Tracking device on getaway vehicle leads investigators to suspect in B.C. gangland murder

·5 min read
Integrated Homicide Investigation Team members comb the scene of Julian Johnson's shooting in january 2020. Detectives have since identified a suspect. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC - image credit)
Integrated Homicide Investigation Team members comb the scene of Julian Johnson's shooting in january 2020. Detectives have since identified a suspect. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC - image credit)

Julian Johnson's murder fit a pattern that has become depressingly familiar in B.C.'s ongoing gang conflict.

The young man was shot in January 2020 in a brazen attack in a public place. Hours later, the burned out husk of the getaway vehicle was discovered on the other side of the Lower Mainland and the shooters were in the wind.

But according to court records, the investigation into Johnson's death came with a twist. One that would lead detectives directly to a suspect. Because police happened to have a tracking vehicle on the alleged killers' car.

No one has been charged in relation to Johnson's death, but the details of the ongoing investigation are contained in a B.C. Supreme Court decision released last week, giving the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team the go-ahead to hold on to crucial evidence.

'A kind beautiful soul'

The ruling provides a window into both the challenge facing police as they painstakingly try to solve just one of dozens of killings that have plagued the Lower Mainland in recent years, along with a picture of the net gradually closing in on those suspected of playing a role in Johnson's shooting.

"The offence involved a shooting that evidently took place in the context of gang conflict," wrote New Westminster B.C. Supreme Court Justice W. Paul Riley.

Ryan Stelting
Ryan Stelting

"The incident fits an increasingly familiar, dangerous pattern in which the perpetrators shoot the victim to death, flee the scene in a vehicle, drive to an adjacent municipality, set the vehicle alight, and abandon it."

Julian Johnson was in a white Toyota RAV4 when he was shot at a gas station on Canada Way in Burnaby at around 6:30 p.m. on a weekend night. Video footage tied the shooters to a black Nissan Rogue that was set on fire and abandoned in a field in Langley shortly after.

Johnson was 28.

In language that has also become depressingly routine, investigators later said the shooting was targeted and that the victim was known to police.

A fundraising page set up for his family tells a different story.

"Those who knew him know what a kind beautiful soul he was. He would give you whatever you needed if he had it to give. He rode hard for the people in his life," wrote a friend.

"His kind, loving, caring, funny heart has touched us all."

A tracking device

According to Riley's decision, police seized parts from two handguns from the Nissan along with a black glove, a bullet casing and a bullet. They also took swabs from all four door handles.

"As it turns out, the Nissan Rogue had a tracking device installed in it, as part of an unrelated investigation," the judge wrote.

Detectives accessed the tracking data and determined that the killers' car had been parked at a Richmond hotel in the days before the shooting. They went to the hotel, determined which room the car's occupants had stayed in and dusted for finger prints.

Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC
Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC

"Some of the prints they located came back to N.M., a known member of a well-known gang operating throughout British Columbia," Riley wrote.

Ten days after Johnson's shooting, West Vancouver police arrested N.M. and a handful of associates in an unrelated investigation, They seized N.M.'s Blackberry along with four other phones found in the group's vehicle.

Wanted on outstanding warrants

Canadian law requires police to justify detention past three months of items that would otherwise engage the privacy and property rights of their owners. Once a person is charged, the evidence can be kept until the conclusion of the case.

The Integrated Homicide Investigation team has recently faced intense judicial scrutiny for ignoring the requirement to apply for regular extensions, in a case that saw an accused murderer walk free.

David Horemans/CBC
David Horemans/CBC

In order to justify further detention of items seized during an investigation, police have to show the steps they've taken so far in the investigation and prove that they have provided ample notice to the rightful owners of the objects.

According to Riley's decision, N.M. has been identified as a suspect or a potential suspect in the murder and is currently at large, wanted on outstanding warrants for unrelated matters in the United States and Canada.

Investigators have extracted data from three of the five phones they seized, but they can't get at the information in the Blackberries because the devices are encrypted.

'A very compelling public interest'

The judge's decision reveals the remarkable lengths police have gone to in order to try to track down the killers.

They have obtained call details and subscriber records for a total of 67 phones, in a bid to cross-reference devices that can be shown to have been at the murder scene, the field in Langley and the hotel where the Nissan was parked earlier.

According to the ruling, the Nissan Rogue was registered to a woman named Y.L. but the principal operator was her common-law partner D.K. Both have consented to police hanging on to evidence seized from the vehicle.

Police also tried to contact N.M. to let him know that they intended to apply to the court to keep his Blackberry but his mother told them she doesn't know where he is. She later refused to accept a notice on behalf of her son.

The judge ultimately approved the application for further detention of the firearms seized from the Nissan and swabs taken from inside the getaway vehicle.

"We have a very compelling public interest in the proper and through investigation of a very serious criminal offence, murder," Riley wrote.

"There is a compelling public interest in allowing the police the necessary time to properly and thoroughly investigate criminal activity of this kind."

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting