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Winnipeggers shouldn’t rush to judge a Jewish family accused of staging a fake anti-Semitic hate crime at their River Heights business, a lawyer for one of the accused said Wednesday.
"This was not a hoax," said defence lawyer Martin Glazer, who is representing 48-year-old Oxana Berent, co-owner of the Corydon Avenue BerMax Caffé + Bistro.
She, husband Alexander Berent, 56, and son Maxim Berent, 29, are charged with public mischief and accused of misleading police by orchestrating a robbery and vandalism at the business in April, on the night before Passover.
The trio appeared briefly in Winnipeg provincial court for the first time Wednesday afternoon and had their case adjourned until next month.
Alexander Berent and Maxim Berent don’t yet have their own lawyers. Glazer said each accused should be represented separately in court.
Meanwhile, he said Oxana Berent's medical records are expected to factor into her defence. She claims she was attacked by an unknown intruder during a robbery inside the business. A swastika was allegedly drawn on the wall of the business and the word "Jew" was spray painted on the floor.
"(Oxana Berent) was the victim here. She was knocked out. According to the information I have, it was noted that she was in the ambulance, that she couldn’t even speak; she was in shock," Glazer said, adding she had X-rays and scans at the hospital afterward.
"So we expect the medical evidence will show this was genuine. This was not a hoax. You can’t fake something like that. We expect to get all the blood pressure readings and everything else that should confirm that she was the victim of an attack."
Soon after the April 18 incident was reported to police, investigators turned their attention to the Berent family and laid criminal charges against them less than a week later.
Court documents reviewed by the Free Press indicate police executed search warrants on May 2 to obtain Wi-Fi routers at Unit 3 (BerMax Design Centre millwork shop) and Unit 4 (BerMax Caffé + Bistro), 1800 Corydon Ave.; both addresses were listed as the premises of all three accused.
Information explaining why police sought authorization to search for the routers remains sealed by the court.
Speaking at a news conference to announce the charges in late April, Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth said he was disappointed police resources were used to investigate a "staged event."
"We treated this and took it seriously at face value. I expect we’ll do that in the future, as well. Hence my disappointment that someone would use this hate and racism for God knows what purpose.... Certainly it has the potential to fuel cynicism about stuff like this," he said at the time.
On Wednesday, Glazer said he was surprised how quickly police laid charges against the family, and he said there was no motive for the alleged staged crime.
"I think it’s important that the public not rush to judgment," he said. "There’s a big difference between an accusation and a conviction. They’re presumed innocent, and the police may have their view of the evidence. We have our view and we’re conducting our own investigation."
He wouldn’t comment on the family’s financial troubles. Court records show they and their businesses have been sued several times over debts, and they’ve been found in default of business loans and ordered by the courts to repay thousands of dollars.
The case against Oxana Berent is expected to go to trial, Glazer said.
"I’ve been doing this for 37 years and it’s the first time I’ve encountered a case such as this. Very rare, very rare. And these people — on behalf of my client — she’s not the type of person who could do this, and she says this is all false."
The case is due back in court on June 26.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.