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Toronto police took one of Zack Noureddine’s killers to a strip club, earned his trust and then a confession. But the jury didn’t hear any of that

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A trip to a casino, a poker game, drinks and lap dances at a strip club were part of an undercover Mr. Big operation that led Toronto police to arrest two of three suspects wanted for the beating death of a 25-year-old man almost three years ago.

Details of the elaborate sting — and the unusual legal challenges it created — were kept from a jury that this week convicted two men accused in the midtown attack that killed Zaher (Zack) Noureddine, 26, on Dec. 30, 2015.

Jurors were not told the Mr. Big operation resulted in a confession by one of the accused, nor that a judge last month declared a mistrial after prosecutors played an earlier jury a video she ruled had not been properly introduced into evidence. They also didn’t hear about all the entries on the trio’s rap sheets, nor details of an outstanding robbery charge that the Crown argues has similar facts to the Noureddine killing.

On Thursday, Patrick Smith, 28, was acquitted of first-degree murder but found guilty of second-degree murder. His co-accused, Matthew Moreira, 34, was convicted of manslaughter. Smith was also convicted of assaulting Mitchell Conery, Noureddine’s co-worker, while Moreira was found guilty of robbing Conery.

William Cummins, 32, still faces a first-degree murder charge and robbery charge. He and Moreira are also charged with committing a violent robbery weeks before about 100 metres from where Noureddine was killed.

The suspects came on the police radar a few days after Noureddine’s death, when two witnesses reported seeing a suspicious car and three occupants close to the crime scene. That led police to obtain video surveillance from a nearby apartment building, at 100 Merton St., that showed the three men together at various points before and after the attack.

In one video, taken hours after Noureddine was killed, the three men were recorded in an elevator laughing and recreating the attack.

Within a week, police had the three under surveillance and were building their case.

In March 2016, investigators decided to undertake a Mr. Big operation — which involved using undercover officers to establish a friendship with Smith to create sufficient trust so that he would cop to the brutal crime.

Details of the elaborate Mr. Big sting were outlined in an 18-page pretrial ruling on the admissibility of statements made by Smith to undercover officers. Superior Court Justice Maureen Forestell’s ruling meant the jury heard nothing about what was done or said during the sting. (Forestall was the judge on the first trial, which ended in mistrial, but her ruling carried over to the retrial.)

Mr. Big operations are a costly and controversial police tactic originally designed to yield a confession from a suspect tricked into thinking he’s joined some kind of criminal organization. A 2014 Supreme Court decision ruled such a confession based on that approach was “presumptively inadmissible.”

As a result, police have changed how Mr. Big ploys unfold.

Instead of convincing a suspect he’s joined a Mafia-type criminal enterprise — undercover officers, in this case, befriended Smith and made out like they were legitimate businessmen who operated as “fixers” who dabbled in criminality.

“There was to be no overt criminality (from the officers) and no violence or threats of violence,” Forestell wrote in her ruling.

The sting began when two undercover officers were inserted in a jail cell with Smith after he was arrested for stealing gas on March 7, 2016. One of the officers, whom the ruling calls K, was successful in striking up a conversation with Smith about women, drinking and playing poker. K also told Smith he had an older friend who gave him money to play poker, bought drinks and paid for lap dances at a nearby club. Smith gave K his phone number and they agreed to go to Casino Niagara with another man, G, also an undercover officer. The officers — whose identities are protected under a publication ban — secretly recorded their interactions with Smith.

On March 8, 2016, G picked up the tab for the trio to drink and have lap dances at the Sundowner, a Niagara Falls, Ont. strip club. They also hit the casino.

During that meeting, Smith spoke of selling drugs and said when he is disrespected “there’s no stopping me, like, I lose my mind.” The officers later ensured Smith, who was subject to a curfew under bail conditions, was home in time, the ruling says.

After that evening, the undercover officers continued to communicate by telephone and text message with Smith, and met up with him again in at a pub where they spoke of “work, women, partying and fighting.” Smith told K that he loved to fight and had martial arts experience.

At another pub meeting, Smith told K “his boy,” referring to Cummins, had been arrested for an unrelated robbery and he was concerned his car would be connected back to him. In response, K told Smith G was “a bit of a magician” and said he’d seen the other officer “pull rabbits out of a hat.”

Over a number of weeks, the deception deepened. The officers spun bogus tales all designed to suck Smith into believing he was keeping company with men who could do things for him, as long as he showed them honesty, loyalty and respect.

By mid-April, Smith was anxious to connect with Cummins, who had warned him not to talk by phone. Smith told his new friends he needed “clean” phones — ones the cops weren’t bugging — for himself and Cummins.

One day, while driving past the scene of Noureddine’s beating, Smith told K “that’s the place where the thing happened” — but the officers determined he wasn’t sober enough to give a usable confession.

They held off until their next meeting, in a Mississauga lounge.

After weeks of wining and dining, Smith opened up to the two undercover officers — even taking them on a “walk-through” of how the evening unfolded. He pointed out surveillance cameras after one of the officers gave “the impression” he “could take care of evidence on surveillance cameras,” according to Forestell’s ruling.

On April 12, 2016, Smith told the officers Cummins’ had “dropped one guy” — Noureddine — then turned to fight the other while Smith said he “smoke(d) buddy that died.” He described hitting one of the victims a couple of times and, as Cummins was “taking care of him,” Smith said he saw that the “guy that died” was getting up and kicked him in the face.

He said he learned a day later that Noureddine had died.

Toronto police arrested Smith and Cummins on April 13, 2016, the day after Smith confessed to the undercover officers, and charged them with murder.

But this Mr. Big operation had a twist.

Normally, the Crown wants Mr. Big confessions admitted into evidence and must, therefore, prove the statements are reliable.

In this case, they needed to demonstrate they were not.

That’s because in his Mr. Big confession Smith told the officers Moreira — whom he called B.K. — was not really in on the beating. Smith said he was there, but “never made any kind of moves,” according to Forestell’s ruling. Smith also claimed Cummins had been “jumped by two guys.” The Crown said both were lies.

Rather than ask to admit Smith’s entire confession, prosecutors Bev Richards and Mihael Cole sought permission to use Smith’s statements during cross-examination — to demonstrate he lied to his “new criminal friends.”

The crown attorneys also wanted admitted into evidence Smith’s boasts to the undercover officers about his experience in martial arts and his love of fighting, Forestell wrote in her ruling.

But the judge concluded it would be an abuse of process for the Crown to use the undercover statements for the purpose of cross-examining Smith.

“The use of deceit and trickery to elicit a reliable and true confession to a crime will, in some circumstances, be acceptable but the use of deceit and trickery to elicit bad behaviour and lies for the purpose of a future attack on credibility and character cannot be acceptable,” she wrote, adding she was not suggesting police sought to elicit bad behaviour and lies, nor that they engaged in any misconduct.

Moreira’s lawyers Chris Hicks and Jessica Zita, meanwhile, wanted the jury to hear Smith’s very favourable evidence — that their client “wasn’t involved” in the attack on Noureddine.

Forestell said that would be OK, as long as Smith didn’t testify.

But he did. So, in the end, jurors never heard anything about the confession or the Mr. Big operation.

Betsy Powell is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and courts. Follow her on Twitter: @powellbetsy

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Anglais

‘We’re back’: Montreal festival promoters happy to return but looking to next year

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In downtown Montreal, it’s festival season.

In the city’s entertainment district, a musical act was conducting a sound check on stage Friday evening — the second day of the French-language version of the renowned Just For Laughs comedy festival. Tickets for many of the festival’s free outdoor shows — limited by COVID-19 regulations — were sold out.

Two blocks away, more than 100 people were watching an acoustic performance by the Isaac Neto Trio — part of the last weekend of the Festival International Nuits d’Afrique, a celebration of music from the African continent and the African diaspora.

With COVID-19 restrictions continuing to limit capacity, festival organizers say they’re glad to be back but looking forward to next year when they hope border restrictions and capacity limits won’t affect their plans.

Charles Décarie, Just For Laughs’ CEO and president, said this is a “transition year.”

“Even though we have major constraints from the public health group in Montreal, we’ve managed to design a festival that can navigate through those constraints,” Décarie said.

The French-language Juste pour rire festival began on July 15 and is followed by the English-language festival until July 31.

When planning began in February and March, Décarie said, organizers came up with a variety of scenarios for different crowd sizes, ranging from no spectators to 50 per cent of usual capacity.

“You’ve got to build scenarios,” he said. “You do have to plan a little bit more than usual because you have to have alternatives.”

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Anglais

MELS new major movie studio to be built in Montreal

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MONTREAL — MELS Studios will build a new film studio in Montreal, filling some of the gap in supply to meet the demand of Hollywood productions.

MELS president Martin Carrier said on Friday that MELS 4 studio construction will begin « as soon as possible », either in the fall or winter of next year. The studio could host productions as early as spring 2023.

The total investment for the project is $76 million, with the Quebec government contributing a $25 million loan. The project will create 110 jobs, according to the company.

The TVA Group subsidiary’s project will enable it to stand out « even more » internationally, according to Quebecor president and CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau. In the past, MELS Studios has hosted several major productions, including chapters of the X-Men franchise. The next Transformers movie is shooting this summer in Montreal.

Péladeau insisted that local cultural productions would also benefit from the new facility, adding that the studio ensures foreign revenues and to showcase talent and maintain an industry of Quebec producers.

STUDIO SHORTAGE

The film industry is cramped in Montreal.

According to a report published last May by the Bureau du cinéma et de la télévision du Québec (BCTQ), there is a shortage of nearly 400,000 square feet of studio space.

With the addition of MELS 4, which will be 160,000 square feet, the company is filling part of the gap.

Carrier admitted that he has had to turn down contracts because of the lack of space, representing missed opportunities of « tens of millions of dollars, not only for MELS, but also for the Quebec economy. »

« Montreal’s expertise is in high demand, » said Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, who was present at the announcement.

She said she received great testimonials from « Netflix, Disney, HBO and company » during an economic mission to Los Angeles in 2019.

« What stands out is that they love Montreal because of its expertise, knowledge and beauty. We need more space, like MELS 4, » she said.

There is still not enough capacity in Quebec, acknowledged Minister of Finance, the Economy and Innovation Eric Girard.

« It is certain that the government is concerned about fairness and balance, so if other requests come in, we will study them with the same seriousness as we have studied this one, » he said.

Grandé Studios is the second-largest player in the industry. Last May, the company said it had expansion plans that should begin in 2022. Investissement Québec and Bell are minority shareholders in the company.

For its part, MELS will have 400,000 square feet of production space once MELS 4 is completed. The company employs 450 people in Quebec and offers a range of services including studio and equipment rentals, image and sound postproduction, visual effects and a virtual production platform.

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Anglais

Birdhouse Wingerie & Bar is the Latest to Hatch in West Island’s Bubbling Restaurant Scene

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Wings are the thing at the latest restaurant to make its mark on Montreal’s West Island: Birdhouse Wingerie & Bar.

At the buzzy new Dollard-Des Ormeaux eatery, the bird limbs come aplenty, with a menu listing eleven “wet & messy” wings, including smoked apple habanero, sriracha lime, and cherry cola BBQ; and four — cacio e pepe, ketchups chip, Nashville hot, and the garlicky, lemon pepper “vampire slayer” — dry rub flavours. They come 10 for $18 or 20 for $34, plus the option of ranch, parmesan, or blue cheese dipping sauce.

Tacos, nachos, poutines (one made with bone marrow, another with tater tots), smashed burgers, salads, and a classic buttermilk fried chicken dinner are just sampling of the other dishes that round out the offering. On the drinks side, there are cocktails, sangrias, and spiked milkshakes in popular chocolate bar flavours: After Eight, Skor, Bounty, or Reeses.

Opened on July 5, Birdhouse is among a recent influx of restaurants to grace the island’s western end, including birria taco slinger Tacos Don Rigo and barbecue joint Smoke Box — a double whammy in the same Pierrefonds area strip mall. That comes in addition to plans for Fairview Pointe Claire’s incoming “District Gourmand” (slated to usher in Tommy Café), and, of course, a number of the area’s longer-standing stalwarts — from southern belle Bistro Nolah to old-school casse-croûte Smoked Meat Pete — that have helped bolster the West Island’s culinary credentials.

The brand-new Brunswick Boulevard restaurant is the brainchild of Montreal entrepreneur Lorne Schwartz, restaurateur George Massouras (of Madisons and Arahova Souvlaki), and among the other partners involved, Brahm Mauer, son of the founder of beloved buffalo hot wings expert Wings ‘n’ Things. Mauer has tried his hand at reviving the original Wings ‘n’ Things recipe — the restaurant originally opened in 1986 — over the years, including with a Royalmount Avenue location in 2012, then as a roaming summertime food truck and NDG pop-up. That same truck has now been made over with a Birdhouse-branded livery to be deployed for private events.

A likely draw to many, Birdhouse is reprising the “famous flavours, untouched” of the once-upon-a-time NDG staple, represented on its menu as “The Legendary WNT Buffalo” chicken wing.

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