British Columbia

'He is truly remorseful': Fentanyl dealer fights becoming poster boy for killer drug

A man who has become the face of fentanyl trafficking made a brief appearance in a Richmond, B.C., courtroom Wednesday as new details emerged about his case and the arguments for and against extreme punishment.

Crown lawyer says future fentanyl trafficking cases could see charges tied to overdose deaths

This police surveillance photograph of fentanyl trafficker Walter James McCormick was one of dozens of photographs entered into evidence at his sentencing. (Crown exhibit)

Walter James McCormick stepped into the prisoner's box in a Richmond, B.C., courthouse Wednesday morning with his life hanging in the balance.

He is an admitted fentanyl trafficker. 

And with a long criminal history behind him and an epidemic of fentanyl-related deaths raging on the streets outside, the 51-year-old has turned into a poster boy in the fight for stronger sentencing.

The Crown is asking for an unprecedented term of 18 years in prison.

His lawyer says a term in the range of eight years is more appropriate. He's asking — if not for mercy — for some understanding of his client in the bigger context of an opioid crisis.

Lawrence Myers said McCormick had a difficult upbringing. He spent the parts of his adult life when he wasn't dealing drugs or behind bars employed as a steelworker. He saw a co-worker die on the job and suffered emotional consequences that continue to haunt him still.

He pleaded guilty to trafficking and possession for the purpose of trafficking fentanyl at what the Crown calls a high-level.

Myers said that has to count for something.

"He still stepped up and embraced the responsibility in that guilty plea, which he entered," Myers said outside the courtroom.

"He is truly remorseful. And I think he has come to a fuller appreciation of fentanyl and its consequences in the community."

Grainy undercover images

Myers was set to make submissions on McCormick's behalf, but the day's proceedings were derailed by other facts of life in B.C.'s provincial courtrooms: a scarcity of judges, overloaded lists and endless delays.

The prisoner stood behind a Plexiglas barrier in a red prison track suit, stretching his arms. He's a short, stocky man with a full head of close-cropped grey hair.

An artist's sketch shows McCormick standing before provincial court Judge Bonnie Craig. (Jane Wolsak)

He listened intently as the judge said the possibility of a lengthy sentence and the complexity of the issues at hand would require a day's arguments. The matter is now set for Dec. 6.

But even with the adjournment, new details emerged about the high-profile case and the Crown's hope that Judge Bonnie Craig will forge new legal ground by creating a new sentencing range for fentanyl trafficking.

Photographs entered as court exhibits show grainy images of McCormick as a suspect under the watchful eye of undercover police.

The pictures include bounty seized in a search of his suburban home: a money-counting machine; bags full of green fentanyl pills; bills splayed in denominations of $1,000, $100, $50 and $20.

His common-law spouse was originally charged in the case as well. On the day McCormick pleaded guilty, the Crown withdrew the charges.

According to the Crown's statement of facts, McCormick said "she had nothing do with it."

Not 'trying to make an example'

McCormick has served lengthy sentences in the past for trafficking cocaine in the United States and in Canada.

He was identified as part of a massive probe sparked by a rash of overdoses in 2014. Even while on bail, he managed to rack up another fentanyl-related charge, which is one of the offences for which he will ultimately be sentenced.

Outside court Wednesday, Crown counsel Oren Bick said judges regularly consider both the circumstances of the offender and his community in sentencing.

This photograph of money seized from McCormick's home was entered into evidence at his sentencing for fentanyl trafficking. (Crown exhibit)

"Everything from the most minor sentencing to the most major one should send some sort of message to the public about the way the public views that sort of offence," he said.

"This is not that we're trying to make an example of Mr. McCormick. It's that Mr. McCormick pled guilty to these offences, comes to the court with a particular background — which is not a good background — committed these offences at a fairly high level and we're seeking the sentence that we feel is appropriate for this man in these circumstances.

"This is the type of sentence one can expect if one does this and this type of behaviour is one that is appalling to the general public."

'Lynch mob mentality'

While the fentanyl found in McCormick's possession has not been linked to any overdose deaths, Bick has said in previous arguments that high-level dealers bear "personal significant responsibility" for fentanyl-detected deaths.

Outside court, he said there is a possibility that other dealers might be prosecuted for manslaughter or even murder if the facts support a charge.

"In cases where there is a possibility of proving that a drug dealer killed somebody wilfully by dealing a dangerous drug, then the police certainly do investigate those," Bick said.

Myers said no one is disputing the danger of drugs like fentanyl. But he said sending his client to prison forever won't solve the problem.

"We have to refrain from the lynch-mob mentality, that is that if we hang Mr. McCormick out to dry that will solve our problems," he said.

"That doesn't mean to say people that drug-traffic shouldn't be punished, it just means that it should be tempered with the understanding and appreciation that as a community we have to take a more enlightened approach.

"Let us not be distracted and think that we've washed our hands of the problem by giving Mr. McCormick a lengthy sentence."

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 the justice system extensively.

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