Crime & Punishment
June 1, 2009
In the 25 years since she got her master’s of journalism from the University of Western Ontario and joined the Vancouver Sun, Kim Bolan has established herself as one of the most dogged, fearless, and connected investigative reporters in the country. She made her reputation with her coverage of the Air India bombing; in recent years she’s focused on organized crime. Her daily reporting, feature stories, and blog postings are closely read by law enforcement officials as well as gangsters themselves.
Q: Why has gang violence in the Lower Mainland escalated over the past six or eight months?
A: Actually, it’s been escalating over the last three or four years. There’s been a record number of murders; the situation just wasn’t getting intense media coverage. Then, in 2007, we had the Surrey Six slaughter, which got national attention and, I think, really galvanized public opinion. My understanding from sources is that the Red Scorpion gang from Abbotsford had planned to kill this one dealer, Cory Lal, at the Balmoral Tower, and five other people happened to be there. Lal was a drug trafficker in Surrey Central, and the Red Scorpions were taking over the lucrative drug business there. Lal was trafficking in their territory and he wasn’t paying tax to them—that’s why he was targeted. After the murders, Lal’s family found a safety deposit box with $50,000 cash in his name. Where does a 21-year-old with no job get $50,000?
Q: But three or four years ago we didn’t have people shooting each other in mall parking lots in the middle of the day.
A: More and more young people are getting involved in gangs, trying to make their mark. The quickest way you do that is through violence, hiring yourself out for very little money—I’ve heard of hits being done for as little as a few thousand dollars. These people are young, they’re guys, they have that fearless risk-taking spirit that might have made them great mountain climbers or snowboarders, if that’s what they’d chosen. They’re drawn to the money, the access to drugs, the young women attracted to that scene. Brutality is how you get recognized by the higher-ups.
Q: Are there external factors that brought all this to the boil?
A: Much of the product comes from other places, and the price of cocaine has gone up hugely because of the cartel wars in Mexico. There are more rip-offs, and rip-offs are always violent. Also, a lot of these young guys are using the product, unlike drug traffickers in the past. In the case of the Surrey Six, the Red Scorpion member who pled guilty, Dennis Karbovanec, was addicted to OxyContin, which is really common. He’d been earning his living in the drug trade since high school. Here’s a guy in his 20s who’s grown up in a video-game culture, he’s totally numbed-out, and he goes in there on a mission to kill someone.
Q: A couple of years ago no one had heard of the Red Scorpion gang, or the Bacon brothers. Now it seems they’re in the papers every week.
A: They’ve been wreaking havoc in Abbotsford, where they started, for a decade. They were well known to police across the Lower Mainland long before they hit the headlines. The Red Scorpions brought a whole new level of brutality to the drug business, and that’s pissed off the more senior organized criminals because it brings heat on all of them. Not that you didn’t kill people before, but you killed them for good cause. The Red Scorpions simply point guns at dealers’ heads, take their cellphones, and say, “You work for us now.” They’ve taken on the Hells Angels, they’ve taken on the UN gang. In jail, they threaten people with death. Everyone’s afraid of them, everyone hates them, and there’s a sort of coalition of other criminals who want to get rid of them. That’s what much of this gang warfare is about.
Q: Where are the Bacons’ parents in all this?
A: The Bacon parents live on a cul-de-sac in one of the nicest neighbourhoods in Abbotsford, overlooking the mountain. The dad works for the Abbotsford school board as a special-needs aide, the mother’s an executive at one of the credit unions. They seem like typical middle-class folks. How do you raise and tolerate sons like that? They haven’t been linked to any crimes or charged with anything themselves, but we’re talking about a different set of values, that’s for sure. They’re at risk, too—there have been incidents on their street, including the near-fatal shooting of their son Jon. Everybody in the neighbourhood lives in fear—people are afraid to let their kids go outside to play. They can’t sell their homes. Property values have declined.
Q: Are they in denial about what their sons are doing?
A: I understand the tendency to defend your children, to think somebody’s out to get them, but a couple of years ago, in a plea agreement to help get Dennis Karbovanec a better deal on a weapons charge—Dennis is like an adopted son in that family—two of the brothers turned over a dozen weapons, including an Uzi, and 114 sticks of stolen dynamite. How, as parents, do you turn a blind eye to stuff like that?
Q: Have you spoken to them?
A: I happened to be interviewing one of the next-door neighbours when the dad pulled into the driveway. As he got out of his truck, I approached him and said, “Mr. Bacon, I’m with the Vancouver Sun, I just wanted to know how you’re holding up through all this.” “It’s garbage,” he said. “Jon will be acquitted.” I asked, “What about the other 24 charges?” and he came at me, swearing, grabbing my arm and twisting it, trying to get my notebook. I screamed, “You can’t touch me! I’ll call the police!” In my car on the way down the mountain I phoned the newsroom and said, “I just got grabbed by the Bacons’ father—” and my phone cut out. They thought I’d been kidnapped. By the time I finally got reception, they’d alerted the gang task force and were about to dispatch a helicopter to look for me. I had to report in person to the Abbotsford police station to prove I hadn’t been abducted. It was pretty embarrassing.
Q: You’ve been subject to threats for years now. How do you handle that?
A: I’m more stubborn than anything else, I guess—it doesn’t really faze me. I recently got quite a serious threat that the police have been trying to deal with. Someone killed a rat, stuffed it in a bag, and sent it to the newsroom with a note saying that I was going to be killed too. Very theatrical. I used to get stuff like that while I was covering the Air India case, but nothing ever happened. I have security measures in place. It’s a bit like earthquake preparation: you take precautions, you have your food and water ready. But the big one doesn’t hit, and you don’t dwell on it. It becomes part of what you do.
Q: How did you get involved in the Air India bombing case?
A: A week after I started at the Sun, the Indian military launched an assault on the Golden Temple at Amritsar, where Sikh separatists were assembling weapons. The reverberations were felt all over, but nobody really understood what was happening. Newsrooms then were very white, and editors with British accents were asking, “What’s going on?” I got interested in the rising level of Sikh militancy here. When the plane went down, I’d been on the Sun just over a year. I started going door-to-door, speaking to victims’ families. It was just brutal—people were so grief-stricken, women literally wailing on the sofa. Yet people would invite you in and serve tea; they were unbelievably dignified. It was very touching. I got onto the story, and stayed on it. I’m still on it.
Q: How did you feel about the acquittals in that case?
A: Absolutely devastated—it makes you lose faith in our judiciary. I personally feel that there was enough evidence to support a conviction. It’s pretty ridiculous the way our judiciary works. There’s a complete detachment between the courts and the community. The courts don’t seek to establish the truth; they just referee a debate between two sides. Whichever side performs better wins the debate. There are so many ways to manipulate the system.
Q: How do lawyers manipulate the system?
A: I’ve seen gangbangers, people who’ve killed people, show up with their parents and 10 letters of reference. You portray the kid as a basically good person who’s made a few mistakes. The prosecution doesn’t have the time or resources to refute it, and the kid makes bail. I’ve seen bogus reference letters used to get guys bail. And “two for one” is crazy. Why should three months’ pretrial custody reduce a sentence by six months? You see guys deliberately put off trial, so that when they do go forward and get sentenced, they’re already out.
Q: You seem to spend half your time fighting publication bans. Why?
A: We in the media represent the public. Not everyone can take time off to attend a trial day after day. We’re a legitimate part of the judicial process, but we’re treated like a nuisance. Publication bans are meant to protect the accused’s right to a fair jury trial, but in 99 percent of these cases, accused gangsters choose a judge-only trial. They know juries will be so upset about gang violence that they’ll get convicted. So the lawyers string us along, get a publication ban until the eve of the trial. Then, when it’s time to pick a jury, they opt for judge alone. So we’ve gone maybe two years during which all the dirt—the truth—about the accused can’t be released to the public because of a ban that was obtained, basically, under false pretences. It’s a joke.
Q: What’s your view on decriminalization of drugs?
A: I’m the mother of teenagers, which has changed my view, actually. When you see how much pot there is in the schools and how easy it is for kids to get into it, and when you see really good kids go off the rails—I don’t think of it as harmless, the way I did when I was growing up. And of course it’s young people who get caught up in the drug trade. One of the Surrey Six victims—two were “innocent bystanders,” the implication being the others deserved it—one of those four was 19 years old, a great kid in high school who started selling pot, and the next thing you know he gets executed. But I do think it’s ridiculous that there’s a criminal charge for possession. What a waste of everyone’s time.
Q: Do you favour legalization of cannabis?
A: I’d love to see research into exactly how it would play out. You’d still have the cross-border smuggling, where huge money is made—probably more than half the profits. Guys like Larry Campbell say, “Legalize it, regulate it, tax it.” Okay, but how would it actually work? Greenhouses run by Hells Angels would grow pot for the government? Because organized crime gets involved wherever there’s drugs and big money. Amsterdam, where pot is legalized, has such a big organized-crime problem that they’re slapping on more controls. It’s fine to have progressive views on where we should be; how you actually get there is a whole other question.
Q: Your blog has become a major clearinghouse of tips, rumours, allegations, accusations. You must work 12 hours a day.
A: The blog complements the print stuff, the same way that daily reporting is how you can build investigative features. Yes, I do work long hours sometimes, but I find it fascinating. This stuff is going on in our city and people have a right to know about it. That’s what the media is supposed to be all about.