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    THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME

    A trial in Montreal reveals the extraordinary measures Quebec police had to
    take to defeat the elite of the Hells Angels, reports TU THANH HA

    MONTREAL -- On a cold autumn morning, Surete du Quebec Sergeant Pierre
    Boucher stood by a bedroom closet, staring at half a million dollars in
    drug money.

    It was Nov. 16, 2000, and Sgt. Boucher had broken into a Montreal
    apartment, uncovering one of the most clandestine underworld secrets -- the
    banking operations of the Quebec Hells Angels, represented by the sports
    bag full of cash on the floor.

    At the time, led by their elite chapter, the Nomads, the Angels were waging
    a savage turf war to take over Montreal's drug trade. The city's criminals
    had a simple choice: Side with the Angels or die.

    More than 50 died.

    No one seemed immune. They plotted to kill one of their lawyers. They
    planted bombs. Crime reporter Michel Auger was shot five times in the back.
    The police even heard on their wiretaps that the Angels had a bounty scale,
    paying $25,000 to $100,000 for each slain enemy.

    "They're psychopaths!" one biker could be heard to say, explaining how
    recruits were eager to do anything to rise in the ranks.

    But on that November morning, Sgt. Boucher had outwitted them. He snapped
    photos of the $500,000 stash he had discovered. But as he turned to check
    the safe he had also found, officers outside warned a suspect was heading
    toward the building. Sgt. Boucher darted out.

    That close call was one of many incidents in a colossal three-year joint
    investigation by the Quebec provincial police, the Montreal police and the
    RCMP.

    For the past year, a jury in Montreal has been hearing tales of secret
    police operations, dead informants and multi-tonne international cocaine
    deals, in a trial of nine bikers now nearing its end.

    The police wiretapped more than a quarter of a million phone calls, trying
    to find clues in the bikers' cryptic remarks. Surveillance teams followed
    suspects for days, hoping to spot some patterns from their hectic,
    secretive whereabouts. At least three turncoat bikers were recruited,
    though one was unmasked and killed. The work began with Project Rush in
    1998, an investigation into biker-ordered killings. It gave birth to other
    operations, each conducted in isolation from the others to prevent leaks:
    Project Ocean looked at how the gang collected drug money; Project Scout
    probed the logistics of hit squads.

    And as in The Godfather or an episode ofThe Sopranos, in the downfall of
    the Nomads, greed, betrayal and sheer luck played a major role.

    Colombian Connection

    In April of 1999, a Quebecker named Sylvain Roy was walking through the
    Holiday Inn near the Miami International Airport when his luggage cart
    broke, sending a cooler tumbling. Out spilled $2.5-million (U.S.) in
    unused, sequentially numbered bills.

    Four months later, on an August afternoon in Montreal, a team of
    plainclothes officers was keeping watch on Nomad Andre Chouinard when they
    saw him meet another biker at a Movenpick restaurant. An unidentified
    Latina woman then showed up and talked with them for an hour before
    leaving. The police team switched its surveillance to her: When she stopped
    at a payphone in the Place Ville Marie complex, SQ Constable Harold
    Turcotte moved in to see the number she was dialling, but could only catch
    the digits 2-5-7.

    It would be another year before the authorities found out what she had been
    up to -- when the woman, Sandra Antelo, surrendered to the U.S. Drug
    Enforcement Agency. She revealed that she was a major Bolivian-born drug
    dealer who had brokered the shipment of more than four tonnes of cocaine
    from Colombians drug lords to the Quebec Hells Angels. That day she had
    been calling her connections in Colombia -- country code 57.

    She had quarrelled with the bikers over prices, and who would foot the bill
    for the $2.5-million lost in Miami. The Colombians coughed up half --
    "Colombians who work at that level," she later testified, "know that such
    losses happen" -- but the bikers wouldn't chip in.

    The two sides tried to arrange another delivery. They settled on a price.
    But the next day, the Angels told her that "they had the drugs and they
    would pay us what they wanted."

    In June of 2000, she was driving to meet Mr. Chouinard when a car came
    behind at high speed. Several gunshots were fired but missed her. She
    called Mr. Chouinard and accused him of trying to kill her. He just hung
    up. She went into hiding until she reappeared to testify against her former
    clients this fall.

    Project Ocean

    Ms. Antelo wasn't the only criminal who helped the police. Some of the
    turncoats risked their lives, wearing hidden recording gear for up to 14
    hours a day. It wasn't safe work. The bikers stole the laptop of an OPP
    biker expert and used it to deduce the identity of one mole, drug dealer
    Claude De Serres. He was lured to a remote cottage and shot in the head. He
    had been wearing a wire, and police later recovered a blood-curdling audio
    tape of his death.

    Another informant was Dany Kane, a member of the Rockers, a puppet gang
    that reported to the Nomads. Thanks to Mr. Kane, the police were able to
    videotape a series of "masses," biker meetings held in various hotels. But,
    apparently under the pressure of his double life, Mr. Kane committed
    suicide in August of 2000.

    After that, investigators went over every scrap of information he had given
    them. He had said he got his cocaine from a more senior biker, Jean-Richard
    Lariviere, so the police began spying on Mr. Lariviere as he drove his
    Cadillac to meet other bikers. On Sept. 6, 2000, for example, seven
    plainclothes officers tag-teamed to follow Mr. Lariviere from 10 a.m. to
    past 8 p.m., through a series of a meetings around the city.

    When he stopped by a condo building at 7415 Beaubien St. in north-end
    Montreal, police initially thought he was visiting relatives. But other
    people with ties to bikers started showing up as well. What was going on
    inside?

    Paul Gaudreau, another suspect police had been tailing, turned up at 7415
    Beaubien on Sept. 21. An undercover officer, Fred Bessa, got into the lobby
    at the same time and followed him into the elevator. The constable saw Mr.
    Gaudreau get off on the fifth floor. On Oct. 3, SQ agent Yvon Charette saw
    another suspect knock at No. 504. An officer outside snapped a picture of
    the apartment's chubby occupant as he leaned on the balcony. He would be
    identified as retired city employee Robert Gauthier.

    The police got a search warrant for a covert entry on Oct. 9. Equipped with
    a flashlight, a pad of sticky notes and a camera, Sgt. Boucher entered the
    flat past midnight. He found a sparsely furnished place with no phone, no
    clothes in the closet and no food in the fridge. The team returned with a
    warrant to hide a video camera in the flat.

    The next morning, they watched live images of Mr. Gauthier as he arrived.
    They saw him wait for couriers to show up with hefty bags. After they had
    gone, Mr. Gauthier would take the bag and leave for a few minutes. Where
    did he go?

    Since he wasn't away for long, it had to be elsewhere in the building. On
    Oct. 19, Montreal police officer Richard Gosselin entered the building just
    as a courier was leaving. Constable Gosselin went to the fourth floor, in
    time to see Mr. Gauthier walking into No. 403.

    Again, the team got a search warrant, this time for No. 403. At 1:30 in the
    morning of Oct. 24, Sgt. Boucher went inside. It was as bare as the other
    flat -- but with a Compaq computer in the bedroom. There was also a fake
    dresser, its front swivelling to reveal a safe.

    The next night, he returned with help: A locksmith opened the safe, which
    held $20,000 in cash. An RCMP constable helped Sgt. Boucher photocopy
    accounting documents. Another Mountie duplicated the contents of the computer.

    The officers carried guns, but each break-in was extremely tense. "Each
    time, you are very nervous," one officer later said. "You're dealing with
    armed, dangerous people. You're conscious that the tiniest mistake could
    wreck the project."

    Cat and mouse

    Sgt. Boucher now began an even more dangerous game. The police had cameras
    in both apartments, enabling them to co-ordinate a series of bold break-ins.

    On the morning of Oct. 31, the police officers watched Mr. Gauthier receive
    a bag from a courier and leave Apartment 504 to return empty-handed two
    minutes later. As soon as Mr. Gauthier was back, Sgt. Boucher broke into
    No. 403 downstairs. The bedroom safe was open, with $41,500 in cash inside:
    The police had directly witnessed a drug-money delivery for the first time.

    Sgt. Boucher took photos and left. After another delivery less than 15
    minutes later, he went back to Apartment 403 and found an additional
    $52,000. He repeated the process methodically for days. Some couriers
    brought more than half a million in cash on a single transport, leaving
    bags that weighed nearly 30 kilos each.

    The team then followed Mr. Gauthier and others as they shuttled the money
    from the Beaubien flats to another building nearby, at 8101 Place Montoire.
    In a covert nighttime visit, Sgt. Boucher found a partly furnished
    apartment with closets jammed to waist level with empty bags. "It looked
    like a castle made with bags," he later testified.

    There was a safe, but its digital lock couldn't be opened for fear of
    scrambling the combination. He also found two counting machines and
    hundreds of rubber bands.

    After getting a wiretap warrant, the team installed a microphone. As soon
    as it was activated, they could hear the counting machines. "It went
    pfffft," one officer said, "all day long." The accounting documents they
    found showed that the Nomads raked in an astonishing $100-million in drug
    revenues in less than a year.

    At the end of January, 2001, wiretap evidence suggested the bikers planned
    to disband their delivery system and move to other locations. It was time
    to pull the plug.

    The joint squad raided the apartments the night from Jan. 30 to 31, carting
    away $5.7-million.

    By then, the police were drafting operational plans to take down the
    organization on March 28: At dawn, 2,000 police officers launched Operation
    Springtime 2001, with simultaneous raids in 77 towns to arrest 118 alleged
    Nomads.

    Just as the bikers were winning the gang war, they were stuck behind bars.

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