VANCOUVER – A trial in Vancouver that has offered an unprecedented look inside the Vancouver area’s street gangs is drawing to a close with final submissions beginning Wednesday, nearly seven years after a mass killing that has come to epitomize the region’s violent underground drug trade.
Six people were found shot to death in a highrise condo unit in Surrey, south of Vancouver, in October 2007 in what was immediately labelled a gang-related shooting.
But two of the victims were innocent men who had no connection to gangs or drugs: fireplace repairman Ed Schellenberg, 55, and building resident Chris Mohan, 22, who both found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The mass execution — which local news media refer simply as the “Surrey Six” — stood apart even from a violent gang war that saw almost daily shootings and dozens of murders.
Cody Haevischer and Matthew Johnston are each charged with conspiracy and six counts of first-degree murder.
The trial has focused on a gang known as the Red Scorpions, which the Crown alleges was behind the slayings. Prosecutors contend that two of the gang’s leaders ordered the killing of a rival drug trafficker and five more victims were killed to avoid witnesses.
The case has featured the testimony of several former gang members who became Crown witnesses, including one of the founders of the Red Scorpions, Michael Le, who was on trial but entered a surprise guilty plea last year.
The trial heard of the Red Scorpions’ growth and expansion into communities throughout the Lower Mainland, where the gang would use violence to target its enemies.
But much has changed since October 2007, both in terms of the gangs that now control the region’s drug trade and how the police target them.
For one, the Red Scorpions’ influence is pretty much non-existent, says Det. Const Doug Spencer, a former member of the Vancouver police gang unit and now an officer with the region’s transit police.
Nearly all of the Red Scorpions’ leaders are either in jail or dead.
“Their influence is pretty much wiped out,” said Spencer.
“There are still guys at the very low end of the food chain in that gang that are trying to live off the reputation, but they’re just not criminally savvy.”
Another accused in the Surrey killings is former Red Scorpions leader Jamie Bacon, who is in jail awaiting trial for conspiracy and one count of murder.
Bacon’s two brothers were also widely reported to be involved in the Red Scorpions, but Jonathan was gunned down in Kelowna in August 2011 and Jarrod is in prison for his part in a drug conspiracy.
This past January, media reports said Matthew Campbell, who was stabbed to death in a parking lot in Abbotsford, was the leader of the gang.
Spencer says other groups filled in the void, including the Dhak-Duhre group, named after Gurmit Dhak, his brother Sukh Dhak, and Sandip (Dip) Duhre — both of whom have since been murdered.
The number of murders have declined since the height of the gang war in 2009, but Spencer said there has still been a steady series of shootings and murders, particularly following Gurmit Dhak’s killing in 2010.
Spencer said it can be difficult to develop a full picture of the region’s gangs, as members bounce from one gang to another and the gangs themselves regularly form and change alliances.
“It’s hard for the police to figure out who’s on whose side,” said Spencer.
“I’ve known all these guys for 20 years, and it’s very difficult for me to chart out who’s with who and who’s against who.”
Sgt. Lindsey Houghton of the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit — an integrated agency with hundreds of officers across B.C., said gang killings have subsided somewhat.
In 2009, there were 36 gang killings across the province, he said. That fell to 18 the following year and has been between nine and 18 in the years since.
So far this year, there have been three.
“We’re on pace for an all-time record low,” said Houghton.
“But we can’t become complacent when it comes to gang violence. It’s still there and it always will be.”
Houghton offered a number of possible explanations.
He said the police have become more adept at working together and sharing information, and they’re now using technology to monitor gang members and to analyze data about their activities.
He also said the gangs themselves have been changing.
“What we’re seeing now is that the right people are in jail, certain people are being killed, and some people have moved away or left,” he said.
“The people who are involved in this are aware that the police are far more proactive than we used to be. … And we have relationships with the people that are involved in that world, because most of them don’t want to get shot and killed, either.”
However, Robert Gordon, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University, says police have been unable to address the root problem: the illegal drug use that drives the gangs and, consequently, the violence.
Gordon suggests that might be solved by politicians, rather than the police.
As jurisdictions such as Washington state — until now a big market for B.C. marijuana — move to legalization, and as the medical marijuana industry grows in Canada, he says there will be a smaller drug trade for the gangs to control.
And he says that may already be starting to happen.
“I think they (the police) realize that,” said Gordon.
“Not immediately, but in the short term and especially in the long term you will see a removal of the violence associated with the illegal operations. … The landscape is going to be very different in five years’ time.”