The provincial police sergeant in charge of the investigation into the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster said he made at least four trips to the U.S. to meet dozens of employees of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA), to find out about the culture of the company.

Three former MMA employees, Thomas Harding, 56, Richard Labrie, 59, and Jean Demaitre, 53, are being tried on 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death — one count for each of the victims of the rail disaster.

Sûreté du Québec Sgt. Mathieu Bouchard, the seventh Crown witness to testify at the trial, told Superior Court Justice Gaétan Dumas and jurors that the goal of the investigation was to find the truth behind the circumstances that led to the July 2013 derailment and explosions.

"No effort had been spared in that endeavour," he testified.

Bouchard said he had to obtain a mutual legal assistance treaty (MLAT)  to conduct a police investigation in the U.S., under supervision, and to access certain documents.

"We gave the FBI and a U.S. attorney a list of witnesses who we wanted to meet, and they took the steps necessary for us to meet them," he said. "It's a process which allows me to act as a police officer and use the evidence gathered in Canada."

Bouchard said the MMA's top executives, including the supervisors of the three accused, only agreed to meet him after the treaty legally forced them to do so.

"Some witnesses didn't want to meet with us at the outset. They asked to consult their lawyers," he said, "and for the remainder of conversations with them we [had to] go through their counsel."

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Former MMA Railway workers Thomas Harding, right, Jean Demaitre, centre, and Richard Labrie are escorted by police to appear in court in Lac-Mégantic, Que., on May 13, 2014. Their trial on 47 charges each of criminal negligence causing death is now underway. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

MMA email faulted Harding's overuse of automatic brakes

Under cross-examination, Thomas Walsh, Harding's lawyer, showed Bouchard an email from one of MMA's supervisors, Paul Budge, in which he says the recipient of the email was asked to remind Harding not to use so many automatic brakes.

Bouchard said he didn't remember asking Budge about that specific email.  

"We asked him about the legal procedures to stop a train safely, in line with rules, railway operation rules," he said, adding: "I'm not a railway expert."

Walsh turned to his client's arrest on May 12, 2014, asking Bouchard who authorized sending in a SWAT team to take in Harding, who had offered to turn himself in to police if ever he was charged.

Bouchard told the court he had been told to ask for an arrest warrant from a judge, for all three of the accused.

Bouchard said he was the one who had asked the judge to use a SWAT team.

"It was because we had had information about Harding, and this would perhaps help save his life. This is why I chose to use the SWAT, to save his life."  

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The derailment of the runaway MMA tanker-train on July 6, 2013 in Lac-Mégantic, Que., triggered a series of explosions that killed 47 people. (Reuters)

Mechanical breakdown 2 days before derailment

Bouchard said he and his team were aware there had been a mechanical breakdown on the locomotive on July 4, 2013, two days before the derailment and explosions.

"A  fax was sent, I think on July 4, regarding a mechanical failure," he said. "But the locomotive never made it to the shop."

Bouchard also told the court his team had been informed the contents of the 72-wagon convoy carrying crude oil had been mislabelled.  

"I can't speak to whether it was more or less volatile, but I was informed there was a problem with the labelling," he said, adding, "we knew it was oil, but we didn't investigate that aspect of it."

The trial at the Sherbrooke courthouse resumes Tuesday.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said Sgt. Mathieu Bouchard was shown an email in which the recipient was asked to remind engineer Thomas Harding not to use so many hand brakes. In fact, the email stated Harding was to be reminded not to use so many automatic brakes.
    Oct 05, 2017 7:58 PM ET