Alleged ringleader in $18.7M maple syrup theft testifies he faced death threats

Richard Vallières, charged with stealing and trafficking millions of dollars worth of maple syrup, admitted in a Trois-Rivières courtroom last week he did it out of fear for his and his family's lives. The trial of Vallières and three other men continues.

Richard Vallières says he trafficked millions of dollars worth of maple syrup out of fear

Richard Vallières says he bought and sold stolen maple syrup because he and his family were threatened. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

Ten days into the trial of four men accused in connection with a multi-million dollar maple syrup heist, one of the accused dropped a bombshell.

In his testimony Wednesday, Richard Vallières, 38, admitted to having trafficked stolen syrup but said he did it because he and his family's lives were threatened.

The sweet theft made international headlines four years ago, even catching the attention of Hollywood.

In August 2012, officials discovered $18.7 million worth of maple syrup warehoused in St-Louis-de-Blandford, Que., had disappeared — replaced mostly by water.

The syrup belonged to the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, the regulatory body that controls and manages the syrup trade in the province.

Admitted 'barrel roller'

Vallières was among 26 people arrested in connection to the heist. Some pleaded guilty, charges were dropped against others, and more trials are coming.

Vallières is on trial for fraud, theft and trafficking linked to the marketing, transportation and resale of the stolen syrup.

He testified he is what is known as a "barrel roller" in the maple industry — buying and selling syrup directly from producers in Quebec, bypassing the federation.

Witnesses called by the Crown have painted him as one of the ringleaders of the heist.

But Vallières told the jury he acted out of fear.

Bombshell testimony

Vallières testified he realized he was buying stolen syrup when a shipment arrived in special federation barrels that are an unmistakable whitish-blue colour.

He broke down in tears, explaining that he tried to refuse the shipment, but the man who sold it to him threatened to kill him, his girlfriend and young daughter, telling him, "I know where you live."

Vallières said the man pulled a handgun from his coat.

The alleged seller cannot be identified, as a publication ban protects his identity until his jury trial begins next January.

Police raided Étienne St-Pierre's warehouse in September 2012, about a month after the theft of the syrup was discovered. (Sûreté du Quebec)

Vallières said the man also threatened him when he tried to refuse to fill the federation barrels with water.

He said he continued to buy syrup from the man for months, not talking about the death threats to anyone other than his father.

He began taking sleeping pills and drinking heavily, he said, because he was so scared.

After their arrests, Vallières said the alleged seller muttered, "If anyone speaks, they'll get a bullet to the head."

Accused admits to tax evasion

The Crown attempted to poke holes in Vallières's defence, asking why he wrote text messages to the alleged seller, saying, "Come see me, my love, I miss you," congratulating him on the birth of a child and inviting him over to celebrate on his birthday.

Vallières admitted to never having paid personal income tax nor tax for his three companies.

He said he paid cash or wrote cheques for about 100 shipments of maple syrup, each weighing in at nearly 20 tonnes, including one single payment of $200,000, in cash.

Étienne St-Pierre is facing charges of theft and fraud for having bought stolen maple syrup from a Quebec 'barrel roller.' (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

New Brunswick buyer

Étienne St-Pierre, 73, of Kedgwick, N.B., who is facing charges of theft and fraud, admitted in his testimony that he bought syrup from Vallières both before and during the theft. 

Documents seized from his office by the Quebec provincial police show that sales to St-Pierre's company, S.K. Export, jumped 92-fold, from 3,840 kilograms of syrup in 2010 to 355,348 kilograms in 2012.

You can't prove what tree the syrup came from.- Étienne St-Pierre, explaining in his testimony why Quebec syrup was labelled as a New Brunswick product

St-Pierre admitted he frequently buys syrup from Quebec producers, outside of the structure established by the Quebec federation.

He presented a federal certification that shows he's allowed to buy syrup in Canada.

"I don't see how I could have committed a fraud," he said.

Quebec syrup labelled New Brunswick's

St-Pierre testified he's been to court some 45 times for issues related to buying syrup outside that federation structure or related to the charges in this case.

The Crown attempted to establish St-Pierre's disdain for the federation by presenting a letter on S.K. Export letterhead that calls the federation "A BUNCH OF A**HOLES, PART OF THE MAFIA."

The letter also stated the company would continue to do business with clients in Quebec, continue to solicit them and continue to throw subpoenas, demands and letters sent by the federation straight into the trash.

St-Pierre testified he hadn't personally sent that letter but admitted he is the president and owner of S.K. Export.

When police raided Étienne St-Pierre's warehouse, they found documents showing 62 per cent of his inventory had been purchased from his co-accused, Richard Vallières. (Sûreté du Québec)

The Crown also showed invoices sent from St-Pierre's company to clients that indicated he was selling New Brunswick products when the shipment included syrup purchased from Vallières.

St-Pierre said in his opinion, once syrup came into New Brunswick it became a New Brunswick product, agreeing with a Crown suggestion the transformation happened "by magic."

"It's because you can't prove what tree the syrup came from," St-Pierre said.

The other two men on trial, Richard Vallières's father, Raymond Vallières, and an employee, Jean Lord, are charged with either storing or transporting stolen syrup.

The trial continues in Trois-Rivières next week.