Eagle poaching charges against Chilliwack men dropped after nine years in court

After 3,422 days in front of the courts, Crown drops charges against Gary Abbott and Ralph Leon

Conservation Officers pick up eagle parts found in North Vancouver in 2005.

And just like that, 3,422 days after charges were laid against two local First Nations men for poaching eagles, Crown counsel dropped the charges.

Gary Abbott and Ralph Leon were the last of 11 men first charged in 2006 after a 15-month investigation that lingered in the courts for nine years, and that included a mistrial, a fraud conviction against a senior conservation officer in charge of the investigation, calls from local Sto:lo leaders to drop the case, and accusations of highly unethical and disrespectful behaviour on the part of the B.C. Conservation Officer Service (BCCOS).

Abbott, Leon and nine other men faced a total of 105 charges related to the unlawful possession of dead wildlife, trafficking in dead wildlife and other related offences.

Charges stemmed from a BCCOS investigation that began with the discovery of 50 dead eagles in North Vancouver.

The lead investigator, senior conservation officer Rick Grindrod, used undercover operations to attend cultural events such as powwows to, in part, lure First Nations men into illegal activity with dead wildlife, according to George Wool, lawyer for Abbott and Leon.

All the while Grindrod was allegedly stealing money from government accounts using a form of bank fraud known as “kiting.” He was eventually convicted of fraud, fired from the BCCOS and, as of June of this year, through Crown counsel in Chilliwack court, claimed to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

For years Wool argued the charges should be dropped since the main witness is a convicted fraudster.

“While all this is going on, Grindrod is defrauding the government for a very large amount of money,” Wool told the Times over the phone from his home in 100 Mile House. “He wasn’t caught by his own administration. He was caught by the bank. . . . They did not do an investigation of all of his transactions [as RCMP and city police forces would do]. If they had done that from the very beginning, I wouldn’t be talking to you.”

A Crown spokesperson, however, said the decision to drop the charges had nothing to do with Grindrod, but rather was related to the “significant time which has elapsed since the prosecutions began.”

“While much of the delay in the case is not attributable to the Crown, the prosecutor with conduct of the case ultimately concluded that continuing the prosecutions was no longer required in the public interest,” Ministry of Justice spokesperson Neil MacKenzie told the Times via email.

MacKenzie said Grindrod’s “impugned activity” had nothing to do with the Abbott/Leon investigation.

“No court dealing with the eagle-related cases has accepted the arguments put forward by defence counsel suggesting that the integrity of the investigations was affected by the involvement of former [Conservation Officer] Grindrod.”

Wool said the investigation started with an undercover scheme to convince certain First Nations individuals that they could pick up dead eagles from the BCCOS and use them to make cultural regalia.

In one instance, Wool said they lured a vulnerable young man with fetal alcohol syndrome to shoot eagles before charging him.

“They lulled the aboriginal population into believing they could just go and pick up an eagle from conservation,” Wool said.

“What happened was then they came out with the eagle massacre hysteria,” he said, pointing to the high-profile find of dead eagles in North Vancouver a decade ago.

Five years ago, after Grindrod was convicted and the Crown’s case seemed to fizzle out, First Nations leaders called for a stay of proceedings.

“[Crown counsel] are in a conflict of interest,” Grand Chief Doug Kelly of the Sto:lo Tribal Council told the Times in 2010. “The Crown is relying on Grindrod and his evidence to convict Coast Salish artisans and, on the other hand, the Crown counsel is going up against Grindrod saying he ought to be convicted.”

Kelly said an aboriginal COS employee was directed to pursue First Nations artists “at our powwows and our winter dance ceremonies and ask for help in creating his regalia.

“He told people that he decided to sober up and was on the ‘red road,’” Kelly said. “That’s incredibly offensive.”

Back then, some of the 11 men pleaded guilty just to move on, but Abbott said he wanted to fight as it could have become a precedent-setting rights and title case.

The case, which wound through the court for more than nine years involved periodic long-term delays. The parties were back in court in June and that’s when Wool said Crown disclosed to him a series of emails between Grindrod and the Crown that illustrated Charter violations.

The parties were back in court on Sept. 10 in preparation to make written submissions coming up in October, but that’s when Crown counsel James MacAulay announced the charges would be dropped.

“Of course by now several aboriginals have been jailed,” Wool said.

“Perhaps the big story is really how the conservation service put out false publicity about First Nations trafficking and poaching eagles. It never happened. Exhibits produced to the media actually came from the BCCOS, for example, a stuffed eagle that was made into a bustle.”