Crown seeking 17-year sentence for Quebec man convicted in kidnapping of U.S. couple

Sandra Helm walks in the hallway at the Montreal courthouse in Montreal back in January.  (Sidhartha Banerjee/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Sandra Helm walks in the hallway at the Montreal courthouse in Montreal back in January. (Sidhartha Banerjee/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Quebec prosecutors are seeking a 17-year prison sentence for a Quebec man found guilty of participating in the 2020 kidnapping of a couple from Upstate New York.

A sentencing hearing began Monday for Gary Arnold, 54, who was found guilty by a jury in February of five charges, including kidnapping, extortion and conspiracy to kidnap, for being part of a plot to abduct James and Sandra Helm of Moira, N.Y.

"The degree of responsibility of Mr. Arnold is important as he was a key player in the common endeavour," prosecutor Edith Lafontaine told Quebec Superior Court Justice Michel Pennou, noting that Arnold's previous convictions include smuggling cigarettes into Canada through the Mohawk territory of Akwesasne, which straddles Quebec, Ontario and New York state.

The couple in their 70s were taken from their home by a group of men in September 2020, smuggled into Canada by boat through Akwesasne and detained at a cottage in Magog, Que., about 125 kilometres southeast of Montreal.

The Helms were held for ransom in connection with what the Crown said was a botched drug deal involving their grandson, Mackenzie Helm. The group wanted to exchange the couple for 50 kilograms of cocaine or $3.5 million cash, after Mackenzie was arrested in Vermont days earlier with the drugs.

A total of 10 calls were made to the couple's son, Michael Helm, seeking either the ransom or for Mackenzie to be surrendered to them.

Defence suggests 10-year sentence

Defence lawyer John T. Pepper Jr. is seeking a sentence of about 10 years in prison for Arnold, who argued during his trial that he had acted under threats and did not know anything about a kidnap plot.

Pepper insisted on Monday that his client was never in the Helms' bedroom the night of the kidnapping and that his client only did what he was told under threat from a man named "Big," who instructed Arnold to do various tasks like transporting phones, sending text messages and picking up catheters that Sandra Helm required from a Quebec hospital.

Arnold testified that "Big" had showed him photos of his wife and her daughters to ensure his compliance.

Brigitte Marcoux/Radio-Canada
Brigitte Marcoux/Radio-Canada

On the stand, Sandra Helm identified Arnold as one of the men in her bedroom the night of the kidnapping on Sept. 27, 2020. The couple were held for two days in Magog before they were rescued unharmed by a Quebec provincial police tactical unit.

Jurors returned a verdict on Feb. 19 after being sequestered for 12 days. They were unaware that the four other people accused in the case had all pleaded guilty in the months ahead of Arnold's trial.

Pepper said Arnold's sentence should be less than the sentences of two others involved in the plot who pleaded guilty and had been on parole for unrelated convictions.

Range of sentences for others involved

Franco D'Onofrio and Kosmas Dritsas received 15- and 13-year sentences respectively.

Two other men accused in the case, George Dritsas and Taylor Lawrence Martin, received sentences of six years and seven-and-a half-years, respectively.

"What I'm suggesting to you is Gary Arnold should be viewed as a participant, not the orchestrator," Pepper told the court.

Arnold has been detained since Oct. 1, 2020. The four other men were arrested the same day the Helms were rescued.

Sandra Helm will deliver a victim impact statement to the court later this month. Her son, Michael, will also address the court.

The case returns to court on March 16.