VANCOUVER – After watching the Vancouver Canucks go down in defeat in the Stanley Cup final last June, one spectator apparently couldn’t sit on the sidelines any longer.
At first, the 21-year-old only watched as fist-fights erupted and portable toilets were overturned.
Drunk and separated from friends amidst the hordes of crushed hockey fans, police said the Delta, B.C., man suddenly grabbed a pole and smashed out the rear tail lights and back window of a truck. The vehicle was then set ablaze.
Others were equally emboldened.
A 20-year-old man from Vancouver is accused of smashing out windows in three separate stores, while a 23-year-old Surrey, B.C., woman allegedly flicked a cigarette lighter to set a headrest inside a police car on fire.
None of the three have criminal records.
Vancouver Police are confident that will change by including them among the first 60 people recommended for prosecution for 163 criminal acts amongst 15,000 they’ve singled out as occurring during the June 15 riot. All are accused of participating in a riot, while others face charges of mischief, break and enter, arson and assaulting a peace officer.
Chief Jim Chu made good on his promise Monday by announcing an initial slate of charge proposals by Oct. 31, while he fended off criticism over the lengthy delay in laying charges.
“The road we have chosen to bring these rioters to justice has never been an easy one,” he told reporters, flanked by his lead investigator and a rolling videotape of several arrests over his shoulder. “We have taken extraordinary measures because this was an extraordinary event that our community will never forget.”
In B.C., a decision on laying a charge is made by the Crown prosecutor’s office.
A team of five experienced Crown lawyers must assess the hefty packages of evidence, most including reams of video footage and some with documents 500 pages thick. They will decide whether the evidence and public interest is sufficient before laying any charge and setting the legal process in motion, said Crown spokesman Neil MacKenzie.
“It still remains that the Crown must independently and objectively and fairly assess the evidence that’s available with respect to each potential suspect,” he said.
A massive investigation unfolded after the city’s reputation was blackened by surging crowds that burned cars and ransacked downtown stores after the Canucks lost Game 7 to the Boston Bruins.
The province, its arms-length criminal justice branch and the Integrated Riot Investigation Team of eight police agencies have worked in tandem to appease angry members of the public who watched the spectacle on TV.
Over the past four months, investigators travelled to a specialized lab in Indianapolis to examine 5,000 hours of footage in a forensic video database. The B.C. government covered the $300,000 database cost, Chu said.
Work by 50 forensic analysts identified 50 men and 10 women as prospects for the first charges, 21 of them from the nearby suburb of Surrey, 12 from Vancouver, nine from Burnaby and the remainder mostly from other Lower Mainland cities. One accused hails from Seattle.
The average age of the group is 21 years, with the youngest being a 16-year-old man and the oldest being a 52-year-old man.
If charges are approved, the accused will be tried in Vancouver Provincial Court. MacKenzie couldn’t say exactly when the process would be complete, but noted it’s possible the first cases will be heard by the end of November.
B.C. Attorney General Shirley Bond has supported the premier in pushing for bringing the perpetrators to account.
“Obviously I’m not able to intervene or to be involved in the process, but I’m confident we have a team that’s ready and the work is underway as we speak,” she told reporters in Victoria.
Rob Gordon, director of the Simon Fraser University school of criminology, said police have been strategic in putting out the first recommendations, selecting suspects they’re certain were major players with solid evidence to back the accusations.
It means Crown will likely accept the vast majority, if not all, and the next step will be showing suspects the uncompromising footage, he said.
“I think there will be a fair number of pleas, maybe even some plea-bargaining going on,” Gordon said in an interview. “I’ve looked at some of the video footage on YouTube and it is compelling.”
He said it’s more difficult to prove the charge of participating in a riot, because it requires proving that an individual participated in a series of criminal acts over time. But that offence also carries up to two years imprisonment, he said.
Lead investigator Sgt. Dale Weidman said about 70 per cent of the group turned themselves in. He suggested some, however, only admitted to a one or a few offences in an attempt to coverup more extensive infractions. Some already had criminal records.
Early in the riot investigation, one man saw his picture from the riot posted on Facebook.
The Vancouver Island man contacted police to apologize for damaging a car, and police were initially prepared to recommend a charge of mischief.
But Chu said investigators then searched for the man’s description in the video database.
The computer returned numerous hits showing the suspect allegedly damaging six vehicles, including an unmarked police car.
“The people who rampaged that night must be held accountable for their actions, as the (Vancouver Police Department) will be held accountable by the courts for how we investigated their crimes,” Chu said.
An independent, commissioned report released on the riot has concluded police were overwhelmed by the massive and largely drunken crowd of people who poured into the downtown core to watch the crucial game on large TV screens.