The price of murder in Vancouver

Even as Vancouver's murder rate goes down, the city's homicide team could spend $1 million in overtime solving cases this year

(This story has been updated since it was first posted Nov. 4.)

It's inevitable in his line of work.

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Sooner rather than later, Sgt. Rob Faoro will receive a call-likely in the middle of the night-that someone has been murdered in the city.

The 16-year veteran homicide cop will respond with his team of eight investigators to determine how the person died, who was responsible and what motivated the violent death.

Sometimes, they will nab a suspect immediately. Other times, as in Sunday's homicide at Seventh Avenue and Ash Street, the case may go cold for a while or never be solved. But as years go on the homicide beat, this year is shaping up to be one of the most successful for Faoro and the two other homicide teams that comprise the Vancouver Police Department.

Of the 13 homicides in 2011, police have successfully recommended charges in nine of the murders for a 69 per cent "solve rate," according to Faoro, who said Monday he is optimistic about solving at least two of the remaining deaths. All nine cases with charges are before the courts.

"This is, right now, the best we've seen it in my 16 years," said Faoro, noting the rate reached 75 per cent before Sunday's killing of Axel Curtis, who is believed to have had ties to gangs. Last year's solve rate was 56 per cent and 39 per cent in 2009.

Faoro, however, is realistic about this year's rate holding at 69 per cent, knowing that a spate of gang violence or a random killing before the end of the year could knock the numbers back to previous levels. Though Sunday's targeted shooting isn't new ground for police, the reality of another homicide occurring this year was more likely in the 1990s when investigators dealt with 276 murders from 1990 to 1999.

Statistics for Vancouver reveal the number of murders has steadily decreased in the past decade, with the VPD recording an all-time low of 10 homicides in 2010.

The downward trend is evident across Canada, with police reporting 56 fewer homicides in 2010 than in 2009, according to a Statistics Canada report released last month. The report said the overall homicide rate was driven largely by fewer incidents in the western provinces, with the rate in B.C. falling to its lowest point since the mid-1960s.

Faoro pointed to police cracking down on gang violence and running sophisticated operations targeting high-profile gangsters as likely reasons for the decrease in homicides in the city. He's also noticed a decline in the number of husband-wife, boyfriend-girlfriend homicides. "I remember in the '90s, there were more of those," Faoro said. "Now it's rare that we have that type of violence anymore."

But even with fewer homicides, the VPD continues to wrack up huge overtime bills in murder investigations. As of Oct. 19, homicide units spent $833,000 on overtime and that number could reach more than $1 million as investigators continue to search for suspects in four killings. Faoro revealed the overtime costs to the Vancouver Police Board last month to give board members a sense of how quickly the tab can add up for a homicide investigation. "Sounds like a lot of money but that was a relatively great deal," said Faoro, who averaged out the cost of investigating the first 11 homicides of the year to $75,000 each in overtime; the tab doesn't include the regular work hours of investigators, which can be a complicated calculation when factoring officers' pay grids.

Despite the "great deal," Faoro is worried the department's $2.8 million criminal investigation fund used to cover overtime is quickly being drained. The fund is also relied upon by the department's robbery/assault teams, the drug squad and sex crimes unit to investigate major crimes, including kidnappings.

So far, it hasn't reached the point where the VPD's executive has had to shuffle its operating budget or go to council begging for more money to increase the criminal investigation fund. And, Faoro said, he wanted to be clear that homicide investigations haven't been curtailed because of budget constraints. "We don't say no because it costs a lot of money," he said. "But at the end of the day, we may have to say no because we can't go find more money if there isn't any more there. But, for the victims' families, they've got to understand that for now we do spend the money."

The police department's cheapest overtime tab for a murder investigation this year was related to the death of 47-year-old Neil Andrew Barnett.

He became the city's third homicide victim of the year when on the night of March 30 he was allegedly involved in an altercation in the 400-block of Carrall Street and fatally stabbed.

Police were led almost immediately to a suspect, keeping the overtime costs to $10,643. Jullian Reddock, 25, was charged with manslaughter.

Depending on the homicide case, overtime costs can increase for the investigators themselves and for forensic teams called out for several hours, days or weeks. So-called canvas teams can be required to knock on doors and search for evidence. Undercover work can play a part, as can wiretaps and DNA analysis. Police will also monitor murder suspects if they are granted bail.

The most expensive overtime tab to date involved the slaying of 36-year-old Jessica Eguia-Cornejo, who was found dead June 10 in her apartment in the 7400-block of Fraser Street.

It took police two months before announcing Aug. 8 that Anthony Blake Cruz of Richmond was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. Overtime costs, which included a forensic team spending five days at the victim's apartment, totalled $173,343.

What continues to keep overtime costs mounting are the ongoing probes into Sunday's gang-related homicide and the killings of Milad Nournia, Harpreet "Happy" Sandhu and Melanie O'Neill, whose body was discovered July 26 in her apartment on West 13th Avenue. The investigation into her death has reached $70,000 in overtime in October and continues to climb.

Nournia was the city's first homicide victim of the year, having been gunned down Feb. 17 in the 1000-block of Hornby Street in what police said was a targeted shooting. Nournia, 26, was carrying a loaded handgun when he was shot.

The overtime tab, as of Oct. 19: $163,472.

Sandhu was killed July 25 after a gunman fired several shots into the 21-year-old's back and left him lying in the 6900-block of Whithorn in Champlain Heights. The overtime tab, as of Oct. 19: $101,987.

Sandhu's uncle, Lak Chahal, pleaded Nov. 4 at a press conference for the killer to turn himself in to police. Police say Sandhu was not involved in gang activity.

"This is a total senseless killing and the whole family is totally devastated," Chahal said at the intersection where Sandhu was shot. "Happy was a good kid. I just want to make it clear that this has nothing to do with drugs or gangs."

Often, the gang-related slayings, such as the Nournia and Curtis hits, are the most difficult to solve because of the code of silence among gangsters. It's why the VPD has focused on targeting gangsters before the gunfire erupts.

Over the past couple of years, the VPD has led several investigations that resulted in the arrest of some of the city's most notorious alleged gangsters, including Manny Buttar and Bobby Gill.

When police announced the results of Project Torrent in February 2010, Insp. Brad Desmarais of the VPD's gangs and drugs section said police had "crippled" the Buttar and Gill organization.

Fourteen people were charged with 125 offences, including a woman who allegedly tried to hire members of the group to kill her ex-husband. The total cost of Project Torrent was $2.3 million.

Deputy Chief Warren Lemcke, who oversees the VPD's investigations division, acknowledged that Project Torrent and similar projects such as Rebellion ($1.6 million) and Rescue ($785,000) were expensive but crucial to public safety.

Lemcke believes the decrease in homicides in the city over the past two years is related to the VPD's work on stemming gang crime and that of integrated gang squads cracking down on gangsters in the Lower Mainland. "Gangsters are shooting gangsters, but what if somebody's in the background?" he said during Faoro's presentation to the police board.

"If we can prevent these shootings from happening in this city, we keep everybody safe. So it's important to do these proactive investigations because these moron gangsters don't care where they do their crime."

Sunday's homicide occurred at 9:30 a.m. at a busy intersection, a couple of blocks from the VPD's Cambie Street station. Bullets reportedly hit an optical store on the boulevard where Curtis was shot to death.

But is the VPD's work pushing gangsters out to the suburbs?

Though television news reports might give the impression that gangland slayings in the suburbs are a regular occurrence, the most recent statistics from the RCMP-led Integrated Homicide Investigation Team (IHIT) say otherwise.

To date, IHIT has investigated 26 murders compared to 38 in 2010 and 56 in 2009. IHIT is the largest homicide unit in Canada and responsible for 26 RCMP detachments and both the New Westminster and Abbotsford municipal police departments.

The unit's jurisdiction extends from Pemberton to Boston Bar and the Sunshine Coast to the Coquihalla Highway, covering an area of about 2.5 million people.

Sgt. Jennifer Pound, the media relations officer for IHIT, said combatting gang violence that results in homicides is a focus in detachments and departments across the country. "It's a policing priority, no matter where you are," Pound said. "It's not just in the city but police departments everywhere are looking at gang-related issues and organized crime."

Even so, Pound said she couldn't speculate exactly why homicides have decreased in Vancouver, in B.C. and across the country, although Edmonton's gang problem has seen more than 40 murders this year.

Despite the downward trend in homicides, Pound said IHIT could always use more money and officers for the unit, which was created in 2003. "At the end of the day, it's not about the money-it's about the families that you're working with," she said. "But it's tough to balance that. You have these obligations to solve this, but yeah it costs and money does come into play."

Robert Gordon, the director of Simon Fraser University's criminology department, said the $833,000 in overtime costs for the VPD's homicide investigations suggests to him the department needs more officers.

"If they're having to pour that amount of extra money into investigations, it means that police officers working on these cases are working long hours," Gordon said.

But, Gordon added, it's difficult to put a price on capturing a killer for the sake of the victim's family. As well, spending millions of dollars on special projects that target known gangsters is understood when gunplay in the streets puts innocent bystanders at risk, he added.

"Where a community has that kind of activity taking place, obviously robust police action is more than warranted," said Gordon, referring to the 14 gang-related homicides that occurred in late 2007 and throughout 2008 in Vancouver.

One of the most costly homicide investigations to date for the VPD was finding the killer of 18-year-old Poonam Randhawa, who was shot dead Jan. 26, 1999 in an alley near Granville and West 47th Avenue.

It took 12 years for investigators to find suspect Ninderjit Singh, who was arrested Aug. 19 in San Jacinto, Calif. Police said Singh attempted to conceal his identity by gaining weight, growing a beard and wearing a turban.

The cost of the investigation just over the past two years totalled $550,000, said Faoro, who wouldn't speculate on the total cost of the 12-year probe. But it is a case, Faoro said, that demonstrates how determined investigators are to bring some peace to a family, no matter what the cost. "There are certain cases that every investigator has that are dear to you-that you can't leave the [homicide] section until you solve those," he said. "I have a couple and I deal with the parents on a regular basis. I have one person who phones me weekly, and it kills me. My family knows about it. My friends know about it, my team knows about it."

Added Faoro: "That Randhawa one was dear to everybody here. She was an innocent young woman."

The Randhawa family released a statement after the arrest, saying "we are forever grateful to the Vancouver Police Department for never giving up on us over the past 12 years."

mhowell@vancourier.com

Twitter: @Howellings

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