Winnipeg Free Press Newspaper Archives Mar 14 2015, Page 6

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Winnipeg Free Press (Newspaper) - March 14, 2015, Winnipeg, Manitoba C M Y K PAGE A6 A 6 WINNIPEG FREE PRESS, SATURDAY, MARCH 14, 2015 SATURDAY SPECIAL winnipegfreepress. com H E’S a marked man, a “ rat” within the criminal underworld who will spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder worried about possible retribution. But longtime Hells Angels associate Jason Masniuk says he did the right thing in turning his back on his criminal brethren and taking a major payday by working for the police. Masniuk, 39, spoke exclusively to the Free Press this week from his new life under the witness protection plan, just a few months after concluding 15 months of dangerous undercover work with the Manitoba Integrated Organized Crime Task Force. Thanks largely to Masniuk’s connections, police were able to infiltrate a high- level criminal network with tentacles spread across the country. Fourteen people were arrested last December in Project Distress, while large quantities of drugs along with weapons were taken off the streets. Masniuk was paid $ 500,000 for his work and moving expenses because of safety concerns. He insists accepting law enforcement’s offer in 2013 wasn’t about the money. “ I was watching every single one of my friends go to jail, it seemed. I saw half my friends getting killed. It almost seemed inevitable for me,” Masniuk said in an hour- long telephone conversation from an undisclosed location. “ I saw it as a way to completely close that door and never go back into it,” he said. “ It was completely about myself and my family.” Masniuk, who is college- educated, has managed to avoid the glare of the justice system in the past despite his criminal ties. A 2003 arrest for a drug- related kidnapping and extortion case fell apart in court and resulted in charges being dropped. He chuckled when asked how this deal came to fruition, acknowledging one doesn’t answer an advertisement for a “ secret agent.” “ The police just knew I was becoming more and more unhappy, and they use that chance to see where you’re at,” said Masniuk. “ I definitely took my time thinking about it, spent months pondering it.” It started with a phone call from police, then a face- to- face meeting. In the end, Masniuk said it was an offer he couldn’t refuse — albeit one he now has some regrets about. Manitoba gang investigators commonly use a paid informant. Similar deals have been struck at least four times in the last decade, with similar financial arrangements. The results have seen dozens of drug and weapons dealers, many with ties to the Hells Angels, locked up for lengthy sentences. It has also resulted in the Manitoba chapter of the outlaw biker gang being left in shambles. Last week, the first accused in Project Distress pleaded guilty and was given a 7 ½ - year prison sentence and a nearly $ 50,000 fine. Michael Tuan Van Nguyen, 25, of Mississauga, Ont., admitted to trafficking and possessing the proceeds of crime as part of a deal struck between the Crown and defence lawyers. Federal prosecutor Erin Magas told court Masniuk was crucial to the operation. “ The agent, although always a distasteful witness, is far more successful than the use of undercover officers,” she explained. By using Masniuk, police were able to get audio and video surveillance of key drug transactions, such as the purchase that put Nguyen behind bars. Masniuk admits he was nervous during the investigation, which meant he had to be monitored closely by police handlers. “ Because of what’s happened in the past, everyone ( in the criminal world) is cognizant of it and always waiting for the next one,” said Masniuk. He believes there were plenty of times the targets of the operation suspected something “ wasn’t right” with him, yet they continued to do business. “ A big thing that keeps it going is greed,” he said. As part of investigation, police were able to intercept thousands of encrypted communications between targets of the operation on a closed- circuit BlackBerry network, to which Masniuk provided them access. “ I was able, with the gift of ( the) gab, to get a lot of these guys to talk,” Masniuk said. Police treated him like a rock star during the operation, giving him everything he asked for. “ If I wanted a massage, I’d get a massage,” he said. “ It didn’t matter what you asked for when they saw the fish you had on the hook.” However, Masniuk said he’s experiencing some second thoughts now that his work is done. Masniuk claimed promises that were made to him and his family about the relocation and protection haven’t been fulfilled. He claimed to be considering a lawsuit against police, accusing them of breach of contract. “ You’re a person to them until it’s done. Then you’re just a number. You’re definitely cast aside and they’re done with you,” said Masniuk. “ A big part of the ( witness protection) program is to become self- sufficient, to live a normal life. Well, if I knew what my options were, I wouldn’t have done the job.” Masniuk can’t provide specifics for fear of giving away details of his new life. Police refuse to comment about their dealings with him. Masniuk said he followed the conditions police set out for him, unlike “ some of the other guys I’ve seen.” “ I didn’t play fast and loose with them. I definitely didn’t give them any ammunition. I was nothing more than a gentleman,” he said. “ I took it on as a contract job and did exactly as they wanted.” Indeed, there have been major issues with agents in the past who ran afoul of the law during the course of the investigation and gave their handlers major headaches. One of them was Franco Atanasovic, who paved the way for other projects when he agreed to go undercover in 2004. He was paid $ 525,000 for more than a year of work that ended in February 2006 with the arrests of 13 Hells Angels and associates. Atanasovic then lashed out at justice officials. He was angry the Crown painted him as a liar and cheater, that several disgruntled former associates filed lawsuits against him seeking cash, and that media reports portrayed him on the same level as the hoods he helped catch. He also claimed many promises made to him had been broken. “ I’m not the bad person here, but I’m certainly being made out to be. I know the police aren’t going to be happy I’m doing this, but I have to say something,” he told the Free Press at the time . Atanasovic didn’t make life easy for police, repeatedly battling bouts of depression and thoughts of suicide during the operation, RCMP handlers testified in court. At one point, police had to put the investigation on indefinite hold. Investigators were also reeling after learning Atanasovic stole some of the marked money they had given him to make drug purchases. Other agents have made similar complaints about police. And justice officials have had similar concerns about agents. Former federal Crown attorney Chris Mainella — now a Manitoba judge — summed it up during a sentencing hearing for one of the men Atanasovic helped put away. “ People will do a lot of things for half- a- million dollars. But this is something not a lot of people would do, or could do,” Mainella said. Masniuk said he went into his deal with his “ eyes wide open” but declined the police offer to get a lawyer involved in drafting conditions of his pact with police. “ They really pull the wool over your eyes, get you to finish the job, and then you have no recourse,” he said. “ This is about what’s right and what’s wrong. At the end of it, they should treat you a hell of a lot better.” Masniuk said he takes life day by day while watching the fruits of his labour from afar. He noted the first man to go to prison, Nguyen, could be released after serving just one- sixth of his sentence. “ He’s going to have a lot more options on parole than I’ll ever have in my life,” said Masniuk. www. mikeoncrime. com By Mike McIntyre Secret agent man Protected witness wonders if big payday was worth hassle What was Project Distress? THE Manitoba Integrated Organized Crime Task Force investigation targeted high- level drug trafficking and organized crime activities in Manitoba, with connections to Ontario, Alberta and B. C. It resulted in the seizure of six kilograms of cocaine, eight kilograms of methamphetamine and small quantities of other drugs. The seizures included $ 70,000 in cash, three handguns and 17 long guns. The task force is comprised of officers from the Winnipeg Police Service, RCMP and the Brandon Police Service. How the agent did his job POLICE were able to get audio and video surveillance of key drug transactions because of Jason Masniuk and his “ wellentrenched” criminal lifestyle. Michael Tuan Van Nguyen, 25, of Mississauga, Ont., was observed brokering a deal to bring a kilogram of cocaine into Winnipeg in May 2014. The deal was first arranged between Masniuk and his friend, who had contact with Nguyen. Nguyen flew to Winnipeg and met with Masniuk at the Polo Park mall food court, where specifics were hashed out. The next day, the drugs were delivered to a room at the Four Points By Sheraton hotel on Pembina Highway. Masniuk took the drugs to police, who gave him the $ 49,500 he paid to Nguyen the following day during a meeting at the Clarion Hotel near Polo Park. Nguyen returned to Toronto and wasn’t arrested until months later. The money he received was never recovered. Nguyen pleaded guilty last week and was sentenced to 7 ½ years in prison. JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILE Project Distress was a 15- month investigation that resulted in 14 people being charged and the seizure of more than six kilograms of cocaine, eight kilograms of methamphetamine, cash and weapons ( below, left). JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES A_ 06_ Mar- 14- 15_ FP_ 01. indd A6 3/ 13/ 15 7: 42: 41 PM

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