Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

When gangsters rule the streets

Battle to control drug trade leaves painful mark on city

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THOMPSON -- It is a dark chapter in this city's recent history. And there are ongoing fears a sequel could be in the works.

Gun-toting gangsters and drug dealers turned Thompson into their personal playground. It became an all-too-real issue a few short years ago, as organized crime looked to the Hub of the North as a lucrative, virtually untapped market.

Several brazen shootings and firebombings and two executions were the fallout from a turf war being waged in the city.

"Drugs are a huge industry here. We've had a lot of competition for the drug trade," said RCMP Staff Sgt. Ron Corner, the senior member of the Thompson detachment.

Thompson is a young city, with an average age of 28. There's also a lot of cash in the community; one-fifth of the workforce earns high wages at the Vale nickel mine.

That reality, plus a high rate of addictions and a feeling of isolation, can have drug dealers seeing dollar signs.

'Living in Thompson

during that time was

unbelievable.

It was like the city turned into the Wild West'

Last month, a 53-year-old Thompson man was arrested just south of the city, allegedly with 23 kilograms of marijuana. All of those drugs were believed destined for the city.

"We're only skimming the top of the barrel here. There's a lot that's coming into town that we don't know about," admits Corner.

In 2011, RCMP made 75 drug busts in Thompson. That's more than any other RCMP jurisdiction in Manitoba. (Portage la Prairie was second with 72, Selkirk third with 59.).

The Free Press spent a day in Thompson provincial court earlier this month. Only one trial was being heard that day. Not surprisingly, it involved the seizure of two grams of crack cocaine. RCMP got a tip from a regular informant.

It is harder drugs that are the real concern for police in Thompson. They noticed an increase about six years ago, around the same time bullets started flying on a semi-regular basis as a power struggle began for control of the drug trade.

"Living in Thompson during that time was unbelievable. It was like the city turned into the Wild West," longtime resident Kris Menard said.

Police say getting anyone involved in the lifestyle to speak up was difficult.

"Nobody wanted to talk," said RCMP Cpl. Sheldon Moore. He remembers dealing with a badly beaten gangster who insisted he had fallen down. In reality, the man didn't want to be a snitch and would rather rely on street justice.

And there's been plenty of that in recent years.

Christopher Ponask, 19, was known to friends as the Scorpion King -- a label he wore proudly in the form of a massive eight-legged creature tattooed on his face. He was also tied to the drug trade. No arrests have ever been made in his October 2008 slaying.

In August 2008, Sean Heickert was medevaced to Winnipeg after suffering serious gunshot wounds following a targeted attack. Months later, Heickert was charged with the December 2007 slaying of Manitoba gang leader Bekim Zeneli, also in Thompson. Heickert was convicted of first-degree murder and is serving a life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years.

Heickert's name also surfaced during a major undercover police investigation dubbed Project Drill, which abruptly ended following Zeneli's death and resulted in 18 arrests, many in Thompson. Court documents say police had listened in on detailed plans to kill both Zeneli and Heickert while performing surveillance on a Winnipeg hotel room.

The plan to kill Heickert stemmed from another violent attack in Thompson. Devon Gurniak was shot and seriously wounded on Nov. 11, 2007. Two men believed to be associated with Heickert were charged with attempted murder. Police believe Dean Gurniak was the intended target, but his brother was mistakenly hit by the bullets.

The rash of violence in Thompson sparked the creation of several groups on Facebook, including one dubbed "Thompson is Going to Hell." Several community meetings were also arranged to discuss the problems.

John Donovan, northern region director of the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba, said the turf-war fires seem to have largely burned out, even though Thompson continues to lead the country in the violent-crime-severity index. Hot spots still exist though, he said.

"But for now, they seem to have come up with an understanding in terms of turf," he said.

But Corner warned nobody in Thompson should be complacent, as much of the reduction in recent organized-crime activity can be pinned on the fact several key figures are behind bars.

"A lot of the players are doing time. But eventually they'll get out. Everybody does," he said.

"And we're all creatures of habit."

www.mikeoncrime.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 29, 2013 0

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