Experts criticize police for using Mr. Big stings to target teens

EDMONTON – Experts are criticizing police for using so-called Mr. Big undercover stings to target teenagers, including in a case currently before a youth court judge in Edmonton.

The controversial undercover operations, which typically involve officers posing as crime bosses to recruit suspects and elicit confessions, are mostly used in adult cases. But they have also been used against a handful of young offender suspects across the country.

A youth trial which began in Edmonton this week heard that Mounties used a Mr. Big sting on a 17-year-old boy charged with murdering two people on a rural property while on the lam from a group home. The boy was 14 at the time of the killings and the trial has heard he was 16 when he was targeted by the sting.

“A young teenager?” says Toronto lawyer James Lockyer with the Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted. “That is frightening.”

Lockyer says police probably didn’t consider the age of their target.

“Their primary worry is to try to get a confession and they do what the law allows them to.”

Lockyer is often surprised that people fall for such an unlikely scenario.

The Edmonton trial has yet to hear specific details about what police did in this sting. In the typical ruse, once a suspect is enticed into a criminal organization, the fake crime boss offers various amounts of money or other incentives to help make their legal problems go away. All they have to do is provide details of their past crimes.

But the Mr. Big stings work, Lockyer says, because they target vulnerable suspects lacking maturity, self-confidence and experience in the world.

Teenagers are especially susceptible, he says.

He recalls the case of Karl Unger, accused of slaying a 16-year-old girl at a rock concert near Winnipeg in 1990. He was convicted of murder and spent 14 years in prison before being exonerated by DNA.

Lockyer says Unger wasn’t a youth when police used a fake Mr. Big to get a confession. He was 19, but not so sophisticated. Lockyer noted how undercover officers set up a meeting in a hotel room and Unger remarked how cool it was, because he had never been to a hotel before.

Timothy Moore, chair of psychology at Toronto’s York University, has done research critical of Mr. Big operations. He says it would take a high-functioning person with a great deal of self-assurance to resist the undercover ploy.

Others are willing to cop to crimes they didn’t commit.

“The magnitude of the psychological control and manipulation is extraordinary, in my opinion,” he says. “Age would make the target inherently more susceptible.”

Teens lack maturity and want to belong, he says. And police prey on that.

Kouri Keenan, a criminology PhD student at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, has written a book analyzing Mr. Big stings in Canada — the only country that regularly uses the technique.

Kouri says some Mr. Big operations produce solid confessions backed by other evidence. He’s concerned about the cases that go to trial without corroborating proof.

He tracked 81 cases involving the stings, most with accused from disadvantaged backgrounds. He found there were convictions in 66 cases and pleas in another four. Of all the cases, three dealt with young offenders. There were a few other cases involving accused who allegedly committed crimes as teens but were targeted by stings later as adults.

Keenan says he’s concerned that youth are particularly vulnerable, since previous research shows they are at high risk of giving false confessions during in-custody police interviews. No studies have been done on the risk of false confessions by youth when they are out of custody.

“The pressures in the Mr.-Big-type setting can be as great if not greater … There’s a lot of pressure to tell Mr. Big what he wants to hear and he often doesn’t take no for an answer.”

Keenan says the youngest accused targeted by a Mr. Big sting was a 15-year-old girl. She had run away from a youth facility before allegedly stabbing and pushing a man off a West Vancouver bridge in 1997.

A judge ruled that an undercover sting on such a young person wouldn’t “shock the sensibilities of the community” and allowed her confession as evidence at trial. The defence argued the girl was a street kid with a background of parental neglect and abuse.

She was acquitted by a jury.

Gerland Koesling, a sister of one of the victims in the Edmonton case, told reporters Monday she’s glad RCMP did all they could to make the arrest.

“When we found out the RCMP were going the extra mile … I’m very happy.”