December 6, 2019

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Family accused of hate-crime hoax was struggling financially: court records

The family accused of staging an anti-Semitic "hate crime" at their River Heights cafe 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 their restaurant or consistently make rent.

That information was gleaned by the Free Press from court records and details provided by sources who asked to remain anonymous, which combine to paint a picture of a family struggling to stay afloat while navigating choppy financial waters.

The Winnipeg Police Service declined comment when asked if investigators believe money struggles served as a motive for the alleged crime, citing the fact the case is before the courts.

Parents Alexander Berent, 56, and Oxana Berent, 48, and son Maxim Berent, 29, were each charged with a single count of public mischief late Tuesday night. They are scheduled to appear in court May 29.

Following an intense week-long investigation over the holiday weekend, which saw dozens of officers dedicate a thousand hours to the case, police concluded the family staged the April 18 "hate crime" at their formerly kosher cafe.

From left: Alexander Berent, 56, Oxana Berent, 48, and Maxim Berent, 29 have been charged with public mischief.

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From left: Alexander Berent, 56, Oxana Berent, 48, and Maxim Berent, 29 have been charged with public mischief.

The incident, which fell on the eve of the Jewish celebration of Passover, shocked Winnipeggers. The building was trashed and tagged with anti-Semitic graffiti and Oxana Berent claimed she had been assaulted by an unknown individual.

It was the fourth time in five months the Berents reported an anti-Semitic attack on BerMax Caffé + Bistro.

Court documents show the Berents have a long, tangled history with the Manitoba legal system. The family and their many businesses have been sued seven times since they moved to Canada from Israel.

Last August, Alexander and Oxana Berent were ordered to pay $112,000 to the Business Development Bank of Canada after they had defaulted on a $150,000 loan from 2014. That, however, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Later that year, a Manitoba judge ordered Oxana’s salary to be garnished until she paid $55,000 in damages from another lawsuit. Despite this, no money has been paid to the plaintiff in the case.

Inside the BerMax Caffé, the scene of what police call a hate-crime hoax.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Inside the BerMax Caffé, the scene of what police call a hate-crime hoax.

Most recently, Maxim Berent was sued by the Royal Bank of Canada this week for $43,000 in credit card debt. No statement of defence has been filed in the case.

The Free Press has also learned the family tried to sell BerMax cafe last year while going through financial troubles, although the listing has since expired. And while the Berents were struggling, and failing, to secure a buyer for the cafe, a source told the Free Press they weren't able to consistently make their rent payments to the building's owner.

The family home, located in Petersfield – roughly 55 kilometres north of Winnipeg – has been advertised as soon "coming to market." However, a source with knowledge of the situation told the Free Press there is currently a lien on the house connected to a past lawsuit.

The Berents have not responded to repeated requests for comment from the Free Press.

On Thursday, the restaurant remained closed and empty. The messages of support written in chalk on the sidewalk outside the restaurant have begun to fade and bouquets of flowers dropped at the door sat withered next to a stack of unopened newspapers.

However, the family did speak to CBC Manitoba’s afternoon radio show Wednesday and denied the allegations levied against them by Winnipeg police.

A swastika is seen painted on the wall of the BerMax Caffé.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A swastika is seen painted on the wall of the BerMax Caffé.

The interview came hours after police chief Danny Smyth denounced the family, saying he was "disappointed" and "angry" they would seek to use "hate and racism in such a disingenuous way."

Oxana Berent told the CBC she spent 11 hours in a police interrogation room without a lawyer Tuesday, claiming investigators told her parts of the family’s story didn’t make sense.

"What is happening yesterday and today, it's completely broke our family, our business, everything. It just broke us," Oxana said.

"We don't joke about swastikas on our walls. My grandmother's family, they died in the Holocaust. Just her and her little brother survived... We don't joke about that."

The allegations have not been proven in court.

ryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.ca

 

Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe
Reporter

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

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