It was a cold-case mystery with no end in sight -- until the RCMP came along with a controversial plan to catch a killer.
The Free Press has learned police used a "Mr. Big" undercover sting operation to break open the case of a missing Manitoba carnival worker whose body has never been found.
Derek Kembel, 24, was last seen leaving a Dauphin bar on Feb. 28, 2003. On Tuesday, the RCMP's historical-case unit charged Christopher Robin Shewchuk, 29, with first-degree murder and his father, Thomas Ronald Shewchuk, 60, with accessory to murder after the fact.
Both Shewchuks are being held in custody without bail. The allegations have not been proven and both men are presumed innocent.
In a Mr. Big sting, the plan is simple: Gain the trust of your main target by surrounding him with undercover police officers playing the roles of shady members of a criminal organization. Eventually, police hope to make the suspect comfortable enough he confesses to his crime, believing it's the only way to climb the corporate ladder to success.
Police see the stings as a costly last resort when all else has failed to bring a suspected killer to justice. More than 100 of these undercover stings have reportedly been conducted in Canada since the early 1990s -- including several prominent ones in Manitoba. Undercover operations are banned in the United States and Britain on the grounds they can lead to entrapment of suspects, false confessions and wrongful convictions. Many defence lawyers have called for a similar move in Canada.
Sources told the Free Press Wednesday Christopher Shewchuk was the target of this particular operation, which began last year and lasted several months. The information gleaned during the sting led to the arrest of both Shewchuk and his father. Kembel's body has still not been found, but sources say police are planning to begin searching a specific area once the snow begins to melt.
Shewchuk's lawyer, Greg Brodsky, told the Free Press he expects the RCMP methods in this case to come under scrutiny.
"We're going back to the basic question of if you pay someone to whisper a secret that you promise not to tell anyone else, is it true?" said Brodsky.
Brodsky said a key issue may be whether police do find Kembel's body or obtained information "only the killer could know."
He was involved in one of the province's most memorable Mr. Big cases, which also involved the search for both the killer and victim.
Erin Chorney, 18, disappeared in April 2002. As time passed, it became apparent she was likely the victim of foul play. Brandon police focused on Michael Bridges, who had been charged weeks earlier with assaulting Chorney and admitted being the last person to see her. But he maintained his innocence and police were unable to find any direct evidence tying him to a crime. The RCMP were called in to assist in the fall of 2003 and they brought in Mr. Big. Over the course of several months, Bridges was duped into believing he was part of a powerful organized crime group in which the key to advancement was confessing his past sins to the mysterious, all-knowing "Boss."
The grand finale came in February 2004 when, as a hidden video camera rolled, Bridges calmly explained how he choked Chorney unconscious, then decided to "finish her off." Bridges said he cut the cord off his mother's hair dryer and used it to strangle Chorney.
When she didn't die, he submerged her head in his bathtub for nearly 20 minutes.
He said he then scouted out a location in the graveyard behind his home to hide her body. He dug up a fresh grave and put her body inside and covered it up, believing his secret would also remain buried.
Bridges was convicted in June 2005 of first-degree murder following a jury trial. Brodsky challenged the sting operation at the time and claimed police induced Bridges to tell them an exaggerated tale. Queen's Bench Justice John Menzies rejected the bid and said RCMP made painstaking efforts to ensure they didn't elicit a false confession from Bridges. The Manitoba Court of Appeal later upheld the verdict.
EXCERPTS FROM FORMER STING -- Michael Bridges and The Boss
"The Boss can actually make this go away?"
"It will be done."
I threw her a little too hard. I didn't think she wouldn't wake up. It scared the s
out of me."
-- -- --
Bridges was also able to tell Agent X the name of the woman whose grave Erin Chorney was buried in and said he cleaned Chorney's nails in case she'd scratched him and got his DNA.
He said he dug up the grave by the light of the moon.
"Where are you getting this from?"
"I watch TV shows."
"When we tell the Boss this, he's gonna be flabbergasted. You are probably the most prepared person I've ever seen. That is unreal."
-- -- --
As Bridges was preparing for his meeting with the Boss, Agent X stressed how important it was to be truthful about his criminal past, regardless of what it involved.
"He's almost like Santa Claus. He knows who's been naughty and nice."