The high-profile, monthslong police investigation aimed at snuffing out violence in the Greater Toronto Area's tow-truck industry has partially collapsed, leaving six people who were accused of more than 70 arson, drug and gun offences walking out of court with their charges stayed.
Dubbed Project Platinum, the York Regional Police-led operation targeted individuals who investigators alleged were involved in a deadly battle for control of the GTA's towing industry. The feuds led to at least four murders, assaults, shootings and the torching of at least 30 tow trucks, police alleged.
In May 2020, YRP announced 19 arrests as part of the joint forces investigation in collaboration with Ontario Provincial Police, Toronto police and the Canada Revenue Agency.
But earlier this month, Crown prosecutors withdrew charges against six people who were being tried as a group.
'The Crown surprised everybody'
Police had accused the six people of being part of a criminal organization involved in drug trafficking, gun possession, arson and of planning a murder.
Criminal lawyer Jag Virk, who represented one of the accused, told CBC News that the Crown had previously withdrawn several firearm offences against his client. He said lawyers for the Crown stayed all remaining charges against the six defendants two weeks ago in the Ontario Court of Justice in Newmarket.
"The Crown surprised everybody because we were in the middle of pretrial motions," Virk said.
"[My client] was ecstatic. He was shocked. He was on strict house arrest and having his freedom finally given back to him after two years is a weight lifted off his shoulders."
WATCH | Police reveal links between organized crime and towing industry:
Virk said the charges were stayed after the judge ordered the Crown to disclose some information on a phone wiretap warrant that was redacted in a previous version provided to the defence. The Crown took the position that doing so would reveal the identity of an informant, Virk said, and chose to stay the charges instead of disclosing that information.
A YRP spokesperson said the operation still had the effect of reducing crime and violence within the industry by dismantling a large criminal organization.
"Successful prosecution is not the only measure by which we achieve our community safety goals," Const. Laura Nicolle wrote in an email.
"We are proud of the fact Project Platinum halted the significant street-level violence that was plaguing our community in the months leading up to the arrests ... These efforts resulted in a substantial decrease in violence connected to the tow truck industry."
Nicolle added the police force is happy with regulatory changes brought in by the Ontario government last year in response to violence in the tow-truck industry, including a pilot project that introduces restricted towing zones on highways and a joint team to address violence and fraud in the industry.
2nd high-profile case to fall apart
The collapse of the case against the six people is the second time in a year that a high-profile investigation led by York Regional Police has fallen apart.
Last February, one of the largest police investigations into organized crime in Ontario's history fell apart after police allegedly illegally intercepted phone calls as part of a multimillion-dollar probe into suspected mafia activity in the Greater Toronto Area.
The operation, dubbed Project Sindacato, resulted in charges against nine people in Canada who police alleged were part of a criminal organization with ties to the mob in Italy.
The group was accused of running illegal gambling operations, fraud, drug trafficking and laundering money through casinos, York Regional Police said in a news release issued in July 2019.
But prosecutors stayed the charges against six of the accused in Jan. 2021 after defence lawyers raised concerns that investigators committed "significant breaches of solicitor/client privilege." Three of the accused previously had their charges stayed in 2020.
"The expectation that every case is perfect is an unrealistic one," Const. Nicolle added in a written statement. "We operate in an imperfect justice system. By their nature, these cases are complex and multifaceted. We always have, and always will, face challenges within the court system that may or may not be surmountable in any given case."