New Brunswick

Ex-Saint John councillor pleads guilty to 46 counts of child exploitation

Former Saint John councillor and suspended youth ministry leader Donnie Snook has pleaded guilty to 46 charges involving child exploitation.

Donnie Snook's 17 male victims ranged in age from five to 15

Donnie Snook, a former Saint John councillor and suspended youth ministry leader who publicly stood for improving the welfare of at-risk children, has pleaded guilty to 46 charges involving child exploitation.

Former Saint John councillor and youth ministry leader Donnie Snook has been in custody since his arrest Jan. 9. (CBC)

Snook, 41, appeared in Saint John provincial court on Wednesday looking thin and pale, wearing a grey tracksuit.

There were gasps in the courtroom as Snook admitted to all of the charges against him, showing no emotion.

He was previously charged with eight sex-related charges, but in court today it was announced that he was facing a total of 46 charges.

Snook's defence lawyer Dennis Boyle waived the reading of the charges, but Judge Alfred Brien listed them off.

They include nine counts of making child pornography, two counts of possession child pornography and two counts of making child pornography available.

There are also two counts of sexual assault, 13 counts of sexually touching a minor, 10 counts of inviting a youth to touch him, three counts of touching a child for a sexual purpose while in a position of trust and four counts of communicating with a child for a sexual purpose.

One of the charges is extortion — inducing a child by threats to distribute or post a naked picture of himself.

None of the facts were relayed in court but the Crown said there were a total of 17 victims.

They were all boys between the ages of five and 15 at the time of the offences, according to Saint John Police Force Sgt. Jay Henderson.

Some of the charges date back as far as 2001, and others right up until Snook's arrest in January, he said in a statement.

Most of the victims were from the Saint John area, said Henderson.

A publication ban prevents reporting any information that would identify the victims.

Sentencing set over

The Crown requested an adjournment to set a date for a sentencing hearing.

"We need a couple of weeks to get our ducks in a row," Crown prosecutor Karen Lee Lamrock said.

She plans to seek victim impact statements before sentencing, she told the court.

There will also be a joint request for a pre-sentence report, which will cover Snook's risk of reoffending, Lamrock said.

Snook remains in custody until June 25, when a date for a sentencing hearing will be set. It's unclear where he's being held.

Outside the courtroom, Lamrock declined to comment on whether more charges might be pending.

She also declined to discuss the length of sentence she plans to recommend.

But the veteran prosecutor said she was "shocked" by the "magnitude" of this case.

Lamrock also noted Snook's guilty plea will be considered as a mitigating factor during sentencing.

"In any situation where there’s a guilty plea it alleviates, I think, a lot of questions for everyone," she said.

"I don’t know what it means for the victims, I don’t. I know it does mean they won’t have to go through a trial, which is significant, given the age of these victims. For the Crown, it saves us several, several weeks of trial. So it’s considered a mitigating factor in sentence — and it should be."

'Good state of mind'

Defence lawyer Dennis Boyle had questioned whether his client would be able to get a fair trial in Saint John. (CBC)

Snook's defence lawyer told reporters there's "always a possibility more charges could come forward."

"But part of the reason that we waited and adjourned several times without pleas was to attempt to have a totality before the courts and not to keep coming back over and over again," Boyle said.

He declined to discuss the details of the case, saying the facts will come out during the sentencing hearing.

"That will be a very long and trying and hurtful day with a lot of pain and suffering being exposed before the court."

Sentencing may not happen until the fall, once the judge has had an opportunity to consider the matter, said Boyle.

He described Snook as being "in a good state of mind."

"He’s probably somewhat relieved now that this matter has taken its first steps towards correction, towards rehabilitation, towards healing perhaps, forgiveness," said Boyle.

Asked if Snook is remorseful, Boyle said: "I can't comment on somebody's feelings and I don't want to at this point."

"There’s a great relief of the burden that has been taken off his shoulders," he added.

'Hope … he gets what he deserves'

Snook's former friend Darrell Bastarache says he's pleased the victims won't have to go through a lengthy trial. (CBC)

Darrell Bastarache, who described himself as a former friend of Snook's, said he didn't see any signs of remorse.

"I hope the wheels of justice turn smoothly and he gets what he deserves."

Bastarache, who said he knows some of the victims, said he is pleased they will be spared from having to go through a trial.

"They just want it over with. People want it over with, parents and children just want it to be done with, kind of put it behind them," he said.

Bastarache believes Snook preyed on the victims by going through the parents first.

"He probably targeted some of the parents and got the trust from the parents. And once you gain the parents' trust, you get to the children and the children are vulnerable. When the parents believe, oh, good role model, and things like that."

The case against Snook has divided the city.

Two Facebook groups were created — Pray for Donnie, and Donnie Snook: Guilty or Not Guilty? The Pray for Donnie site has since been disabled.

Probe started in Toronto in 2011

Police searched Snook's Martha Avevenue home and seized several items, including computer equipment. (Connell Smith/CBC)

Snook has been in custody since Jan. 9, when he was arrested at his east side bungalow by members of the RCMP's internet child exploitation unit. His lawyer and Department of Public Safety officials have declined to say where he's being held.

When Snook was arrested, police allege in search warrants that he grabbed a laptop and tried to exit through the rear door.

Shortly after his arrest, the Saint John Police Force said several more people had come forward, alleging they had been abused by Snook.

The RCMP and Saint John police formed a joint forces operation to investigate the allegations.

Snook was originally charged with eight offences: three counts of touching a child for a sexual purpose — all involving the same victim — one count of making child pornography, two counts of possession of child pornography and two counts of distribution of child pornography.

The Crown said at that time more charges were possible.

Shared child porn with undercover officer

Search warrants released in February revealed someone linked to Snook's Martha Avenue home had shared, with an undercover police officer, images of boys as young as toddlers engaged in various sexual acts with adult males and other prepubescent males.

Police also allege in the estimated 500 pages of documents that someone in Snook's home offered up young boys for live webcam sessions, claiming children in the city were widely available to him.

The unknown user said he was a "100 per cent boy lover," according to a police transcript. "Forbidden passion that haunts me," the person wrote.

Police believe Snook's SUV and a camper were used in the commission of criminal offences, according to other search warrants made public in March.

Officers obtained the two warrants for the vehicles that were parked in Snook's driveway on Jan. 29.

The investigation of the outspoken councillor began in Toronto in 2011, RCMP have said.

Active in community

Snook was originally scheduled to enter pleas in March, but his lawyer requested the matter be adjourned until Wednesday, saying he was waiting for full disclosure from the Crown.

Boyle had questioned whether Snook would be able to get a fair trial in Saint John, where he has been an active member of the community for many years.

Snook, a second-term city councillor, resigned his seat on Jan. 17.

"Regrettably, due to the current circumstances I find myself in, I am no longer able to continue in my role as a councillor in the City of Saint John, representing Ward 3," he stated in his handwritten resignation letter.

He was also suspended as director of the Saint John Inner City Youth Ministry, which involved overseeing the Chicken Noodle Club, a daily hot lunch program for disadvantaged youth, for several years.

Snook has acted as a foster parent, he is a former board member with the Boys and Girls Club, and has volunteered with several other organizations, including PRO Kids (Positive Recreational Opportunities for Kids), National Child Day committee and the South End Little League executive, according to his Facebook profile.

His work in the community was recognized in 2003 with the YMCA Canada Peace medal.