Applause erupted and sighs of relief drifted through a packed Vancouver courtroom Thursday morning as a judge found two men guilty of planning and carrying out the execution of six men in a Surrey apartment seven years ago.
People inside B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver cried and embraced and shook hands after Cody Rae Haevischer and Matthew James Johnston were convicted by Justice Catherine Wedge of conspiracy to murder drug dealer Corey Lal and with six counts each of first-degree murder for the slayings of Lal and his brother Michael, Eddie Narong, Ryan Bartolomeo, Ed Schellenberg and Christopher Mohan.
Mohan’s mom Eileen Mohan – who attended most of the lengthy trial since it began last fall – was all smiles following the guilty decisions.
“It’s a beautiful day,” she said. “It’s a beautiful day for Christopher.
“I’ve been waiting for seven years for this day and it has come. I am relieved and I know that my son is smiling down today.”
Oct. 19, 2007 began as a typical day for the Mohan family. Eileen had left for work, leaving her 22-year-old only son at home. She knew the building’s fireplaces were being serviced that day and wanted Chris to let the serviceman in.
He did so, and later, planned to play basketball with some friends. However, he opened the door to leave his apartment at exactly the wrong moment, was spotted by someone in the hallway and pulled into the neighbouring death suite.
Schellenberg (below) was a gas fitter from Abbotsford who had been servicing fireplaces in the Balmoral Tower building in Whalley that week. His nephew was working with him, but the building co-manager advised Schellenberg to take care of suite 1505 because of the type of people she’d seen coming and going. She testified she’d previously told the suite’s owner (who rented it out) she suspected his renters were dealing drugs.
Four of the murdered men had links to the drug trade and were visiting apartment #1505, a stash house where nobody lived but where drugs were made and packaged for sale. Three (plus Schellenberg) were there when the perpetrators showed up, while Narong appeared at the door shortly after, around the time Mohan stepped into the hallway.
Schellenberg’s wife Lois, as well as family and friends, attended court Thursday, but did not speak to media. Her daughter, Rachel Schellenberg, posted on Twitter shortly after the convictions, saying "Wow. So proud of the police and crown council today. Dad is fist pumping too – I can feel it."
Friends and family of the other victims were also in attendance hugging and shedding tears following the guilty decision.
The killers' family and friends, including a child, were seated in a row behind the glass where Haevischer and Johnston sat. The two, both clean cut and wearing dark suits, showed little emotion as the judge convicted them, but reportedly hugged after court adjourned.
The Crown's theory in the so-called Surrey Six case was that Haevischer, Johnston and a man who can only be identified as Person X – all Red Scorpion gang members – carried out the murders, prompted by notorious gangster Jamie Bacon, who wanted rival drug dealer Corey Lal dead. The other five victims, the Crown said, were shot to death to eliminate any possible witnesses.
In delivering her decision, Justice Wedge said there was no doubt in her mind Haevischer and Johnston knew exactly what their purpose was.
She said though the pair might not have anticipated five men other than Corey Lal would be slaughtered, that’s what happened.
Four of the victims were in the suite when they arrived, with Narong and Mohan dragged inside shortly after. She said Haevischer, Johnston and Person X (who pleaded guilty in 2009) were in the suite for 15 minutes before they shot all six men in rapid succession.
They divided the six into two groups of three and shot them “carefully and with precision,” while they lay defenceless, face down on the floor with their heads covered, she said.
“None of the victims was a physical threat to the perpetrators. Once the victims were in submissive positions, the perpetrators could easily have left the suite without killing them, but they decided against that option. Instead they shot each of them,” said Wedge, noting the nature of the victims’ wounds showed the shootings were “calculated and deliberate.”
The evidence showed both Haevischer and Johnston were not just present, but “actively involved” in the killings, she said.
Much of the Crown's case rested on powerful testimony from former gang associates. Haevischer's former girlfriend, identified only as KM, told the court she helped clean guns and bullets before the guys went out that day and was there when they returned in a panic with a bag full of money and phones. She helped count money while Haevischer boiled and destroyed cell phones of the victims, she said.
Another witness, identified only as Person Y and an admitted two-time murderer currently serving a life sentence, said Johnston told him about the murders right after they occurred. Person Y later began working with police, he said, because he realized gang loyalty was a myth and he was angry two innocent people were killed
Wedge said she accepted Y and KM’s testimony, even though, like others, they were considered "unsavoury” witness.
She did not, however, accept any evidence from Quang Vinh Thang (Michael) Le.
Le was initially on trial alongside Johnston and Haevischer, but late last year, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to murder Corey Lal and testified against his co-accused. Wedge said Le's testimony was tainted by the fact he cut a plea deal with the Crown. (He was sentenced to 12 years in prison, winnowed to three with double-credit for time served). Wedge said though Le may have been telling the truth, he minimized his role in the murder conspiracy and tailored his testimony to match his plea deal.
Crown prosecutor Mark Levitz spoke about the victims outside court following the verdict.
“They left mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, a wife and children who have had to suffer all these years and I hope the verdict today gives them some comfort and that they feel a sense of justice,” Levitz said.
First-degree murder carries a mandatory life sentence with no eligibility for parole for 25 years.
It's not over
Jamie Bacon, the co-founder of the Red Scorpion gang, is scheduled to stand trial separately in connection with the Surrey Six case next May.
Bacon is charged with one count each of conspiracy to commit murder and the first-degree murder of Lal. Three new charges were also laid against Bacon in July in relation to an alleged plot to kill Person X. He has been in jail since his arrest in April 2009 outside his family's home in Abbotsford.
Another man, Sophon Sek, is charged with manslaughter in the case and will also be tried separately. Though a trial date has not been set, his next court date is Dec. 2.
Haevischer and Johnston have also filed an abuse of process application, reportedly relating to alleged police misconduct during the investigation. That application is scheduled to be heard Oct. 27 in Vancouver.
Neil MacKenzie, B.C. Criminal Justice Branch spokesman, said while Thursday's convictions did not mark the end of the Surrey Six case, "it's clearly a significant step."
Person X pleaded guilty to three counts of second-degree murder and is currently serving a life sentence with no parole for 15 years. He was initially scheduled to testify at the Surrey Six trial, but was banned by Justice Wedge from doing so.
- with files from Vikki Hopes