Was Hassen Abdul Kerim Mohamed a trusted player in a high-level drug dealer’s fentanyl and cocaine operation, or an unwitting house guest caught up in an RCMP raid that netted thousands of dollars in drugs and cash?
The answer to that question now rests in the hands of NWT Supreme Court Justice Shannon Smallwood following a week-long trial for the 50-year-old Burnaby, B.C. man charged with possessing fentanyl and cocaine for the purpose of trafficking.
In April 2015, members of Yellowknife RCMP’s emergency response team stormed a Finlayson Drive townhouse using a battering ram and a grenade-like diversion device. Inside, they found Mohamed – and large quantities of fentanyl, cocaine and marijuana.
Mohamed, a former Yellowknife Mountie testified on Tuesday, was located and arrested as he exited the residence’s second-floor bathroom. A cocaine-filled baggie was found between the accused’s legs as he lay handcuffed on the floor.
But as members of the RCMP emergency squad testified earlier this week, Mohamed wasn’t the target of the raid. William Castro, also from B.C. – who dove headfirst through a second-floor window in a bid to evade police during the raid – was the primary target.
And as another investigator testified, Mohamed wasn’t even on the RCMP’s radar until days before the search warrant was executed, when the accused showed up at the Finlayson Drive house while Castro was under police surveillance.
After pleading guilty in December 2015, Castro received a six-year prison sentence for dealing cocaine, marijuana and fentanyl. He claimed responsibility for all of the drugs found in the house.
Mohamed pleaded not guilty to his charges, sending the case to trial where the defence and the Crown squabbled over the crux of the case: what was Mohamed doing in a house with a trove of controlled substances and a major Yellowknife drug dealer who furnished city residents with deadly opioids?
If Mohamed’s lawyer Jennifer Cunningham’s version of events is to be accepted by Smallwood, the accused was a “found-in,” a guest at Castro’s home – who knew next to nothing about the homeowner’s drug enterprise – thrust into the middle of sweeping drug probe.
If the circumstantial evidence presented by prosecutor Duane Praught – including surveillance photos and testimony from eight police officers – is accepted, Mohamed was closely involved in his roommate’s expansive drug network, running drugs and cash to and from the Finlayson Drive townhouse as part of a dial-a-dope operation.
“It’s really just about common sense,” said Praught during closing arguments Friday in a Yellowknife courtroom.
“Would Castro really allow someone in his residence who wasn’t on board? Does that make any sense at all?,” asked Praught, submitting that any other explanation as to why he was staying at the house would “defy logic and common sense.”
In an agreed statement of facts reviewed by Yellowknifer, the townhouse raid netted 60 grams of cocaine, 19 grams of crack cocaine, 536 grams of marijuana and 90 fentanyl tablets. The so-called fentanyl pills, which can go for up to $100 a pop on the street, were actually counterfeit oxycodone tablets.
A search of a safe in what police believe was Castro’s room yielded large sums of cash and cocaine.
A total of 13 cellphones, some still in their packaging, were seized in the home.
During the trial, an investigator testified he found fentanyl pills wrapped in bags atop a fridge. Inside the fridge, he testified, were bags of marijuana stored in the “butter compartment” and the vegetable crisper.
On a table in the living room were more drugs. Praught presented photos of a cluttered coffee table covered with crack cocaine – some packaged and some not – a scale and baggies with cut off corners – a marker of the packaging process typical in the drug trade, a trafficking expert testified earlier this week.
For Smallwood to accept that Mohamed – not just Castro – was in possession of the drugs for the purpose of trafficking (except for the marijuana, which has been downgraded to a simple possession charge for the accused), the Crown must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was an occupant of the house, that he knew the nature of the illegal drugs, that he had knowledge and control of the drugs and that he intended to traffic the illegal substances.
“Very personal items,” including pill bottles and a passport, proved Mohamed’s occupancy in the house, argued Praught.
With the drugs being in plain view in the living room and kitchen – two common, shared areas – Praught said it can be inferred that Mohamed knew about the drugs, consented to them being there and had some measure of control over them, whether he exercised it or not.
On the day of the raid, police watched as Mohamed left and returned to the Finlayson Drive residence multiple times over in an eight-hour period, locking the door behind him and borrowing Castro’s black Lexus each time.
Praught argued Mohamed’s back and forth trips to the residence were indicative of drug running. The fact he had a key to enter the house when Castro wasn’t there, he said, further proved his involvement and trust within the drug outfit.
So did the $1,000 found in the accused’s shoe during the raid, said Praught. That seizure earned Mohamed a charge of possessing the proceeds of crime.
As for the bag containing nearly six grams of cocaine found “literally at (Mohamed’s feet),” Praught cited an expert’s testimony that it was packaged for the purpose of trafficking to further support his argument the accused was actively participating in Castro’s booming business.
Cunningham didn’t dispute her client’s occupancy at the residence, but maintained he had been staying in the spare bedroom for only a week before the raid happened – not enough time, she said, for the court to reasonably accept that he began distributing drugs.
“For the Crown to say all of a sudden (Mohamed) has control of all the drugs in the common area, simply by virtue of being in the spare bedroom, is a leap that doesn’t make it past the reasonable doubt standard,” said Cunningham.
“Mere occupancy doesn’t equate to control (of the drugs),” she added.
The defence didn’t contest the fact that cocaine, likely in the process of being packaged for sale, was found on the table, or that her client would have seen the conspicuously placed marijuana. But no forensic evidence, argued Cunningham, tied Mohamed to drugs found in the living room, the kitchen – and in the bathroom.
She suggested the baggie could have been left there by others who entered the room to use the drugs. Cunningham fingered Castro as the one who was packaging the crack on the living room table, suggesting he would have time to run up to the second floor, and dive out the window, before police bashed down his door.
Despite being watched under the careful eye of the law, Cunningham noted there was no evidence that Mohamed arranged the sale or drugs or delivered drugs.
“Why would Castro allow a guest control over drugs after a week?,” Cunningham asked.
That question – and all others posed during the drug trial – will be answered when Smallwood hands down a decision on Sept. 25.