Monday, April 30, 2007

Vancouver Police hold M16 assault rifle to head of innocent man

Vancouver Police got a neighbour of Nigel Roberts at Nanaimo St. and McGill to bang on his door in the middle of the night to tell him that his truck was being towed. Roberts recalls racing out his backdoor with no shirt or shoes and seeing “cops everywhere with assault rifles”. An M16 assault rifle was pointed at his head. “They slammed me down on the ground”, he says, and told me to shut up, that I was under arrest and investigation for double homicide. There were even police with rifles on tripods, he said, pointed at his windows. Roberts was handcuffed “behind my back”, and his ankles were shackled.

The 26 yr. old Roberts was delivered to the Vancouver Police Station near Main & Hastings. He was put in a small room to wait for Detectives Dale Weidman and Rob Faoro who would question him about the murders.

Nigel Roberts has since been cleared. Detective Weidman testified in B.C. Supreme Court earlier this month that at the time of Roberts’ arrest, the VPD had “no direct evidence against him.”

Weidman has been testifying – he finished last Wednesday -- at the murder trial of Dennis Knibbs, who is charged with one of the murders which had taken place inside the New Wings Hotel on the Downtown Eastside on Apr. 4/05, the night before Roberts’ arrest. Knibbs is accused of using both a shotgun and a revolver to shoot Trumaine “Ekoh” Habib, who had just shot Knibbs’ cousin Ian Liscombe with the same shotgun.

Weidman was first called to the witness stand at Knibbs’ trial on Apr. 5th, 2007, almost two years to the day since he interviewed Nigel Roberts at 2:55 a.m. on Apr. 5, 2005. Defense lawyer Glen Orris asked Weidman to recall interviewing Roberts just hours after police had discovered two murder victims at the New Wings Hotel: "Obviously , you’re dealing with somebody who might be considered a suspect, is that correct?” Weidman responded, “No.... I certainly don’t have reasonable grounds to think he’s involved or responsible for it….Certainly I don’t have grounds.”

Weidman told the court twice that he had not played a role in the actual arrest of Roberts at his home at 330 Nanaimo St. Roberts, he said, had come to police attention a few hours earlier when he and a passenger in his vehicle were seen “driving through the crime scene”. A patrol officer had noted that Roberts fit the description of the suspect. “Loosely”, Weidman noted. Roberts is an extremely light skinned Black man, what some American Blacks call, “light, bright, and almost white”. Knibbs on the other hand is, as Roberts told detectives, “Jamaican dark.”

Roberts testified that he had driven to the New Wings Hotel in his truck, a Ford Explorer with Florida plates, the night before his arrest, to buy heroin. It was a trip Roberts – who testified that he has been clean for a year now -- made up to 5 times a day at the height of his three year heroin addiction. Roberts, who described his passenger Ryan Watson as also involved in heroin and being of the “same ethnic” as himself, told the court that they “didn’t even get near the New Wings that night”. “It was blocked off.” So Roberts pulled into a gas station, made a U-turn, and headed up to Main & Hastings where he purchased heroin.

It was several hours later, shortly after Roberts had taken a quarter gram of heroin at his home that he was lured out of the house by a ruse about his truck. He recalls being “pretty high, which is why I was up at 2:30 in the morning”. When he raced out his back door and encountered police with assault weapons, “They told me I was being charged with the murders” – a fact he repeated a number of times over the course of his four days on the witness stand. Under usual circumstances, Roberts explained, he would have been nodding out after taking “a smash of heroin” – but he was so “traumatized” by having an M16 pointed at his head and being told he was being charged with double homicide that he was not even close to nodding out at the police station.

One of the detectives can be heard during the videotaped interview telling Roberts, “Calm down, calm down.” This was after Detective Faoro made an accusation: “You fucked off”. Faoro was referring to the police claim that Roberts had been followed after being spotted near the crime scene. Roberts defended himself: “You put the lights on when you’re trying to stop somebody.” The police vehicle, he insisted, had “no lights on or nothing.” One of the detectives reassured Roberts, “You’re not going to jail for not stopping.”

When questioning Weidman, defense lawyer Glen Orris pointed out that his partner, Detective Faoro, had “used the fuck-word quite often during the interview” with Roberts. Weidman acknowledged that Faoro was not in the habit of using this word in his daily life. Certainly Detectives Weidman and Faoro have some of the characteristics of a ‘good cop-bad cop’ team. In court testimony last week, Constable Faoro spoke in an armoured, ‘nobody’s-going-to- put-one-over-on-me’ tone of voice. Weidman spoke in the relaxed style of an approachable person. One tactic of this detective duo that Roberts testified had unnerved him, was that while he was being questioned, one of the detectives kept leaving the room. Just like in NYPD Blue.

At the beginning of the interview, Detective Faoro listed three alternatives and told Roberts to pick one:

1. You guys had fuck all to do with this

2. Those are your buddies in that place right there [the New Wings Hotel], lying there dead.

3. You guys did it.

Which one of those three is it?”

Roberts responded, “We had fuck all to do with it.”

Roberts did not speak in such a coarse style when he testified in court last week; he did not have a street-tough persona. And despite a large diamond stud earring in his ear, his style was more classy than flashy. The roughly 5’9” Roberts wore a finely tailored black suit during the entire four days of his testimony, beginning on his first day with a white shirt and a tie with chunky horizontal stripes of black and white, and ending on his last day with a pale yellow shirt with a yellow-grey tie. His dark curly hair with a receding hairline was cropped close to his head.

After interviewing Roberts, Detectives Weidman and Faoro released him later the same morning. But they took a second statement from him the following day, Apr. 6/05, a statement of which Roberts has no memory as he was “out of it” from his heroin addiction throughout this period. Roberts does recall a telephone conversation with Weidman on Apr. 6/05 though. Roberts claims to have called Weidman about his truck and his mother.

First his mother. Roberts stated in court that he had called Detective Weidman to ask, “Why did you call my mother and tell her I’m a heroin addict?” Roberts’ mother had telephoned him, after Detective Weidman had contacted her, and asked, “What’s this about you being a heroin addict?”

Now his truck. Roberts says he also called Detective Weidman about the fact that the VPD had not released his truck which had been impounded. He didn’t understand, he testified, why the detectives “release me” but “have my truck for a whole week.”

Roberts confirmed that his impounded truck is registered in Florida in his mother’s name, but added that the insurance was in his name. Roberts lived in Florida but moved to Vancouver in 2002 where he has an uncle and a cousin – “My mother’s from here”, he told the court -- after being released from prison. He had gone to prison in Florida “at a young age” which, he says, is partially what screwed him up: “The things I seen…” Prosecutor Michael Luchencko read Roberts’ criminal record aloud in court, a record which seems to have ended in 1999 when Roberts was convicted of an array of offences in Florida including: robbery, burglary, grand theft, and aggravated assault of a law enforcement officer with intent to kill. Roberts was sentenced to five years and served three. Then he came to Canada.

Blame Canada. It was in Vancouver that Roberts developed a heroin habit. When he arrived from Florida, his drug use amounted to using marijuana “every day” and drinking on the weekends and occasionally during the week. But he began snorting heroin in Vancouver and eventually was using that “every day”.

How could you afford to purchase heroin?, Luchencko asked, “I was doing real good,” Roberts replied, “I was living in Coal Harbour in a high rise and I was selling marijuana.”

In 2003 or 2004, Roberts began injecting heroin. He would sometimes “fall asleep at the wheel of my vehicle” while on heroin. “But it took away all my problems.”

One of Roberts’ problems was a bi-polar/manic depressive disorder. “At the time I hadn’t been taking my medication at all.” He recalled having highs and lows, real lows. “Sometimes I didn’t know what I was doing.” One of the reasons Roberts says he was opting for heroin was that he didn’t like the way the medication he had been prescribed for his bi-polar disorder made him feel.

Roberts speaks freely to police about people he knew at the New Wings

Roberts was a rich vein of information for detectives. He was familiar with the world inside the New Wings as he was there purchasing heroin several times a day. “If I could’ve, I would’ve lived there at that time,” Roberts testified. “I was really messed up.” He was well acquainted with both the dead and the living in this murder saga.

When Roberts was shown a photograph of 21 yr. old Trumaine “Ekoh” Habib by the prosecutor – Habib had absorbed several handgun bullets and a shotgun blast to the chest -- his voice took on a note sadness and fondness, “Yeeaah, that’s Ekoh.”

Roberts recalled Ekoh (pronounced Echo) Nabib as being young, about 5’8” or 5’9” and 160 lbs. “He usually kept his hair in corn rows”. When asked Nabib’s race, Roberts replied, “Mulatto, I think, Black and White”. Roberts noted, “He was ok with me,” alluding to reports of tensions between Nabib and some other players in this case. “I would call him a homeboy”, Roberts added. Excuse me?, the prosecutor said. “I was cool with him,” Roberts elaborated. “I would stop by his room, to talk, listen to music, smoke some weed.” Sometimes the two would “smoke some herb” in Roberts truck. “I remember him ‘cause I had a better relationship with him than Ian.”

Roberts relationship with Ian Liscombe had involved purchasing heroin. Roberts identified both Ian Liscombe and his cousin, defendant Dennis “Rocka” Knibbs, as dealers in the New Wings. He never purchased drugs from these dealers directly though. When a user arrived to purchase heroin, the dealer would have “a separate person hook ‘em up.” Roberts explained: “I would go to Ian and I would know who he had working for him.” Liscombe would point to someone. “I’d purchase my heroin from a crack head, another user.”

Roberts would then inject the heroin, “chill out” at home, and return to the hotel to purchase more.

Although Roberts’ heroin habit made him a New Wings insider who had valuable information for Detectives Weidman and Faoro, Roberts says his heroin habit made much of the information he gave these detectives inaccurate. He retracted much of it in court last week.

Roberts retracts statements he made to VPD detectives

Just minutes before he was to begin testifying at the Knibbs’ murder trial, Roberts button-holed prosecutor Michael Luchencko outside the courthouse and told him he would not stand by incriminating statements he had made in 2005 about the defendant, Knibbs, to detectives. Roberts has given two reasons for his retractions:

1) Roberts claims he was scared when being interviewed by detectives after police had pointed an M16 at his head and told him he was being charged with double homicide. Roberts had exaggerated claims about people at the New Wings such as Knibbs, he testified, in his desperation to convince detectives to shift their focus from him. He was scared that police were “trying to frame me or something, ‘cause it happens everyday.”

2) Roberts claims his heavy use of heroin while interacting with residents of the New Wings coupled with the heavy dose of heroin he had taken before questioning by detectives, resulted in his statement to police being rife with inaccuracies. “At the time I gave that statement, I was high as a kite, and I didn’t know who was who or what was what.” Roberts explained that now that he had been straight for a year, he was able to think straight again, to think more clearly.

Defense lawyer embarrasses Vancouver Police detectives

It was the job of defense lawyer Orris to convince the jury that statements Roberts made to police about his client were unreliable. Orris impressed upon the jury that Detectives Weidman and Faoro had extracted this statement from 1) a scared man without making him aware of his rights, 2) a track-marked, admitted heroin addict, without asking him if he was currently under the influence of drugs.

Orris began his attack by asking Weidman whether Roberts had been “chartered and warned” before detectives took his statement. Weidman gave three answers to this question during the trial. When first asked this question by Orris on Apr. 5/07, Weidman responded, “No.” When Orris posed the same question again on April 25/07, Weidman seemed prepared and replied, “I’ve since reviewed…” Orris cut him off, insisting that he wanted to know what Weidman knew at the time he took Roberts’ statement. Had Weidman been aware of whether Roberts had been “chartered and warned”? “No, I wasn’t”, Weidman responded in a low, almost inaudible voice. Then Weidman suddenly piped up with a revised answer, “I don’t remember that day.”

Orris then got detectives to admit that they had not asked Roberts about any medication or illicit drugs of which he was under the influence when his statement was being taken. “Did you ask him if he was under the influence of drugs at any time,” Orris asked. Weidman responded, “No.”

Orris asked if Weidman or his partner had asked Roberts about any other disorders. He has a bi-polar disorder, Orris said. “Does that ring a bell?” Weidman replied “No”, but at that point volunteered, “I remember him telling us about his heroin addiction.” When questioned further, Weidman confirmed that his partner, Detective Faoro, also had never asked Roberts if he was under the influence of drugs.

Orris then turned his attention to the second statement the detectives had taken from Roberts: Did you or your partner ask Mr. Roberts if he was under the influence of drugs? “No,” Weidman responded. Did you ask him if he was on “any other medication for anything at any time?”, Orris asked. “No,” Weidman responded.

Orris: But you knew he was into the heroin?
Weidmman: Yes, he told us.

Luchencko attempted a little damage control: Did you have any reason "to believe it was necessary" to ask the questions Orris had been suggesting? "No," Weidman said, explaining that he'd had consider experience working "in the skids" with addicts.

Orris continued this line of questioning when Detective Faoro took the witness stand: Wouldn’t it have been “fair” to ask Mr. Roberts, “Are you under the influence of drugs?” At one point Faoro said he had considerable experience with heroin addicts and that Roberts did not exhibit the signs, such as nodding out.

Orris raised his voice to a booming level: “Why not simply ask? He told you he was a heroin addict; he showed you his arm and his track marks.”
Faoro: "I didn’t think it was necessary."
Orris: "Asking him if he was under the influence of drugs would not have taken much time?"
Faoro: “No.”

Weidman and Faoro seemed to have rehearsed for Orris’ line of questioning; at times their testimony was so similar in words and phrases that it seemed scripted. They both used the term "lucid" to describe Roberts, for example.

Judge and prosecutor weren't buying Roberts' story

The judge reviewed Roberts statement to police and said it was "not incoherent".

Luchencko noted that he had spoken with Roberts earlier in his office and "at no time did he suggest there was a possibility of such a problem."

Upon first hearing of Roberts' retractions, Luchenko had told the judge: "I think this is a witness under some pressure." I think I know what you're getting at, the judge, told him. But nobody said it out loud.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

How to buy and sell heroin without saying a word

You don’t need words to buy heroin. Gestures will do. That's according to Nigel Roberts, 26, a former heroin addict who was testifying last week at the murder trial of Dennis Knibbs in B.C. Supreme Court.

Knibbs is on trial for one of two murders which were committed on Apr, 4, 2005 in the New Wings Hotel. "The Wings" was a residential hotel where Roberts, who says he's been clean for a year, was purchasing heroin multiple times a day at the peak of his 3 yr. habit in 2005.

Roberts was asked by prosecutor Michael Luchencko about his history of purchasing heroin at Oppenheimer Park or across the street at the New Wings Hotel on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. At Oppenheimer Park, Roberts explained, it was “users selling to other users.” He noted, “They didn’t have any real dealers out of Oppenheimer Park.”

But Roberts knew “a couple of dealers in the New Wings”. He explained that he never purchased drugs from these dealers directly though. “They had people give it to me.” When a user arrived to purchase heroin, the dealer would have “a separate person hook ‘em up.”

When asked if he had “personal knowledge” of any dealers at the New Wings Hotel, Roberts listed: “Ian, Rocka, John.” “Ian” is a nickname for Aliston Liscombe, the defendant’s cousin who was shot and killed at the New Wings on the night of Apr. 4/05. “Rocka” is a nickname for Dennis Knibbs, on trial for allegedly shooting the young man whom he had just witnessed shooting his cousin. “John” refers to John Whalen Jr., who admitted in court that he was a crack cocaine dealer [See “How much does a crack cocaine dealer earn?”] at the New Wings, and had shared a cab with Knibbs in the minutes following the shootings.

But Roberts noted that these men had never sold drugs to him directly; “They would hook me up.”

“I would go to Ian and I would know who he had working for him”, said Roberts. He explained that when purchasing heroin, “You don’t have to say words.” He demonstrated the gesture he would use when approaching Ian at the New Wings: repeatedly jabbing his left index finger downwards in the air, in the direction of his right forearm. Ian would respond by pointing his own finger, “like ‘Go to him’.” “I’d purchase my heroin from a crack head, another user”, Roberts said. “Where?”, the prosecutor asked. “Everywhere in the New Wings.”

The judge noted that witnesses where immune from prosecution for statements they made in court, unless they committed perjury.

Witnesses such as Nigel Roberts and John Whalen Jr. who knew Knibbs through the Downtown Eastside drug culture, have been testifying freely about the drug trade. Knibbs is not on trial for drug dealing, but for murder. When it comes to testimony that could affect the murder trial verdict though, these witnesses have been more guarded. Both Nigel Roberts and John Whalen Jr. have shown up in court to retract previous statements they made to police that could have proven damaging to the defense.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

How much does a crack cocaine dealer earn?

John Whalen Jr. had a good memory for how much money he made as a crack cocaine dealer at the New Wings Hotel, when he testified last Tuesday at the murder trial of Dennis “Rocka” Knibbs. But he suddenly developed a bad memory about the drug turf war he told police had been occurring inside the New Wings Hotel at the time of the murder of 21 yr. old drug dealer, Trumaine “Ekoh” Habib. Whalen’s claim that he had no memory of the turf war was a blow to the prosecution which seemed intent on using it to suggest a motive for the murder to the jury.

Whalen, now 25, with a string of geometric tattoos on the back of each arm, a long gold chain around his neck, the sides of his head shaved and longer dyed blond hair sprouting on top of his head, testified that he had been going to the New Wings Hotel on the Downtown Eastside for years because his dad lived there. What did his father do? He sold drugs out of the New Wings. What business did John Jr. get into? Selling drugs out of the New Wings. When prosecutor Michael Luchencko asked who served his father’s customers when he was in the hospital with a broken leg, Whalen responded, “I did.”

In April, 2005, the time of the murder, Whalen told the court he had been addicted to “everything”: crack, heroin, speed, coke, pills. He sold drugs to support his own habit, just as, he told Luchencko, many tenants at the New Wings did. “That’s what everybody did in there, used and supported their habits.”

From 2004-05, Whalen was at the New Wings Hotel everyday. His father still had a room there. Whalen would sell drugs out of the rooms of various tenants, giving them crack to smoke in exchange: “You give him hoots and they’d let you sit in the room.”

How much does a crack cocaine dealer make?

Whalen, who has been granted immunity from prosecution for statements he makes during this trial, was asked by Luchencko about the money he made selling crack cocaine in 2005. Would it be correct to say “you used the money up, tended not to accumulate it.” Yes, Whalen said.

How much in the way of drugs were you selling in the spring 2005? “A kilo of crack over a month period”, Whalen responded.

Whalen couldn’t afford to buy a kilo at a time, so he would buy “an ounce here, an ounce there.” He testified that he would pay $800 for one ounce. There were 28 grams to an ounce and he sold a gram for $50.

Prosecutor Luchenko, took a moment to do the math. So you were bringing in about $45,000 a month; would that be correct, he asked. Yes, Whalen said. That would be his gross income, of course; his net would be less than half that amount.

Selling crack cocaine can be a stressful occupation though. Whalen admitted that he sometimes sold to customers when he and Knibbs were out walking around together, Luchenko asked “What would Rocka do when you were selling to the customers?” Whalen replied, “I wasn’t paying attention; I’d be too busy trying to watch for the cops.”

Hootin’ and shootin’

When he heard shots inside the New Wings Hotel, Whalen did not know what time it was, only that it was “dark”. He had not been out of the hotel since the previous night. “It was the night before that I came in to my dad’s room.”

Why were you staying inside, Luchenko asked. “Because I smoke crack.” Whalen had been “wandering the halls in and out of people’s rooms.” Shortly before the shooting, he had been standing by the office with 3 or 4 other people whose names he could not remember. His girlfriend [Lauren Lee Wayne] was there as well; he could not recall her name, but he knew her nickname was Bootie, and he confirmed that she had a “13” tattooed on her body, although he couldn’t recall exactly where. Whalen left the group to go to stand by the fire escape to “do a hoot”, smoke crack.

Whalen saw Echo – who was about to be killed in Room 15 -- “just before I walked away.” Ekoh had just come up the stairs [the office was at the top of a staircase] and was approaching the door of Room 15. “He was walking towards it when I walked away.”

How long were you at the fire escape, Luchencko asked. “Fifteen minutes….One hoot takes about 15 minutes”, Whalen explained. “I was standing there enjoying my high when I heard some shots and I ran away.” He recalled the first shot being different, “loud”, and the “other five or so were like a firecracker sound.” At another point, he described the shots as, “I just heard an echo through the building.”

As Whalen was exiting the building he passed the office which is situated near Room 15. “I saw Rocka standing there and everybody was all frantic.” He recalled, “quite a few” people, including his girlfriend, being there. “My girlfriend was standing there….Rocka was standing about 30 or 40 steps from the office….I seen him standing by the phone and I said, ‘Let’s go.’”

“So you just left your girlfriend?”, Luchencko asked. “She was more of a drug girlfriend,” he explained, “All guys who do drugs have them come around just to have a girl but they don’t really care about them.”

“Did you leave your stash at the hotel?”, Luchencko asked. “I left quite a bit there; my door was locked.”

Drug dealer yells on the witness stand

Luchencko reminded Whalen that he had told police in a March 2007 statement that as he was heading out of the building, “Everybody’s like, ‘Call the cops, call the ambulance.’” Luchencko pressed Whalen on why he had been so eager to get out of the hotel as the cops were being called. Whalen finally lost his temper:

Whalen: I’m a drug dealer. Do you think I wanted to go to jail?
Luchencko: Did you have a large amount of drugs on you at the time…even a small amount of drugs?
Whalen: I always have a small amount on me.
Whalen raised his voice in anger: Do I need a lawyer man?! He’s trying to screw me up!…I’m a fucking drug addict!”

If Whalen had not been a crack dealer, he might have been a defense lawyer. His position that the prosecution was out of line in persistently pursuing a drug trafficking angle was not unlike that of Knibbs defense lawyer, Glen Orris. The risk here, Orris told Judge Silverman, was that the jury could end up with the attitude that, “These were all bad people. Mr. Knibbs was a drug trafficker…These people were all drug traffickers, and two of them are dead, so we’ll put one of them away.” Even Judge Silverman had been thinking along the lines of the young crack dealer, when he said he intended to instruct the jury that evidence of drug trafficking at the New Wings was of “limited” value in this trial.

Drug dealer changes his story

Orris also told the judge that he was concerned that the prosecution was attempting to give the jury the impression that there had been an “ongoing drug war” at the New Wings Hotel that resulted in the killing. He said that the impression that the prosecution seemed to be attempting to give the jury was that there was a “gang that Rocka had control of” at the New Wings. That was “unfair” and “extremely prejudicial.” Orris told the judge that while drug trafficking issues point to character, “in no way do they go to the question of motive.” But this was the window he saw the prosecution attempting to open

Although Whalen had initially helped open that window, he now seemed determined to slam it shut. He changed his story. Suddenly he had no memory of any drug war. His court testimony in court last week differed markedly from the statement he had given to VPD Detective Joseph Danieli in prosecutor Luchenko’s office just a month ago, on March 16, 2007:.

Court testimony, Apr. 17 & 18, 2007
Question: Were you aware of Ekoh?
Whalen: Yes
Question: Do you recall him having issues with anyone in the New Wings
Whalen: Not really
Question: Where you aware of any people living in the New Wings “who didn’t get along.”
Whalen: No.
Question: Can you recall two groups of people aligned with one another in the New Wings?
Whalen:“Not that I can recall, No.
Question: Do you recall a confrontation between two groups of people within the New Wings Hotel?
Whalen: No
Question: Did you see yourself on one of two or more sides inside the New Wings?
Whalen: No

Police Interview, Mar. 16, 2007
Whalen: “Like Echo’s crew and Rocka’s crew had issues with each other.
Question: So you say they didn’t get along.
Whalen: Everytime they passed each other in the hall, they’d all be screaming and yelling at each other….“Rocka never really got into it”, just all the crackheads would do it for him.
Question: Where most of the crack heads on Rocka’s side?
Whalen: All of them were on our side, me and Rocka’s side….“And no one else would try to push their way into the building.”
Question: So these guys never got along but they never got into it you said.
Whalen: No, never.
Question: Nothing physical.
Whalen: No.

When the above statement he had given to police was brought to Whalen’s attention in court last week, he fell back on a drug abuse excuse: “I can’t remember what I said. I do drugs everyday. I’m a drug addict.” Luchencko said, “You’re saying you’re still doing drugs?” “Yeah”, Whalen said.

Whalen was contradicting himself again.

He had told the court the previous day that he had been addicted to drugs from 13 - 22 years of age. He had stated on another occasion the same morning in the witness box that he had been clean since last summer.

Not only would Whalen give the prosecution nothing they could use to present the jury with a “drug war” scenario inside the New Wings, he would no longer even finger the defendant, Knibbs, as a drug dealer. In the statement Whalen gave to police, Luchencko told the judge, he was asked for the names of persons who were trafficking in drugs in the New Wings Hotel. “He had said it was both Echo and Rocka at that time.” But in court, he consistently claimed to have no names, other than his father and himself. Even when he was asked for nicknames, he claimed he didn’t know any.

Whalen is not the only witness emerging from the Downtown Eastside drug culture to change his story in a manner that favours the defendant, Knibbs. Knibbs could be tapping his foot to a Garth Brooks tune on his ipod: “I’ve got friends in low places.”

Sunday, April 22, 2007

"Silver dollar" sized bullet hole in chest

When ambulance paramedic, Mr. Whiting, climbed the steep stairs to the first level of the New Wings Hotel, he saw police constables with weapons drawn standing at every corner of the floor which was laid out in an “H” pattern.

Whiting walked over to a constable standing with his shotgun pointed into a tiny room. “He looked stressed,” Whiting recalled.

What do you have?, Whiting asked. “There’s one dead and there’s one alive and he’s talking.”

From the hallway, Whiting could see 21 yr. old Trumaine “Ekoh” Habib lying spread-eagled on his back on the floor, just inside the door of tiny Room 15. “He had a silver dollar sized hole in his chest,” Whiting recalled. “You could actually see into his chest.”

Whiting, in his mid-thirties, tall, thin, with short blond hair, a mustache and goatee, blue eyes, and a speaking style that would get picked up on the “gaydar” most Vancouverite’s have by now developed, was testifying at the murder trial of Dennis Knibbs on Wednesday. Knibbs is accused of shooting Habib multiple times, just seconds after Habib shot Liscombe, as Knibbs and Liscombe attempted to force open the door of a hotel room in which Habib was staying. Whiting was consistently polite when testifying, referring to Habib as the “dusky-skinned gentleman” on the floor.

It was obvious to Whiting that the “larger gentleman” lying on the bed had a belly wound: “He was trying to hold his intestines on his belly with his hands.” Whiting described him as black, 250-260 pounds, bare chested. He was Winston “Ian” Liscombe. Like the stressed-looking Constable had indicated, Liscombe was lucid. “He arched his head to look at me when I stuck my head around the corner to look in.”

Whiting asked the Constable standing in the doorway with a shotgun, whom he once again described as looking “stressed”, if he knew where the shooter was. “No”, the cop replied. Whiting instantly “went back to the wall, which was the safest point.” Whiting explained, “All the constables were tied up…There was nobody to go into the room to search it.”

It was obvious to Whiting that the man still alive in the room had “a life-threatening injury”. So he made a decision to go into the room. A constable went in with him, with gun drawn, “watching my back.”

Whiting took the pulse of Habib. His partner, paramedic Margaret Kay, double-checked for a pulse. Habib had “expired”, as Whiting put it.

Liscombe too would die, later at St. Paul’s Hospital. But as he lay on the bed with his torso twisted to the left, cradling his belly with his hands, he was able to talk to Whiting. "He spoke like he was in pain.”

Whiting: What happened?
Liscombe: I’ve been shot.
Whiting: What were you shot with?
Liscombe: A rifle.
Whiting: Are you familiar with firearms?
Liscombe: Oh yeah.

Whiting had a reason for asking Liscombe the last question. Some of the injuries on the other victim, Habib, looked to him as though they had been inflicted by a pistol.

Liscombe was able to move not only his neck, but even his legs a little. “He kind of helped us as he was rolled over to see if there were any wounds on his back,” like exit wounds, Whiting explained. It was difficult to get Liscombe off the bed and onto the stretcher because the mattress “drooped”. “It was a slum,” Whiting said, the only time he sounded judgmental.

Did police fail to make safety of ambulance workers and quick medical treatment for shooting victims their top priority?

Whiting’s testimony raises questions about whether police made getting medical treatment to the shooting victims their top priority. Critical moments were lost as the ambulance waited a block away so that police could make the crime scene safe for paramedics – yet when ambulance workers arrived, the hotel room in which the victim lay had not yet been searched.

Whiting recalls arriving at the corner of Cordova and Dunley Streets, a block from the New Wings Hotel, and being “told to wait.” It is policy, he explained, for the ambulance to wait a block from a violent crime scene until police give clearance that it is safe to move in. Whiting and his crew “stuck our heads around the corner to see what was going on at the call.” They saw police everywhere, as well as fire vehicles, even two “mounted police” on horseback.

The ambulance workers made a call to dispatch, “Is it safe to move in?” It was then that they were told they were not dealing with a stabbing as they had originally been told, but a shooting. “Police lifted their yellow caution tape" Whiting testified, "so the ambulance could get in under it.”

They were met by a sergeant, Whiting continued, who gave them an update on the shooting: “Well, it’s two.”

Before Whiting and his crew arrived to climb up to the first floor of the New Wings, one level above the street, it appears that there had been ample police on site to search the room where the victims lay. Police had, after all, found time to search 'crackheads' on the sidewalk.

The time line tells the story. Whiting testified that the ambulance arrived a block away at 9:51 p.m. Constable Eileen Volpatti testified that she arrived at the New Wings Hotel at 9:49 p.m. and immediately saw “some of the members” of the VPD intercepting five women who were leaving the hotel through the front door. Volpatti performed “safety pat down searches of the females to make sure they had no weapons on them.”

Constable Mark Naufeld testified that he arrived at the New Wings at 9:49 p.m. -- two minutes before the ambulance stopped a block away. He saw “several members” dealing with “four or five” women exiting the front door of the hotel. He intercepted one of the women, Lauren Lee Wayne, and moved her to a wall nearby. Dealing with Wayne, an admitted crack cocaine addict whom Naufeld described as compliant, was his primary focus that night, until a bus arrived and he accompanied witnesses to the police station.

The testimony of Brian B., who lived in a seniors apartment building on Dunlevy St., across from the New Wings Hotel, would also suggest that there were sufficient police on site to search the hotel room before the ambulance workers arrived. He testified that when he heard gunshots, he noticed the time “9:38” p.m. on his digital pager, and “within five minutes of the gunshots, the street was full of policemen.” A number of them, he stated outside court, were carrying assault rifles.

Better police coordination could not have helped Nabib though. Whiting could see from the silver dollar sized hole near his sternum, that his internal organs were "maserated"; for the laymen jury, he explained that an example of maseration would be "liquified intestines". You don't come back from an injury like that, Whiting explained. But Liscombe had better odds of survival. He made it to St. Paul's Hospital where he was given an enormous amount of blood, according to earlier testimony by pathologist Dr. Grey.

As Whiting testified about the injuries of the two victims, defendant Dennis Knibbs hung his head. But his tie looked a tad upbeat. It was mauve.

Knibbs may have reason to be a tad upbeat. The fact that his cousin Liscombe had been moving and talking despite his shotgun wound, may help Knibbs. His lawyer, Glen Orris, has revealed that the defense intends to call an expert witness who will testify that one of the bullets in that room came from the direction of the bed. Could that have been the bullet that left the "silver dollar" hole in Nabib's chest?

As Whiting left the courtroom, a young male sheriff could be heard saying to another in a low voice. "Going to Starbucks? I need one. Badly."

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Vancouver Police caught lying at murder trial

False testimony was provided by a Vancouver Police officer Wednesday at the murder trial of Dennis Knibbs in B.C. Supreme Court. We know it was provided by either Constable Mark Naufeld or Constable Eileen Volpatti? Which one was it?

When Constable Naufeld and Constable Volpatti separately testified today about the handling of evidence – a black athletic bag with DUNLOP written on the side containing a shot gun -- which was discovered outside the New Wings Hotel just after two people had been shot in a room upstairs.

Constable Naufeld testifies

When Constable Naufeld, in his 20’s, Caucasian with short, black, wavy hair, arrived at the scene, he saw several VPD officers dealing with “various women” who were exiting the New Wings through the front door. He stopped one of the women. He had observed her carrying a black athletic bag but that was not the reason he stopped her; police were stopping everyone coming out of the hotel. “She was carrying [the bag] by the straps as she exited the hotel.”

Naufeld told her to put the bag down and stand near a wall. She “put the bag at her feet”, he said. “She moved at least 10-15 feet from where she had placed it.”

He later confirmed that she was Lauren Lee Wayne, a native woman in her early twenties, with a “13” tattooed on her stomach. “Did she remain standing at the wall?”, prosecutor Alisha Adams asked. She did, Naufeld said.

“Constable Volpatti then arrived to assist you,” Adams said. “Constable Volpatti showed me what was in the bag”, Naufeld said. He saw “what appeared to be a sawed off shotgun” inside the bag.

Then Naufeld said, “I returned to stand with Ms. Wayne.”

Constable Naufeld contradicts himself

When cross-examined by defense lawyer, Glen Orris, Naufeld started out with basically the same version of events that he had given the prosecutor. When he arrived at the New Wings after the shooting, he had seen Ms. Wayne exiting the front door with “four or five” other women. He told her “to put whatever’s in her hands on the ground”, and she complied. “Then you asked her to move away from the entrance area”, Orris said. Naufeld added that he had “walked her 10-15 feet away from the bag.”

Then what did you do? “I stayed with her”, Naufeld responded. Naufeld asked her to identify herself and then “verified it on the police computer system” in a police car. It was beginning to sound as though he had left the witness unattended at the wall. But he corrected that impression by stating that other police units had begun to arrive so he had asked another officer to check “your witness and mine.” Wayne’s name was punched into the computer and the “The description and photo matched,” Naufeld said. “Then I went back to stand with Ms. Wayne,” he said.

Then Constable Volpatti got your attention, Orris said. “Are you still by Ms.Wayne?,” Orris asks. Naufeld confirmed that he was.

At this point, Naufeld claimed, Constable Volpatti “asked me to look at the evidence.” She “asked me to take a look inside the bag.” He then added, smiling slightly, “I had a peek into the bag” and saw a “sawed off shot gun.” Orris suggested that Naufeld must have separated from his witness to walk 10-15 feet over to the bag to which Volpatti had drawn his attention. “She had the bag in her hand,” Naufeld quickly added. I’m confused, said Orris, seemingly playing dumb. “Constable Volpatti comes over to you and says, ‘Look in the bag’.” Then Orris reminded Naufeld that he had just testified, minutes earlier when questioned by the Crown prosecutor, that he had looked into the bag containing the shot gun “and then went back towards Ms. Wayne.” Naufeld is then nailed down on a claim that Orris no doubt anticipated Constable Volpatti would contradict: “At all times, you where standing within a few feet of Ms. Wayne.” Constable Naufeld responded, “Correct”.

Constable Volpatti contradicts Constable Naufeld

Constable Volpatti, 30ish, white, tall, thin, came to court wearing a black leather sports jacket -- unlike Naufeld who wore his uniform -- with her wavy brown hair in a pony tail. She testified that when she arrived at the New Wings the night of the shootings, she saw five women standing in front of the hotel with police. She began a “safety pat down searches” of these women to make sure they had no weapons.

Behind two females, she spotted the black duffle bag on the sidewalk. She “pulled it to the side of the sidewalk” and unzipped it. She saw a 15 inch “sawed off shot gun” in the bag. Volpatti confirmed that she “looked in it while it was on the ground.”

Defence lawyer Orris: Did you pick it up at any point?
Volpatti: No, I did not.

Volpatti then confirmed that she had asked the women on the sidewalk who the bag belonged to – although she claimed, “I don’t recall raising my voice”, as had been suggested by Orris. She confirmed that the bag was in the “middle of the sidewalk” at this time.

Orris reviewed Volpatti’s testimony one more time: “You see the bag on the ground…pulled it away a couple of feet.” “Two or three feet,” Volpatti interjected. When Orris asked her if she had ever picked up the bag, she responded, “No”. Then he nailed this point down a second time:

Orris: So you never picked up the bag, never touched it again?
Volpatti: No.

So Volpatti didn’t move key evidence, the bag with the shot gun, ten to fifteen feet away for ‘Show & Tell’ with Naufeld, as he had testified. Or did she? Which one of these officers is lying?

This lie is not a casual one. Both Naufeld and Volpatti were thoroughly questioned by Mr. Orris on the movement of the bag containing the shot gun. If either officer couldn’t remember something, they had ample opportunity to admit that – but one of them seems to have chosen instead to give false testimony under oath.

Orris is transparent about his strategy. He explained it in front of the jury on Monday: If he can show that a witness is lying about little things, it can be assumed that they could be lying about bigger things.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Gun? What gun?

Dennis Knibbs was “King of the New Wings”. He “ran” the New Wings Hotel, according to testimony heard Monday at Knibbs’ murder trial. He was a drug trafficker, one who extended credit. On the night the prosecution alleges Knibbs’ shot the man who had just shot his cousin at the New Wings Hotel, he wore black jeans, a black t-shirt, and a black hat, “a railway style hat, a Jamaican-style hat”. And he wore a pouch, “like a Gucci bag”, on his chest in which he kept his dope, his money, a police-style baton, and his 38 caliber handgun. And he drove a BMW 325.

Or did he?

Testimony by witness, Michael Vandenaneele, that Knibbs drove “a BMW; I think it was a 325”, was challenged by defense lawyer, Horace.

Horace drew Vandenaneele’s attention to the statement he had made to police in April 2005. The police had asked him if Knibbs had “a set of wheels.” Vandenaneele replied, “A Honda. I don’t know what kind of Honda. It’s a teal coloured car.”

Horace was bent on making Vandenaneele, a short man in his late thirties, balding with neck length red hair, wearing a medium blue shirt and dark diagonally striped tie -- look like a liar. Horace reminded Vandenaneele of the answer he had given in his police interview in 2005 when asked what Knibbs had been wearing on the night of the murder: “a black shirt, black pants, and a black hat; it was a railway style hat, a Jamaican style hat…it was a funny hat.”

“So it wasn’t a t-shirt and blue jeans?”, Horace said, implying that that was the answer Vandenaneele had given in trial testimony. “Black jeans”, Vandenaneele insisted. Horace backed off.

As for the pouch on Knibbs’ chest in which, Vandenaneele testified, he had seen him carry his dope, his money, and his 38 caliber handgun, defence lawyer Horace accused Vandenaneele of having made no mention of this pouch in his police statement. Vandenaneele retorted, “I mentioned he carried a pouch.” Horace let it go.

Then Horace didn’t venture far from the pouch. He turned to Vandenaneele’s claim that he had seen Knibbs whip a police-style baton out of his pouch immediately after seeing his cousin, Ian Liscombe, shot. Horace accused Vandenaneele of having made “no mention of a baton being in a pouch to police or at the preliminary inquiry.” Horace knew better: Vandenaneele had been clear in his trial testimony last Thursday that the night of the shooting was the only time he had seen Knibbs with a baton in his pouch; it was “the first time I seen it in the pouch”.

On the topic of the baton, Horace challenged Vandenaneele’s trial testimony that Knibbs had hit somebody in room 15 “on the head” with his baton. “You couldn’t possibly have seen that”, he told Vandenaneele who had claimed to have been headed down the hall towards Room 11 at this time. Horace also challenged Vandenaneele’s testimony that when the baton struck, “Then somebody screamed.” Horace read the transcript from the preliminary inquiry in which Vandenaneele had made no reference to any screams, testifying only that he had heard a table smashing, glass smashing, “bang, bang, bang, and then it was silent.” Vandenaneele, he pointed, had been specifically asked if he had heard any human sounds at this point. “No”, had been his response. And it would continue to be his response, according to the transcript of the preliminary inquiry:

Vandenaneele: “No it was just a big crack, that’s all I heard.”
Question: No other sounds after that?
Vandenaneele: No, no.

Horace knocked out Vandenaneele on the issue of the 38 hand gun. He reminded Vandenaneele that in his trial testimony last week, he had given a “fairly enthusiastic” response to a question about what Knibbs carried in his pouch; he had listed “dope”, money, and a “38 hand gun.” Horace then pointed out that Vandenaneele had “never made reference to a 38 to police or in the preliminary inquiry.” Vandenaneele retorted, “It never was asked.” Horace proved him wrong, reading from the transcript of the preliminary hearing in April 2006. He read a section just after Vandenaneele had been asked about seeing a woman in the New Wings taking a gun from Knibbs after shots had rung out.

Preliminary Inquiry
Question: “Have you ever seen that particular gun before to your knowledge?”
Vandenaneele: “No.”
Question: “Had you ever seen Rocka with a gun before?”
Vandenaneele: “No.”

After reading this section of the transcript, Horace reminded Vandenaneele that when he had given this testimony during the preliminary inquiry, “You were under oath, so you were telling the truth.” Vandenaneele responded, “Yes.”

Horace never got the chance to challenge Vandenaneele on his claim that Knibbs was the “King of the New Wings”. There was no need to. Judge Silverman nixed this testimony before the jury could hear it. Silverman had said earlier that he was going to limit testimony about Knibbs’ life as a drug trafficker; he didn’t want the jury exposed to generalizations that relied on hearsay. In fact, Judge Silverman screened some of Vandenaneele’s explosive testimony with the jury out of the courtroom. He listened to Vandenaneele testify that Knibbs “had marked his territory as a drug dealer in a certain spot. If you’re an outsider and you try to come in there’s always consequences.” One drug dealer can’t “interfere” with another drug dealer, Vandenaneele, a former cocaine addict, explained. Vandenaneele also testified that Knibbs had extended credit for drugs and that he had been a good customer, “certainly” always paying back. Judge Silverman announced that when it came to evidence of drug dealing, he did not intend to allow the prosecution to “just pile it on”.

One of Horace’s attempts to make Vandenaneele appear to be a liar got prosecutor Michael Luchenko’s back up. Horace challenged Vandenaneele on trial testimony he had given on Thursday about the moments inside the New Wings prior to the outbreak of gun shots. Vandenaneele had testified that Knibbs and Liscombe had come down the stairs from the second floor escorting a “friend of Echo’s” out of the building. Vandenaneele assumed the third man was a friend of Echo’s since there was verbal pressure being placed on him to disclose Echo’s whereabouts. Horace attempted to show, by reading transcripts, that Vandenaneele had changed his version of this incident as time passed:

Trial transcript, Apr. 2007
Question: Who was hollering and screaming?
Vandenaneele: I recognized Ian’s voice and Rocka.

Preliminary Inquiry, Apr. 2006
Question: Who was doing the screaming and hollering?:
Answer: Ian was.
Question: Was Rocka saying anything at that point?
Vandenaneele: Not to my awareness

Luchenko countered Horace by reading the jury a Q & A from the preliminary transcript that revealed that Vandenaneele had not changed his story as much as Horace was leading them to believe:

Preliminary Inquiry 2006
Question: Who was screaming and hollering?
Answer: I recognized Ian’s voice and Rocka.

Luchenko asked the judge to allow further follow-up questioning of this witness. Horace argued that Luchenko simply wanted to “muddy the waters” after defense successes. Luchenko cited a cross-examination precedent from 1951 but Judge Silverman gave it short shrift, deferring to a lawyer and left-wing City councilor who for years had practiced law just two blocks from the New Wings Hotel: “As our late friend Mr. Rankin used to say, ‘That case and a whole bunch of others!’

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Murder witness caught lying

Susan Panich is a liar.

That is, if you believe the testimony of Michael Vandenaneele at the murder trial of Dennis “Rocka” Knibbs.

Michael Vandenaneele went to the New Wings Hotel to buy cocaine on the night of the shootings, April 4, 2005. Vandenaneele, a 40ish, balding man with reddish hair, dressed in a mid-blue shirt with pale green dress pants, is a former cocaine addict turned journeyman welder. Susan Panich, who lived at the New Wings Hotel at the time of the shootings, is a current cocaine addict; she told the court that she uses cocaine “every day”, and uses alcohol as well. Panich, 45 years old, scrawny, with shoulder length blond hair, testified that she was the “girlfriend” of Ian [Liscombe] – she said she didn’t know his last name -- who was shot and killed on April 4, 2005. She acknowledged that she had sold drugs with him. –

Vandenaneele knew Susan Panich from purchasing drugs from her and her associates at the New Wings: “Ian, John, Rocka, Susan, Tee, Donnie.” He added, though, that he would “often buy from Rocka”, the defendant Dennis Knibbs. The two “became good friends” and Vandenaneele would stop by the New Wings to say hello to Knibbs, “not necessarily to buy dope.” Vandenaneele also got along well with Ian [Liscombe], who “was a cousin to Rocka, he had told me”.

Vandenaneele had begun his testimony on Thursday afternoon, and was now back on the morning of Friday, April 13th to finish up. On Thursday, he had testified that when he arrived at the New Wings, he had stopped at the front office on the first floor to chat with the young desk clerk, Brett. While there, Vandenaneele witnessed Knibbs and Liscombe coming downstairs and asking around about the whereabouts of “Echo”, whether he was in the building. “Echo” was a nickname for Habib, one of the men who would be shot within minutes. Echo had hit Liscombe over the head with a bat a few days before the shootings, according to Susan Panich’s testimony.

Next, Vandenaneele testified, he saw Ian Liscombe walk to Room 15 on the first floor and push on the door. “Ian was first,” he said “and Rocka was probably two to three steps behind Ian.” The door opened a little but then slammed shut again. “At that time, Ian attempted again, and that’s when Rocka came in behind him.” Then, as though somebody on the other side had suddenly released it, “the door flung open with Ian going in first.” Ian’s foot “went to kick at something” and missed. As Vandenaneele watched, “the barrel of a gun came up.” Vandenaneele was 6-8 feet back from the door at the time. “I didn’t see hands” on the gun, he said, but he estimated he saw about 18” of the barrel – although the previous day, he estimated that he had seen about 2 feet of the barrel of the gun. “As it came up, the gun went off….I heard the blast of a gun and Ian fell into the floor of Room 15….He fell forward”.

“Rocka pulled out a baton”. He pulled it out of a pouch, “like a Gucci bag”,that Vandenaneele had seen him regularly wear on his chest. “It’s a telescopic baton,” Vandenaneele specified, “and they extend.” He described the baton as black, made of three sections, each about 8” long. When asked what the baton was made of, he replied, “Steel”. Vandenaneele said he had seen this baton previously in Knibbs’ possession, “in his room, on the table.” But this was the first time he’d seen him carrying the baton in his pouch. He had previously known Knibbs to use his pouch to carry “his dope”, along with his money and a 38 handgun.

“As Ian was falling to the floor, the baton was being extended”, Vandenaneele clarified. Knibbs “forward motioned it; it extended.” Then Vandenaneele heard what sounded to him like someone being struck by the baton. “Someone screamed.”. Vandenaneele was within a foot of the door when he heard this.

“I moved down the hall to Room 11”, he added. Why?, the prosecutor asked. “Ian’s girlfriend was there and she was calling me.” What was her name?, the prosecutor asked. Vandenaneele responded, “Susan”.


I perked up. The usually drowsy voice of the prosecutor perked up.

What did Susan look like?, the prosecutor asked. “Tiny little blond girl,” Vandenaneele responded. He estimated her to be about “5 foot tall” and about 35 or 36 years old.

This was Susan Panich, who had persistently testified on Thursday that she had not heard anything or seen anyone while in her room or in the corridor of the New Wings on the night her boyfriend, Ian Liscombe, and another man were shot in Room 15.

“I was bringing my laundry in from [the laundromat at] Jackson and Hastings….I was back and forth,” Panich had testified. “I think I was outside when I heard what might have been a shot; I don’t know….I came in, put my laundry away.”

Panich was asked by the prosecutor if she had seen anything as she came in through the front door to her room on the first floor, which she confirmed was Room 11. “I didn’t see anything. I put my laundry inside and I took off.”

When asked who, if anybody, she had seen, Panich responded, “I didn’t see nobody in the halls….I was in there not even three, five, minutes.

When asked if the door to Room 15 was open or closed, Panich testified. “Closed”.

Did you hear anything unusual? “No”. Did other people come out? “No.”

Vandenaneele, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was exposing Susan Panach as a liar, continued his testimony. “Susan was yelling for me to come down the hall so I went down to Room 11.” The door of Room 15 where the gun had gone off was closed as Vandenaneele moved up the hall. “As I walked to Room 11, I heard “glass smash, a table break, a guy screaming, and moans.” At room 11, he recalled, “I stood between the door frame and the hallway; I could see to the other end of the hall.”

“After the commotion of the table smashing, I heard more wrestling,” Vandenaneele continued, “Then pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop. Six pops.” He recalled that the sound “wasn’t a very high pitched pop.” But the pops were “rapid, continuous” with “not much time between each”.

Vandenaneele was “trying to listen to Susan and the commotion” at the same time. Then he recalled, “Things went silent for a minute or two.”

The door to Room 15 had by this time opened. When the popping stopped, Vandenaneele recalled, “John Jr.” [Whalen] standing in front of the door of Room 15 screaming, “They’re dead; they’re dead; they’ve been shot!”

Vandenaneele had now moved back down the hall toward room 15. He saw Knibbs come out of the Room 15 holding “a revolver in his left hand”, a black 38. Knibbs “came out in a crouched position with the tumbler down, trying to reload more bullets in the tumbler.”

This was not the first time Vandenaneele had seen this revolver in Knibb’s presence. He’d seen it “sitting on a table top in his room.”

Knibbs managed to load more bullets into the gun, Vandenaneele noted: “He did get them in there and the tumbler pulled back.

“Did someone intervene?”, the prosecutor asked.

Yes, a girl from the second floor.” Vandenaneele knew her by her nickname “Tee” and recalled her having identified herself as “Rocka’s girlfriend” the first time he met her.

As the gun was being reloaded, she yelled at Knibbs, “That’s enough, that’s enough! Stop! Stop!” Knibbs passed her the gun. She moved in the direction of the office.

As Tee left, Vandenaneele recalled only Knibbs and “John Jr.” Whalen remaining.

“Rocka was screaming for a cell phone. ‘Give me a cell phone! Give me a cell phone! I need to phone the ambulance!” Vandenaneele described Knibbs’ voice as “hysterical”. Knibbs moved toward the office looking for a phone.

“At that time I made my move to leave,” Vandenaneele recalled. But first he took a look inside Room15 and saw “two guys on the floor in a pool of blood.”

“John Jr. headed down the stairs. Rocka too. All three of us left the building.”

Why did you leave?, the prosecutor asked Vandenaneele. “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it happened.”

Vandenaneele ran down the stairs five or six steps after John Jr. Whalen and Knibbs. They exited onto Dunlevy St. and headed up to Hastings St. On foot, they traveled through an alley between Hastings and Cordova. Then they “jumped into a cab at the Patricia Hotel” on Hastings.

It was not only Michael Vandenaneele’s contradiction of Susan Panich’s testimony that left her looking like a liar, it was also discrepancies between her testimony and the statement she had given to police two years earlier on the night of April 4, 2005, following the shootings. The prosecutor alluded to these discrepancies in court when he repeatedly responded to her testimony by handing her sections of her statement to police to read to “refresh” her memory.

The prosecutor handed her a section of her statement to police following her court testimony that she had seen nobody and heard nothing when she was in her room or in the corridor of the New Wings Hotel the night of the shootings: “Again, with regard to what you heard, I’d like you to read from your statement to police.” Panich gave the statement a perfunctory glance and retorted, “I can see I was totally out of it. It’s not true. I’m sober now.”

The prosecutor had a few minutes earlier attempted to refresh Panich’s memory with a section of her police statement, after questioning her about “any conversation that you may have heard between Rocka and Ian about ‘roughing someone up’”. “Did you hear that?”, he had asked her. “No”, had been her response. “You spoke to police on April 14, 2005,” he reminded her as he handed her a “portion of your statement to police” on that date. “Does it help you recall any conversation?” She would concede only that, “I know Ian was a little pissed off.” The prosecutor continued to politely, softly, press her on the issue of this conversation: “Did you hear any conversation about what could be done?” “I never heard anything”, she responded.

Who knows if Susan Panich will be called to account for what appears to be perjury. Judge Silverman showed her on Wednesday that he was not going to allow her to show disrespect for the court. He refused her request to be released from jail after she had to be arrested Wednesday morning at her hotel room near Main & Hastings for failing to appear to testify. He told her that he believed she would “be feeling better tonight” after using drugs, and that she was likely to fail to show up to testify on Thursday morning. He impressed upon her, “This is a murder trial.”

Friday, April 13, 2007

Vancouver Police: from forensic fumbling to racial profiling

A cliffhanger. That’s how the murder trial of Dennis Knibbs ended it’s third day on Thursday.

Michael Vandenaneele, a former cocaine addict turned journeyman welder, testified that he dropped by the New Wings Hotel to buy cocaine the night of April 4, 2005. He was chatting with the desk clerk, when he saw Dennis “Rocka” Knibbs and his cousin Ian Liscombe come down the stairs with a “guy in arms”. The guy was “a very close friend of Ekoh’s” – Ekoh being a nickname for Nabib, one of the men Knibbs is accused of shooting that night. Liscombe and Knibbs were yelling at the man they were holding, demanding to know Ekoh’s whereabouts, whether he was in the building. When they got to the first landing, they told the guy to get out of the building.

Liscombe and Knibbs then stood around on the landing. “We were congregating, talking,” Vandenaneele recalled. A few minutes later, a native guy living in Room 15, Charlie being his surname, came out of his room. “That drew Ian’s attention”, Vandenaeele said. “Ian asked him if he had seen Ekoh or if Ekoh was in his room.”

Liscombe was headed back upstairs with Knibbs trailing when, Vandenaneele says, he doesn’t know “what possessed” Liscombe to first walk over to Room 15 and open the door. The door opened about 18 inches, and then slammed back in Liscombe’s face. “Rocka was right behind Ian trying to push the door. Rocka was pushing higher on the door ‘cause he’s a little taller than Ian.” Then Vandenaneele spotted the shot gun: “I could see about 2 feet of a barrel….when the door flew open, you could see the barrel of the gun.” The witness who went over the sequence of events a couple of times said, “That’s when one gun went off, I seen Ian fall to the floor.”

It was here that spectators were left hanging. Who was on the other side of the door when the gun went off. Who was holding the shot gun? Was it Ekoh? Ekoh of course ended up dead.

Vandenaneele’s story is corroborated by testimony given this morning by Laura Lee Wayne, an admitted prostitute and daily user of “rock” cocaine and sometimes heroin. Wayne, a thin 25 year old with bangs and neck length brown hair with an obvious auburn rinse, lived at the New Wings at the time the shootings occurred. She had been upstairs “getting ready” to go out to work as a prostitute, when she heard a loud noise downstairs, followed by several more loud noises. When she went down, she saw Knibbs standing near Room 15. “I heard him say, ‘He shot my cousin first.’” His voice sounded “scared” to her. She also saw a shot gun sticking out of a bag on the floor, which she said she picked up and took downstairs to police, although the transcript of her earlier police interview has her saying she “got caught with the shot gun.”

Statements made in a police interview by another witness, Susan Panich, an admitted cocaine addict, also dove tails with Vandenaneele’s testimony. Panich, a skinny 45 year old with brownish blond shoulder length hair, was living with her boyfriend Ian Liscombe at the New Wings when he was killed. She and Liscombe sold drugs. In her view, Liscombe and his cousin Knibbs got along “very well”. But she acknowledged that there was some animosity between Liscombe and Echo, the latter whom the prosecutor described as having a “dark complexion and a goatee”. In her view, Echo “was jealous of Ian.” who was more successful at selling drugs. “He tried to cut Ian’s grass”, she said, explaining that she meant “take his customers away.” She testified that Echo hit Liscombe over the head with a bat, requiring 1 ½ -2 inches of stitches. “Echo was barred out of the hotel the day he hit Ian on the back of the head.”

The prosecutor asked Panich to recall “any conversation you may have heard between Rocka and Ian about ‘roughing someone up’”. But he could get no acknowledgement from her that any such conversation had occurred. The prosecutor pointed to a section of the transcript of her interview with police, asking her to read it, “Does it help you recall any conversation?’ She would concede only that Liscombe was “a little pissed off.”

In addition to reluctant witnesses in withdrawal, today saw the return of the VPD’s mistake prone forensics expert, Constable Mark Christensen. Yesterday, Christensen had admitted that his report had falsely identified a large bullet hole as being on the left side of a victim’s chest and a small one being on the right side when in fact it was “the opposite.”

Today Christensen came to court armed with a voluntary admission that he had incorrectly reported the condition of the shot gun when it was delivered to him from the New Wings crime scene. When he opened the bag and removed the shot gun, the slide containing a fingerprint of Knibbs’ was not in a forward position as he had reported yesterday, but back. And the chamber was not closed as he had reported, but open.

Christensen also acknowledged that in his 2005 report, he had mistakenly identified a fingerprint on the shot gun as being from the left “ring” finger when in fact it was from the left “middle” finger. “I wrote the wrong thing down in my report,” Christensen said. “You made a mistake”, defense lawyer Glen Orris asserted, driving the point home as the jury listened. “So you’ve worked your way back from patrol since then?”, Orris kidded him. “I’m not infallible”, Christensen politely retorted, adding that he’d like that fact noted on the record, and shown to his wife. Laughter.

Christensen excused his false identification of the fingerprint as being from a left “ring” finger instead of a left “middle” finger as a “typographical error”. He was prone to that excuse. He had used it yesterday when it was pointed out that he had identified Constable McLaughlin, the officer who had taken the crime scene photos, by an incorrect badge number in his report. [McLaughlin had taken the crime scene photos, Christensen explained, with a camera with a malfunctioning flash. Many “didn’t turn out” and had to be taken again at a later date.]

There was one mistake made by the VPD in this case, though, that could prove more embarrassing than any made by Constable Christensen, a mistake inadvertently revealed by Orris: racial profiling. As Orris and the judge reviewed sections of the transcripts of an interview police conducted shortly after the murders with Laura Wayne, a 23 yr. old resident of the New Wings, Orris mentioned that the VPD questioner had “asked her about her relationship to black guys”, specifically if it was a “pimping” relationship. Wayne, who looks Caucasian but has been identified by police as "native", told police that this was not the case, that she was “an independent”.

Laura Wayne did not appear to be under Knibb's control, although she was living with him in Room 50 until "they shut the Wings down" after the shootings. "We were sort of seeing each other but not really", she testified. She had actually developed a "boyfriend-girlfriend" relationship with another New Wings resident, John Whalen, whom she called John Jr.

Laura Wayne did not make herself easy for a man to control, as the beleaguered prosecutor found out: she barked at him in response to questions, once saying "Fuck!"under her breathe, and twice firmly chastised him, "I think you've established that!" Her rebellious nature also permeated the police interrogation of her immediately following the shootings. When prodded about her drug use, she told police, "I'm a professional; I should get a badge for it". She went on to say, “It’s like taking a shit and wiping your ass. I do it everyday

Overall, testimony today opened wider the window onto one of the worst addresses on the Downtown Eastside. Tenants behind “every second door” of the New World Hotel had drugs for sale, according to Panich. “Ian, John, Rocka, Susan, Teeth, and Donnie”, were selling drugs out of there, according to Van Vandenameele. Two machetes were found slid between the mattress and the box spring in Room 15, according to Christensen, and a bullet was found on the floor as well as a couple of shell casings. Lots of small clear plastic baggies were found in the room too, the type Christensen knew to be used to package drugs for sale. And drugs were found in the pocket of a beige coat. Police style batons were not an uncommon sight, according to Panache: “A lot of the guys have them”. Knibbs’ had such a baton in his hand as he stood in the hall after the shootings, according to Wayne. Liscombe had a handgun in his room according to Pinach, a handgun which Wayne told police he carried in his pocket “like a fuckin’ wallet”.

A reminder that the New Wings world was not confined to a few bad blocks on the Downtown Eastside came during questioning of Constable Christensen. Orris asked about a search warrant listing blood stained clothing, a police style baton, and a 38 caliber revolver, served to a “young woman who was obviously frightened” at 1421 East 2nd Ave. A nicer neighbourhood.