courts

Trial begins for former RCMP officer accused of stealing cocaine

Craig Robert Burnett pleads not guilty to seven charges

Monday marks the first day of Craig Robert Burnett’s trial by judge as the former RCMP officer faces charges related to drug theft and trafficking.

Burnett, 51, was arraigned at the Nova Scotia Supreme Court in Halifax. After he pleaded not guilty to seven charges, federal Crown attorney Joseph Selvaratnam made his opening remarks.

“It’s fair to say that this is a case that falls into two parts,” Selvaratnam said.

He told the court four of the seven charges relate to alleged trafficking activities from 2010; the other three resulted from a 2016 RCMP investigation of Burnett.

Burnett, who has retired from the RCMP, is accused of stealing 10 kilograms of cocaine from an exhibit locker in 2010-11. RCMP asked the Serious Incident Response Team to investigate the missing drugs in September 2015. In 2016, the RCMP launched Operation Handshake to investigate Burnett.

Selvaratnam said his case rests on Burnett’s financial information and testimony from his former partners, but other evidence is “almost nonexistent.” He said there were no drugs found on Burnett and the wiretaps did not yield significant evidence, alleging Burnett was “tipped off” to the investigation.

Selvaratnam said this isn’t a typical case.

“The fact that it goes back some years and, secondly, that you have these two key witnesses for the Crown who speak very directly to being involved in the enterprise with the accused,” he said.

In response, Burnett’s lawyer, David J. Bright, said “that’s not evidence.”

“You are quite right,” Justice James L. Chipman responded. “Nor is what you just said evidence.”

A ‘consenting party’

RCMP Insp. David John Astephan was called as the Crown’s first witness. In 2016, Astephan was the sergeant in charge of Operation Handshake.

Astephan told the court that Michael Kanasevich informed him Burnett stole cocaine from evidence and gave it to a friend, Scott Rowlings, who sold the drugs and split the proceeds with Burnett.

Kanasevich became an agent, a “consenting party,” and began communicating with Burnett in an effort to get him to admit the theft.

Kanasevich knew Burnett and Rowlings through Cannsource, a medical cannabis business they were trying to launch. According to recordings of calls played in court, the business only made it to the application stage.

A number of recordings of calls and voice messages between Burnett, Rowlings and others were played in court. Texts were read aloud by Astephan who gave dates, names and context for the recordings and transcripts.

Astephan testified the investigation found Burnett’s spending habits changed in late 2011, after a large shipment of cocaine evidence had been destroyed. Burnett was the sergeant in charge of the original seizure of that cocaine.

Investigators turned to Rowlings for help by July 2016.

“We realized that although we were originally targeting Mr. Rowlings and Mr. Burnett, we really needed a statement from Mr. Rowlings and his co-operation,” said Astephan.

“We pursued an agreement with Mr. Rowlings to assist us.”

Astephan’s testimony is expected to continue Tuesday. Selvaratnam said he has an “extensive” list of witnesses.

Burnett’s family and friends filled the courtroom Monday to support him.

He faces six Criminal Code offences and one offence under the Controlled Drug and Substances Act. These charges include two different breaches of trust, stealing cocaine with a value exceeding $5,000, trafficking a substance, transfer of property that was a result of an offence, obstructing a police officer by counselling a witness to lie and intent to mislead.

The trial is scheduled to last 23 days.