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Heavier police presence at Toronto LCBOs after Star exposes spike in brazen thefts

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The customer, who we will call Andy, shared the experience with the Star on condition his name not be published to protect his family from possible reprisal. He credited skills acquired during a 20-year military career with his decision to follow the suspects.

“I was in the store about to pay for my wine when I heard a commotion behind me and turned to see two guys with faces covered by some sort of black fabric, filling up a massive shopping bag. As I turned back to pay, I thought, ‘What the hell did I just see?’ ”

He made a military-style decision. “I kind of do this thing where I gather up the information, analyze what is going on and kind of do a risk/reward thing to decide to do something and then act. It’s really just instinct.”

He thought their facial coverings would hamper their vision, an experience he’d had wearing a similar mask one Halloween. He could see the loot bag was so heavy the men were struggling to walk. Tracking them from a distance down a narrow, unlit alley, he turned a corner and suddenly found himself wide open, and only a few steps from the suspects as they lifted the bag into the trunk of their car.

“I made a note of the plate and I walked past them as calmly as I could — this was where my heart was beating pretty good — I was only ever scared when I turned the corner and realized I was so close to those guys. It was like, ‘Oh, crap.’ ”

Andy walked until he was clear of the suspects and then ran back to the LCBO “as fast as I could,” where the store manager was on the phone with police and conveyed the plate number.

He picked up the wine he’d already paid for and, moments later, as he got into his car and began driving away, the police takedown took place.

“It’s pretty amazing how fast everything clicked together. The police were great. They were in the right spot, in the right place,” said Andy, who works for the city of Toronto.

The close proximity of police on Wilson Ave. on the evening of Jan. 16 was not mere happenstance, according to Det. Matthew Routh of 32 Division, but part of a more deliberate plan to act against LCBO theft.

Police identified the Wilson store suspects as Dennis James, 25, and Nathaniel Snowden, 31, both of Toronto, and allege the duo is responsible not only for that night’s heist but also for a flurry of thefts from other Toronto LCBOs over the past three months that netted upwards of $90,000 worth of liquor. The pair face 260 charges involving 40 separate incidents.

The vast majority of that loot is long gone, Routh told the Star. None of the alcohol was recovered, save for the $3,800 worth the men had on them when they were arrested.

“Our belief, based on what we observed, is that we think they’re selling the alcohol immediately to some less-reputable bars,” he said.

That belief — that Torontonians may be unwittingly drinking the looted liquor in bars and restaurants — is sobering. And, thus far, unproven in court.

The Ontario Alcohol and Gaming Commission, which inspects licensed premises for potential Liquor Act violations, said in an email to the Star that their “inspections have revealed stolen or illegitimate liquor is not a significant issue.”

Yet police forces across Ontario also have authority to conduct liquor inspections. And as the various Toronto police divisions dive deeper into the LCBO theft epidemic, they say the evidence is mounting.

In 55 Division, Supt. Reuben Stroble points to a recent arrest at an east-end LCBO that enabled police to identify “a network to which some of this property was sold to local bars and business establishments at a discounted rate.”

The arrest marked a significant breakthrough. It was achieved because of a pilot project at 55 Division, which spans from the Don River to Victoria Park Ave. and south from Danforth Ave. to Lake Ontario, where officers have been given cellphones so community members can call them directly, as well as 911. In this case, it was an LCBO worker who called the police cell when a person known to steal entered the store.

At 14 Division, officers have racked up impressive arrest numbers, focusing on LCBO thefts after a rash of public complaints in November. As of Thursday, police have made 171 arrests — 68 of them through direct patrols and stakeouts and 103 by careful police sifting of a stream of online reports and surveillance photos of theft suspects provided by local LCBOs.

As detailed in four earlier stories in this series, LCBO outlets in Toronto have been targeted by thieves more than 9,000 times since 2014, according to police data obtained by the Star. And the pace of those thefts has increased year over year, accelerating threefold and making the LCBO far and away the most targeted retailer in the city.

When you put faces to those numbers, the deeper human tragedies are obvious. Court documents and anecdotal stories from more than 30 front-line LCBO workers who approached the Star since the series began describe an onslaught of increasingly audacious and at times menacing theft, much of it driven by addiction and mental health issues.

“Many of these cases are incredibly sad,” said Staff Sgt. Tam Bui of 14 Division. “Some of them, right away you understand it’s more a health issue than a law enforcement issue.

“But then we see the groups stealing in high-volume, again and again, for thousands of dollars each time, until you’re talking in the range of $250,000 worth of liquor. That’s a whole different story. That’s our main focus.”

Though no new citywide data is available since the crackdown, officials with 14 Division say the combined heft of the LCBO’s paid-duty police, together with the success of the division’s patrols, have driven the number of thefts down. Though uniformed paid-duty officers rarely make arrests, their presence is proving an effective deterrence. And the regular-duty results of Bui and his team are readily apparent.

Other sources, meanwhile, have provided the Star with a sense of the vast range of characters in the orbit of LCBO theft.

One photo given to the Star shows an elderly gentleman who looks and sounds almost sprung from the pages of a Charles Bukowski novel. His role in the stolen liquor equation is to circulate through Toronto’s underground poker scene, selling bottles out of a duffel bag at two-thirds face value.

Other known players include the “Rickety Crickets Gang,” named by LCBO front-line workers. They are known to have plagued a number of east-end LCBOs for much of 2018 and along the way, earned a reputation for “stumbling, bumbling, almost hapless theft.”

In the absence of security and with LCBO staffers under orders to not interfere when thefts are in progress, the Rickety Crickets made their slow-motion escape with the loot each time — despite the fact that one of them is living his life of crime upon a mobility scooter.

Said one LCBO source who saw the Rickety Crickets in action: “It got so frustrating and at the same time hilarious that during the last few robberies, staff would mock them as the theft took place, playing ‘Yakety Sax’ (the theme to Benny Hill) on their phones while these guys grabbed the goods.”

Police may have allayed some of that frustration with the recent arrests, but some officers are skeptical about what will happen when the suspects reach court.

“Certainly my experience is recidivism is very high in this kind of criminal activity because there doesn’t seem to be a penalty,” said 32 Division’s Routh. The two men arrested by his officers in January were both on probation and one was out on bail, awaiting trial on a previous charge.

These are “significant criminals,” he said. “You and I as taxpayers, we’re out $92,000 in alcohol that we know of. It’s our tax funds that are being abused.”

But a judge at Old City Hall recently sentenced a man arrested by 14 Division officers for stealing $1,100 from an LCBO on Bloor St. W. to 20 days in jail, calling the theft a “high-end deliberate act.” The man, who was on probation for other offences, entered the store with a luggage bag and filled it with bottles of Jack Daniels, JP Wiser and Canadian Club, before wheeling it out of the store.

Routh is more positive about the outcome of his division’s recent arrest of the two men caught on Wilson charged with stealing dozens of times from LCBOs.

A dedicated crown has been assigned to the case — which isn’t typical — as part of a new program instituted by the province in August.

It’s “fantastic,” said Routh. “Now we know we have a single voice at the crown’s office that we can work with and that has a vested interest in the case.”

But skeptics, including some LCBO front-liners, wonder whether the paid-duty police blitz is a one-off, or merely the first stage of a deeper, more strategic overhaul that will lead to safer stores not only in Toronto but across the province.

“I am wondering whether this is indicative of a co-ordinated long-term effort or more of a public relations thing,” said Jane Archibald, a Toronto resident who has campaigned tenaciously since last fall, calling on the LCBO, police and the municipal and provincial governments to take action on liquor theft.

“Hopefully the LCBO are implementing a province-wide solution.”

LCBO officials did not respond Friday to questions from the Star on the new measures. But in a series of remarks to staff — including a video message last week and an email two days ago — President and CEO George Soleas sought to reassure workers that the LCBO will “always look to incorporate new methods and technologies, including the continuous upgrade of CCTV equipment in all our 665 locations.

“We will be implementing other technical safeguards in our stores, as well as increased security in some locations. We appreciate everything you do to prevent and report theft, and how you care for the safety of our customers and each other,” Soleas wrote.

Andy the Good Samaritan, for his part, wouldn’t hesitate to act again should he find himself in a similar situation.

He did, however, end the interview emphasizing his concern about anonymity.

“Nobody knows what connections these suspects have or what kind of irritation this has caused their buyers or their bosses,” he said. “I don’t want to risk them coming after me or my family in an act of revenge.”

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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