It was Labour Day weekend and Rivière-des-Prairies resident Roberto Molinaro was out enjoying the waning days of summer with his neighbours as their kids played in the street.
“We were having a barbecue outside, it was a Saturday night around 7 o’clock,” Molinaro told Global News.
“It was like a really fun night,” said 10-year-old Gianni Sasso, one of the children who was attending the gathering.
They say their block party took a serious turn when an unwanted visitor showed up and started taking photos of the party.
“The car stopped like right there and started taking pictures of us,” said Molinaro’s 10-year-old daughter Valentina.
Molinaro ran to the photographer to demand an explanation.
“I tell him, ‘What are you doing here?’ He says, ‘nothing, nothing.’ He speeds off and a laptop is open in his car,” Molinaro said.
The residents say the man showed up again a few hours later.
“We went up to the car, he peeled off with all the kids around, he blew a stop sign,” said neighbour Michael Muldoon.
“We definitely thought it was a pedophile,” said Molinaro.
A few residents went to the police with the licence plate number. They say the officers took the case seriously and started an investigation right away.
As the police investigated, the neighbourhood was in a panic.
“We put cameras on our houses, kids were warned not to talk to anybody at the bus stop,” said Molinaro.
His sister Nadia, who lives a few doors down, said she wouldn’t let her children play outside without supervision.
“We were really, really, really, really, really scared,” said Valentina.
This went on for two months, until this week when Molinaro got an email from police and the culprit was revealed.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, it can’t be,'” he said.
“I was in shock. I was like, seriously?” said his sister.
Sanimax had been taking the photos. The company’s facility a few hundred metres from their homes re-purposes animal byproducts.
“We’re under the watchful eye of a corporation that wants to make profit,” said a frustrated Muldoon.
“It makes no sense that there is surveillance on private citizens,” said RDP resident Theo Vecera, who has publicly denounced the company on numerous occasions.
Residents have been complaining about Sanimax for years. An accidental spill of animal parts in the middle of a busy street infuriated residents in 2018. The stench that sometimes wafts over the area from the Sanimax facility has been a consistent nuisance for people in the area.
“Sometimes it’s really, really bad,” said Valentina.
The police forwarded Molinaro a letter sent to them by a Sanimax lawyer.
In the letter, the company admitted to sending an employee in an unmarked vehicle to take photos. They said after receiving numerous complaints over the summer, they wanted to send someone to validate them and preserve the residents’ quality of life.
“What else are they doing that we don’t know about?” wondered Molinaro. “That’s the scary part.”
Police closed the case, saying nothing criminal had been done.
“The intention was laudable and in order to properly manage the complaint odour process, to assess the situation and to continue to preserve the quality of life of citizens,” Eric Caputo, Sanimax Montreal’s general manager, told Global News. “If Sanimax’s intentions have been misinterpreted, we are truly sorry. We will review our monitoring process for next summer to prevent this type of situation from happening again.”
RDP borough councillor Lisa Christensen called the initiative “unsettling.”
“If this individual’s job is to reach out to the community, be a liaison, make things better, I don’t think this was the best approach,” she told Global News.
She encouraged residents to continue calling to complain about Sanimax on a hotline that was set up in the summer. She said 100 complaints were logged in recent months.
Sanimax told Global News the photos will not be shared or broadcast anywhere.
RDP residents say they wish the company would just pick up and move somewhere else, but Sanimax has said repeatedly it’s in the area to stay.