WINNIPEG — Two Manitoba killers would be walking the streets today if not for a fictional crime boss named Mr. Big.
And families of their two victims would still be holding out hope their missing loved ones might return one day.
The unrelated cases against Michael Bridges and Christopher Shewchuk are examples of how these controversial RCMP operations can be used to breathe life into stalled investigations.
Yet the Supreme Court of Canada, in a decision released last week, put Mr. Big stings on the endangered list.
That’s a shame.
Police and justice officials may be less willing to sign off on such a tactic, knowing the high court ruled such stings should be presumed inadmissible.
The Crown can still argue at trial to include evidence from a Mr. Big sting. But the onus is on the Crown to prove why the evidence should be allowed, rather than on the accused to show why it should be dismissed.
The sting involves luring a target into a fictitious criminal organization headed by Mr. Big, in which they are led to believe confessing to past sins will earn them a promotion.
The undercover police officers play different roles to capture the sting on audio and video. They often last months, involve extensive travel and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
With the increased chance the stings will be tossed out of court, it would require a huge leap of faith to put one into action.
RCMP say the policy is under review following the ruling.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court found these sting operations tend to produce unreliable confessions and don’t adequately protect the rights of the accused.
The justices reviewed a case in which a Newfoundland father admitted to undercover officers he’d drowned his twin daughters in 2002.
In Manitoba, the two most prominent cases produced reliable evidence.
Bridges didn’t just give graphic details about how he killed his girlfriend, Erin Chorney, 18, in Brandon.
He also led police to her body — hidden two years earlier in someone else’s grave, which he dug up.
Bridges was convicted of first-degree murder in 2005 and given a life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years.
Shewchuk confessed to shooting Derek Kembel and burning the remains near Dauphin, solving a nearly decade-old disappearance.
Shewchuk led RCMP to the area where the body was burned and investigators recovered some remains.
Shewchuk pleaded guilty earlier this year to second-degree murder and was given a life sentence with no chance of parole for 13 years.
Both of these cases highlight the key factor of a successful Mr. Big operation — the target provides information only the killer can know.
The confession must include reliable solid evidence.
The Mr. Big stings of 2014 are nothing like the ones of the past. They have become a well-oiled machine. Major improvements have been made even since the one in Newfoundland that earned the Supreme Court’s scorn last week.
Long gone are the days when police simply offer all kinds of incentive — and perhaps some alcohol — to some poor lost soul to shoot his mouth off in exchange for cash, prestige and acceptance by his new-found peers.
Now, senior Crown attorneys are often brought on board to oversee how police conduct every aspect of the investigation to ensure no lines are crossed and any evidence gained would stand up in court.
Extreme efforts are made to remind the target there is no benefit to giving a false confession.
In both the Bridges and Shewchuk cases, you could hear the pains made by police officers to underline that point.
No need to try to impress us, they’d say. You don’t need to lie, they’d repeat.
Yes, there is always going to be some inherent risk in these investigations. No doubt there are Mr. Big stings that are launched, only to fail miserably either when the target doesn’t take the bait or, perhaps, police are pursuing the wrong suspect.
And yes, there is always the fear of a wrongful conviction — although it’s worth noting that while several legal injustices have been well-documented in Canada, not a single one is directly linked to a botched Mr. Big sting.
But when they work, they solve crimes.
As the families of Erin Chorney and Derek Kembel can attest to, they are the only reason justice was served.
» Mike McIntyre is the justice reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press, where he has worked since 1997. He authored “To The Grave: Inside A Spectacular RCMP Sting” about the investigation into Erin Chorney’s death.