Tessier Place a symptom of larger problem

The bloody attack at Tessier Place is a reflection of how crime is changing in St. John's, the hottest cocaine market in Atlantic Canada, writes David Cochrane.
The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary was called to Tessier Place last week following a brutal beating. Joey Whalen, 47, died in hospital four days later. (CBC )

We don't know exactly what happened at 8 Tessier Place. We know that Joey Whalen, 47, is dead and that Kenny Green Jr., 34, is facing a charge of second-degree murder.

We also know that the crime scene looked like a slaughterhouse floor. Large, deep pools of blood stained the carpet and spattered over the radiator and walls. A neighbour told CBC News that Whalen was "coated in blood" when he was carried out of the house on a stretcher. It was a shocking scene.

But what's even more shocking is that incidents similar to this happen all the time in this city. They don't always end in a death and a murder charge.

But violent beatings are an increasingly common part of an increasingly violent drug trade. Most of them are never reported to the police. It is viewed as a cost of doing an illegal business.

In the hours after this latest murder, it quickly became clear that the key players had some connection to the local drug trade. Whalen and Green both have criminal records, Green for trafficking and conspiracy to sell drugs.

Inside Roadrunner

David Cochrane last year fronted an in-depth look at one police investigation into the drug trade in St. John's. Click here to see the web report.

Police say this was not a random act, as Green and Whalen knew each other. They were both well known to police.

Neighbours called 8 Tessier Place a "drug house." They complained about the frequent foot traffic of junkies looking for their daily score and what appeared to be a steady stream of prostitutes in and out of the residence. Living next to it must have been hell.

The cold reality is that there are many more houses just like 8 Tessier Place all over the greater metro area.

The dark side of prosperity

St. John's is the hottest cocaine market in Atlantic Canada. At least that's what the drug dealers whom the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary arrests tell the police officers.

The volumes of cocaine coming into the city are enormous, in spite of the many arrests and the relative geographic isolation. The spike in disposable incomes from the local oil boom and commuter workers from western Canada is fueling the demand. It is the dark side of prosperity.

Friday's announcement of a $1-million police task force to tackle drugs and organized crime shows how true that is.

But embedded into that drug trade is a streak of hidden and unreported violence. There's a rash of drug dealers ripping off other drug dealers. There are home invasions in areas much nicer than Tessier Place where stick-up crews are trying to rip off a dealer's dope stash or his bank roll.

Police and prosecutors hear of severe beatings using bats, crowbars, brass knuckles and bear spray. The victims of these beatings often refuse to give the police a statement even if they end up in hospital with life-threatening injuries. After all, how do you tell a cop that the guy who hurt you did it in order to steal your cocaine stash?

Retaliation and escalation

These dealers won't seek legal protection because they live and work outside the law and settle their grievances in the same fashion. This is why in the hours after the Tessier Place incident, the RNC focused heavily on violence suppression tactics. Each beating inevitably provokes retaliation. Retaliation provokes escalation.

Controlling violence is the real challenge the police face as the drug problem in the city grows. The big fear is the development of a full-blown gun culture.

For the most part, this violence is contained. The perpetrators and the victims are either known to each other or are part of the drug trade. But that doesn't make it any less significant or troubling.

Joey Whalen was beaten to death at 47. Doug Flynn was just 19 when he was stabbed to death on a road in Paradise. Nick Winsor was just 20 when he was shot and killed during a botched robbery attempt on Portugal Cove Road.

But law-abiding citizens are also affected. Rene Seers and Stephen Clowe each got eight-year sentences for a home invasion in which they beat a 60-year-old man and terrorized him with a gun and a hammer. They were looking for money that a relative of the victim claimed to have hidden there.

Obviously, you can argue that drugs and violence are far worse in other cities than in St. John's. What was happening at 8 Tessier Place is nothing compared to what happens in the rough neighbourhoods of much larger urban centres.

But that misses the point. St. John's has long boasted one of the lower violent crime rates in Canada. The oil-fuelled prosperity is changing this city in many ways. And not all of them are good.