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Judge rejects banning witness ID after death threats in mass murder trial

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VANCOUVER - Revelations of several death threats, including a $500,000 bounty on the life of a former British Columbia gang kingpin, failed to persuade a judge to grant the man extra protections before he resumed testimony against alleged ex-associates.

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Catherine Wedge dismissed a second application Thursday for a publication ban on the identity of Michael Le, founder of the Red Scorpions gang, who is now a key witness in the trial of two men accused in the drug-related murders of six people near Vancouver.

Le, 29, had been standing trial alongside the men until November, when he pleaded guilty for his role in the high-profile case and signed an immunity agreement with the Crown.

"Any person or persons with knowledge of or interest in this trial knows Mr. Le's identity — his admitted role in the conspiracy to murder, his guilty plea to the conspiracy count and his agreement to testify for the prosecution against his former co-accused," Wedge said in her reasons for rejecting the request brought by Le's lawyers.

Wedge's decision can be reported, but details of the lawyer's rationale for a ban cannot. In her reasons, Wedge said Le was asking for the ban based on two apparent threats only recently brought to light: the $500,000 contracted "hit" on him dating back to January and an unnamed gang leader expressing an intention to kill the man based on his decision to give evidence as a co-operating witness.

She said the request to ban his name from publication, as well as the names of any individuals he might identify as members of the triads gang — which he also belonged to — would not make him safer.

"It is up to justice-system participants, correction-system participants and the police to ensure that Mr. Le remains safe," she said.

Matthew Johnston and Cody Haevischer are each charged with conspiracy and six counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of six people who were fatally shot in a Surrey, B.C., highrise condominium in October 2007.

Four of the victims were men with ties to drugs and gangs, but two were not: 55-year-old fireplace repairman Ed Schellenberg and 22-year-old building resident Chris Mohan.

Le gave two days of direct evidence earlier this month, but the start of his cross-examination — slated to begin after two weeks preparation time for defence lawyers — was stalled this week until the ban request was resolved.

When the trial did get underway, the exchange between Le and lawyer Simon Buck, who represents Haevischer, moved at a slow pace and was at times testy.

Buck admonished the witness for being "cheeky" and repeatedly commanded him not to refer to him by his first name.

"I don't know where you get the idea you can call me 'Simon' ... after what you've done in this case," said Buck, raising his voice while referencing Le's decision to testify against the other accused part-way through trial.

"I know what he's trying to do. Do not get familiar with me."

Le, a Canadian citizen, fled to his birth country of Vietnam in March 2008 shortly after being arrested — but was released without charge — in an undercover police sting related to drug money.

He moved around Southeast Asia for about a year before RCMP officers arrested him in the Philippines and extradited him to Canada in June 2009.

He's been in custody since that time and was sentenced to 12 years in December. Due to time already served Le will be eligible for day parole in June and full parole by this winter.

Le told court on Thursday he plans to voluntarily leave Canada after his release, revealing that while in prison he has studied Mandarin and Spanish.

Le is the second to admit guilt in the so-called Surrey Six murders, one of B.C.'s most notorious gang killings.

Under the deal, which saw a charge of first-degree murder dropped, he also agreed to testify against another leader of the Red Scorpions. Jamie Bacon will stand trial separately.

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