Confessions and controversy: Murder case against husband of Sheree Fertuck latest test of 'Mr. Big' tactic
Undercover method led to murder charge against Greg Fertuck, even though victim's body has not been found
There's a big-time crime boss in Canada who treats his loyal followers to expensive dinners, gives them jobs and cleans up their crimes to keep them out of jail.
But the crimes aren't real, nor are the jobs. They're an elaborate ruse set up by the police to gather evidence from people suspected of serious crimes.
A Saskatchewan man accused of murdering his estranged wife is the latest Canadian to find himself behind bars at the hands of "Mr. Big": the name given to a controversial undercover police tactic that law enforcement agencies across the country have used in efforts to move cold cases forward.
The operations involve police posing as criminals in an attempt to obtain a confession from a suspect.
According to police, Greg Fertuck told an undercover officer that he "got rid of" his estranged wife, Sheree Fertuck, and threw her in the bush.
She has been missing since her semi-truck was found abandoned at a gravel pit near Kenaston, Sask., in December 2015.
Although her body has never been found, Greg Fertuck was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in late June 2019.
Sheree's disappearance is the focus of a seven-part CBC investigative podcast called The Pit, the culmination of a year-long effort to uncover new information about the case.
Now, as he sits behind bars in Saskatoon, charged with first-degree murder, Greg Fertuck is proclaiming his innocence. He said he lied about getting rid of Sheree because he was scared and intimidated by the undercover officers, who he says he believed were criminals.
"I made it up, and we went out supposedly looking for the body. Well, there is no body, so we just drove around to these different places, because it was all BS," said Fertuck in an interview with CBC News.
"I didn't kill her and there was no body out there."
Fertuck's claim goes straight to the heart of the controversy over the Mr. Big technique. Critics say it can violate the principles of confession law by creating a culture of fear, and may heighten the risk of false confessions.
There have also been accusations it preys on the vulnerabilities of suspects with financial problems or addictions.
But for families of victims whose cases have gone cold, Mr. Big stings can be the only way to see charges laid and justice for their loved ones.
Sheree Fertuck's sister, Michelle Kish, is happy to see progress on the case.
"I think because they are controversial I'm really crossing my fingers and hoping that [the RCMP] did it all the right ways, and did it legally … so that it can be admissible in court," she said.
"You get one kick at the cat, right? So I really think that they know what they are doing."
The playing field for Mr. Big stings is evolving under new guidelines outlined by a Supreme Court decision in 2014.
Still, questions remain about how the courts should balance the rights of the accused with the need for police to have the tools to catch violent criminals.
CBC contacted the Saskatchewan RCMP but spokesperson Rob King said the police service will not discuss the technique or address criticisms of the method, because it is still being used.
Mr. Big stings have been carried out hundreds of times in Canada since they were developed by the RCMP in the 1990s, often in elaborate operations — some have cost more than $300,000 to run.
The tactic is not used in the U.S. or Britain, but it has been used to produce charges in Australia.
Technique often leads to convictions
In the stings, officers befriend a suspect while pretending to be members of a fictitious crime organization.
The goal is to build trust with the target and potentially draw out new information to use as evidence. This could include a confession to a crime, a description of how the crime occurred, or the location of the victim's body or the murder weapon.
The method is often used in cold cases, where the police have a suspect but lack the evidence to prosecute.
Saskatoon defence lawyer Brian Pfefferle has represented three people charged with separate serious crimes after a Mr. Big sting.
He said the technique is highly successful in landing convictions.
"I've never been able to convince a jury that there was a false confession made. And I think my results are consistent with other people's results around the country," said Pfefferle.
"There's a smattering of cases that have led to acquittals or convictions on lower offences but for the most part they're getting convicted of the offence they're facing when they're giving these types of confessions, so it's very significant evidence."
Each of the operations follows a similar script: the undercover agents insert themselves into the target's lives through a "chance" meeting, and bring them further into the "organization" through a chain of scenarios.
In an interview at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre in July, Fertuck shared details of the operation with CBC.
He said an undercover officer offered him paid jobs transporting vehicles from one town to another. Paid work is regularly offered to Mr. Big suspects during the course of the sting, and Fertuck said he trusted the men.
It's common for the suspect to feel a strong kinship with the undercover officers in the stings, says Pfefferle.
"They become real friends," he said.
"I've had situations where the people 'fall in love,' essentially, with the various characters — not in a romantic sense but in a friendship sense, where ... oftentimes the best friends they've ever had in their life are these fictitious friends."
Fertuck also described another hallmark of the Mr. Big method: a scenario known as "the violent incident."
He said he met with a man who appeared to have committed a killing — and another man who said he would clean it up.
"This one guy [said he] killed his girlfriend, and I know he had blood all over him, scratches on his face," said Fertuck.
"And this guy from Vancouver ... come in and got rid of everything, sort of the clean-up guy."
Some type of simulated violence is part of most Mr. Big stings.
I don't take the position that just because the police have engaged in this kind of activity that it's necessarily suspect.- Neil Boyd, Simon Fraser University
During a 2015 appeal of a first-degree murder conviction, the officer who directed an undercover operation involving murder suspect Jesse West explained the reason for choosing to simulate violence against a woman as part of the sting:
"It was directly to show Mr. West that violence against women was accepted in our organization. The investigation was a homicide on a female and we wanted to show him that women — to conduct violence on women is not a big deal."
In that case, the judge denied the defence claim that the violent incident was an abuse of process, and the appeal of West's conviction was dismissed.
In the case of Abiram Subramaniam, who was convicted in 2016 of second-degree murder in Quebec, the "criminals" told the suspect they had information that police were coming after him.
The details are part of a written decision by Justice Marc-Andre Blanchard.
"The Boss was willing to … help him get out of this situation related to the victim," Justice Blanchard wrote. "Without his help, it was made clear that Subramaniam would in all likelihood be going to jail for 25 years."
Pfefferle said he considers confession evidence such as that from Mr. Big stings even more damning for the accused than video evidence.
His main concerns about the technique relate to confession law, which states that a confession must be made of free will and without any threats or promises made to the accused.
"The problem with Mr. Bigs, at their core, is that they are based on exactly those things — not necessarily direct threats, but there is this subtle threat of this organization being pretty bad."
There are also promises, Pfefferle said.
"Oftentimes it's promises for a long-term job with the criminal organization, and many times these particular accused persons will have difficulty with employment."
He said Mr. Big stings are also different from traditional police investigations because most of the interactions are not recorded.
Usually when a person is arrested, all of their interactions with police in the interview room are recorded. In Mr. Big stings, usually only the final interview, or a handful of meetings, are taped.
But Pfefferle also sees broader issues with the way the stings operate.
Defending the technique
Although there is evidence that false confessions have occurred, he said society has a tendency to believe an admission of guilt.
"If you've confessed to something, especially something that is embarrassing or it's going to get you in trouble, most people believe you did it," said Pfefferle.
"I think that's one of the problems with Mr. Bigs because the evidence at the end of the day is so strong in the minds of the average juror that they're going to say 'he wouldn't have confessed if he didn't do it.'"
People have been cleared of committing crimes they confessed to during a Mr. Big sting.
Kyle Unger spent 14 years in jail for the murder of Brigitte Grenier in Manitoba in 1990.
He was convicted based largely on his confession, testimony from jailhouse informants and a single piece of forensic evidence — a hair found on the victim's clothing.
But DNA testing later proved the hair did not belong to Unger. And although he got key facts wrong about the killing in his confession to undercover officers, it was still used against him.
He later told reporters he'd lied because he was young, naive and desperate for money.
Unger was acquitted in 2009.
Al Haslett, a retired RCMP officer and one of the creators of the Mr. Big sting, previously defended the technique in an interview with CBC's The Fifth Estate in 2015.
"[We] seek the truth. We don't go there, we don't wake up in the morning and say 'we're going to get confessions,'" Haslett said in an interview with Bob McKeown.
"This is not a bunch of cowboy cops going out and doing this. This is planned, the scenarios are planned, thought out, and we go to seek the truth."
Haslett was not available to be interviewed by CBC for this story.
However, "things can go off the rails and people can, because of fear, say and do things that might not otherwise be true, or that they might not otherwise have done," said Neil Boyd, the director of the school of criminology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.
But he pointed to the case of Doug Holtam as an example of a case where a Mr. Big sting led to a conviction that was warranted.
Holtam was convicted of the 1997 murder of his wife Leonora and six-year-old daughter with a hammer. He was also found guilty of the attempted murder of his son, who survived the attack.
Police had DNA evidence of his children's blood on his shirt and shoe before the Mr. Big sting led to a confession.
"His conviction was entirely warranted, so I don't take the position that just because the police have engaged in this kind of activity that it's necessarily suspect," said Boyd.
It is up to the courts to decide if a case has gone "off the rails" or not, he said.
That's what the Supreme Court did in 2014, when the case of Nelson Hart in Newfoundland led to stricter rules for Mr. Big stings.
The court concluded the conduct of police in that case was "egregious" and "troubling." Justice Michael Moldaver wrote that the law at that time didn't offer enough protection to people who confessed to crimes during Mr. Bigs.
He said while these types of stings can produce valuable evidence and are not necessarily abusive, they can become abusive and produce unreliable confessions.
He ruled police should be allowed to keep using the tactic, but under stricter rules.
Mr. Big confessions are now automatically considered inadmissible unless the Crown can prove their value as evidence outweighs their capacity to prejudice the outcome of trial.
Prosecutors have successfully done so in several cases since 2014.
The 2014 Supreme Court decision also offered clearer guidelines for judges deciding if Mr. Big evidence should be admissible, and to help them decide what counts as police misconduct.
The Public Prosecution Service of Canada wrote about the impact of the case against Hart in a 2018 report titled Innocence at Stake: The Need for Continued Vigilance to Prevent Wrongful Convictions in Canada.
The report predicted the courts will likely be more restrictive about what types of violent incidents can be simulated in Mr. Big stings in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.
It offered recommendations for prosecution services, urging them to make sure they do not exploit the target's vulnerabilities, and to take further care to ensure the violent incident does not directly or indirectly threaten the suspect.
Juries at Mr. Big trials are also now instructed that people have falsely confessed in the past.
Brian Pfefferle said the legitimacy of the confession will likely be at the heart of the Crown's case against Greg Fertuck.
"The strength of that confession is really going to be the focus for the jury, as it always is," said Pfefferle.
"What can be corroborated through the forensic evidence?"
A murder charge with no body
Another factor in the Fertuck case will be the fact that Sheree's body has not been found. It is unusual for police to lay charges without finding the victim.
Greg Fertuck said he led the undercover officers to a country road outside Saskatoon. In the days after his June arrest, police were seen searching an area not far from the gravel pit where Sheree's truck was found, but they did not find her remains.
RCMP Insp. Diane Cockle says searching for human remains that have been left outside for four years is an incredibly difficult task.
"What happens to the remains is they get weathered, they change colour, they get bleached by the sun or they get stained by the soil," said Cockle, who has a PhD in forensic anthropology and worked as a forensic crime scene investigator for 19 years. She now works in major crimes.
"The vegetation gets deposited on top of the area over time so they end up being buried. And it becomes less and less visible every year."
'Something's gotta come of it'
Scavengers including domestic dogs, coyotes and birds can move parts of a body up to about 400-500 metres from where the body was dumped, she said.
"But if these guys [in Saskatchewan] were searching in a systematic matter looking for things like small bone fragments and they knew what they were looking for, chances are they would have found what they were looking for."
On June 25, the day after Greg Fertuck's arrest, the search for Sheree Fertuck was still ongoing when RCMP Supt. Derek Williams announced the charges.
"Although it's unusual, there have been successful prosecutions before without a body being found," said Williams.
A preliminary hearing will be held in January to decide if there is enough evidence to proceed to trial. The hearing is likely to be subject to a publication ban.
To date, Greg Fertuck has been represented by Saskatoon criminal defence lawyer Morris Bodnar.
Sheree Fertuck's sister, Michelle Kish, hopes to attend the upcoming court proceedings, although she fears the evidence will be difficult to hear.
Regardless, she is relieved to see the progress from a police perspective.
"I was a little bit afraid that, you know, cases do go cold, right. You hear that all the time. And I just thought, 'Oh God … this can't be one of them. Something's gotta come of it.'"
The preliminary hearing begins on Jan. 13.