Robert Saunders $460k+ fraud deprived youth in his care: Judge

Fraud deprived youth in care

Despite Robert Riley Saunders' insistence that his years of stealing money from the Ministry of Children and Family Development had no impact on the vulnerable youth in his care, a judge ruled otherwise in Kelowna court Friday morning.

Saunders pleaded guilty in September 2021 to three of 13 criminal charges he faces, after his fraudulent scheme was uncovered in December 2017. Saunders admitted to stealing more than $460,000 over a six and a half year period, while he worked as a guardianship social worker with the MCFD's Kelowna Indigenous Integrated Family Service and Guardianship Team.

Saunders was in charge of dozens of high-risk youth who'd been removed from their family homes, and many had issues finding permanent placement in foster care or other housing environments.

But while Saunders admitted to the theft from the government, he's maintained that the misappropriation of funds had no impact on the youth in his care. While the funds were earmarked for the youth in his care, Saunders argued they were never entitled to the money, and that the MCFD wouldn't have released the funds if it wasn't for Saunders' lies.

In March, a seven-day Gardiner hearing in the matter was held in Kelowna court. Gardiner hearings function similar to a trial, and are held when aggravating or mitigating sentencing factors are disputed.

Friday morning, Justice Steven Wilson ruled that Saunders fraud did in fact deprive a number of youth in his care of funds they would have been entitled to, while the fraud caused a “risk of deprivation” to all of the youth in his care. As a result, the Crown can now argue that this is an aggravating factor during Saunders' sentencing hearing, and that it should result in a harsher punishment. Sentencing in the matter is scheduled for June 22 and 23.

Saunders remains out of custody and he attended Friday's hearing by video feed. He appeared restless during Justice Wilson's hour-long decision, regularly getting out of his chair and moving around his room.

In his ruling, Justice Wilson said Saunders' multi-day testimony during the Gardiner hearing was “self-serving and not very reliable.”

“Mr. Saunders seemed focused on trying to predict where a line of questioning might be headed as opposed to answering the question posed,” Justice Wilson said.

“He consistently repeated his theory of the case, which was that none of the youth were entitled to any more than they received, regardless of whether it was responsive to counsel's questions. This rendered his presentation evasive.

“I found that many of his answers to questions were based on what he believed would help his position as opposed to being truthful ... It follows that I am unable to accept or rely on much of Mr. Saunders' testimony.”

Thirteen of the youth in Saunders' care turned 19 and aged out of ministry care. Youth aging out of care can be entitled to “aging out” funds, to help buy things like furniture, dishes, and other basic requirements for living on their own.

While nine of the 13 youth did not receive any aging out funds, Saunders misappropriated these funds for himself. The other four only received part of the aging out funds, while Saunders stole the rest.

Saunders argued these youth were not responsible enough to handle the funds, but Justice Wilson rejected this argument. He noted there were tools in place to ensure the youth would spend the money on appropriate purchases, such as accompanying them on their shopping trips, or distributing the funds through vouchers for specific stores.

Another specific example of youth being deprived of the funds they were entitled to comes from one of the 24 youth under Saunders' care who's referred to as “Victim H.” The identities of all the youth involved are covered under a sweeping publication ban.

Victim H was one of a number of youth in Saunders' care who had an “Independent Living Agreement” set up by Saunders, where the MCFD would provide cheques of $579 twice a month for expenses like rent and food to young people living on their own. Like many of the youth in Saunders' care, Victim H never received any of the ILA funds.

Saunders argued Victim H was not entitled to ILA funds, as he hadn't shown he was responsible enough to live on his own. Instead, Victim H bounced between different living arrangements during his teenage years. In text messages shown in court, Saunders actively discouraged another social worker from telling Victim H about the possibility of entering into an ILA, because Victim H was a “lucrative victim,” according to Justice Wilson.

But when Saunders was fired in January 2018, Victim H was placed on a legitimate ILA and he moved into his own place within a week, where he thrived. The social worker who replaced Saunders called Victim H an “ideal candidate” for the program, and Victim H regularly checked in with his new social worker to show how proud he was in successfully living independently.

“As a result [of Saunders' fraud], [Victim H] was in a position of bouncing back and forth between his father's and various friends' homes, at a time when he could have likely been living independently and successfully,” Justice Wilson said.

“He was not provided with the opportunity to create a safer and more stable environment for himself that could only assist him in his future.”

While Justice Wilson found Victim H's case showed clear evidence that he was deprived of funds he was entitled to, he ruled that the other youth in Saunders' care had a “risk of deprivation” due to Saunders' fraud. The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that the risk of deprivation in fraud cases is a relevant factor, and proof of actual loss is not required.

“Mr. Saunders never determined that any of the youth became suitable [for an ILA] as they became older and presumably more mature, because it was not in his financial interest to do so,” Justice Wilson said.

“The fact that the youth were never given the opportunity, means that no one will ever know whether they would have succeeded on an ILA.

“I conclude that the Crown has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that there was a risk of deprivation to all of the youth for whom ILA payments were misappropriated by Mr. Saunders.”

How these aggravating factors will ultimately impact Saunders' eventual sentence will be discussed during sentencing submission on June 22 and 23. The Crown's sentencing position is unknown at this time.


Kelowna RCMP reporting 20% job vacancy rate as prominent officer takes leave

Inspector's abrupt absence

As we head into the May long weekend, there are staff disruptions at the Kelowna RCMP.

Insp. Adam MacIntosh, the detachment's most prominent officer behind the commander, is on a leave of absence for an unspecified duration, effectively immediately.

“I recognize and understand that the unexpectedness of this news may cause a variety of reactions," said detachment commander Supt. Kara Triance in recent a memo to officers.

"Please take care of yourselves. Remember that our detachment has built a very good resource library for wellness and resiliency information. Our mental health is important. You are important,”

BC RCMP director of communications Dawn Roberts tells Castanet the Kelowna detachment, like many in the province, is dealing with a 20% job vacancy rate.

"Kelowna has been dealing with concerns internally and publicly about their vacancies and workloads. Supt. Triance and her senior team have discussed these challenges with their employees and the Southeast District Commander and his team, and even developed solutions to address the needs both in the short-term and long-term," Roberts said.

The number-two ranked Mountie in B.C., assistant commissioner Eric Stubbs, paid a visit to the Kelowna detachment on May 3 to provide support on the issue, and even spent time on the night shift.

As a result of that visit, BC RCMP brass is now actively looking for solutions to help solve chronic staffing shortages that are leaving some members burnt out. Police in Kelowna have been dealing with a number of challenging files recently that have impacted officers, including the stabbing of a member.

"Kelowna is experiencing vacancy levels that are unfortunately common throughout the province of about 20%. This includes short and long-term medical leave due to illness or injuries, maternity/paternity leave and leave without pay. A number of our detachments are shifting resources and even collapsing plainclothes units to ensure we have the necessary resources on the frontline," Roberts says.

Plainclothes units typically focus on drugs, organized crime and prolific offenders.

Roberts says officers are under increasing pressure, with crimes becoming more sophisticated requiring new tools and skills to investigate. The BC RCMP reports calls for service have increase 12% in the last decade.

"When it comes to addressing workload and vacancies, Kelowna RCMP has shifted some proactive resources to ensure that files of the most serious nature, including benchmark offences, are adequately resourced. Supt. Triance continues to ensure quality of investigative work, with a focus on provincial policing standards and National Inquiry recommendations, to ensure the highest priority of resources are dedicated to these files," Roberts said.

RCMP brass stress that Kelowna has and will continue to take the necessary steps to address the health and welfare of its members.

"The Kelowna RCMP Community Safety Unit remains dedicated to their mandate and no changes to their focus on downtown and priority spaces has been made. Additional resources are also being secured from around the province to address some of the seasonal peaks and needs that Kelowna normally deals with and are expected this summer as travel and tourism returns to the area," says Roberts.

Regardless of the staffing crunch Supt. Kara Triance says Mounties will be on patrol in priority areas, including downtown, over the long weekend.

“Our officers are ready for another summer season,” said Supt. Triance in a statement. “This is the time of year when our police officers most proudly serve as we showcase our vibrant city and all it has to offer to visitors and locals alike.”

Rodney Hobson Karate Academy posts impressive showing at provincials despite five months of flood repairs

Fighting through the flood

Cindy White

Nearly five months after a flood, the repairs are finally finished at the Rodney Hobson Karate Academy in Rutland.

Extreme cold in late December caused a pipe to burst, sending water rushing into the gym and neighbouring businesses at 239 Rutland Road.

“We’re on the fortunate side, I would say, because the other two businesses are months away,” said Hobson. “We just really, really pushed for ours and the restoration company pushed for ours. But yeah, it’s a long, painful process.”

The academy had to do its best to keep coaching its athletes in the undamaged sections of the building while the restoration company worked in the other half.

“Long story short, we just kind of worked with them and mitigated all time delays and stuff. Fortunately, we’re back now, but it’s taken a while,” said Hobson.

Despite the setbacks, their athletes had a very good showing at the 2022 Provincial Karate Championships in Richmond earlier this month.

“We just got back from the provincials with several provincial champions. All the way from 10-years-old to adult divisions and we’re looking forward to qualifying a bunch of those athletes to attend national championships in Newfoundland.”

Hobson notes that the academy’s after school programs are an integral part of the community, and people rallied around to do everything they could to help. Someone even launched a Go Fund Me to cover some of the unexpected costs.

“We’re very very fortunate to have the membership base that we have. They fully supported us, they bought into it. Nobody complained, nobody had anything to say. They were just happy that we could continue providing our program.

“Space was a little bit tight for sure, but everybody is very, very supportive of what we do.”

He is thanking everyone for sticking with them.


Suspect with taser arrested downtown Kelowna

Arrested suspect had taser

Kelowna RCMP arrested a man in the alley behind the Blue Gator Pub on Lawrence Avenue Wednesday afternoon.

Initial reports indicated a man had been spotted near the Queensway bus stop in downtown Kelowna just after 4 p.m. Wednesday. An eyewitness saw a man drop what looked like a handgun and they immediately called police.

Officers responded and their search led them to the alley behind the Blue Gator pub on Lawrence Ave. Officers swarmed the alley and found the suspect behind the supervised drug injection site. A man wearing a white tracksuit can be seen on surveillance camera with his hands up and surrendering to officers.

Turns out, the weapon was actually a taser that looked very much like a handgun.

"I can tell you the suspect they arrested had a taser and he's now facing weapons charges," says RCMP spokesperson Const. Mike Della-Paolera.

Rob Gibson

Interior Health making Suboxone available to emergency departments

Suboxone more accesible

Interior Health is increasing access of Suboxone, making it widely available in hospital emergency departments.

The medication helps some get off opioids by blocking receptors in the brain that allow a person to get high off drugs like heroin and fentanyl.

Suboxone, however, has traditionally been much harder to access compared to other treatments such as methadone. Often, drug users don’t have a doctor and their first exposure to treatment options is in the emergency room after an overdose.

With 2,224 toxic drug deaths recorded last year in B.C., Interior Health says it has been rolling out Suboxone “to-go packs” to emergency departments alongside a new urgent referral process to connect people to an ongoing prescription.

“The toxic drug crisis continues to impact patients, families, and communities. We can be part of the solution to this ongoing public health emergency and hopefully prevent lives from being lost by providing Opioid Agonist Treatment in the ED,” says Heather Hair, Interior Health emergency services network director.

“Frontline health-care workers in emergency departments often see first-hand the impacts of addiction and toxic drug deaths. We are having conversations and building relationships with people who often have experienced stigma, and hopefully helping keep them from harm.”

The Suboxone in the ED project has now been implemented at 20 hospitals across Interior Health, most recently in the South Okanagan in April, which resulted in a celebration of the enrolment of the 100th client in the program.

In May, Suboxone in the ED is being introduced in hospitals throughout the Kootenay Boundary. All sites will be included by September 2022.

Eldorado Hotel offers jobs, and emergency housing, to displaced Ukrainians

Eldorado jobs for Ukrainians

A woman who arrived in Kelowna from Ukraine just over a month ago with her two children is ready to join the workforce.

Ivanka recently had an interview at the Hotel Eldorado. She says volunteers with local organizations have been helping her find a job and arranged the interview.

The resort and other Argus Hospitality properties in the area have been working with The Bravery Foundation, Kelowna Stands with Ukraine and Kelowna Welcomes Ukraine to assist the displaced Ukrainians who have arrived in the city.

“And they just basically ask if we have opportunities in terms of employment, which we do,” said Eldorado Resort general manager Mark Jeanes. “It’s a great way to help, however we can.”

Jeanes says Ivanka came with a volunteer translator, which he calls a great support.

“If some of the people that are coming and…you know, their English isn’t necessarily the best, the translator is just there to help in terms of any questions they may have or questions that we have. Which is amazing.”

He adds that Argus Hospitality — which also operates the Four Points by Sheraton and the Hampton Inn and Suites near the Kelowna airport — is opening its doors to people fleeing the conflict.

“Our sister properties at the airport have made contact, from what I understand, with two other families that are planning to arrive in Kelowna in the near future. So, right now, we currently actually have five Ukrainians on our team–two in culinary and three in housekeeping,” said Jeanes.

He notes the company also has emergency housing or staff housing if it's needed.

Several more Ukrainians could be arriving in the Central Okanagan in the coming weeks.

“Honestly, if we have availability and roles available and the individuals that are coming are a good fit for that particular role, we’ll take them on.” He said they’re still looking to hire a fair number of people for the summer season and beyond.

Ivanka says she is looking forward to communicating with new people and discovering something new for herself. She is sincerely grateful to all the residents of Kelowna for their help, support and understanding.

Her two children, 9-year-old son Maxim and 6-year-old daughter Natalia, are happy going to school every day. She says they have many friends and love their teachers.

130 new parking stalls being prepared near Kelowna General Hospital

More parking at KGH

Interior Health is preparing to add a significant number of new parking spots near Kelowna General Hospital.

While the health authority has been working to prepare a large piece of property adjacent to the hospital on Pandosy, it is just now applying to have the land rezoned to allow for the surface parking lot.

According to development plans, as many as 130 new parking spaces will be created, including 46 small stalls, 79 large stalls, four accessible and one van accessible parking space.

Interior Health purchased the property at 2169 Pandosy for $10.2 million back in February of last year.

It went on the market after the previous owner was unable to secure a mixed-use medical commercial-hotel project on the property.

Can Kelowna's infrastructure keep up with its rapid growth?

Balancing growth, services

Kelowna's landscape is forever being altered with as many as 20 large towers on the books for downtown alone. Whether that's a positive or not depends on your point of view. Over the next few days, Wayne Moore looks at where the city is going and how it got here. Part one is here.

Infrastructure is often a bone of contention with residents any time a large development is planned for their area.

Typically, those concerns centre around traffic and parking, but amenities such as parks, and the delivery of services such as water and wastewater.

Infrastructure and service delivery is not lost on city hall, which maps out infrastructure needs into its Official Community Plan relative to growth expected in each area of the city.

With well over 4,500 residential units either in the early pre-approval stage or already under construction within the downtown area alone, those issues are on the radar at city hall.

"What we do is track of how many units are in the approval process, how many are approved, how many are in building permit, then look ahead," city director of planning Ryan Smith told Castanet News.

"We know how many (infrastructure) projects we are expecting to do in this area, and do we need to advance those, and how do we advance those?"

"We don't have any infrastructure constraints that are deal breakers right now, like if we get to unit 3,000 we have to stop."

Over the next six to 10 years, as many as 20 towers of 20 storeys or more are on the books for the downtown area, totalling a little more than 4,500 housing units. Those numbers do not include smaller level projects or the planned build out of the Tolko mill site or the north end in general.

And, while not every project in the planning or pre-planning stages will come to fruition for a variety of reasons, Smith says they are watching development closely and "know what we need to do before a lot of these units start materializing."

The newly adopted Official Community Plan envisions growth across the city through to 2040, and that plan anticipates 4,000 to 5,000 residential units within the downtown area.

"If we are close to that build out, what does that mean for the overall OCP growth strategy?" asked Smith.

"We may have to spend a bit more time [in five years updating that], and looking at some of the hard infrastructure in the ground, the sewer and water.

"But again, we don't have any immediate concerns in those areas."

With thousands expected to migrate toward the downtown area in the coming years, its residents who already live in the downtown area who are raising the red flags, specifically when it comes to traffic and transportation.

On top of what is already on the books, you can add several thousand more to what is expected to be a large build out on the former Tolko site.

Smith says his department is already looking at what those impacts might be and, when it comes to Tolko specifically, what can be built into that to reduce traffic generated from the development.

With the road network set for the most part, Smith says they will have to look at other ways.

"It's going to be a combination of solutions," said Smith.

"There is not going to just be widen this road or that road. It might be a bit of widening combined with a little bit of transit service improvement combined with a good mixed-use development that is close to grocery and pharmacy and that type of thing.

"So, you won't need your car in the evening when you need to go out and grab a couple of things."

He also believes the city may be more aggressive when it when it comes to pushing for a grocery tenant in the northern portion of the downtown area.

It's that type of service that residents of the north end have suggested is lacking from a survey in conjunction with a reimagining of that area of the city.

But when it comes to transportation, Smith says attracting the right type of person is just as important. And, the growth of millennials choosing a downtown lifestyle he says, is huge.

"The people choosing to live in these central areas are people who are less reliant on automobiles.

"I'm not saying its possible to ween ourselves off the automobile altogether...but if they are a demographic that uses them less, I think other people will choose to use them less."

Kelowna pastor facing sex charges will stand trial next March

Sex crimes trial set for pastor

Trial dates have been set next year for a former Kelowna youth pastor and high school basketball coach accused of sex crimes against multiple children.

Last November, 31-year-old Mitchell Petillion was charged with seven counts of sexual assault dating back to 2009, along with charges of sexual interference of a person under 16, sexual exploitation, invitation to sexual touching of a person under 16, and communicating via computer and phone to lure a person under the age of 16 and 18.

Court documents show the charges relate to four separate victims.

On Monday, a 12-day trial was set for Petillion beginning March 27, 2023 in Kelowna court. A pre-trial conference has also been scheduled for Jan. 13.

He has remained out of custody since he was first granted bail on Nov. 5.

A person who attends Willow Park Church told Castanet last year that Petillion had worked as a pastor at the church until mid-2020, when allegations against him began circulating in the church community. He had worked there since at least 2010.

He was reportedly involved in a number of youth mission trips to the United States, and accompanied young church-goers to the ARK bible camp in Osoyoos. All of the criminal charges Petillion is facing are alleged to have occurred in Kelowna, except for a July 2013 sexual exploitation charge that's alleged to have occurred in Osoyoos.

Petillion also coached basketball at Kelowna Christian School, last coaching the Grade 9 boys team during their 2019 provincial championship.

Last November, Head of School Mike Campbell told Castanet the school first became aware of the allegations in January 2020.

"During our connection with the RCMP, we learned that none of the allegations that came out in 2020 stemmed from any school activities or extensions of school activities at Kelowna Christian School,” Campbell said.

“Student safety and wellbeing are paramount to us, and while we don’t know any details of the allegations and we don’t know the names of those involved, we are prayerful for a restorative and reparative process."

Cold spring delays the opening of some fruit stands, farm markets

Cold delays fruit stands

You might have to wait if you were hoping to pop by your closest farm market this long weekend to pick up some early season produce.

The cool spring has delayed the opening of some of the well-known destinations in the Central Okanagan.

While Gatzke Orchard’s farm market in Lake Country will throw open the doors this weekend, Paynter’s in West Kelowna told Castanet it won’t be ready until the middle of June, and the Don-O-Ray Farms website says they won’t be open until June as well.

The Glenmore Garden Market is delayed until May 27.

“Pretty much everything that we planted is at least a week or two weeks behind,” said Wei Chen, the son of the owner.

The extreme cold that hit the region in late December is also having an impact. On April 22, Paynter’s posted photos on their Facebook page of some of the damage to their peach trees. It means the crop will be quite small this year.

The B.C. Tree Fruit Growers’ Association has heard from growers that the weather is affecting some of their trees.

“It’s definitely later. One grower mentioned to me that they felt it was ten days later than a normal year. Actually, we’ve had a few years lately where it’s been ahead of itself. We’re seeing this two or three-week swing,” explains general manager Glen Lucas.

“Normally by the end of the season that will either catch up or slow down. So, there’s a lot of time before we see what happens.”

He points out that some orchards are also still dealing with the fallout from last summer’s heat dome.

Even vendors at the Kelowna Farmers’ and Crafters Market are feeling the chill.

“This weather is really affecting farmers. They’re like two, two-and-a-half weeks behind. A lot of the stuff still in the greenhouse should be in the ground now. They’re struggling,” says market coordinator Frances Callaghan.

Right now most produce stalls only have greens and some greenhouse plants for sale. Usually, they have a bit more to offer by the Victoria Day long weekend. Callaghan notes that asparagus is already almost done because it doesn’t thrive in these kinds of conditions, and that’s hurt some of the vendors who rely on it as one of the higher profit commodities.

The unseasonable cold isn’t keeping shoppers away, though. “Our Saturday markets are still strong. People are still coming out. So I think what it is, people want to be outdoors,” she adds.

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