicts.

Arsenault also has black belts in karate, judo and in san shou dao, a Chinese martial art. But he is quick to point out that self-defence is only required if an undercover operation goes awry.

How the officer acts and what he says are key factors in gaining the trust of bad guys, he says, recalling a robbery case in June 1991 where he was placed in a cell with a suspect. Arsenault’s job was to befriend the suspect in an attempt to find out the identity of two other robbers who held up Nick’s Spaghetti House on Commercial Drive.

At the time, Arsenault had shoulder-length hair, was scruffy-looking and not as well-known on the street as he is today. It was one of his first undercover gigs.

“He was a man who was small in stature, but big in talk. So I just oohed and aahed at his stories of crime. I pretended to be all impressed by his actions on the street. Eventually, he told me who the other people were and they went to jail.”

In another cell mate case in February 1992, he befriended a man suspected of killing six Chilean flamingos in Stanley Park. Jason Laberge, also known as the “Flamingo Killer,” was sentenced to eight months in jail and fined $9,000.

“He told me everything in detail, he really blabbed his guts out.”

Arsenault is proud of his undercover work, but doesn’t put himself in the same league as officers who spend months and years on projects. He’s never been trained to do that.

“I’m a lightweight when it comes to the undercover operators thing because I didn’t do a lot of it. Some of these other guys make it their career. I never chose to do that.”

For 13 years, Bill Majcher chose that life.

It began in the same alleys Arsenault has worked for years.

As a 26-year-old RCMP constable, Majcher spent four months in 1990 posing as a drug addict to buy heroin from dealers in the Downtown Eastside.

With a thin build, a full beard and long hair, he looked the part. At the time, the RCMP and Vancouver police had an amalgamated drug squad, allowing constables like Majcher to get a first-hand feel of drug work in the city.

“I really got my eyes opened to the realities and the dangers of policing in the Downtown Eastside. I look back and I think a lot of the foundation for my undercover career was developed working with the Vancouver police.”

Dubbed Project Norway, Majcher worked long hours buying heroin from dozens of dealers. His act seemed to work, although one dealer believed Majcher might be a police informant and sucker punched him as he walked out of the Columbia Hotel.

His cover team was about to move in, but Majcher shoved the dealer and shouted at him until they both carried on down the street.

“I just bought heroin in the Columbia, and I walk out into a fist. It could have easily been a bat or a knife. When you’re dealing with that culture, the dealers are fairly low end, but the work is high-risk because the people who live in that environment live by the sword and die by the sword.”

Majcher’s other life at the time was in Richmond, where he had just been elected as a school trustee. A community-minded man, who coached hockey and baseball, he became a politician on the encouragement of a parent.

During Project Norway, he would attend meetings in a beard and long hair, then go to the Downtown Eastside to buy heroin. The job of a politician and undercover officer quickly became incompatible, leading to his resignation from the school board in 1991.

“A lot of people put a lot of effort and time into making these projects go, and I didn’t want to be the Achilles heel that exposed myself or the project,” he says, noting school board meetings were televised on community cable.

The success of Project Norway, which led to the arrests of 120 people, was the beginning of a bright future for Majcher. His skills would see him work undercover in more drug cases, homicide investigations and dangerous organized crime probes.

His work has taken him across the country, into the United States, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. His longest case lasted almost three years and involved a Colombian drug cartel.

He wouldn’t elaborate, but says the experience gave him the background and confidence to pose as a frontman for a Colombian drug cartel in the ensuing money laundering probe that landed former Vancouver lawyer Martin Chambers in jail.

Majcher’s success hasn’t come without sacrifice. Like Arsenault, the 42-year-old has never been married, but was in serious relationships for most of his undercover career. Those relationships are over.

“You could be gone for months, and then you come home for a weekend and you know you’ve been living under a lot of stress and pressure, so you’re maybe not the best partner when you do get home.”

Majcher likens the job of an undercover officer to a working police dog.

“The dog is happiest when it’s working, it’s happiest when it’s following a scent. When I’d be gone for two or three months and then be home for the weekend, I was like that working dog. I wanted to get back on the scent.”

He adds, “the true unsung heroes of this lifestyle really are the family members because you leave them behind many times.”

In the Chambers case, Majcher worked in Miami off and on for more than two years. To relieve tension, he would take long walks and read to keep his body and mind sharp.

The RCMP has a set of “checks and balances,” including psychological testing to scrutinize undercover officers’ behaviour. Despite the roles he played, Majcher says he never lost sight of who he was or his job.

“At all times, I knew I was a police officer. At all times, I knew this person wasn’t my friend, but a criminal.”

That thought was certainly on Majcher’s mind when he was grilled by Chambers and his associates in a hotel room. The meeting wasn’t planned, leaving Majcher without his cover team.

“My initial thought was, ‘If things go bad, how do I get out of here?’ Then I just fell back on my training, my experience. I’ve always found once I start talking, and get into a rhythm, I can deal with it.”

In another close call, an FBI agent posing as the captain of a yacht told Majcher that “you Canadian guys don’t know how to drink.” Chambers and his associates thought Majcher was American.

“All of a sudden they’re looking at me, demanding an explanation. And here we are with $200,000 cash and a money counter on the table, and then I’ve got to start quickly talking about what he meant by that.”

Majcher talked himself out of that situation, too. He told them his father was in the military, that Majcher was born in Canada, but grew up in America.

His stories paid off.

Chambers, whom police say agreed to launder up to $26 million US per year, was sentenced in December 2003 to 15 years and eight months in jail.

It was the last undercover operation for Majcher, who is now the RCMP’s inspector in charge of the Integrated Market Enforcement Team. From his 22nd floor office at Homer and Georgia, Majcher has a view of the same streets where his undercover career began.

“I miss it, but sometimes you have to give up what you love doing to take advantage of new opportunities.”

Jack Burns-not his real name-is still heavily engaged in undercover work for the RCMP.

A Mountie for more than 25 years, he’s spent a good portion of his career tricking bad guys in Canada, the United States, Southeast Asia and China. It’s a role he thrives on, having infiltrated drug smuggling syndicates and motorcycle gangs.

As with Arsenault and Majcher, he finds the work gripping. Each encounter with a bad guy is a true test of an officer’s intelligence.

“My first instinct is to think like a bad guy,” says Burns in an email dispatch from his current post. “I am truthful, respectful with targets. Gaining trust is the first and foremost thing.”

He cites one case in Manitoba where he bought marijuana from a big-time dealer at his house. The dealer was trying to fix his son’s mountain bike, but didn’t have a clue what to do. Burns took the tools out of his hands and fixed the bike.

“I can remember him shrugging his shoulders, not saying much, but he did say thanks.”

On the day of the arrest, the dealer was shocked when he learned Burns’ true identity. The evidence Burns collected during the operation put the dealer in prison for three years.

“In court, I kind of felt bad because he had his son and wife and the rest of the clan there.”

Even so, Burns says he’s never been worried about his safety.

“I’ve had problems sleeping at times, but it is from excitement. Most bad guys don’t like you, but they respect you for what you did. They usually take it in stride.”

Burns’ undercover career began in Portage La Prairie, Man. in 1981. For four months, he worked as a pizza delivery driver and bought drugs while delivering pizza to dealers.

His work led to 64 charges, with bigger players in Winnipeg and in the northern United States all identified in the probe.

That success led Burns to larger investigations, including befriending a motorcycle gang.

He lived through several close calls during the probe, including an incident where a fight broke out in a bar between bikers’ girlfriends. Burns’ table was knocked over, sending his jacket-equipped with a monitoring device-out of his reach.

“I knew my cover team was listening and I didn’t want them coming through the door and getting the wrong impression, so my mind was racing on how quickly I could notify them. I then moved back from the table as the two women were all over the table, and kicked my jacket to a safe place. When I picked it up, I said something to the effect about the women fighting to give the cover team a signal I was OK.”

In another incident, a bar maid close to the bikers took a liking to Burns. She approached him one day and said she had a dream that he was a cop.

“My cover team took precautions and I laughed it off. Although squirming inside, it turned out she really did have a dream and was not trying to find something out.”

When at home in the Lower Mainland, Burns lies low and says his neighbours know not to ask about his projects until he tells them he’s finished.

Divorced with a 27-year-old daughter, Burns prefers the single life-a common trait, it seems, among the officers interviewed for this story.

Still, his mother worries about him.

“But she gets over it, she knows I like the challenge and the excitement. I really don’t give too many details to people unless I really trust them not to say anything until the job is done. Therefore, the few people that know, not many can be affected.”

Fiona Flanagan knew a lot about what her late husband Derek Flanagan did as an undercover RCMP officer.

He never kept it a secret, often phoning from various locations and checking on his family.

“If you watch some of the police shows on TV, you would think that nobody knows what their husband does and they don’t know what they’re doing. I knew everything.”

She also knew that marrying a police officer who did undercover work would mean to expect the unexpected and to “go with the flow.” Working as a civilian with the RCMP also helped.

“You have be a certain type of person. If you were really into schedules and you didn’t like people to change things, then you’re probably not going to like being married to somebody who does undercover work.”

The night before Flanagan died in Thailand, Fiona was working as a radio operator with the Richmond RCMP. She had just finished a 12-hour shift when he called.

“‘You’re telling me that you’ve just had a nice beer, and I’ve got two screaming kids here, so I don’t really want to hear about it.’ That was sort of my last conversation with him.”

Flanagan was an undercover officer in Operation Deception. He was in Chiang Mai, Thailand setting up a deal to buy five kilograms of heroin when he died Feb. 20, 1989.

Sitting in the back of the heroin dealers’ pickup truck, he tested the drug and signaled to his cover team that it was genuine. But before officers reached the truck, the driver took off, leaving Flanagan to struggle with one of the dealers.

The six-foot-three, 220-pound Flanagan was either pushed or fell from the truck, hit his head on the ground and broke his neck. He was on life support for most of the night until Fiona instructed doctors to take him off.

“I thought if he was going to die on the job, he would go down in a blaze of glory-that it would be something more dramatic in a sense. Overall, it was dramatic, but everybody said he was the biggest, strongest guy we knew. There’s no way he could fall off a truck like that and be dead.”

At the time, his son Geordie was 18 months old, and his other son Chris was four years old. He also had an 10-year-old daughter, Patti, from a previous marriage.

Fiona recalls breaking the news to Chris.

“The RCMP had a psychiatrist [at the apartment], and asked how I talked to my kids. I said I just kind of say it, so he said then just say it. So, I took Chris upstairs and I said ‘Your dad is dead and he’s not coming back.’ It was pretty simple, actually. He cried and then asked if there was any food, and I said, ‘Oh, there’s all kinds of food.'”

Chris is now 20, and wrote his RCMP entrance exam last Saturday. If he gets accepted, and chooses to pursue an undercover career, his mother is all for it.

“How can you tell somebody not to do what they want to do?”

Her brother and nephew are members of the Vancouver police department, and she continues to work as a civilian with the RCMP’s major crime section.

She’s been around policing since leaving high school. She loves the camaraderie, the adrenaline and people the profession attracts.

Her life though isn’t the same without the man who enjoyed hiking the Lions, listening to Lou Reed and playing hockey with his kids.

“My husband was doing what he loved to do. He wanted to make things better for people-stop the flow of drugs, put away criminals, that kind of thing. But he absolutely expected to come home at the end of his shift, too.”



Source: Vancouver Courier.Com March 28th 2005

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