As Valentine's Day mall plot sentencing begins, new details from court records

Nova Scotia prosecutors once planned to call the lead investigator of the Columbine massacre to testify against Lindsay Souvannarath. She is one of three people whose plot to bomb and open fire at the Halifax Shopping Centre in 2015 was thwarted by police.

Nova Scotia prosecutors once planned to call lead investigator of Columbine massacre to testify

Sentencing begins Monday for Lindsay Souvannarath, shown at Halifax provincial court in 2015, on a charge of conspiracy to commit murder connected with a planned Valentine's Day mass shooting at the Halifax Shopping Centre. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The plan to bomb the Halifax Shopping Centre on Valentine's Day 2015 and open fire in the mall's food court was intended to mimic the 1999 Columbine massacre.

So much so that Nova Scotia prosecutors were preparing to bring the lead investigator from the infamous U.S. school shooting to Halifax to testify at the trial of two people charged in the shopping mall plot that was foiled by police.

That trial never went ahead after the pair pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder, and this morning a sentencing hearing begins in Nova Scotia Supreme Court for the second plotter, Lindsay Souvannarath.

But records submitted to the court before Souvannarath's plea shed light on some of the strategy the Crown would have used at trial. They also detail how evidence of the woman's "affinity for Nazism" would be handled in court, and concerns over enforcing publication bans on pre-trial motions in a trial that likely would have drawn international attention.

Souvannarath was 23 when she was arrested at Halifax Stanfield International Airport on Feb. 13, 2015, after flying to Nova Scotia from her home in Geneva, Ill. She has been in custody ever since.

A co-conspirator, Randall Shepherd, a 20-year-old who lived in Halifax, had gone to meet her there and was arrested at the same time. He is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for his role in the plot.

A third man involved, James Gamble, 19, killed himself at his Timberlea, N.S., home as police surrounded the house on the day of the arrests.
Randall Steven Shepherd is serving a 10-year prison sentence for his role in the mall attack plot. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The three were so-called "Columbiners," people who considered Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold — the perpetrators of the Colorado school shooting that killed 13 and injured another 21 — to be heroes.

According to the court documents, the Crown maintains Souvannarath, Shepherd and Gamble started discussing their conspiracy online just before Christmas 2014.

As the Crown made elaborate preparations for what promised to be a lengthy jury trial, they planned to bring to Halifax Kate Battan, the lead investigator of the Columbine shooting, in order to explain what happened there.

CBC News reached out to Battan to try to gain her perspective on the Halifax case, but a spokesperson declined the interview request.

As deadly as it was, Harris and Klebold wanted the Columbine attack to be much worse. They had constructed bombs they tried to detonate.

They had also intended to detonate cars crammed with explosives outside the school. The car bombs were supposed to go off after first responders arrived to deal with the first casualties. None of their bombs exploded as they had planned.

The conspiracy involved shooting and bomb attacks at the Halifax Shopping Centre in Halifax. (CBC)

Souvannarath's guilty plea a year ago caught prosecutors off guard, and came after a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge ruled the Crown could use evidence obtained from her home state of Illinois.

Acting on a request from police in Nova Scotia, American investigators obtained a search warrant to access Souvannarath's social media accounts, including Facebook.

The three Nova Scotia conspirators were hoping their planned attack on the mall would equal or exceed the carnage caused in Columbine, according to court documents.

Like their heroes, Souvannarath and Gamble planned to use Molotov cocktails in their attack on the mall food court, the court heard at Shepherd's sentencing hearing.

As Valentine's Day approached, Shepherd decided he would not participate in the actual attack, but agreed to supply the makings of the bombs. When he was arrested, he had a gas can, a whiskey bottle and a lighter in his possession.

But while Harris and Klebold carried a small arsenal of guns and knives, the Nova Scotia conspirators had only a rifle and shotgun.

'Affinity for Nazism'

The trial preparation records show other details and concerns about how the case against Souvannarath would unfold.

The Crown did not intend to call evidence about Souvannarath's "affinity for Nazism or other racially charged materials except to the extent that it is inextricably bound to the conspiracy."

While the Crown intended to use Souvannarath's Facebook conversations against her, it planned to edit sexually explicit photographs that were part of the social media exchange among the conspirators. The woman has been described as Gamble's online girlfriend.

In addition to the contents of her social media accounts, the Crown also planned to use statements Souvannarath gave to Canada Border Service officers when she arrived in Halifax and a statement she provided to an undercover operator.

Because of the high-profile nature of the conspiracy and the fact Souvannarath is from the United States, the court worried about whether international media would respect a publication ban imposed by a Canadian judge on reporting things such as pre-trial motions or in-trial hearings where the jury was not present.

A researcher prepared a report, citing the case of B.C. serial killer Robert Pickton, which also attracted attention from international media.

The report suggested the presiding judge give a more detailed, explicit warning about the applicable publication ban at the start of the trial.

None of these considerations or details were applicable, because the two surviving conspirators avoided a trial by entering guilty pleas.

About the Author

Blair Rhodes

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Blair Rhodes has been a journalist for more than 34 years, the last 25 with CBC. His primary focus is on stories of crime and public safety.