Samson Mkhitaryan, an ex-Diavik Diamond Mines Inc. employee behind the biggest theft the territory has ever seen, was sentenced to 18 months in jail Wednesday, avoiding a prison term proposed by prosecutors.
“People do things under situations of great stress they don’t do otherwise,” said a sympathetic NWT Supreme Court Justice Andrew Mahar, addressing Mkhitaryan in front of a packed Yellowknife courtroom.
Mkhitaryan, who worked as a sorter at a Diavik product splitting facility located near the Yellowknife airport, pocketed 29 uncut stones while on the job on seven different occasions – three times in December 2017; twice in January 2017; and twice in February of last year.
At any given time, he was responsible for $17 million – 200,000 carats – worth of rough diamonds.
Mkhitaryan confessed to the thefts even before his arrest in February 2018, and RCMP officers were able to recover each of the 29 uncut stones after the offender drew them a map of where he’d hidden the pricey product –between two pipes, stashed in a single plastic bag, in a boiler room in Mkhitaryan’s garage.
Mkhitaryan and his wife came to Yellowknife from Armenia some 16 years ago.
Mkhitaryan’s lawyer, Peter Harte, told the court during a hearing late last month, his client was motivated to steal the stones after being left stressed and financially strained.
Mkhitaryan’s mother, said Harte, was battling cancer with no health care in Armenia. That, he said, pushed Mkhitaryan to feel “morally obligated” to send funds he didn’t have back home.
‘Out of character’
Mahar reserved his decision in January – calling the case one of the most unusual he’s ever seen – to weigh the “extremely serious offence” with the “extremely sympathetic circumstances” of Mkhitaryan.
On Wednesday, in accepting Harte’s 18-month recommendation, Mahar said Mkhitaryan was “under great financial strain,” when he acted “completely out of character.”
The Crown called for a sentence of two to two-and-a-half years.
Mkhitaryan had a spotless criminal record prior to his theft conviction, and Mahar received a “large volume of support letters,” including some from Mkhitaryan’s current employers. He now works three jobs.
Mahar stressed that Mkhitaryan’s confession and full co-operation with RCMP warranted leniency. But he said a jail term is needed to deter others from giving into temptation as Mkhitaryan did.
Outlining the reasons for his decision, Mahar said greater thefts typically trigger greater penalties.
“But what does that really mean?,” he asked. To focus solely on the dollar amount of what was stolen — and recovered — would be a “gross simplification,” said Mahar.
Context, he said, is the crux of the case.
He noted the difference between stealing $20,000 from a struggling small business and pocketing $400,000 worth of diamonds from a multi-billion dollar corporation.
“I’m not saying it’s not serious, but we have to look past the brute figure of $400,000,” said Mahar.
“We, as a society, have arbitrarily decided that a handful of shiny stones is worth a house,” he added.
Mahar reminded the court that aside from added stress to employees, “there was no harm caused” to Diavik Diamond Mines Inc., as the product was recovered in full.
‘Caved to temptation’
Mahar, who acknowledged the need to protect NWT’s integral mining industry, added that in the diamond mining business, miners have long recognized the temptation in their product, and the industry has responded with strong security measures.
“(Mkhitaryan) caved to that temptation,” under financial pressure, said Mahar.
Mkhitaryan, noted Mahar, has indicated “great remorse.”
He felt so ashamed – often not being able to look his family in the eye – that his wife worried about him, fearing he would harm himself.
Mahar did not impose probation on Mkhitaryan following his release, but he must submit a sample of his DNA given the theft’s high value. Mahar will be making a recommendation for Mkhitaryan’s early release, as well.
Mkhitaryan, backed by over a dozen relatives and supporters, shook hands with his lawyer and hugged his teary-eyed wife before being taken into police custody.
Friends and family told reporters outside the courthouse the “judge and sentence was fair.”
The reality of Mkhitaryan being separated from his family, however, upset many of the supporters, some of whom wiped away tears.