The tale of a marijuana farm inside Barrie's former Molson brewery took new twists yesterday amid revelations that:
The Toronto company that owns the building, Fercan Developments Inc., owes $648,000 in back property taxes on it and a further $101,000 on another high-profile asset, the former Hamilton Eaton Centre;
Fercan's executive vice-president, Italo Ferrari, is an undischarged second-time bankrupt with debts of nearly $2-million, expensive tastes and an elaborate history of financial trouble;
The family of Fercan's owner, Vincent De Rosa, owns a house north of Barrie where police busted a second marijuana operation shortly after their headline-making Sunday raid on the brewery.
The house, which police said sheltered about 3,000 plants, is on Highway 11 North in Oro-Medonte Township on a commercial property that includes a shopping plaza. Land registry records show that a numbered company, 1071118 Ontario Ltd., bought the property in May of 2002 for $1.1-million. Corporate records list Mr. De Rosa's wife, Carmelina Baiamonte, as the company's sole administrator.
Real estate broker Gordon Laschinger described Fercan as caught in a trap that awaits landlords who "rent out industrial properties to tenants on a net-rent basis where the tenants basically look after the premises. The risk is, if you don't inspect regularly, you can find that these kinds of operations can spring up." He said the company is scrambling to inspect its other properties and avoid more surprises.
He also argued that Fercan's unpaid taxes indicate nothing except that the company, like many others, disagrees with property assessors. "It's not unusual that where the landlord takes a position that the assessment should be substantially lower -- and hence the taxes -- they withhold payment pending resolution," he said. Records show that Fercan paid none of its 2003 tax bill on the former brewery.
OPP Staff Sergeant Rick Barnum said investigators are aware of the ownership link. "The fact that we've discovered marijuana in both spots is something we'll certainly be looking into," he said. He described the same-day raids as "separate investigations that came together."
Both properties remained sealed off yesterday, with roughly 50 officers from the OPP and Barrie police still gathering evidence.
Among businesses operating in the former brewery, two in particular -- ostensibly a fish-breeding enterprise and a pallet-manufacturing company -- are under investigation. A real estate broker who handled Fercan's $8-million purchase of the brewery in 2001 has said that space was subsequently leased by people who claimed they wanted to use beer-making tanks for an indoor fish farm.
Staff Sgt. Barnum said preliminary investigations suggest marijuana had been grown in the brewery for about a year. Nine men linked to the operation have been charged with cultivating marijuana and possessing it for the purpose of trafficking. Eight were granted bail earlier this week but not all could immediately raise the required $10,000.
Although no one connected with Fercan has been accused of any wrongdoing, no one at the company's King Street East office was willing to discuss the latest developments. Finance director Richard Brezzi hung up the phone after saying, "Those things have nothing to do with the matters at hand and I have nothing further to say."
Mr. De Rosa, 42, and Mr. Ferrari, 56, have been business associates since at least 2000 and Mr. De Rosa has helped Mr. Ferrari live in comfort during his financial troubles, but the elder man's real estate experience dates back at least to the 1980s, when he worked on a series of deals with developer Elvio DelZotto. Court records show that four companies controlled by Mr. Ferrari and Mr. DelZotto were successfully sued for breach of contract in 1995 but the two men were not held personally liable to pay the $300,000 judgment.
In 1985, Mr. Ferrari filed for personal bankruptcy with debts of $750,000 and assets of $170,000. His slate was wiped clean when he was discharged from bankruptcy in 1986, but the matter was back in court in 1997 as he tried to avoid paying a mortgage on his home on Mississauga's Greyowl Point Road on grounds that he had put it in trust for his children. "The trust agreement and declaration were nothing more than shams to defeat creditors of Ferrari," Madam Justice Susan Greer ruled, upholding the mortgage-holder's claim.
In 2000, he filed for bankruptcy again, this time listing debts of just under $2-million and assets of zero, but he continued to drive a nearly new Mercedes-Benz sedan and live in a house on a one-acre lot on Woodbridge's Knudson Lane. In a bankruptcy questionnaire, he explained that Mr. De Rosa provided both, charging him $1,000 a month in house rent and deducting $500 a month from his salary for the car.
A trustee's report said that some creditors "were concerned that Mr. Ferrari's [stated]income was artificially low given the additional benefits Ferrari was receiving from his employer regarding the lease of a 1999 Mercedes 300 and the rental of a 4,800 square-foot house," and that one creditor had "a problem with Mr. Ferrari driving a Mercedes." He remains formally bankrupt while the federal government pursues him for back taxes.
For his part, Mr. De Rosa has two Mercedes, a 2002 ML500 sport-utility and a 2003 SL500 roadster, finance records show. He lives on Old Colony Road in Toronto's York Mills area. Three mortgages totalling $3.25-million are registered against the house, but it is not clear how much of that amount as been paid off.