Bag containing $100K allegedly stolen as thieves foil Chinese money 'exchange'
Documents detail victim interviews in case that highlights dangers of underground money transactions
Guns were drawn. A plastic bag containing $100,000 in cash was stolen. And police interviewed seven witnesses.
But who was the actual victim?
CBC News has obtained a search warrant detailing a previously unreported Richmond parking lot robbery in January where thieves allegedly interrupted a black market transaction aimed at moving $150,000 from China to Canada.
The case illustrates an underground phenomenon used to skirt restrictions on the movement of currency out of China — not to mention the dangers of making off-book money exchanges involving large numbers of bills.
He needed to 'bypass the exchange limit'
According to the court documents, the woman whose cash was allegedly stolen "stated that the money was all her hard-earned money."
She was allegedly planning to use it to buy property in China. But four months after the bag full of bills was stolen, it's unclear if she'll ever see her money again.
The details of the incident are laid out in a 19-page document sworn to obtain a warrant to search a grey Dodge Journey that was allegedly used by masked men who turned up at the Empire Centre parking lot on the night of January 17.
The CBC is not naming any of the people involved in the incident, because no one appears to have been charged.
A man with the initials RZ allegedly initiated the transaction. He told police "he needed $150,000 for purchasing a car."
"As there is now a ($50,000 US) limit in exchange of money from China and Canada, he needed to find a party in Canada who could bypass the exchange limit for him," the search warrant says.
'Too cramped to count that much money'
RZ claimed he found a woman in Burnaby named ML who owns a money exchange business.
She agreed to provide him with $150,000 in Canadian cash if RZ's mother simultaneously transferred the equivalent in Chinese currency to an account in China.
The exchange rate was quoted at 5.26 Yuan to the dollar — higher than the 5.1 rate the banks quoted on that day.
ML later told police she "repeatedly requested that the buyer come to their home in Burnaby to pick up the cash." But he said he didn't want to, suggesting they meet in a parking lot instead.
At the appointed time, ML showed up in a vehicle along with her nephew and one of his friends.
RZ claimed she "showed him a bag containing [an] unknown amount of cash. The bag was a reusable shopping bag with unidentified design on the outside. The cash was packaged into bundles of unknown amounts."
According to the warrant, RZ claimed he wanted to count the cash. But ML "thought that the interior of the car was much too cramped to count that much money."
'She gave them the bag'
RZ claimed that he used his phone to call his mother. ML claimed she became uncomfortable with the whole situation and wanted to drive away, but that RZ claimed his mother was transferring the cash.
"[ML] was skeptical as [RZ] had never asked for her banking information in China," the warrant says. "As such the transfer would not be possible."
According to everyone involved, it was at about this time that masked suspects appeared and demanded ML's money with a gun.
"She gave them the bag in fear of being shot."
One of the witnesses claimed that everyone argued after the robbery about whether or not to call police. The court documents suggest that RZ's friends thought he was set up, whereas ML's friends believed she had been set up.
RZ — the man who was looking for cash to buy a car in the first place — admitted to investigators that he was prohibited from driving.
'Somebody's going to rip you off'
Money exchanges or "money service businesses" — MSBs — were flagged as a "vulnerable sector" in former RCMP deputy commissioner Peter German's 2018 report on money laundering in Lower Mainland casinos.
"MSBs have become a fixture of the urban Canadian financial system. Their primary purpose is to transmit funds electronically to distant locations. Some cater to particular clientele or ethnicities," German wrote.
"According to the RCMP, 'Their intent is to hide the identity of the remitter, evade banking laws and circumvent suspicious currency transaction reporting.'"
German's report called for the establishment of a licensing and recording regime for money service businesses.
Garry Clement, a retired RCMP superintendent who worked as the national director for the force's proceeds of crime program, says victims of robberies like the one in Richmond often don't report to police.
"When you've got a pile of money and you're carrying it around, the big risk is that somebody's going to rip you off," said Clement, who designs training for financial and law enforcement agencies.
"Using the underground banking system, it's a system that's been around for centuries and it's built on a system of trust. Unfortunately over the past decade or so, trust has been eroded in many circles ... and so what you're dealing with is a greater risk than ever before."
Richmond RCMP did not comment on the investigation, which still appears to be open. No one has been charged.