'People did not stay in their lanes': ex-RCMP investigator reflects on python case

'People did not stay in their lanes': ex-RCMP investigator reflects on python case

In a 36-year career in the RCMP — spent mostly as a criminal investigator with 15 years heading the major crime unit in southeast New Brunswick — Gerry Belliveau had never been overruled by a superior when it came to charging or not charging a suspect.

Then came his final assignment.

With a mere three weeks to go before his retirement in March 2014, Belliveau, who was then the acting superintendent for southeast New Brunswick, was asked by top-ranking officers at J Division headquarters in Fredericton if he would review the findings of the investigation into the August 2013 deaths of two young brothers in Campbellton who were asphyxiated by a snake.

The initial investigation by the major crime unit in northern New Brunswick had concluded a charge of criminal negligence causing death was not warranted against Jean-Claude Savoie, owner of the African rock python. Officers from H Division in Nova Scotia who reviewed the case agreed.

Despite his looming retirement, Belliveau locked himself into a motel room in Bathurst for a week, with two boxes of investigative files, and reviewed the findings in the case.

To keep an open mind, he never looked at the H Division review, but he came to the same conclusion: a charge of criminal negligence causing the deaths of Connor Barthe, 6, and Noah Barthe, 4, "just wasn't there," said Belliveau.

The boys were on a sleepover at Savoie's apartment when the 3.8-metre-long snake escaped through a small ventilation duct at the top of its exclosure. The snake then fell through the ceiling tiles in the adjoining room where the boys were sleeping and killed them by constriction.

Belliveau remains adamant there was nothing to show that Savoie showed reckless disregard for the safety of others or that his actions were a marked departure from what other people would do in the same situation. Hence, no criminal offence occurred.

Belliveau submitted his report at 10 p.m. on a Friday. On Monday, Roger Brown, the assistant commissioner who headed J Division, told him Commissioner Bob Paulson was going to be briefed on the file. 

Belliveau was asked if he stood by his report and was prepared to speak about it to Paulson.

"Absolutely," said Belliveau.

He never spoke to Paulson but the morning after the commissioner was briefed, Belliveau got an email from the original investigator, saying the case was being forwarded to the Crown to pursue a criminal charge against Savoie.

Surprising move

"I was stunned," said Belliveau, 60, who is now retired. "People did not stay in their lanes.

"If three people say that the colour is red and you've got one person that says the colour is white, maybe the three people that said the colour was red were on the right track."

While the Crown officially approves charges in New Brunswick, if the RCMP didn't want a charge laid, the case would not have gone to the Crown, he said. You need evidence for a charge. 

"All I can suggest to you today is that we, the RCMP — I'm retired now, but the RCMP at that time — took the monkey off their back and gave it to the Crown.

"In my opinion, it was a no-win situation and the results speak for themselves."

Savoie was found not guilty of criminal negligence causing death in a jury trial in Campbellton last fall.

Belliveau said Supt. Dan Nowlan, who headed the RCMP in northeast New Brunswick "did not accept the decisions or the investigative results of a major crime unit, the Halifax division or Belliveau.

"And with all fairness, with all due respect to the commissioner of the RCMP who is still the commissioner today, what was his background and what was his knowledge of this investigation? ... How does a member's reasonable and probable grounds change from a Friday to a Monday and who read the file of the two boxes of information to come up with that decision?""

Belliveau said that in the RCMP, as in any organization, people are responsible for certain jobs. Here, some people got involved where they shouldn't have.

'People don't mind their own business'

Belliveau doesn't begrudge superiors their authority to make decisions, and said they might be looking at things from a different angle. But they should still be accountable.

"Regardless of who makes decisions or who changes decisions from lower, they still need to wear and carry the responsibility that comes with it."

Paulson did not reply to an interview request. Nowlan declined an interview through RCMP spokesperson Paul Greene.

"On the matter itself, the RCMP's response is the same as it has been previously," Greene said in an email to CBC News. "The RCMP gathered evidence and presented it to the Crown recommending charges. Charges were then laid and the case went to court. We respect the judge and jury's decision."

'You can't invent the answers'

Belliveau said he understands the "passion" of Nowlan, and perhaps others, in wanting to see a charge laid in a high-profile, tragic case.

"It was highly charged and the public wanted some answers," Belliveau said. "But you can't invent the answers … you can't."

He has "never received the courtesy of a phone call" about why it was ultimately decided to charge Savoie.

"What changed? And who made that decision? Can he back up the decision? Can he justify the decision? Was anybody pressured?" he said. "Because to this very day, I still don't know why he was charged."

Now doing consulting work, Belliveau still goes back to the oath he swore 36 years ago when he became an RCMP officer.

"Seek the truth, only. That's our job."