Traffic cameras helped lead police to charge cafe owners accused of staging hate crime
Family behind BerMax Caffé manipulated alarm to keep police away, court documents allege
Cameras mounted on transit buses and street lights, as well as at Home Depot, led police to look at the owner of a Winnipeg cafe and her family as the perpetrators of an alleged robbery and hate crime, and not the victims, as they had claimed, newly released search warrant documents show.
Winnipeg police initially believed Oxana Berent, owner of the BerMax Caffé and Bistro, and her family had been assaulted by an intruder and her restaurant robbed and vandalized with swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti in April.
Her son Maxim called 911 claiming he and his father, Alexander, discovered his unconscious mother in the ransacked restaurant after a routine trip to Home Depot. All three were charged with public mischief days later, after police alleged video footage and ADT security system logs told a different story.
Investigators believe the Berents provided police with false and misleading information, wrote Winnipeg Police Service Const. Ryan Toyne in a search warrant affidavit, which lays out the police version of events.
Police got court orders for the Berents' cellphone records and communications, information from the alarm system in the restaurant and Wi-Fi routers as part of the investigation.
"I suspect that Maxim and Oxana stayed at the BerMax Caffé while Alexander drove to Home Depot," wrote Toyne. "I suspect Maxim/Oxana staged the robbery/hate crime."
Oxana and Maxim appeared on CBC Radio's Up to Speed the day they were charged to profess their innocence and tell their side of the story.
"I didn't fake," said Oxana, who explained someone grabbed her from behind, which caused her to pass out. "I just fainted, that's all, and the next what I remember is just … I was in the ambulance."
Maxim told CBC at the time that when he entered the restaurant, he found bottles and flour scattered about. "It was dark in there, but I saw my mother. She was lying on the floor. She was in the corner."
Cameras contradict family's story: documents
Police search warrants say video evidence contradicts the family's assertion that Alexander and Maxim went to Home Depot, leaving Oxana alone in the cafe.
A camera mounted on a passing Winnipeg Transit bus picked up what appears to be the Berents' Cadillac in the restaurant parking lot, then a second camera captured it leaving. Cameras on Kenaston Boulevard, Century Street, Ness Avenue and St. James Street followed the vehicle to Home Depot, police said in the court documents.
Police allege this footage shows the only person in the vehicle is the driver.
Home Depot cameras in the parking lot and inside the store appear to show Alexander shopping alone, police said.
"Maxim said he was in the front passenger seat on his phone the entire ride there and back so was unaware of the route they took," the affidavit said.
Police said after they showed Maxim images of an empty passenger seat in the SUV, he maintained he was seated there.
"[The Berents] could not adequately explain the discrepancies in times/events between their stories and the surveillance," wrote Toyne.
Security expert Michael Legary said it's very difficult to escape the prying eyes of cameras in public places.
"To lie about where you are in public nowadays is getting increasingly difficult. The number of sources of truth that are out there can easily show that what you stated was not what happened. So you know lying in many circumstances doesn't make any sense anymore," said Legary.
ADT security cameras not recording
The ADT security system inside BerMax included two security cameras, neither of which were recording, the police affidavit said. But it did record a log of every door that opened or closed and each sound of glass breaking, even though investigators said the alarm system had been manipulated to bypass zones in the building shortly before the restaurant was trashed.
"I believe it is reasonable that the Berent family manipulated the ADT alarm system in an attempt to bypass the alarms so that ADT would not notify police when the alarms occurred," wrote Toyne.
More than a dozen glass break alarms were logged by the security system while Alexander was on the way to and from Home Depot. Police believe they were "caused by the people still left in the building, Oxana and Maxim Berent."
"I believe the combination of surveillance video and ADT Alarm information about doors opening and glass break alarms is telling," wrote Toyne.
He said none of the doors opened or closed while Alexander was gone. And no windows were broken.
"I believe this shows that no one other than the family entered or exited the BerMax Caffé after closing."
Legary wasn't surprised police were able to gather so much video evidence in the case. Or that there are cameras in the city clear enough to see who is inside a vehicle.
"This should be a good example of that when you're in public that you can be recorded at any time and you need to understand that as you go about your day," he said.
And it's not just cameras. Legary said smartphones are constantly communicating with Wi-Fi routers, which leaves a trail of where their users have been.
Police seized Wi-Fi routers from Bermax as part of the investigation.
"Covering up your digital footprint is extremely difficult nowadays, because it's not one thing. We're talking about many devices in many different locations under the control of many different people."
Maxim didn't give mom CPR: documents
A vehicle believed to be Alexander's parked in the BerMax lot at 10:06 p.m., according to video footage. The 911 call was placed at 10:29 p.m., police said.
"Based on these times and Maxim's version of events, he apparently waited nearly 24 minutes before calling for an ambulance for his unconscious mother," wrote Toyne.
The 911 caller believed to be Maxim did not provide CPR to his mom after reporting she was not breathing, despite being told numerous times to do so by the call taker, read Toyne's affidavit.
Oxana's lawyer, Martin Glazer, said his client maintains her innocence and believes she will be exonerated at trial.
"The threshold for getting a search warrant is not as high as proving a case beyond a reasonable doubt," said Glazer. He says the alarm evidence will be disputed in court.
Maxim and Alexander's lawyers declined to comment.
None of the allegations have been proven in court. The next scheduled court date in the case is on Oct. 3.
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