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?
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.”
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?
Question: Did you see yourself on one of two or more sides inside the New Wings?
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.
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.”