Dirty Bertie—yours for about $25, batteries not included—is about as rude as a plastic mechanical doll can get. “He’s disgusting, revolting and perverted!!!” promises the box. “See and hear him moan and groan until he reaches his final pant-shaking climax!” Bertie is so over the top, it gained something of a cult following after an appearance as a desktop novelty on the determinedly politically incorrect U.K. version of the TV show The Office. Now Bertie is gaining more infamy with news that two members of the RCMP explosives disposal unit in British Columbia are being sued for injuring a bomb-squad colleague with a booby-trapped Bertie.
On its surface this is a case of a prank gone awry, but the larger implications for an embattled national police force are no laughing matter, nor are the injuries suffered by bomb expert Cpl. Tyrone Hempston when, on Jan. 4, 2010, he turned on the doll only to have it blow up in his hands. The lingering damage, both mental and physical, to 44-year-old Hempston has impaired his ability to do his job, curtailed his chances for promotion and limited future career prospects outside the Mounties, according to his lawyer, Walter Kosteckyj. “You know, it’s harder to get a job when you’re damaged goods.” Kosteckyj, a former Mountie who represented the mother of Robert Dziekanski, who died at Vancouver International Airport after being tasered by Mounties in 2007, said Hempston is paying a heavy price for suing the force. “He feels some pressure both from the organization and the people involved over how this is going forward, but I think he felt that he had no other avenue to go down.”
The supposed prank raises a number of troubling issues: the cavalier handling of explosives by the elite 14-member disposal unit; the decision not to charge the perpetrators, although an independent police investigation recommended criminal charges; the fact that Hempston continues to work in a tense environment with colleagues he is suing in a bomb unit that demands teamwork.
Then there’s Dirty Bertie, symbolic of a force that can’t seem to shake allegations of rampant sexism and harassment within its ranks. “It’s really quite tragic,” says Robert Gordon, director of the school of criminology at Simon Fraser University. “It shows up some of the field level management issues and disciplinary issues that obviously need to be looked at very closely.”
The incident is outlined in a writ filed in the B.C. Supreme Court in late December. The allegations haven’t been heard in court and the RCMP have yet to file a response. The document says Const. Martin Simpson wired an SD-100 soft detonator inside the doll “with the assistance and planning” of fellow squad member Cpl. Nigel Blake while Hempston was away on Christmas holidays. The detonators, “classified as high explosives,” were seized when a film company tried to import them in 2003. RCMP Cpl. Annie Linteau, speaking for B.C.’s E-Division headquarters, offered a markedly different account in an statement, saying an unnamed RCMP member had a “low energy” pyrotechnic squib detonate in his hand. “The member was transported to hospital for treatment with superficial injuries.”
When Hempston returned from holidays, he noticed the doll on his desk had been tampered with and picked it up with both hands. It exploded when he turned it on. Among the severe injuries he sustained, according to the lawsuit: damage to his hands that required several surgeries, nerve damage and a loss of feeling in his fingers and thumb, carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands, hearing loss requiring hearing aids, tinnitus in both ears, chronic post-traumatic stress, anxiety, nervous shock and “loss of faith in his colleagues.”
Hempston declined to be interviewed. Kosteckyj said he does not wish to worsen an already tense work environment at the unit, which is responsible for explosives disposal in the province as well as responses for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats.
Kosteckyj says the unit had a tight “fraternal” relationship before the incident. He said there is no indication the sabotage of Bertie was driven by animosity, or that fellow colleagues were offended by the doll. “I think someone had given him this doll at one point. It was probably a little on the rude side,” he said. “It was a bit of a joke.”
While the RCMP kept the incident off the public radar, they did call in the nearby Delta municipal police force to investigate in January 2010. That June, investigators recommended criminal charges to B.C. Crown prosecutors, according to Delta police spokesman Const. Ciaran Feenan. He didn’t release the names or the specific charges that were recommended. A month later, Crown prosecutors told police they wouldn’t lay charges.
Incidentally, Blake, one of the officers named in the suit, was to appear for the Crown as an expert witness in a major attempted murder case on Vancouver Island that went to trial six months after the charges were waived in the Bertie bombing incident. That raises the question of whether prosecutors wanted to ensure Blake’s record was untainted by the exploding doll shenanigans so that he could testify in the murder trial.
Neil MacKenzie, spokesman for the Crown attorney’s office, said the evidence in the bomb squad case, particularly related to any intent to cause harm, “did not meet our standard for approval of any charges.” While he wouldn’t name the RCMP members, he did say “the prosecutor who conducted the charge assessment review was unaware of the court commitments or scheduled testimony in other cases of the officers associated to the incident.”
Last March, Blake appeared as an expert Crown witness in the attempted murder trial of David Goldberg, an American rocket scientist charged with trying to kill his ex-fianceé. Attempts by Goldberg’s lawyer, Ray Dieno, to disqualify Blake because of the doll incident were rejected by the judge, but the exchange revealed the light discipline Blake faced during an RCMP internal hearing. Blake admitted to giving advice on booby-trapping the doll and participating in practice explosions to ensure the technique was safe, said a court report in Victoria’s Times-Colonist. “Clearly our judgment was flawed,” he said.
Blake was found guilty of dishonourable conduct, admonished not to do it again, and a letter was put in his file. “That’s it?” Dieno asked. “That’s it,” Blake said.
Blake went on to testify in that case. Hempston awaits his day in court. Kosteckyj—with a growing caseload of embittered Mounties claiming workplace abuse—said the troubled force needs greater oversight by an all-party parliamentary committee, and a public inquiry into a spate of recent scandals. Rude little Bertie’s explosive end was just one more blow to a badly damaged reputation. It’s not clear if all the Queen’s horsemen can put that together again.