Calgary

Teen sex abuse trial hears ex-Young Canadians employee Philip Heerema 'never meant anyone harm'

A Calgary police officer who interviewed former Calgary performance school employee Philip Heerema after he was arrested on child sex abuse charges told the suspect he'd displayed "classic pedophile behaviour" when messaging teens he was working with.

Video of police interview was played as evidence in Calgary courtroom on Monday

Philip Heerema is seen leaving court on Monday. Heerema is a former employee of the Young Canadians and faces charges of luring, sex assault and child pornography. (James Young/CBC)

A Calgary police officer who interviewed former Calgary performance school employee Philip Heerema after he was arrested on child sex abuse charges told the suspect he'd displayed "classic pedophile behaviour" when messaging teens he was working with.

Det. Paul Ralstin was the first to testify Monday on the first day of the trial.

Heerema, 55, faces 20 charges, including sexual assault, sexual exploitation, child pornography and luring. He is accused of using his position with the Young Canadians to "groom" the teens.

There are eight complainants, all of whom were teenagers at the time of the alleged offences.

The accused was employed with The Young Canadians, who perform in the Calgary Stampede grandstand show every year. 

'Our special secret'

The child abuse unit detective played a video of his interview with Heerema from the day of his arrest in June 2015.

Throughout the interview, Heerema refuses to say anything on his lawyer's advice. The officer tells Heerema about evidence found on the suspects electronic devices, which included requests to share photos meant to be what the accused described as "our special secret."

Ralstin tells Heerema that even though the age of consent is 16 years old, his role with the performance group meant he was in a position of authority over the teens, which means sexual relationships would be illegal.

At one point in the interview, Ralstin says Heerema was involved in "grooming" the boys and exhibited "classic pedophile behaviour" when messaging with the teens.

The officer says police have evidence that in one case, Heerema and a student masturbated together and performed oral sex on each other. The alleged incidents took place on the Stampede grounds and in the Young Canadians studio.

Friendship turn sexual 

Police began investigating after a teen came forward "sheepish" that he had shared a sexual photo with a man he'd once considered a friend and mentor. 

Heerema crossed boundaries from mentor into a sexual realm when he'd then make "a lot of inappropriate requests, inappropriate comments," the detective suggested.

Ralstin reads Heerema several messages that the suspect had sent to the teens: "I care about you ... I believe in you," he says in one exchange.

There would be words of encouragement about the teens' performances and then messages like this: "On tour you can just come visit my room and pose in person." 

In another message he invites a boy over to his home: "I'd be happy to push you in your limits, I'll also pretend I'm going to bed with you and you can be completely open with me .... come sleep over and soak in the hot tub."

'I never meant anyone harm': Heerema

On several occasions, Heerema requested naked photos of the boys and would then make his own offer: "I'll send you a picture of my wood," he wrote in one of his messages.

"You knew it was wrong," says the officer. "There was little messages, 'don't share this,' 'just delete these messages.'"

Later in the interview, Heerema says he's always struggled with his sexuality. He says he believed his relationships were friendships.

"I never meant anyone harm in my life," says Heerema. "I failed them all, so, yeah, I guess I'm a monster."

Not guilty plea

Defence lawyer Allan Fay spoke for his client when he replied "not guilty" to each of the 20 charges as Heerema was arraigned at the beginning of the day.

Heerema left the organization at the beginning of the investigation after he was confronted by fellow employees of the Young Canadians.

He'd been with the Young Canadians for 36 years, first as a teen performer, then as an employee with the group working in various roles including costumes, makeup, tour co-ordination, administration, sound engineering and production.

One charge dates to 1992. The others span a nine year period, from 2005 to 2014. 

Cleared background check

Heerema passed a background check before starting with the Young Canadians, said Stampede CEO Warren Connell on Monday.

"It did not show any results that would be negative or would be warning signs," he said.

​Since the 2014 arrest, Connell says the Stampede has implemented programs to assist young people and encourage them to report unwanted behaviour.

Police seized Heerema's electronics

Prosecutor Martha O'Connor said Court of Queen's Bench Justice Larry Ackerl will hear four weeks of evidence. Witnesses will include the complainants as well as police officers involved in the investigation and seized electronic devices from the home and workplace of the accused.

At the end of the trial, O'Connor said, she plans to make an application to have the evidence of complainants treated as similar fact evidence, meaning she will ask the judge to infer a "pattern of behaviour by the accused."

The Young Canadians work with students, training them in dance, vocals and performance. Every July, the group performs at the grandstand show during the Calgary Stampede.

​Heerema is currently on bail.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Meghan Grant

CBC Calgary crime reporter

Meghan Grant is a justice affairs reporter. She has been covering courts, crime and stories of police accountability in southern Alberta for more than a decade. Send Meghan a story tip at meghan.grant@cbc.ca or follow her on Twitter.

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