At first glance, it would seem that a barbershop in Sherwood Park would have little to do with a drug investigation in Fort McMurray, nearly a four-and-a-half-hour drive north. But the two became linked in an unlikely way for ALERT’s organized crime and gang team in Fort McMurray during the summer of 2018.
In August, ALERT announced the results of Project Fortune, a 16-month-long investigation that shut down a drug trafficking network that stretched from Fort McMurray to Sherwood Park. When all was said and done, investigators had arrested seven people and laid 49 criminal charges, and had seized eight kilograms of cocaine along with $215,000 in cash proceeds of crime.
Because of that massive haul, Project Fortune was called “Christmas in August” for the Fort McMurray team at a news conference held at ALERT headquarters in Edmonton. But primary investigator Const. Kevin Browne says that, while it’s important to get those drugs off the streets, maybe the bigger feather in the team’s cap was being able to lay charges of conspiracy to traffic cocaine, committing an indictable offence for the benefit of a criminal organization, and instructing a person to commit an indictable offence for the benefit of a criminal organization.
“They’re difficult; they have to be approved by the federal Crown prosecutor before they’re laid. And if they sign off on it, that means we’ve done a thorough job and we’ve been able to meet that high standard,” Browne said. “To get that, I think that’s a big feather in our cap up here, especially to do it as a relatively small team.”
After receiving information from Strathcona County RCMP about drug trafficking activity that possibly traced back to Fort McMurray, Browne and the rest of the ALERT team got to work. Thankfully, the RCMP information gave them a nice head start.
“We were ready to go into buying wholesale, and we had that foothold there. We were already five steps ahead,” he said. “We knew immediately that we were going to be in a long-term operation; we saw the potential for it.”
But they still didn’t know a whole lot about the network in Fort McMurray and just how big it was. Browne and his team came up with different scenarios and strategies to find out how deep the network went in their community.
It was a project that took up most of the team’s time and resources over those 16 months, but Browne worked hard to keep everyone involved in making decisions giving input on next steps.
“I’m very much objective-focused. A lot of times on files like this, guys are chasing the shiny objects and it gets really expansive. It’s hard to keep people buying in if you keep moving the goalposts,” he said. “If you’re really objective-focused and you get them to buy into the process, they’ll stay focused.”
That kind of focus on the bigger picture also requires quite a bit of patience. “Evidence gathered in our investigation led us to believe that a conspiracy and criminal organization existed, and we went about gathering further evidence to support that,” Browne said.
“If we just get one guy for drug trafficking, that’s easy; we could just stop them on the highway. But our goal was to dismantle the network and go for that criminal organization. Those are harder charges to prove, but they also carry bigger penalties. That’s what we were looking for.”