Thunder Bay

Thunder Bay police 'as busy as ever' as pandemic does little to stop spread of drugs from GTA to the north

The COVID-19 pandemic has not managed to slow the spread of drugs and violence in Thunder Bay, with police in the northwestern Ontario “as busy as ever.”

City police see slowdown in crimes like shoplifiting, but lucrative drug trade fuels violence, homicide rate

Detective-Inspector John Fennell, of the Thunder Bay Police Service, speaks to media Friday, March 6, 2020, with the money and drugs seized during Project Trapper. (photo: Gord Ellis/CBC)

The COVID-19 pandemic has not managed to slow the spread of drugs and violence in Thunder Bay, with police in the northwestern Ontario "as busy as ever."

Some crimes, such as shoplifting, dropped because stores were shut down, while the number of domestic violence calls remained about the same, largely because victims and abusers have been forced to remain in close-quarters due to provincial stay-at-home orders, said Det. Insp. John Fennell.

But drug traffickers, he said "are not following Premier Ford's orders. So they're still dealing, they're still having people go to the residences. We still get tips, throughout the city, as to where they may be set up."

The drug dealers operate from "traphouses" – temporary locations advertised through social media.

"They don't generally stay there very long, because they realize we'll be wise to it," said Fennell.

'The GTA effect'

By constantly changing spots, the traffickers make it more difficult for police "to gain the intelligence to obtain a search warrant" and seize the drugs.

The doors on the traphouses are frequently "reinforced, protecting themselves from us so when we do go to execute the warrant, that gives them enough time to be able to either get rid of the narcotics down the sink or toilet." he said.

The intelligence units are "very proactive .. at trying to reduce the traphouses and, of course, the GTA effect in Thunder Bay and unfortunately there is just more work for them than they are able to keep up with."

The Greater Toronto Area effect is the influx of gangs or loosely-affiliated groups now operating in northwestern Ontario to take advantage of the high demand and lucrative market .

Tragedy of families finding overdose victims

"We are still scratching the surface in addressing the problem. We go and arrest five people, another three or four of them will come up from the GTA the next day to fill those spots."

He said there is some competition between the gangs, which accounts for some of the violence between rival gangs, "but sad to say there is enough business" to go around.

There is no one drug of choice in the city, said Fennell, noting an increase in both fentanyl and , prescription drugs, "honestly anything that people can get their hands on to use" with often deadly results.

"Unfortunately, we're also seeing those overdoses and we also have a higher rate of death because of overdoses and it's tragic to see families finding their loved ones and generally right at that immediate site, you'll see the type of drug that they were using at the time."

'Motives change from crime to crime'

TBPS is also dealing with five homicides in five months, including the murder of a 14-year-old girl, with another 14-year-old girl among those charged in her death.

Some of the homicides, and attempted murders may be related to drugs said Fennell but "motives change from crime to crime, from homicide to homicide."

Police in Thunder Bay continue to ask other levels of government for more financial support to fight the drug trade, which is often accompanied by human trafficking, usually involving young girls.

"That's why we've been so vocal about it, trying to put a dent in it..but that's only going to be through assistance.".

You can hear the full interview with Det. Insp. John Fennell on CBC Superior Morning here.

A problem not even a pandemic can stop. Lisa Laco, the host of CBC's Superior Morning spoke with Detective Inspector John Fennell of the Thunder Bay Police Service about the ongoing issue of drugs, gangs and violence in the city. 7:46