No trial date, no comment: family accused of staged hate crime left Canada in 2020

Nearly two years after vowing they wanted “their day in court,” three members of a Winnipeg family accused of staging a hate crime at their now-defunct River Heights restaurant remain outside the grasp of Manitoba prosecutors.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/07/2022 (248 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Nearly two years after vowing they wanted “their day in court,” three members of a Winnipeg family accused of staging a hate crime at their now-defunct River Heights restaurant remain outside the grasp of Manitoba prosecutors.

Alexander and Oxana Berent and their son, Maxim Berent, were charged with public mischief after alleging their Corydon Avenue restaurant, BerMax Caffé and Bistro, had been the target of four antisemitic attacks in 2019.

Arguing they had no financial supports in the city and were being ostracized by the local religious community, the three accused were given court approval to relocate to Los Angeles in January 2020, with the expectation they would return to Winnipeg for trial the following October.

But as the trial date approached, and the COVID-19 pandemic was raging, the Berents, through their lawyers, told court they didn’t have the resources to comply with a 14-day quarantine requirement if they returned to Winnipeg.

Crown and defence lawyers agreed to cancel the trial, and issued warrants for the three accused on the understanding they would not be held in custody upon their return to Winnipeg or charged with failing to appear in court.

Today, with mandatory quarantine requirements no longer in place, there is no indication the three accused have plans to return to Winnipeg, and no new trial dates have been set.

“I have not heard ‘boo’ since the case was last in court (in October 2020),” Oxana Berent’s lawyer, Michael Lazar, said Tuesday. “I have not had any contact (with her) since very shortly after.”

Lawyer Phil Cramer represented Alexander Berent at the October 2020 hearing. He told the Free Press at the time the three accused “maintain their innocence and want their day in court.”

Asked recently if he had been in contact with Berent or was aware of any plans to return to Winnipeg, Cramer told the Free Press: “No comment.”

The status of the case remains unchanged, said Crown attorney Mike Himmelman.

“Our position is they are guilty, as before,” he said. “There is a warrant still outstanding and no court date has been set.”

The offence of mischief is punishable by up to five years in prison, thus meeting the threshold for extradition proceedings, said University of Manitoba law Prof. Gerard Kennedy.

Whether justice officials would seriously consider the option is “debatable.” Extradition is a long and expensive process and normally reserved for more serious crimes.

“Whether or not the attorney general of Manitoba wants to go through the process will ultimately be a policy decision,” Kennedy said.

Police arrested the trio in April 2019, days after they alleged Oxana had been assaulted during a break-in at the restaurant. The family claimed robbers trashed the restaurant, spray-painted the word “Jew” on the floor and sketched a swastika on a wall.

Security video from multiple locations cast doubt on the family’s claims, police alleged in search warrant documents filed with the court.

“Based on the information contained in this affidavit, I believe it is reasonable that on April 18, 2019, Alexander Berent, Oxana Berent and Maxim Berent committed public mischief by staging the commercial robbery/hate crime at their business,” a Winnipeg Police Service officer wrote in a May 2, 2019 affidavit supporting a search warrant application to seize BerMax’s Wi-Fi routers.

“This staged crime caused police to enter into a significant investigation based on false information.”

Other court records reviewed by the Free Press showed the café was facing serious financial troubles in the lead up to the alleged crime, including six-figure debts, lawsuits, a real estate lien, and an inability to sell the restaurant or consistently make rent.

Dean Pritchard

Dean Pritchard
Courts reporter

Someone once said a journalist is just a reporter in a good suit. Dean Pritchard doesn’t own a good suit. But he knows a good lawsuit.

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