Vitaline Lafferty, a 79-year-old great-grandmother accused of possessing thousands of dollars worth of drugs destined for sale in Yellowknife, testified Wednesday she was an unwitting participant in a planned pickup arranged by family members.
“They used me,” a soft-spoken Vitaline said.
“They wrecked my name.”
Vitaline’s daughter, Marie-Anne Lafferty, sat just feet away in NWT Supreme Court. Along with Vitaline, Marie-Anne faces eight drug trafficking charges after the two were stopped in Vitaline’s Ford Escape near Fort Providence on March 18, 2016. It was a targeted interception disguised as a random RCMP checkstop – part of a sweeping probe into high-level drug trafficking dubbed Project Manalishi.
A search of the SUV netted 1.7 kilograms of cocaine, 5.8 kilograms of marijuana, 11 bottles of liquid codeine and 85 grams of MDMA.
Vitaline was behind the wheel.
Until Mounties began unloading drug-filled bags from the back of her SUV, Vitaline testified Wednesday, she didn’t know she was driving with a huge haul of controlled substances worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Vitaline said she was completely unaware of the road trip’s illegal nature.
She told the court that days before the roadside drug bust, her granddaughter – Marie-Anne’s daughter – Katrina Stiopu asked her if she could borrow her SUV to pick up a parcel. Stiopu is currently serving a 4.5 year prison sentence after being convicted of stashing drugs for convicted kingpin Todd Dube, who was sentenced to nine years in October.
On Tuesday, Marie-Anne said she knew Dube as “Andy,” Stiopu’s boss at Jerrie’s Delivery Service who she had spoken on the phone with.
Vitaline said she turned down the request because her SUV had been damaged in the past when borrowed by family members. She was asked again, Vitaline testified, this time by Marie-Anne, who said she was filling in for Stiopu who couldn’t pick up the package. Vitaline said she was reluctant, but agreed to travel with Marie-Anne in the event her SUV was damaged. “I couldn’t let her go alone,” she said.
Vitaline testified the prospect of attending a funeral in her home community of Fort Resolution also swayed her to go with Marie-Anne.
“I was happy,” she said, recalling she had looked forward to visiting the community.
But the two never made it to Fort Resolution, she testified.
After staying the night at Hay River’s Ptarmigan Inn, Vitaline said Marie-Anne drove them to Enterprise and then Indian Cabins, a small outpost in northern Alberta, just south of the NWT border. There, she said, they sat for some time before Marie-Anne headed back to Enterprise for gas.
On the way back to Indian Cabins, the two passed a white car, she said. That’s when Marie-Anne sped up, pulled off to the side of the road and got out of the SUV, Vitaline testified. Vitaline said Marie-Anne told her to stay in the vehicle. She said she heard the back door shut, and Marie-Anne was back inside the Ford Escape. Vitaline recalled taking over driving duties for Marie-Anne – who had been driving most of the trip – when the two got to Enterprise on March 18, 2016.
Not long after, Vitaline said she saw police lights flashing in the distance.
She told the court her and her daughter Marie-Anne had a strained relationship. “She keeps everything to herself,” remarked Vitaline.
Marie-Anne bursted into tears.
Earlier this week, Marie-Anne testified she heard Vitaline mention something about receiving $1,000 in exchange for the pick up. Vitaline denied that ever happened, but said the topic of needing money for her unpaid power bill had come up among family in the weeks leading up to the road trip.
Crown prosecutor Duane Praught cross-examined Vitaline Wednesday. He asked Vitaline why she told an RCMP officer at the scene of the stop that the two were coming from a funeral in Fort Resolution, as the Mountie testified last week.
Vitaline said she mentioned the community because it was on her mind, and maintained she never said she was “coming” from a funeral she never attended.
Praught then presented Vitaline with a pair of texts between herself and her granddaughter Katrina Stiopu. “McDonalds to Ron’s,” read one message, followed by an address.
“Were you making deliveries for Katrina? asked Praught.
Vitaline said she wasn’t.
Praught then shifted his focus to Vitaline and Marie-Anne’s lengthy wait at Indian Cabins. She said she didn’t ask questions about why they were waiting there.
“That’s because you knew what you were waiting for. You knew you were picking up drugs for Katrina. You knew what was going on,” said Praught.
“No,” answered Vitaline.
On Thursday, Vitaline’s lawyer, Charles Davison, made his closing arguments to jurors.
“Drugs were not part of her world,” said Davison, adding that controlled substances were probably the farthest thing of her mind when she was stopped by police.
“She was used by these people – a sad comment given they are her family members,” he said, adding, “who would have thought a 55-year-old would take their mother to pick up drugs?”
“She was set up. She was duped. The bottom line is: she simply did not know what was put in her vehicle. She was kept completely in the dark. She is not guilty,” said Davison.
All evidence has been called. The fate of both Marie-Anne and Vitaline Lafferty now rests in the hands of the jurors.