Target of Mr. Big police sting describes elaborate plot to get murder confession

The man who was the target of an elaborate police undercover operation is telling his version of events that led to him being charged with murder — for a second time — in the death of his mother.

Undercover operation resulted in John Buckley's confession that was later ruled inadmissible in court

John Buckley enters Nova Scotia Supreme Court in Bridgewater, N.S., on Monday, Jan. 22, 2018. (Robert Short/CBC)

The man who was the target of an elaborate police undercover operation is telling his version of events that led to him being charged with murder — for a second time — in the death of his mother.

John Buckley, 23, was charged with first-degree murder in the death of Victoria Brauns-Buckley in 2012. She was found dead in the home she shared with her son in Chester Basin, N.S.

In recent conversations with CBC News spread over two days, Buckley repeatedly insisted that he did not kill his mother. However, he said he discovered her body and he "freaked out" and failed to report the discovery right away. That made him the subject of police suspicion early on.

He was charged with second-degree murder weeks after his mother's death. But the Crown withdrew that charge after determining there was no reasonable prospect of conviction. Buckley had spent more than nine months in jail at that point.

New job, new start

Once he was released from jail, Buckley left town. He travelled first to Alberta, but ended up in Montreal. It was there that he made a plan to get a job and try to enlist in the army. And it was there that he became the target of an undercover operation — a so-called Mr. Big sting — called Operation Hackman.

In such operations, undercover police officers pose as members of a criminal gang. They first ingratiate themselves with the suspect, then try to convince him to confess to a past crime to earn advancement within the criminal organization.

Buckley was recruited into Operation Hackman when he went to a Service Canada outlet in Montreal looking for work.

"They had some undercover cops there posed as employees," Buckley said.

"'Say, hey, you want a job? We're doing a new program. You leave us your information and we'll contact you and if there's any jobs we'll place you there,'" Buckley said he was told.

Buckley said a couple of weeks later, he was offered a job in a warehouse. He said they would take items off Craigslist such as washers, espresso machines and construction equipment and resell them for a profit.

A couple of months into the job, Buckley said, he was promoted to the position of delivery driver, working with another man who, because of a publication ban, can only be identified by the initials of M.L.

Buckley and M.L. became close. They'd begin their days working out together in the gym, then put in at least eight hours on the job and frequently went for drinks at the end of the work day, Buckley said. M.L. and other members of the gang emphasized that they were like family.

A dark turn

But this family had a dark side.

Buckley said it began when M.L. took him to a storage locker that was full of what Buckley took to be illegal cigarettes.

M.L. asked him, "'You're cool with this, right?'" Buckley said.

He didn't let on to his new friends and co-workers, but he wasn't cool with it, Buckley said.

The next escalation Buckley encountered involved helping another member of the "company."

About two months after he helped move the first shipment of cigarettes, he and M.L. got a call to pick up a co-worker, Buckley said.

"We meet this guy and he's freaking out like he's been up all night kind of thing, he really played the role off."

Buckley said at one point during the sting he had never been more scared in his life. (CBC)

According to this man, he'd been driving drunk in a company car and had struck a pedestrian.

"And my initial response was, 'Were they OK? What happened?'"

Buckley said the man replied that no, the pedestrian was covered in blood and unconscious.

"I didn't know if the accident story was completely true or not but he said he hit this girl and she was in a really bad state, possibly dead."

Buckley and M.L. took the man to a hospital, where someone posing as an employee gave the man a hospital bracelet so he could claim to have spent the night in the hospital. Buckley said the man was also told to say his car had been stolen, providing him with an alibi for the accident.

Buckley said he had never felt more scared in his life. He felt trapped, afraid to walk away from the criminal organization he was working for because he wasn't sure what would happen to him. He said he worked out a deal with M.L. that if he was accepted into the army, that would be his ticket out of the gang.

Threats

But before that could happen, Buckley was given another demonstration of the reach and power of his new co-workers.

He and M.L. were sent to pick up a briefcase, Buckley said. M.L. instructed him to pull up beside a car in a parking lot. M.L. got a tire iron, smashed a rear window of the other car, removed a briefcase and they left.

It turned out that the other vehicle was a police car. M.L. and Buckley were then sent to retrieve the police officer and take him to a hotel.

The police account of what happened next was sanitized, Buckley said, adding the conversation the undercover agents had with the police officer was more menacing than described in court papers.

Buckley said the officer was told to stop investigating the company — or else.

"'Your wife and kids are going to get it, your dog is going to get it, your cat and your bird's going to get it,'" Buckley quotes the undercover officers as saying. "There's several ways you can interpret that and I think in that situation there's only one realistic way."

The long-awaited confession

It was shortly after that incident, Buckley said, that Operation Hackman came to a climax. He was taken to a meeting with a man identified as the head of security for the company. That man told Buckley that he was once again under investigation for his mother's murder and that he would soon be charged.

But the company was offering Buckley a way out. A prison inmate who owed the head of the company, Mr. Big, a favour was prepared to confess to the murder. All Buckley had to do was provide sufficient details to make the confession convincing to police.

Victoria Brauns-Buckley was found dead in the home she shared with her son in Chester Basin, N.S., in 2012. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Buckley offered to provide details police had given him when he was first charged with murder in 2012. At that time, he'd been given interview transcripts and other evidence that could be used in an eventual trial. But the head of security said that wasn't good enough. If Buckley wanted to keep making this good money, he had to confess to his mother's murder. Buckley felt his choices were limited.

"I definitely just can't walk away. That's ridiculous. There's no f--king way that they're going to let me walk away," he said. "So I tell him what he wants to hear so their plan can work, so their boss's big idea can work."

It wasn't long after that confession that police revealed to Buckley that it had all been a sting — one that had accumulated nearly 1,000 hours of audio recordings and had cost more than $300,000.

Confession ruled inadmissible

But when the evidence was presented in Nova Scotia Supreme Court at a pretrial hearing, Justice Josh Arnold ruled it could not be shown to a jury.

"A unique constellation of circumstances in this case calls the reliability of the Mr. Big confession into doubt," Arnold wrote in his decision.

"The Mr. Big confession is not reliable. At the threshold level, as gatekeeper, I do not believe the Mr. Big confession should be heard by the jury."

Days after that ruling, the Crown withdrew the charge and Buckley walked free. However, the Crown is appealing Arnold's decision in the hopes of resurrecting the trial.

In the meantime, Buckley is trying to further his education and get on with his life.

About the Author

Blair Rhodes

Reporter

Blair Rhodes has been a journalist for more than 35 years, the last 27 with CBC. His primary focus is on stories of crime and public safety.