Jordan: Today is part two of a story about what happens when the police think you’ve done something, but they don’t know how to prove it. When we last left Alan– and if you haven’t listened to part one yet, you should start there– he was asleep. In his mind, he was now part of a murder conspiracy, but he wasn’t. Outside the cottage, while Alan slept, the police were preparing to use his terror to drag a confession out of him. One of the officers said to the others that nobody was leaving until Alan confessed to killing a woman named Beverly Smith decades ago. Today, we’ll tell you what happened next when the Canadian technique, as it’s known, went further than anyone involved could have imagined. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, this is part two of a special Big Story. Michael Lista of Toronto Life took us yesterday just up to the precipice. Michael, before you tell us how this story ends, I have to ask you, how does this investigation get this far? Because it seems insane that it’s been allowed to get to here.
Michael: So essentially the modern Mr. Big comes out of, um, what police think is like a, it’s like a necessity for them. So there were two Supreme Court rulings in the 90s that determined that the sort of deception that police are allowed to use undercover when a suspect is in custody needs now to be sort of reigned in, in a way it wasn’t before because it was essentially deemed to be unconstitutional. So under section seven of the constitution, there are all these rights that are provided to you when you’re being interrogated by police. You have the right, if someone is a police officer, to say nothing, right? So, you know, that reigned in the police’s ability to use undercover techniques when someone is in custody. But what the ruling didn’t say was that there was, there were any limits on their ability to be deceptive when people aren’t in custody. And so the Mr. Big operation sort of, um, the, the, the idea of it came to be. As I mentioned before, in many countries, this sort of technique is illegal and has, you know, as a result, because we are the ones who do it, you know, it is often called the Canadian investigation, which is I think, a blemish on our good name. Why do they get to this point? Well, in part because there isn’t a lot of oversight on how, on how these things work. They’re very secretive. They’re very hard to study. The few sort of academic studies that there are on them note how it’s so hard to know even how many Mr. Bigs, there have been. The secrecy that’s afforded to the officers and their techniques makes it just hard to understand. But more than that, you know, there’s no manual for how to run one of these things, right? Like when you start one, there’s no, you don’t pull out the, you know, the Mr. Big manual at the police station and the officers go through it. No, officers are essentially allowed to use their imaginations. So why do things go horribly wrong? Well, this thing goes horribly wrong because it’s a human thing, right? And like all human things, it’s going to be susceptible to our frailties and the limits of our imagination, not just, not just the strengths.
Jordan: And they’ve put so much time and resources and effort into this particular operation. Uh, weeks and months, and now they’re all standing outside this cottage while Alan’s sleeping inside. And it’s like, this is it, right? If, if it doesn’t happen now, it’s never gonna happen.
Michael: You’re right. And I think, I just want to add that I think the officers, um, truly believed that what they had here was, you know, a murderer on the ropes. They really, truly believed that this was the guy who killed Beverly Smith. And so after they decide no one’s leaving until Alan confesses they, they all wake up in the morning and Mr. Big is in the kitchen making breakfast, holding a knife, cutting something, and he says, Listen, to to Skinner into Alan. You know that I, that I, I killed this guy. Here’s what happened. You know, he confronted me. I was worried he had a knife, so I shot him, and that’s it. You know? But you guys know now, so what I need from you is I need something from you. I need blackmail, right? I need insurance, you know, so that I’m not worried about you ratting me out because you should be worried about me ratting you out. So tell me the worst thing you ever did. And so Skinner, you know, goes into his story about the car accident with the girl and he pulled the dead guy in and, you know, I thought I was doing the right thing, and then he leaves. Mr. Big says, okay, that’s good enough. And Alan says, can I go out for a cigarette? And Mr. Big says, no. And Alan, who needs to wear glasses to see, Mr. Big says to him, take off your glasses, and he’s holding this knife and Alan in his mind, he panics. He thinks, he thinks you know, the only or– our reporting will later bare this out, the worst thing that I ever did was, you know, some stuff with pot. And it needs to be mr big is making it clear that my confession needs to be commensurate to what he just did with this guy, right? And so he says, fine. 30 years ago I was involved in the murder of my neighbour Beverly Smith. You know, this guy I know shot her, I was there and we stole 40 pounds of her weed.
Jordan: And then all the undercover police officers jump out of the closet and arrest him?
Michael: No. Well, because, no, there’s a, there’s a problem now. I mean, the problem is that Alan has said that, you know, he and this guy killed her for 40 pounds of weed. So Alan doesn’t implicate himself. He’s just there. He’s like a, you know, an accessory. But more than that, Alan said there’s 40 pounds of weed. Now where is he getting that number? The cops know there couldn’t be more than six or seven ounces. He’s getting the 40 pounds from the fake weed deal they had done before.
Jordan: They put it in his head.
Michael: Yeah. And so they have to do it– they interrogate him again for another couple months. Finally, there’s another meeting with Mr. Big and Alan says, fine. It was all me. I did it. You know, I–
Jordan: He still believes Mr. Big as the head of a criminal organization at this point.
Michael: Yeah. And a murderer. And so he says, um, you know, they have this meeting. Um, Skinner even says to him at one point, like, he threatens to end their friendship if Alan doesn’t stop lying about what happened with Beverly Smith. So in this car with this murderer, this best friend who’s going to leave him, he says, all right, it was me. It was all me. This other guy wasn’t there. It was me. I walked in, I shot her, and then I went upstairs and I stole the 40 pounds of weed. And Mr. Big says, you know, into his body pack, it is over. It is done. And they feel like now they have enough to arrest him and charge him. And, um, just before he’s arrested, his best friend, Skinner says to him, Alan, are you sure it was 40 pounds? Like, that’s like 10 garbage bags. And Alan says, believe it or not, there were 40 pounds could fit in one garbage bag.
Jordan: Which isn’t possible.
Michael: No. And so, they choose, the police choose December 10th, 35 years plus a day after Beverly Smith’s murder, to arrest Alan. He and Skinner are driving around in their truck, the best of buddies, and the cops close in. And they arrest Alan and charge him with the murder of Beverly Smith. And they arrest his best friend Skinner too, in like one sort of last bit of make-believe, you know, to sort of keep his cover. And they put Alan in jail with Skinner. And Alan says to Skinner, his best friend, he says, I’ll get a lawyer for you. You don’t have to worry. And Mr. Big strides up, and he says, listen, I’ve been an undercover officer this whole time. I’m not the head of some crime family. And you know, I just want you to know that, that you know, that murder I was involved in wasn’t real. And Alan says, thank God. Uh, so Alan waits in jail, um, for his, for his trial for four and a half years. And in the meantime, there’s this case making its way towards the Supreme Court, another Mr. Big, which will sort of determine whether or not, um, the burden of entering Mr. Big evidences will be the same as it is now, or will be, will be raised. And the ruling comes down and the Supreme Court decides that from now on going forward, the onus on entering Mr. Big confessions is now going to be much higher. It’s going to be much harder to use these confessions. And Alan’s case turns on this ruling. And so in the pretrial Alan’s defence, uh, files a motion to strike both confessions and the judge, uh, Justice Glass, will have to rule on whether or not they will be admissible, um, in this new legal context. And his decision is absolutely fascinating. He says that, that while the officers did not act in bad faith, um, the confessions can’t be relied on and in part, um, he says that the year-long, Mr. Big investigation, the way that the officers sort of befriended him and then sort of encouraged him to act in these ways, through fear and through love, amounted to detention, right? So it amounted to being in custody, in which case these undercover, um, tactics are inappropriate. And he says that the holes in Alan’s confessions are so big that you could drive a Mack truck through them and he strikes the confessions. And Alan is freed.
Jordan: After four and a half years, or five and a half, if you count the first year of quote unquote detention.
Michael: And the most heartbreaking part of all is that they would bring Skinner in to testify. And at first Alan wouldn’t believe it. Alan would not believe that Skinner was a cop. He said, you know, that’s my best friend. It couldn’t be, you know, he refused to believe at four months he refused to believe it. This must be some sort of mistake. You know, even now, he couldn’t understand that all of that, that the most meaningful relationship of his life had been not just a lie, but a deeply meretricious one. That the love he trusted so much was the same thing that was out to hunt him. And it took him months to believe it. And so when the judge threw out the confessions, Alan sued everybody. He sued the cops. He sued the Ministry of the Attorney General. He sued the Crown Attorneys for 19 million bucks, you know. And then the Durham Police countersued the crown for giving them the permission to go ahead with the Mr. Big investigation. It was later decided that the Crown would be immune, um, and that they weren’t responsible. And Alan just watched this whole thing go down like it was, you know, like it was a dream. It was, you know, the name of the suit is Smith versus Her Majesty, the Queen. He had to sue the Queen of England, you know, to return to reality. It was kaleidoscopic. It was hallucinatory. You know, the whole, his whole world was a hallucination. But Alan had been made to feel like he was the crazy one.
Jordan: It’s an insane story.
Michael: And sadly it’s all true.
Jordan: Where’s Alan now? Where are the suits now?
Michael: So Alan, um, according to his lawyer, his living situation is, um, precarious. Um, and so he’s not by any means living a stable life. Uh, the suits are still sort of making their way through the court. Um, it’ll probably be, you know, a long process. There was a new recent, fairly recent ruling in the fall, but the cases is still ongoing in the civil court. So, you know, we’ll see what happens.
Jordan: And finally, do we know who killed Beverly Smith?
Michael: I think the tragedy of a Mr. Big investigation like this is that it makes the knowing impossible. You know, I’ve been speaking to the various parties involved, reporting the story, and I think it shows how belief and imagination and faith are essentially what informs your thinking about the case. Beverly Smith’s daughter, Rebecca Smith, she didn’t believe the first confession, but in the second confession, there’s a little detail where Alan says that Beverly went to warm up a bottle of milk for Rebecca. And that’s when Alan shot her. And Rebecca said, you don’t just make up a detail like that, you know? And it was a detail that had to do with her, it was a human detail. But that’s not a detail that’s determinative of whether or not Alan was the one who was guilty. And so I think we bring our own imaginations to um, how we think about the story. And, and I, my big takeaway from all of this, I think, is that, is that the imagination is a very bad instrument to navigate by when you’re trying to arrive at the truth.
Jordan: Thank you for uh, walking us through this.
Michael: Oh, it was my pleasure.
Jordan: That was Michael Lista contributing editor of Toronto Life with a story worth two episodes. If you’d like more episodes than just these two, you can find them at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can tell us how thrilling that was on Twitter @thebigstoryFPN. You can find all of our podcasts on frequencypodcastnetwork.com and of course in your favourite podcast player, Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify. Give us a rating. Give us a review. Tell us how much you love us. We are very needy. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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