British Columbia

Crown seeks 'incredibly harsh' sentence for B.C. fentanyl trafficker

With a deadly fentanyl epidemic serving as backdrop, a B.C. provincial court judge must decide whether to heed the Crown's call for "an incredibly harsh and high" sentence for a man who has admitted to dealing the drug.

Crown calls for 18 years after guilty plea from 'high-level trafficker' Walter James McCormick

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

Does the dire nature of the deadly fentanyl epidemic demand extreme punishment for the drug's dealers?

That's the question facing a B.C. provincial court judge this week as she considers the Crown's call for an unprecedented 18-year jail sentence for Walter James McCormick, a fentanyl trafficker arrested in a Vancouver police investigation.

Crown counsel Oren Bick is calling for 10 years for the initial charges and eight for a subsequent fentanyl-related offence that occurred while McCormick was on bail. He wants the two terms served consecutively.

"This is an incredibly harsh and high sentence," Bick told Judge Bonnie Craig during the first day of sentencing last week.

But Bick said the circumstances demand action.

"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," he said.

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

Charges against spouse withdrawn

In stark contrast to his highly publicized arrest as part of Project Tainted in 2015, McCormick pleaded guilty in an almost empty courtroom last week to two counts of trafficking and two of possession for the purpose of trafficking.

The 51-year-old also admitted to possession for the purpose of trafficking in a separate incident, which occurred when he was caught while on bail this spring at a hotel in Richmond, B.C., with large quantities of drugs, including fentanyl.

McCormick's sentencing hearing is set to continue Wednesday in Richmond provincial court, but CBC News was able to listen to an audio recording of last week's proceedings, which occurred in Vancouver.

Police across Canada have warned that fentanyl is being mixed with other drugs, without the knowledge of users. (CBC)

The Crown has withdrawn all charges against McCormick's former common-law spouse, Karen Marie Armitstead.

According to a statement of facts read into the record, McCormick was caught during an investigation begun in October 2014 after a rash of overdoses.

An undercover officer posed as a Yellowknife dealer looking to score drugs to take up to northern mines.

One of the initial targets of the operation was observed speaking with McCormick, which led police to set up surveillance on the North Vancouver man.

Searches later turned up thousands of fentanyl pills and other drugs with a street value totalling $2 million.

McCormick was released on bail, but arrested again in May when staff at a Sandman Hotel called police after trying to evict him.

Bick said McCormick was "paranoid and delusional" and appeared to be trying to hide money in a UPS truck when police arrived. A search of his room turned up large quantities of drugs in Ziploc bags.

'An absolute money-maker'

In calling for a tough sentence, Bick entered into evidence a series of reports about the scope of the fentanyl crisis currently facing British Columbia and other provinces.

He also called Dr. James Kennedy, an expert on internal medicine from St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver, as a witness to talk about the effects of fentanyl on the brain and the rise of the drug in both the worlds of medicine and illicit drug use.

The fentanyl-related deaths of North Vancouver couple Amelia and Hardy Leighton led to widespread publicity around the mounting fentanyl epidemic. (Youcaring)

On cross-examination, Kennedy agreed with the defence's suggestion that over-prescribing doctors and pharmaceutical companies have contributed to an epidemic that has ravaged communities and killed hundreds.

Bick didn't disagree. But he said dealers like McCormick are taking advantage of the bigger problem of opioid dependence to introduce dangerous new drugs onto the illicit market.

He called fentanyl "an absolute money-maker" for traffickers: potent; easy to smuggle because of the tiny amount needed for a high; easily obtained over the internet; and attractive to people beyond street-level users.

"The demand is not for fentanyl, with some limited exceptions," he said. "People are dying of this drug every day, and drug users who want opioids are not out there saying, 'I want the one that could kill me.'"

Bick also noted that local and national news outlets reported widely on the charges against McCormick while fentanyl detected deaths were rising along with the public's sense of outrage.

"His reoffending while on bail in these very heightened circumstances, heightened about fentanyl generally and heightened about his case specifically, is very aggravated," Bick said.

Harsh sentences ineffective deterrent, lawyer says

McCormick's lawyer, Lawrence Myers, will make submissions on his client's behalf on Wednesday. But in a telephone interview, he cautioned against hanging all the blame for a complex societal problem on one man.

"The vast majority of people that are being injured or dying from the overuse of prescription drugs such as fentanyl are prescription drug users, not the street users," he said.

"Am I excusing Mr. McCormick's behaviour? No. But in perspective, if you think for a minute whatever sentence you give him is going to deter other people from trafficking on the streets or deter doctors from prescribing fentanyl, tragically, we know that's not going to happen."

A judge in Kelowna, B.C., this summer declined to consider the presence of fentanyl as an aggravating factor — as opposed to cocaine — in sentencing a man who pleaded guilty to possessing both for the purpose of trafficking.

Myers said tough stances taken by American courts have proven that lengthy sentences don't deter drug trafficking. He suggested that in McCormick's case, a federal sentence in the upper range should be eight years instead of 18.

In tallying the other aggravating factors against McCormick, Bick noted that he received a sentence of 121 months in Seattle U.S. District Court after being convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine in 2000.

He also received a sentence of 20 months in North Vancouver provincial court in 2012 for a charge of possession for the purpose of trafficking. Fentanyl was alleged to be in his possession at that time.

Bick said judges don't have to be bound to precedent in deciding to go above the normal range of sentencing in order to denounce a crime of particular concern to society.

"I'm asking the court for a sentence that is outside the usual range, but that is justified by local circumstances and the need to send a message of denunciation and deterrence."

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.