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Crown defends gang member witnesses at B.C. mass murder trial

VANCOUVER - Much of the case against two men charged with the executions of six people, including two innocent bystanders, relies on a cast of unsavoury characters: former gang members whose own crimes have overshadowed their testimony.

That has left the Crown with the delicate task of convincing a judge that those witnesses — including a former gang leader and a man already serving a life sentence for two unrelated murders — have turned their backs on their old lives and come to court intent on telling the truth.

Cody Haevischer and Matthew Johnston are each charged with conspiracy and six counts of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of six men found in a highrise condo in Surrey, B.C., in October 2007.

In closing arguments Thursday, Crown counsel Mark Levitz acknowledged that a former gang mate, known only as Person Y, received financial compensation for his co-operation.

But the man agreed to become a Crown witness because he had become "disillusioned" with the gang life, Levitz said, and the money will be of little use to him as he serves a life sentence after pleading guilty to the two murders.

"He had no motive to come before this court to pull the wool over this court's eyes," Levitz told a B.C. Supreme Court judge.

"This court can have great comfort that he is telling the truth."

The Crown's theory is that the murders began as a hit on a rival of the Red Scorpions gang, but five others, including a fireplace repairman and an unwitting neighbour, were killed to eliminate potential witnesses. The Crown says Haevischer, Johnston and a third man, known only as Person X, went to carry out the killings under the direction of the gang's leadership.

Person Y said Johnston admitted his involvement after the murders took place, and the court heard that he later wore a recording device for police to record conversations with Johnston.

He testified that he was part of the conspiracy and initially agreed to carry out the execution. He backed out at the last minute, but gave a handgun to Person X on the afternoon of the killings, he told the court.

His testimony is corroborated by other evidence, Levitz said. For example, his DNA was found on a handgun at the crime scene.

The most high-profile witness was Michael Le, who founded the Red Scorpions and was standing trial alongside Haevischer and Johnston until he cut a deal and pled guilty last fall. Haevischer's former girlfriend, known as KM, also testified.

KM told the court Johnston and Person X showed up unexpectedly at her and Haevischer's apartment on the afternoon of the murders. She, Johnston and Person X cleaned a pair of handguns, she said, before the three men left.

She testified that the men returned later, setting off a chaotic series of events in which phones and clothing were burned and she saw Haevischer write "people died" on a dry-erase board.

Levitz noted KM also received financial compensation, but he said that wasn't her motivation. She was a reluctant witness who agreed to speak with police only after prodding from another woman she considered a "surrogate mother," he said.

Levitz said independent evidence, such as police surveillance video and footage from security cameras, backs up KM's testimony.

"Why should you believe her? There is substantial corroborative evidence," Levitz said on Day 2 of his final submission.

Le testified about the formation and growth of the Red Scorpions and the murder plot, which he said was the brainchild of co-leader Jamie Bacon. Bacon is scheduled to stand trial separately.

Le told the court Haevischer and Johnston each admitted their involvement to him on separate occasions.

As part of Le's plea deal, he received a sentence of 12 years, reduced to three after time served, and saw a murder charge dropped. He could be eligible for parole by the end of this year.

Levitz was expected to wrap up his final submissions on Friday. Defence lawyers were scheduled to begin their arguments on Monday.

Among the victims were fireplace repairman Ed Schellenberg, 55, and building resident Chris Mohan, 22, who were not connected to gangs or drugs.

The other victims were Corey Lal, who was believed to be the intended target, his brother Michael, Eddie Narong and Ryan Bartolomeo, all of whom had links to gangs and drugs.

Follow @ByJamesKeller on Twitter

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