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Extortion probe expanded to include west Edmonton fire that destroyed home, damaged 9

Click to play video: 'Extortion probe expanded to include west Edmonton fire that destroyed home, damaged 9'
Extortion probe expanded to include west Edmonton fire that destroyed home, damaged 9
With two additional suburban Edmonton neighbourhoods waking up to homes under construction burning, police are now linking one of the fires in the west end neighbourhood of Secord to a string of alleged extortion arsons. Sarah Ryan reports – Jan 8, 2024

The investigation into instances of alleged extortion against members of Edmonton’s South Asian business community grew Monday, when a west end house fire left 10 properties damaged.

A home under construction went up in flames overnight, leading to surrounding homes being damaged in the neighbourhood of Secord on Monday morning.

Tadiwa Nleya and her family have lived in the west Edmonton area for about four years and said her family saw the house go up in flames.

“Around 2 a.m., my parents heard two bangs that were really loud,” Nleya said.

She said they were concerned but shrugged it off and went to sleep — but her brother was still up when the fire was noticed a couple of hours later.

“The entire back of our house turned orange, and he felt he on his face. And then that’s when he looked out the window and saw the fire and woke us all up,” Nleya said.

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An official with Edmonton Fire Rescue Services said firefighters were called to a blaze on 225A Street near 98th Avenue in the Second neighbourhood just after 4 a.m.

A home at 9805 225A Street in west Edmonton’s Secord neighbourhood was destroyed by fire on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024. Global News

The home had a “for sale” sign in front of it. Fire crews said the home being built did not yet have drywall installed inside and siding was in the process of going up outside, and that contributed to the intensity of the fire.

“There’s no real way to keep the heat to the room of origin or to the home itself,” said Edmonton Fire Rescue district chief Darren Stolk.

“It’s kind of like a matchstick with it being on the inside, so it goes up very fast. Hard to stop, hard to control.”

Click to play video: 'Fire breaks out at home under construction on Edmonton’s western outskirts'
Fire breaks out at home under construction on Edmonton’s western outskirts

While there were no homes directly adjacent to the home that caught fire, some houses on the surrounding streets sustained melted siding.

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“The sheer amount of heat from that amount of fire will cause all this damage to all the homes around it so easily,” Stolk said.

In total, nine surrounding homes were affected. Nleya’s house was one of the properties damaged by the heat, which she said melted their siding.

“We are covered by insurance, but we still have to pay quite a bit. So frustrating, but we’re glad that we’re safe,” she said.

No injuries were reported.

Click to play video: 'Fires destroy under-construction homes in Edmonton suburbs'
Fires destroy under-construction homes in Edmonton suburbs

As of 7:30 a.m., most firefighters had left the scene but some remained to watch for hot spots flaring up.

Later in the morning, an excavator was brought to the scene and the charred remains of the house torn down.

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A home at 9805 225A Street in west Edmonton’s Secord neighbourhood was destroyed by fire on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024. Global News

The Edmonton Police Service confirmed investigators believe the fire in Secord is related to a series of extortion arsons that have happened across Edmonton in the past three months.

Area residents told Global News they were asked by Edmonton Police Service members to check their doorbell and security camera footage.

The home in the west end is now the ninth home police believe was deliberately set ablaze since November 2023, however more properties have been damaged as the flames have spread.

Last week, Edmonton police said members of the South Asian business community are being threatened for money in exchange for “protection” and officials have said failure to pay out has resulted in arsons and drive-by shootings.

In total, the following fires have been confirmed by police to be linked:

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  • Nov. 6 and Nov. 12: Fires in the Aster neighbourhood (SE Edmonton) near 16 Avenue and 12 Street (two separate addresses on that same block)
  • Nov. 30: Laurel neighbourhood (SE Edmonton): 25 Street/14 A Avenue
  • Dec. 16: Cy Becker neighbourhood (NE Edmonton): 176 Avenue/49 Street
  • Dec. 19: Cy Becker neighbourhood (NE Edmonton): 49 Street/174 Avenue
  • Dec. 29: Edgemont area (W Edmonton): Esaiw Place
  • Dec. 31: Aster neighbourhood (SE Edmonton): 16 Avenue/12 Street
  • Jan. 7: Secord neighbourhood (W Edmonton): 225A Street near 98 Avenue
Click to play video: 'Edmonton police investigating arsons, shooting as part of extortion targeting South Asian community'
Edmonton police investigating arsons, shooting as part of extortion targeting South Asian community

Cases of such crimes are being investigated not just in Edmonton, but also in Ontario and in B.C.’s Lower Mainland.

Investigators say the tactics being used in Canada are commonly employed by organized crime groups in the Indian state of Punjab.

Police in Surrey and Abbotsford issued public warnings in November after business owners began to receive threatening letters.

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Global News obtained a copy of one of the letters, which claimed to be from an “Indian gang” and demanded $2 million in “protection money” or the recipient would face retaliation.

Abbotsford police said it was investigating the leak of a police “Law Enforcement Only” bulletin that said investigators were looking into an “ongoing extortion” believed to be tied to two shootings at the homes of victims and an arson case.

Click to play video: 'RCMP detail extortion investigations in Surrey'
RCMP detail extortion investigations in Surrey

It said the suspects are believed to be tied to a gang based in India headed by a man named Lawrence Bishnoi, and the scheme targets “affluent members of the South Asian community.”

The bulletin said the Hindi-speaking suspects use the messaging service WhatsApp to contact victims and threaten violence after “demanding large quantities of currency.”

In some cases, police said the suspects appear to have detailed knowledge of the victim’s personal information, such as family members, vehicles and lifestyle patterns.

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If the victims don’t pay up, their properties get torched — or worse. Edmonton police said the suspects have been known to make follow-up demands for higher sums of money, “leading to an escalation of violence and drive-by shootings.”

One such shooting happened October in the southeast Edmonton neighbourhood of Laurel. 

Police have charged six young men and a youth in connection with arsons and shootings, but are searching for more suspects.

Click to play video: 'Extortion threats leave South Asian communities shaken in Edmonton, B.C., Ontario'
Extortion threats leave South Asian communities shaken in Edmonton, B.C., Ontario

Another fire also happened at a house under construction in south Edmonton’s Allard neighbourhood on Sunday morning. Police said that blaze is still being looked into by fire investigators and as of Monday evening, the cause had not yet been determined.

— With files from Phil Heidenreich, Global News and Darryl Greer, The Canadian Press

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