An alleged gang leader has pleaded guilty to orchestrating an execution in a Vancouver-area highrise that ultimately left six dead — a shocking crime that ripped apart the families of two innocent bystanders and caused the region's violent gang war to explode into the national spotlight.
Quang Vinh Thang (Michael) Le's plea on Thursday to conspiracy to commit murder comes more than six years after the mass killing and marks a dramatic turn at a trial that has offered a rare, and at times gruesome, glimpse into the region's gang underworld.
The trial will still continue for two other men, while another trial is expected next year.
Six people were fatally shot on Oct. 19, 2007, in a 15th-floor condominium in Surrey, southeast of Vancouver.
Four of the victims were men with ties to drugs and gangs, but two were not: 55-year-old fireplace repairman Ed Schellenberg and 22-year-old building resident Chris Mohan.
Mohan's mother, Eileen, welcomed Le's guilty plea, but she objected to the oft-repeated description of her son being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"His (Le's) actions took the life of my son and my life," said Mohan, whose spoke through tears outside the downtown Vancouver courthouse.
"We had a right to live — to say that Christopher was at the wrong place at the wrong time is the wrong terminology. He was at the right place at the right time. ... These people have nothing to do with our lives, we had nothing to do with their lives."
The murders were part of what the Crown has described as a hit on a rival drug trafficker named Corey Lal.
The Crown contends five more victims, including Schellenberg and Mohan, were added to the body count to ensure there were no witnesses.
Le was originally charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to murder Lal, but a spokesman for the Crown confirmed Thursday that prosecutors do not intend to proceed on the murder charge.
Le had been on trial since late September along with Matthew Johnston and Cody Haevischer, who are each charged with conspiracy and six counts of first-degree murder. The case against Johnston and Haevischer is expected to continue, with the trial resuming as early as Monday.
Another person has already pleaded guilty, while alleged gang leader and co-conspirator Jamie Bacon is expected to stand trial next year.
According to the Crown's theory, Le and Bacon, the alleged leaders of the Red Scorpions gang, attempted to extort $100,000 from Lal. When he refused to pay, they ordered his execution, the Crown contends.
Johnston, Haevischer and a third gunman, who has already pleaded guilty but whose name is covered by a publication ban, planned to target Lal at a unit in Surrey's Balmoral Tower, which Lal used as a "stash house" for drugs and money, the Crown alleges.
They entered the building with a key fob they obtained from a Red Scorpions associate who also lived in the same complex, the Crown says.
Once inside, the Crown alleges the trio found four people with links to the drug trade: Lal, Lal's brother Michael, Edward Narong and Ryan Bartolomeo. Schellenberg was also in the unit serving the gas fireplace. Mohan lived across the hall, and at some point he was dragged into the plot, as well.
The Crown already told the court it would produce evidence showing Johnston, Haevischer and Le have each admitted involvement in the killings.
The specific details of those alleged confessions have yet to be disclosed in court, but the Crown has said Johnston and Le admitted involvement during an undercover operation in 2008. Haevischer's apparent admission occurred shortly after the killings and also involved Johnston, the Crown has said.
The mass killings happened in the early days of what would grow into a full-scale gang war that endured for another two years.
In the months following the murders, 10 people were killed in shootings. In one particularly deadly month in early 2009, there were 31 shootings, 12 of them fatal.
"Clearly, six people died in this incident, so it's a significant case," Crown spokesman Neil MacKenzie said outside court.
"The Crown sees the guilty plea today as a positive step."
Note to readers: Corrects to six years from eight in para 2.