Is the Tingley family a criminal organization or is the definition flawed?

The initial case against the "Salisbury sopranos" stalled, but the Crown is eager for a new trial

Is the Tingley family a criminal organization or is the definition flawed?

Adam Huras/Telegraph-Journal

Rodney Tingley, a white-haired 58-year-old grandfather who police said was the head of one of New Brunswick’s most notorious crime families, lay in bed the night officers came for him. His wife, Gayle, was next to him; their six-year-old grandson was in between. The police raid didn’t come as a surprise, exactly. Mounties had been investigating Tingley for more than 14 months. But the pure force of it shocked him. “I woke up and all I could hear was someone hollering, ‘Cops! Cops! Cops!’ ” Tingley says. “So I jumped up, looked out the hall, and all I seen was SWAT teams with machine guns and masks and all this stuff.”

Tingley didn’t know the half of it. More than 100 Mounties from three provinces were raiding Tingley homes that morning, Dec. 10, 2008. Nine Tingleys or close relatives were arrested, and eight of them were eventually brought up on 57 charges. (The ninth, Rodney Tingley’s 78-year-old mother-in-law, was released without charge.)

The raid was hailed at the time as a major crackdown on a significant organized crime group. It was the first time in New Brunswick’s history that criminal organization charges had been laid since the definition of the term was broadened by the federal government in 2002. The RCMP wasted no time painting the so-called “Salisbury Sopranos”—as the family was dubbed—as a dangerous posse of gunrunners and drug dealers.

But the case against the family proved more complicated. Charges against three of them—Rodney’s wife, Gayle, his brother’s wife, Shannon, and his son’s wife, Missy—were stayed in 2009. By 2011, as the defence and prosecution sparred endlessly over disclosure, the rest were no closer to trial. Last December, just over three years to the day after the raid, and with untold millions spent on the investigation and prosecution, the Crown announced they would present no evidence. Faced with little option, the judge issued a directed verdict for the remaining Tingleys: not guilty on all charges.

The collapse of the Tingley case is the story of a law that critics have long charged is both too broad and too complex. Drafted to combat biker gangs, the definition of criminal organizations under Canadian law has been expanded to apply to almost any small group committing nearly any crime in a coordinated way. The investigative powers police are granted under the Criminal Code, meanwhile, often lead to trials bogged down by questions of evidence and disclosure.

That certainly appears to be what happened in the Tingley case. In an appeal filed in late December, the Crown argued that the judge, Justice Stephen McNally, had scuppered its chances. McNally, the Crown argued, erred by refusing to limit cross-examination on privileged topics and failing to move the case toward trial in a timely way. The Tingleys’ defence lawyers paint a different picture. In their view, the case against their clients was a massive overreach from the start. At best, they argue, it represents a misuse of the criminal organization laws. At worst, it’s a legitimate use of a terrible law, one that gave police massive powers to track the Tingleys and allowed prosecutors to portray a group of small-town troublemakers as the second coming of the Corleones. “This is one of those situations where, if you believe in the rule of law and you believe in democracy and you believe in the Charter, you don’t think can happen,” says Rodney Tingley’s lawyer, Alison Menard. “And then it does. And for three years, there was no way out.”

The investigation that became the Tingley organized crime probe started with a business deal and an arson probe. Seven years ago, Mike Tingley and his friend Stephen Hopper agreed to buy and build a convenience store and movie rental shop in Salisbury, N.B. When the deal collapsed, the dispute got nasty. The two shops were split in March 2007. Then Hopper family properties started burning: a camp, a cottage, a garage with Stephen’s Jeeps inside were all torched.

The RCMP wouldn’t comment for this story. But the Tingleys believe they were fingered as the suspects. For the next 14 months, the family says they were under almost constant surveillance. In December 2008, the police moved in, arresting Rodney, his three sons—Mike, Kevin and Chris—along with brother Roger and the three wives. The Tingleys were charged with conspiring to traffic in marijuana, oxycodone and cocaine. No arson charges were laid. But in a news release, the RCMP said the fires were still under investigation. Three years later, they remain unsolved.

The Tingleys were accused of committing their crimes under the auspices of a criminal organization, the hereto unheard of Tingley Group. Criminal organization charges come with much stiffer sentences than normal violations in Canada, but you don’t have to be the Sopranos to be labelled a crime group. “Parliament was so spooked by the possibility that groups like the Hells Angels might squirm out of the definition of ‘criminal organization’ that it adopted a definition that is wider than a tent,” says Frank Addario, a Toronto lawyer and board member at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “Putting that kind of weapon in the police-charging arsenal inevitably leads to abuse.”

That’s what Rodney Tingley’s lawyer believes happened. The Tingleys don’t pretend to be angels. Rodney Tingley admits they sometimes sold illegal cigarettes. Stephen Tingley says his brothers often found him marijuana. But Menard says any attempt to portray the family as a crime group is ludicrous. The amount of drugs seized in the case, she says, are less than what you would find “in your neighbour’s cupboard.”

The troubles are far from over for the Tingleys. The Crown is hoping for a new trial, with a different judge, on all the original charges. “There’s still a cloud over our heads,” says Rodney Tingley. “You know, it’s a worry. We had a lot of stress in them three years.”

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