The sex abuse case against former Saint John councillor Donnie Snook is one of the worst in New Brunswick's history.
Snook, 41, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to 46 child exploitation charges involving 17 boys as young as five years old.
By comparison, Karl Toft, who is considered one of Canada's most notorious sex offenders, was convicted in 1992 of 34 abuse charges involving 18 boys at New Brunswick's Kingsclear Youth Training Centre, where he worked as a guard.
The police investigation of Snook, who also served as a youth ministry leader, a foster parent and and an active community volunteer, is ongoing.
The case has left people in Saint John reeling.
"I'm just disgusted," said Shaylene Scott, who was at a south end park with two children in tow when the news broke.
"I really can't even believe it," she said. "I'm glad he pleaded guilty and can own up to what he did, but I just still can't believe he did it."
The charges against Snook include sexual assault, sexually touching a minor while in a position of trust, making child pornography, and extortion.
Police say the crimes began in 2001 and involved 17 boys between the ages of five and 15, most of who were from the Saint John area.
The investigation started in Toronto in 2011 when an RCMP officer discovered an unknown person in the Saint John area trading child pornography online.
"That's shocking really, to say the least," said Tim Maloney, who was out enjoying the sunshine when he heard about the guilty pleas.
"I think the whole community is kind of taken aback," he said. "Everybody‘s kind of going, 'Wow.'"
"If you’ve ever met Donnie, I mean, to look at him you’d never think that he’d be able to do something like that, but the world’s full of crazy people."
Brandon Irving said when he first heard about Snook being arrested in January and charged with eight offences, he didn't believe it.
'He was the kind of guy that you thought would never even swear, let alone do something like that.'—Saint John resident Alex Vlamakis
"That can't be," he recalled thinking. "He did great things for the community with the [Bacchus] bikers and the [Rainbow] park and everything and then just one day, boom, Donnie Snook being arrested?"
"'That must be a set up or something.' That's what you're thinking in your mind," said Irving.
But in the days following Snook's arrest, police said several other people came forward, alleging they had also been abused by Snook. The two-term councillor promptly resigned and was suspended as director of the Saint John Inner City Youth Ministry.
"With an image like that, it seemed nearly impossible to hide that kind of secret," said Irving. "And then today, 46 charges."
"It came as a surprise to all of us," said Josh Yeomans, who was shooting hoops with Irving and three other friends on Wednesday.
"We all grew up with the guy. Being around him all our lives, I mean, we just didn’t think something like this would happen," he said.
"We thought he was a good guy and he was always devoted towards kids … and the city, but …we can understand why now, I guess."
Alex Vlamakis said he never thought Snook would even be capable of such horrors.
"He was the kind of guy that you thought would never even swear, let alone do something like that," he said.
"His whole life was devoted to kids. His entire life, you know what I mean? So that’s hard to swallow."
Vlamakis said it's good Snook admitted to what he did, "but there's no way he can make up — ever — for any of the things he did."
"All the children he affected, they’re going to be affected for their entire lives," he said. "He tricked our whole community."
Defence hopes community can heal
Snook's defence lawyer, Dennis Boyle, said he hopes his client's guilty pleas will serve as the first step toward healing.
"It's a long path before us that we're going down that road and it's going to take a great deal of wisdom," he said.
"We're going to have to use the new knowledge of pedophilia, we're going to have to be strong going through that and we have to be accepting and we're hoping that there's going to be great growth for all concerned," said Boyle.
"Healing and rehabilitation and forgiveness are some of the things that we have to look at in these things if we're ever going to make a difference and ever try to breach and break this cycle."
Snook remains in custody and is scheduled to return to court on June 25 to set a date for a sentencing hearing.
The facts of the case will be relayed during that hearing.
Meanwhile, Crown prosecutor Karen Lee Lamrock has requested victim impact statements and a pre-sentence report, which will assess Snook's risk of reoffending.
Lamrock, who described the "magnitude" of the case as "shocking," declined to comment on the length of sentence she plans to recommend.
Many of the charges against Snook carry a minimum sentence of one year in jail and a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
Karl Toft was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
The charges against Snook include:
- Thirteen counts of touching a child for a sexual purpose.
- Nine counts of producing child pornography.
- Ten counts of inviting touching from a child for a sexual purpose.
- Four counts of communicating with a child for a sexual purpose.
- Three counts of touching a child for a sexual purpose while in a position of trust.
- Two counts of sexual assault.
- Two counts of possession of child pornography.
- Two counts of distributing child pornography.
- One count of inducing a child by threats to distribute or post naked pictures of himself.