Designating the Hells Angels

Bekim Zeneli. Sean Heickert. James Heickert. Stanley Anthony Lucovic. Dean Gurniak. Robert Colacicco. Scotty "Taz" Robertson. Devon Gurniak. Bruno Roy Forest. Kevin Denny Moose. Anil Khokhar. Some were victims, some were perpetrators. * Sean Heickert would turn out to be both. Convicted of first-degree murder in the Dec. 7, 2007 slaying of Bekim Zeneli, co-founder of the LHS (Loyalty, Honour, Silence) gang, Heickert was himself seriously wounded in a drive-by shooting 8 months later on Aug. 20, 2008 in the area of Purdue Avenue and Princeton Drive.

A townhouse on Brandon Crescent. An industrial building on Severn Crescent. What all these people - accused and convicted, innocent and guilty, alike, and places have in common is that seven years ago in late 2007 their paths intersected in some way or another with the turf wars and murder - and for a brief moment in time, the seeming mayhem - that swept through Thompson involving the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club in the Autumn of the Gun.

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Project Drill, which ran from November 2006 to December 2007, with the Manitoba Integrated Organized Crime Task Force (MIOCTF), a unit including investigators from the RCMP, Winnipeg Police Service, Brandon Police Service and federal and provincial prosecutors, as the lead agency, targeted 18 people from Manitoba, Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and the United States, including Hells Angels Motorcycle Club members and associates. All were arrested and subsequently convicted for offences related to drug trafficking, conspiracy to commit murder, illegal importation of firearms, possession of proceeds obtained through crime and criminal organization related offences.

Last week, Manitoba became the first jurisdiction in North America to designate the Hells Angels as a criminal organization, pursuant to The Manitoba Evidence Act, as the result of Bill 25, The Manitoba Evidence Amendment Act (Scheduling of Criminal Organizations), which became law in 2011.

The Hells Angels Motorcycle Club is the largest outlaw motorcycle gang in the world, with over 5,000 members in over 400 chapters in more than 40 countries. Canada has 35 chapters. Hells Angels rules require chapters to have a minimum of six members on the street without any court-imposed conditions. Membership is an incremental process over years to test a recruit's loyalty and prevent infiltration by police or rival gang members. Internal Hells Angels records show that photos and information about potential new members are distributed across the country to try to identify unwanted prospective members.

The change does not affect Criminal Code of Canada and other federal statute prosecutions, including drug offences, which are a larger part of the Hells Angels stock-in-trade, but will it is expected to make it much easier for the province to seize property from gang members and evict them from houses pursuant to such provincial legislation as the Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act, which has shut down 750 drug, prostitution, criminal organization, weapons and other unlawful operations in Manitoba since it was put in place; the Fortified Buildings Act, which was used to remove fortifications from the Hells Angels first clubhouse in Winnipeg and 98 other drug and gang houses, which posed a danger to the public; and the Criminal Property Forfeiture Act, which is used to forfeit the proceeds of crime and instruments of crime, like houses used in marijuana grow operations and gang clubhouses including a Hells Angels clubhouse in Winnipeg on Scotia Street. That matter remains before the courts.

Until now, Crown prosecutors had to prove the gang was a criminal organization during each court case.

Manitoba Justice Minister Andrew Swan first announced the plan to designate the Hells Angels, made up of an assortment of full patch members, prospects, hang-arounds, official friends and associates, as a criminal organization last May and the application was reviewed by an independent three-member panel.

Public notice of the application was issued to the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club and by law they were able to review a summary of the case and object in writing. No objections were received.

The designation process included an independent external review panel, made up of at least three people who are not government employees or currently serving as police officers. They examined all of the materials used to support the designation application, including evidence collected from across Canada, information from organized crime experts and court findings from across the country, and determined the motorcycle club met the test of being a criminal organization.

Balancing competing civil rights, such as freedom of association, and societal interests, such as protection of the public, are no simple tasks and legislatures seldom do them flawlessly, which is why challenges to legislation often wind up in the courts to re-strike that balance. It's too early to tell perhaps where the amendments three years ago to the Manitoba Evidence Act, in outlining procedures for the scheduling of criminal organizations, are going to fall along that continuum.

While critics are not anxious to be seen offering comfort and succour to the Hells Angels, civil liberties warnings, arguing the legislation is overly broad and heavy-handed, were made as far back as four years ago by Michael Silicz, of the Manitoba Association for Rights and Liberties, testifying on June 14, 2010 at a standing committee on justice hearing, and former University of Manitoba law student Brendan Jowett in a 20-page Manitoba Law Journal article, "Bill 25, The Manitoba Evidence Amendment Act (Scheduling of Criminal Organizations)."

Will the law be tested in the courts? Only time will tell.

Perhaps by not challenging their criminal organization designation at the review stage, even the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club itself was making a statement of sorts about the nature of its business - and, make no mistake, it is a business every bit as much as a social enterprise.

* Names of people impacted by the actions of the others mentioned have been deleted at their request.

© Copyright Thompson Citizen

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