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This article was published 26/6/2004 (4838 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
MANITOBA justice officials had significant warning before this month that their star witness in a now-aborted $2.2-million case against five Hells Angels associates would not testify against his former friends, according to sources and confidential documents obtained by the Free Press.
In fact, police knew shortly after Robert Coquete was arrested on 17 violence and intimidation charges that the former member of the Hells Angels' Zig Zag Crew was having second thoughts about becoming a confidential informant. He had agreed to become an informant within hours of his arrest in Calgary on April 8, 2002.
His concerns and demands — even threats of a lawsuit — are documented in a series of interviews senior Winnipeg police officers conducted with Coquete and two of his relatives last fall. The interviews were conducted after members of the RCMP witness protection program urged Winnipeg police to investigate Coquete's reluctance to participate.
Defence lawyers for the five Hells Angels associates — against whom charges were stayed on Thursday — say the timeline is important because it supports their claim that justice officials never had a legitimate case.
The lawyers contend justice officials wrongly kept the men behind bars in pre-trial custody for as long as possible and had always planned to dump the case, blaming Coquete. The five are Ian Grant, Dale Donovan, Harold Amos, Sean Wolfe and Ralph Moar.
The lawyers say they will discuss a possible civil suit against justice officials with their clients.
Police Chief Jack Ewatski yesterday called the charges "ludicrous" and "way off base." He said up until early this month, police and the Crown believed they had a solid prosecution, and only dropped the case when it became clear Coquete would not make a reliable witness.
Coquete — who was paid more than $100,000 for his participation in the case and had the charges against him stayed — told police last year that his arresting officers deceived him and didn't allow him to seek legal advice before he made the decision to become an informant.
"I made a deal to get out of this mess," Coquete, who only has a Grade 7 education, said in a signed Oct. 28, 2003, handwritten statement.
"At no time was my lawyer present. They keep telling me there was no need for my lawyer to get involved. We are all on the same page. We told what we were giving you. There would be no need for a lawyer to be here for you to give us the information we need."
The deal was consummated after three straight days and nights of bargaining with police, which included plenty of coffee but no sleep, said Coquete.
"I just went on trusting them and thinking that's the right thing to do," he said.
In a Nov. 26 interview with Winnipeg police Insp. Gord Schumacher and Staff Sgt. Alan Scott, Coquete said he started having second thoughts about becoming an informant in the days after his arrest because police appeared to be backing out of meeting his main demand — protecting his wife's uncle, Arthur Pereira.
Pereira had a cocaine possession charge he wanted dropped, and both he and Coquete claimed police said that was no problem.
Coquete demanded Pereira be involved in any protection deal should he give police evidence against the Zig Zag Crew, street enforcers for the Manitoba Hells Angels.
Coquete claims police promised Pereira would be spared a criminal record (he would get an absolute discharge) if he pleaded guilty to a drug charge. Instead, when Pereira appeared in court, he got 42 months behind bars, according to RCMP officers who wrote a series of letters to city police.
"If I was going to do it again, I wouldn't trust ... uh ... take the word of the officers," Coquette said in the interview.
"I know that my personal feeling is that they just lost control of it. They lost control of something that they didn't have and they didn't know where to go with it."
In the meetings with Schumacher and Scott, Coquete said in exchange for his and Pereira's evidence he wanted police to settle their personal debts, pay for relocation, finance their new lives once relocated and wipe out their criminal records.
But Coquette said almost right from the beginning the officers were promising him things they later found out they couldn't deliver.
"I guess when you're not the ones that are making the decisions, you shouldn't be telling, like saying, 'This is what's going to happen,' " Coquete said.
Through the entire two-year process, Coquete and Pereira expressed continual frustration that police weren't going to meet their financial demands.
Pereira even threatened during interviews with Schumacher and Scott to commit suicide rather than testify against the Hells Angels.
In court Thursday, Crown attorney Brian Bell said prosecutors only learned Coquete was making demands in exchange for his testimony on June 3. Bell said he met Coquete June 16 and it became clear Coquete would be an unreliable witness.
Bell said Coquete's demands related to promises he claimed were broken by city police.
Bell blamed Coquete as he stayed all charges — including conspiracy to commit murder and participating in a criminal organization — against the five accused. He said they had no case without Coquete — their "cornerstone" — on board.
Four of the bikers walked out of the downtown Winnipeg Remand Centre Thursday afternoon to waiting stretch limos and a hero's welcome from family, friends and other bikers wearing their full colours. The fourth, Moar, is in Stony Mountain Penitentiary on unrelated charges.
To add insult to injury, a group of their supporters — most members of the Zig Zag Crew — gave the middle finger to media photographers as the four were released.
Ewatski said yesterday he was disturbed by the image, as the gesture seemed aimed more at Winnipeg than just the criminal justice system.
"I'd like to know what their mothers and fathers think of that," he said.
Coquete's whereabouts are unknown. He's been free since at least the beginning of this month, when he signed himself out of the federal witness protection program. Justice officials say they will examine whether to reinstate the criminal charges against him based on his failure to live up to the deal.
Justice officials also insist the decision to stay the biker case is unrelated to mysterious allegations of potential police misconduct raised earlier this year by a senior Crown attorney.
In that case, Crown attorney Bob Morrison has said police may have committed "criminal acts" in their handling of a confidential informant in the Hells case, whose identity remains a secret.
The Crown was set to make arguments Thursday morning on why it can't provide further information to defence lawyers, but the issue became moot when the case was dropped.
Defence lawyers have accused justice officials of only quitting the case when faced with having to disclose further information on the allegations of police misconduct.
Morrison had filed a brief earlier this week outlining the Crown's position he was set to argue. He said it is "remarkable" lawyers and others associated with the case haven't figured out the informer's identity based on information already disclosed.
Much of his brief — obtained yesterday by the Free Press — is written in coded language. Morrison speaks of "two parallel independent streams of information" that involve the same person and same incident.
"They are parallel and independent because they have not yet been connected by interested parties. If connection is allowed to occur the person will be identified as an informer," he said.
Morrison said it is crucial to public safety that the identity of the informer — who is not believed to be Coquete or Pereira — remain confidential.
Ewatski said the internal police investigations are continuing into Morrison's reference to possible police misconduct and what went wrong with Coquete's deal.
"It's premature to say whether blame should be placed," he said, referring to the failed prosecution.
Ewatski said the former accused would not disappear off the police radar and vowed to continue the fight against organized crime.
"Let's just say there are four people on the street we certainly have an interest in."