A Surrey border guard who waved a cocaine-laden SUV through the Pacific Highway crossing has been convicted of drug smuggling, breach of trust and accepting a bribe as an officer.
The written ruling convicting Baljinder Kandola, 39, was released Friday by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Selwyn Romilly, who also convicted Richmond resident Shminder Johal on related charges of smuggling and offering a bribe to an officer.
They were among three men arrested Oct. 25, 2007, after police found 11 boxes with 208 bricks of cocaine worth $5-6 million inside a GMC Yukon Denali that passed unchecked through the South Surrey border crossing into Canada.
The third man, Richmond Herman Riar, was earlier sentenced to 12 years in jail in January 26, 2010 by a Surrey provincial court judge.
In finding Kandola and Johal guilty, Romilly dismissed the claim advanced by the defence lawyers that the pair were only smuggling car parts and they had nothing do with the cocaine that was being transported in the SUV Riar was driving at the time of the arrests.
Judge Romilly called that suggestion “ludicrous.”
Sometimes using blunt language, Romilly ruled that the evidence of 25 witnesses and 140 intercepted phone calls proved the three men had a scheme to get large amounts of cocaine through the Canada-U.S. border undetected.
According to the evidence at trial, Johal and Riar would head for the border in two vehicles, with Johal in the lead and Riar following, acting as the “transporter” with the drugs in his vehicle.
They would time their trips so Kandola would be the officer on duty at the truck border crossing.
At the time Kandola was arrested, he had been a guard at the commercial port for six years.
Prosecutors said the illicit activity began in May 2006 and continued until the 2007 arrests.
Shortly after the smuggling started, Kandola used a police database without proper authorization to check whether there was a “lookout” for Johal.
In fact, one had been issued by investigators that identified Johal as a possible drug smuggler.
In his decision, Romilly found Kandola to be an evasive witness, possessing what the judge described as a “very selective memory of events.”
The judge dismissed Johal’s testimony as “nothing but a tissue of lies.”
“He (Johal) made absolutely no attempt to be truthful in his testimony,” Romilly stated.
“I have difficulty accepting anything that he said.”
Evidence at trial indicated Kandola pocketed at least $10,000 for turning a blind eye to the smuggling, including $4,000 worth of work to upgrade his car, a Mini Cooper.
That wasn’t nearly as much money as Johal allegedly made from the smuggling. A police search of Johal’s Richmond home shortly after his arrest discovered $223,880 Cdn, most of it in bundles of $20 and $100 bills.
The judge found Kandola not guilty of smuggling three handguns seized at the same time as the cocaine, and he also acquitted the former border guard on a charge of possessing drugs for the purpose of trafficking.
He convicted Johal of the firearms offence, but entered a conditional stay of the conviction.
Shortly after the arrests, police spokesman Insp. Dan Malo told reporters there was no doubt organized crime was behind it all.
“Nobody in Canada smuggles this quantity of cocaine without being involved in organized crime,” Malo said.
“We know this (contraband) was destined to organized crime in the Lower Mainland.”
Malo emphasized the guard was the only CBSA employee under investigation in what was dubbed Project EPELL.
“You have to see it as (an) individual. I don’t think you can make any ties past that,” he said.
At the same briefing, Canada Border Services Agency spokesperson Kim Scoville said criminal incidents involving employees are “quite rare,” and that Kandola’s co-workers were experiencing a “sense of betrayal” as a result of the arrest and charges.
“It’s extremely disheartening, it’s extremely frustrating and it’s extremely disappointing,” Scoville said.
He assured reporters that the incident “does not diminish (CBSA’s) confidence and trust in other officers,” and that travellers should not feel the border is any less secure.
“We take our responsibility to protect travellers and our employees very seriously,” he said.
A fourth man, Vancouver resident Charles Lai, was arrested in March 2008 in the U.S. as the alleged leader of the smuggling scheme.
Lai was sentenced to 13 years by a U.S. District Court judge in June 2009.
The sentencing hearing for Johal and Kandola is set for Monday, July 9 in New Westminster.
– with files from Tracy Holmes