'Saskatchewan is a bit safer today': Project Forseti concludes to mixed reviews
'They needed to justify the enormous amount of money that they spent'
Prosecutors and police are hailing one of the largest criminal investigations in Saskatchewan history a success, but not everyone agrees.
Defense lawyer Nicolas Stooshinoff said several low-level criminals were pursued excessively because "they needed to justify the enormous amount of money that they spent on this project."
On Jan. 14, 2014, RCMP and Saskatoon police raided 19 locations in seven cities in an operation known as Project Forseti. They seized $8 million worth of methamphetamine, cocaine and fentanyl linked to three Saskatoon overdose deaths, as well as hundreds of guns.
Relying largely on intelligence gathering and testimony from Noel Harder, a gang member turned police agent, 20 people were eventually convicted. The final trials wrapped up last month.
Estimates place the total cost of Forseti anywhere between $30 and $50 million.
"Personally, I believe it was worth it," said Supt. Dave Haye, head of criminal investigations for the Saskatoon Police Service.
Haye and others said the cost of the investigation can't simply be measured by the value of contraband seized. It's also about taking dangerous people off the streets, preventing them from preying on those struggling with drug addiction and sending a message to other criminals.
Haye said it was also important to dismantle the Fallen Saints Motorcycle Club, described as a "puppet" club serving the Hells Angels. Two "full-patch" Hells Angels were convicted while five Fallen Saints were found guilty of acting on behalf of a criminal organization.
"I believe any time we can interrupt an organization that's involved in criminal activity, that's a good thing for society," Haye said.
Federal Crown prosecutors Lynn Hintz and Doug Curliss agreed.
"We're all a bit tired from it. It's been a long process and we're glad it's coming to an end," Hintz said.
All that remains of the legal proceedings is the sentencing hearing for three men, including Fallen Saints President Mark Nowakowski.
'The biggest drug dealer involved was Noel Harder'
Saskatoon lawyer Nicholas Stooshinoff, who defended Nowakowski and another Fallen Saint, said officials were "desperate" to secure criminal organization convictions in their attempt to justify Forseti's massive costs.
He said some Fallen Saints committed low-level crimes, but claims it was an elaborate criminal organization are "patently false."
Stooshinoff said it was wrong to enlist Harder as a police agent and witness.
"The biggest drug dealer involved was Noel Harder, and they let him go…he should have been the guy charged," he said.
Curliss, Hintz and Haye said agents are essential to infiltrate these secretive criminal organizations.
"We recognize they come with this baggage," Curliss said. "It doesn't mean they're incapable of telling the truth."
Project Forseti, named after the Norse god of justice, was a joint investigation by RCMP and Saskatoon police. Harder was arrested transporting firearms in early 2014 and agreed to become a police agent.
Harder has said that for months, the shop of his Saskatoon construction company served as the club house for the Fallen Saints, with frequent visits from Hells Angels members.
Harder said he allowed police to install surveillance equipment. He also met with police regularly in hotel rooms to report on the group's activities.
Just before the January, 2015 raids, Harder and his family were spirited to another province by RCMP.
Harder returned to Saskatoon under heavy armed guard several times to testify as the Crown's star witness.
In one Forseti case, the judge questioned Harder's credibility and acquitted. In others, the judges believed Harder and said there would have been no conviction without his eyewitness accounts.
"His testimony held up. A lot of people went to jail," Canadian biker gang and organized crime expert Yves Lavigne said. "Saskatchewan is a bit safer today for that."