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Charges stayed in massive drug case marred by Victoria police misconduct

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Drug charges have been stayed against three men who Victoria’s police chief once described as being “at the top of the fentanyl trafficking pyramid in British Columbia.” The investigation that led to their arrest and a $30-million seizure of drugs, guns and cash is stained by police misconduct.

Court records obtained by CTV News point to alleged misconduct by Victoria police officers who handled the investigation, dubbed Project Juliet.

On May 6, 2020, VicPD’s Strike Force team – an undercover unit focused on drugs and firearms – began investigating an organized crime group they believed was trafficking fentanyl.

At that time, one of the Strike Force officers, now-retired Const. Robb Ferris, was under criminal investigation by the RCMP’s anti-corruption unit for breach of trust and obstruction of justice.

“Despite that, Mr. Ferris was permitted to participate in the investigation on a ‘business as usual’ fashion, so as to not alert him to the fact that he was under investigation,” B.C. Supreme Court Justice Catherine Murray wrote in her decision.

The decision is in response to one of the accused’s applications to access information regarding VicPD’s decision to allow the “disgraced” officer to participate in the investigation.

Ferris helped with surveillance and handling an informant. In mid-June of 2020, he was arrested by the RCMP.

While he was never criminally charged, court records indicate that a “discipline authority” found that 19 claims of misconduct by Ferris under the Police Act “appeared to be substantiated.”

The “substantiations of misconduct” include divulging details of investigations and covert operations to family members and a civilian.

Following Ferris’s arrest, VicPD suspended the officer and dropped all ongoing investigations he was involved in, including the fentanyl trafficking probe.

Days later, VicPD picked it back up under a new file number.

'Investigators misled the Crown'

Save for Ferris, all of the same VicPD officers were involved in the renewed investigation, Project Juliet, Murray wrote.

“Investigators appreciated that the arrest of Mr. Ferris and the allegations against him were serious, and that it was unlikely that any prosecution that relied on Mr. Ferris's evidence would be able to proceed,” Murray said.

“In an effort to distance the investigation from Mr. Ferris, the investigators decided that they would not use any information learned from the first investigation and would re-learn anything that they had learned before.”

The investigation eventually expanded into a joint operation with B.C.’s Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit in Surrey, culminating in the arrest of three men, Vu Bao Nguyen, Bryan Balla, and Brent Van Buskirk on Nov. 17, 2020.

"When we talk about the scope of this project, this is the top of the fentanyl trafficking pyramid in British Columbia," Victoria police Chief Del Manak said in a news release a month later.

A report disclosed to Van Buskirk following his arrest states the investigation began in June 2020, Murray wrote.

“Nowhere in the 347-page [report to Crown counsel] is there reference to any investigative steps taken by VicPD prior to June 23, 2020. Nor does it mention Mr. Ferris’s misconduct,” she said.

The initial investigation came to light after a defence lawyer, “scrupulously reviewing disclosure, noticed a report date in one of the tasks of April 20, 2020. This stuck out as all material that had been disclosed commenced on June 23, 2020,” Murray wrote.

VicPD’s lead investigator said it was an “admin oversight,” Murray said, but defence counsel continued to probe.

By the end of 2022, Crown counsel learned about the first investigation involving Ferris and that search warrants had been obtained during that investigation, despite officers swearing otherwise.

"Not only did police not mention the first investigation [that Ferris participated in], they obscured it," Murray wrote.

“Investigators misled the Crown, defence and the justices that issued authorizations and warrants into believing that the investigation commenced in June 2020.”

Charges stayed

On Feb. 17, 2023, prosecutors stayed all drug and weapons charges against Nguyen and Balla. Charges against Van Buskirk were stayed on Jan. 19.

“No reasons for the stay were provided on the record,” the Public Prosecution Service of Canada said in an email to CTV News.

A stay of charges halts legal proceedings, but can be lifted later to resume the court process.

CTV News is awaiting comment from VicPD.

The Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner tasked the Delta Police Department with investigating the lead officer on Project Juliet for allegations of discreditable conduct and neglect of duty. Murray’s decision shows the investigation began last September.

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