Lawsuits against Edmonton police and a detective's career in limbo: The aftermath of Project Fisk
Police accused of defamation, detective expects discipline for leaking case details
For more than three years, Edmonton police Det. Dan Behiels investigated notorious Edmonton landlord Abdullah Shah and some of his alleged accomplices. In January 2021, when the investigations concluded and no charges were laid, a frustrated Behiels took the extraordinary step of leaking the confidential investigative documents to CBC News. He is now suspended and facing disciplinary charges. CBC Edmonton's new series — Behind the blue line: Investigating Abdullah Shah — digs into those documents and why Behiels decided to put his career on the line for them.
Part Five looks into the multiple civil lawsuits against the Edmonton Police Service and the fallout for Det. Dan Behiels.
- Read Part One — Behind the blue line: Investigating Abdullah Shah
- Read Part Two — Project Fisk and the allegations against Abdullah Shah
- Read Part Three — Police investigation probes landlord's taxes, casino activities
- Read Part Four — How a stolen police badge raised concerns about Abdullah Shah and his connections with Edmonton police
- Read Part Five — Lawsuits against Edmonton police and a detective's career in limbo: The aftermath of Project Fisk
Edmonton police investigated notorious landlord Abdullah Shah, some of his associates and his company, Home Placement Systems (HPS), for more than two years in Project Fisk — and longer through other investigations.
No charges were laid as a result of those investigations — but that won't mean an end to court proceedings.
The Edmonton Police Service (EPS) could be heading to the courtroom as defendants in a list of civil suits.
Lawyers who represent Shah claim their client and his HPS associates have been repeatedly and unfairly targeted and harassed by Edmonton police.
The lawyers singled out Det. Dan Behiels, who led Project Fisk, for what they call tunnel vision and malice, describing his investigation as a "witch hunt."
Shairose Esmail filed a defamation suit in March of this year against EPS spokesperson Scott Pattison, police Chief Dale McFee and now-retired EPS superintendent Trent Forsberg.
Esmail is seeking $1.95 million in damages.
The allegations stem from how Edmonton police described to the media that Shah and his HPS associates were "persons of interest" in an investigation.
Police said they were investigating alleged participation in a criminal organization, money laundering, drug trafficking and tax evasion.
The public was made aware of the investigation by EPS when a number of search warrants were executed in July 2019 at the Shah home in Riverbend and at other locations linked to Shah and his HPS associates.
"Charges were not in fact pending and the property owners affected by the searches had not operated as a criminal organization at any time," Esmail says in her statement of claim.
The police statements are described as defamatory and allege the EPS decision to release information to the media "was done maliciously and for improper purposes."
A statement of defence filed in June 2021 on behalf of Forsberg and Pattison said Forsberg had directed Pattison to provide a response to the media.
The police issued this statement at the time: "It is too early in the investigation to suggest that charges are pending against any specific individuals, but we can certainly confirm that the following people are 'persons of interest' relative to this investigation."
The defendants denied in the statement of defence that they owed Esmail a duty of care to keep her identity confidential.
"At all material times, these defendants discharged their duties as police officers in good faith, in a fair, thorough and professional manner, and without malice towards the plaintiff," the statement of defence said.
"The statements provided on behalf of the EPS constituted fair comment and were true and were made in the public interest."
In 2019, EPS confirmed to CBC the names of the people involved: Esmail, Abdullah Shah (also known as Carmen Pervez) and another of Shah's HPS associates, Jennifer Vuong.
Two months after Esmail filed her civil lawsuit, Vuong amended her own $5-million lawsuit.
Claiming she suffered mental distress and financial losses, Vuong is suing Forsberg, Pattison and McFee, along with former police chief Rod Knecht, Behiels, the City of Edmonton and the Alberta government. In total, 38 people are named in the suit.
Vuong claims police wrongly identified her as a person of interest in a suspected organized crime investigation.
"The plaintiff's reputation and employment prospects have been adversely affected and irreparably harmed by the defamatory publications," the statement of claim says.
"TD Bank terminated services to the plaintiff as a result of … improper actions by Behiels or other EPS members."
In June, two more of Shah's HPS associates — Sarah Fassmann and Tony Singh — filed separate $1.95 million civil suits against police related to the search warrants that were executed in July 2019.
"There was no reasonable basis for the search," Singh's lawyer wrote in the statement of claim. "All of the plaintiffs have endured serious mental distress and anxiety, embarrassment and humiliation."
Statements of defence filed on behalf of McFee reject all allegations levelled at members and employees of the Edmonton Police Service.
Shah and his lawyer were asked for interviews but declined comment.
It's been more than two years since Edmonton police fanned out across the city to execute search warrants as part of Project Fisk.
Shah still lives in the Riverbend home investigators combed through in July 2019.
In August, he finished serving eight months of house arrest. He remains on probation after pleading guilty in December 2020 to asking remand centre inmates to assault a former employee. He remains on probation.
Shah was allowed to leave his house for work, and one inner-city resident told CBC News she saw him regularly in the neighbourhood. Because she is concerned for her safety, CBC is not naming the woman.
"I wish his work/business itself wasn't terrorizing the neighbourhood," she wrote in an email. "We observe a lot of things that make us concerned for the neighbourhood and especially our most vulnerable neighbours."
Over the years, Shah has been the subject of a number of EPS investigations. He has a criminal record going back to 1983 and has served time for drug trafficking and a $30-million dollar mortgage fraud scheme.
A life of pervasive criminality- Crown prosecutor James Stewart
During a March 2019 bail hearing, Crown prosecutor James Stewart told the judge that Shah has lived "a life of pervasive criminality … committing coordinated violent offences in this community."
He's a well-known figure in Edmonton's inner city, where at one point he owned up to 100 properties.
Before he was sentenced last December, Shah's lawyer told the judge that his client was getting out of the business of owning, managing and renovating properties.
"He's sold off the majority of his portfolio and is transitioning out of that business completely," Paul Moreau told court.
In August, Shah was shot in the jaw at one of his properties — the same location where he'd been shot in the leg two years prior. Shah survived the shooting. No charges have been laid in connection with either incident.
Shah himself is far from finished with the legal system. He faces a preliminary hearing in January on four counts of trafficking fentanyl.
Behiels was not involved in that investigation.
Motivation for leaking information
Even with civil lawsuits from the people he was investigating and the potential end to his policing career, Behiels stands by his decision to leak the confidential Project Fisk investigative documents to CBC News this past January.
Behiels said his concern for the people he considers to be victims of Shah and his actions is the main reason he leaked information.
"They deserve some level of at least warning as to what can happen to them if they become involved," he said in an interview.
"And my hope is that if it's made public, they can avoid being victimized in the future."
He also hopes that people who feel they've been victimized by Shah don't lose faith, even though his investigation failed to result in criminal charges.
"I talked to a lot of different neighbours, I talked to victims. Even offenders. I know a lot of people feel the problems they see every day aren't getting fixed," Behiels said.
"I hope that people who live next to problem addresses, that have sons and daughters that are overdosing … that they don't give up."
Behiels has been suspended with pay for leaking police investigation details to CBC and faces possible disciplinary charges of insubordination, breach of trust and discreditable conduct.
With his future up in the air, Behiels says he misses police work.
"There's a lot of victims out there that I think that I've helped in some way and I want to be able to keep doing that," he said.
"I've kind of gone through all my phases of grief.
"I'm now at acceptance that it's unlikely I'll be allowed to return to work."