Scourge of meth-linked homemade guns in Winnipeg hits record high in 2019, police say
Rise in improvised firearms coincides with spike in meth-related crime over past five years
Leslie Beaulieu is good with his hands — it's what landed him in federal prison — but the craftsmanship he became known for on Winnipeg's streets has violent ends.
People would bring the 27-year-old father of two raw materials, which he would fashion into potentially deadly weapons.
Beaulieu took bits of pipe or bike parts — someone even brought him part of a lamp — and turned them into homemade firearms, also known as zip guns, using power tools and elbow grease.
He stockpiled his creations as he slipped deeper into a meth addiction and the psychosis that comes with it. Then, just weeks before his arrest last May, Beaulieu accidentally shot himself in the foot and landed in hospital.
"I felt really paranoid and felt like I had to help some people, but at the same time I was ruining things with myself and people around me," Beaulieu told court in December, saying he underestimated how addicting meth would be.
"Nobody wanted to come around anymore because I was scaring them.… This drug pretty much took my life."
He pleaded guilty to possessing methamphetamine and a restricted firearm, as well as manufacturing firearms, and was sentenced to 4½ years.
Beaulieu's story is just one side of a worsening problem that is tied to meth and has police on edge.
The number of homemade guns recovered in Winnipeg shot up 56 per cent in 2019 — police seized nearly 90 of them last year, compared to 53 the year before, says Winnipeg Police Service guns and gangs unit leader Insp. Max Waddell.
Waddell said police are convinced the manufacturing and possession of homemade guns is connected with the meth trade. People involved in either the drug or weapons trades, or both, are also often using, he said — and the drug can leave them in a state of psychosis and paranoia.
"These individuals feel the need to have a form of protection, not only for themselves but [from] the ones that are trafficking it — they also need a form of protection to protect their property from drug rips or other rival gangs."
Biggest seizure ever
At his sentencing hearing, Beaulieu said he was giving away most of the guns he made. Having already spent months behind bars, he said he was glad to be clean and off the streets.
It's possible he'd still be making guns if it weren't for an erratic cyclist spotted wearing a Hell's Angels-support sweatshirt in the West End last year. Police followed the male to an apartment on Maryland Street and saw a black device tucked into his waistband as he hoisted the bike up onto the porch and went inside.
It turned out to just be a Bluetooth speaker, but Beaulieau was also spotted inside the apartment. An officer recognized him from a police bulletin as someone who could be linked to the trade of improvised guns, court heard at Beaulieu's sentencing.
A search recovered power tools, including a router — which can be used to drill holes and hollow out material — and a cache of 11 homemade guns in various states of completion. It was the largest homemade gun bust in a single location in the city's history.
Waddell said one of the most "mesmerizing" materials showing up in homemade guns is bike parts.
"Something we would look to as a common part of society is now being used for such terrible means."
The Crown prosecutor in Beaulieu's case, Vanessa Gama, said the zip gun problem is something of a "Winnipeg phenomena," and their construction makes them particularly risky.
"There is no normal chamber or safety, and that's what makes them so inherently dangerous," she said in court, referring to Beaulieu's mishap that led to him shooting himself in the foot.
"Improvised firearms are true crime guns: they are nearly impossible to trace, there are no serial numbers and they are completely unregulated."
In recent years, Canadian police forces have seized more sophisticated homemade guns than those that are typically turning up on the streets of Winnipeg.
In 2018, police in the Greater Toronto area busted a group accused of making and distributing "ghost guns," which look more like traditional handguns. They're considered hard to trace because they're pieced together with unregulated but legal parts without serial numbers.
And in 2017, police in Edmonton seized four homemade submachine pistols, manufactured by a black-market gun-making shop.
'Buzz is out there'
There's evidence homemade guns are popping up for sale on the dark web too, and it's possible to find out how to make them yourself.
"You can learn these things off the internet now, which is also pretty wild," said Winnipeg defence lawyer Wendy Martin White.
"It's not hard to do and the buzz is out there. People are just doing it — maybe some are even doing it just defensively, because it's so unsafe on the streets now in some parts."
White was Beaulieu's defence lawyer and doesn't know how he learned to make guns.
She also sees the link between homemade guns and meth use in other clients, and how the two have created a heightened sense of danger on the streets.
"I'm hearing that from my clients more so than ever," she said. "They say it's just very scary out there. They all are carrying weapons, which is terrible."
Challenge facing justice system
White is currently representing another man who was initially charged with two separate sets of homemade gun possession offences. One of the guns was tested by a firearms expert who said it wouldn't meet the legal definition of a firearm, so the charge was dropped.
That illustrates a challenge the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police has been pushing governments to address for years.
"These replica firearms have been used to terrorize victims and compromise the safety of the Canadian public," reads a resolution passed by CACP members directed at Parliament in 2000.
It sought to reclassify replica firearms, including homemade guns, as prohibited weapons, making it an offence to possess them, CACP spokesperson Natalie Wright wrote in an email.
Wright said the association's special purpose committee on firearms is currently mulling an array of firearm and legislation issues that could lead to new recommendations to lawmakers about homemade guns.
Police on lookout for another manufacturer
As for 27-year-old Beaulieu, if he serves the remainder of his sentence, he'll celebrate his 30th birthday behind bars.
Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench Justice Chris Martin accepted a joint recommendation of 54 months from Gama and White.
"At this point you look to be a pretty dangerous menace to the community," Martin said in court last December.
But while delivering his decision, Martin also called Beaulieu an "intelligent fellow" who clearly had a rough upbringing. His grandparents were forced through the residential school system, and there was addiction in the home growing up.
Beaulieu lives with post-traumatic stress disorder, among other conditions that were exacerbated in the years after he found his mother dead from an overdose, and after his best friend died in his arms following a stabbing in 2012, court heard. After that, Beaulieu turned to meth.
"I'm not trying to be Pollyanna about this, but it seems you're pretty good with your hands," Martin said at the hearing.
"Maybe it's the type of thing you get into some kind of machinery work or something like that — instead of manufacturing guns, you manufacture something that people need."
Beaulieu is no longer contributing to the homemade gun problem, but another manufacturer is filling the void.
A new shadowy figure — likely someone with a machining, metal or bending background — sprung onto the scene last fall.
In December, Insp. Waddell issued a call for help to bring that person to justice before someone gets killed.