A man accused of bearing "personal significant responsibility for hundreds of fentanyl-detected deaths in British Columbia" has been given 14 years in prison, in the first major fentanyl-related sentencing in British Columbia since the opioid crisis began

Walter James McCormick was sentenced Monday, after an extended trial that centred around the government's desire to create a new sentencing range for fentanyl trafficking, a case in which the Crown was asking for an unprecedented 18-year prison term.

"Mr. McCormick is and has been a high-level drug trafficker in fentanyl, which is a drug that is extremely dangerous, and he and other high-level fentanyl dealers bear personal significant responsibility for hundreds of fentanyl-detected deaths in British Columbia," said Crown counsel Oren Bick during the trial.

Project Tainted

Walter James McCormick was arrested as part of a police investigation which resulted in the seizure of thousands of fentanyl pills. (Vancouver Police Department)

"I am seeking, in other words, an exemplary sentence in what is an exemplary case."

In her ruling, Judge Bonnie Craig said that the skyrocketing increase of fentanyl-related deaths in B.C. could not be set aside when deciding the sentencing range. 

"I recognize that a sentence above any established range will not lead to an end to the fentanyl epidemic ... but the court must, nevertheless, exercise its responsibility to denounce the unlawful conduct and attempt to deter others from engaging in offending of this nature," Craig wrote. 

"The lure of substantial profit for lower risk, with the awareness of the very real substantial risk to life that comes from trafficking in fentanyl must be counteracted with the threat of a significant jail sentence on conviction."

No established range for fentanyl sentences

McCormick was one of 10 people arrested in relation to Project Tainted, a police operation carried out in response to a rash of overdoses in October 2014.

More than 29,000 fentanyl pills were seized in the months-long investigation, along with oxycodone, methamphetamine, heroin and guns.

But McCormick's charges were the most severe: he was originally arrested on Feb. 17, 2015, and during a subsequent seizure of his vehicle, home and storage locker, 27,000 fentanyl pills were seized, along with many other drugs and firearms.

While on bail, McCormick, who already had an extended history of drug trafficking, was subsequently charged with several new offences in Richmond, and had an additional 1,000 fentanyl pills seized on May 18, 2016. 

Walter James McCormick money

This photograph of money seized from Walter James McCormick's home was entered into evidence at his sentencing for fentanyl trafficking. (Crown exhibit)

Although McCormick pleaded guilty to two counts of trafficking and two of possession for the purpose of trafficking, his lawyers argued that an 18-year sentence was "not a measured response ... nor would it alleviate the fentanyl epidemic."

"I respectfully suggest that this notion that this problem we all embrace as a community is going to somehow evaporate as a result of the sentence the prosecution is suggesting is illusory," Lawrence Myers during a sentencing hearing in December.

"The suggestion is that giving people severe sentences is going to solve the problem. That simply isn't the case."

However, Craig wrote that "when determining the appropriate sentence for Mr. McCormick I must take into account ... that an increasing number of people are dying due to the illegal sale of fentanyl," and that his criminal history showed "little evidence of any prospect for [his] rehabilitation."

Ultimately, McCormick was sentenced for eight years for the Vancouver offences and six years for the Richmond offences.

During the course of the police investigation and McCormick's arrest, trial and sentencing, the number of people in British Columbia who died of drug overdoses rose from 366 in 2014 to a suspected 914 in 2016, the majority of which have been linked to fentanyl.  

"McCormick did not create the problem with opioid addiction in the community. He is just one of the players in a far more complicated problem," wrote Craig.