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Hell's Witness

By Daniel Sanger

Viking Canada, 360 pages, $35

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Daniel Kane was 31 when he committed suicide in a car garage in a Montreal suburb in the summer of 2000. At the time of his death, he'd been somehow involved in the murders of countless innocent, and not so innocent, people.

Kane was a new-age "Canadien errant." Brought up by caring relatives, he attended private school and Boy Scouts, and was regularly taken on expensive vacations. Yet he grew up a pouting malcontent who sought definition in the cult of Québécois bike gangs. And there, in a mind-numbing flurry of Harley-Davidson rooster tails and crushed beer cans, the matter might have ended. But Danny yearned for a good life that was always just out of reach.

He found a truly precarious route to it, for Kane possessed that most unscrupulous of minds. He was both an active criminal and compliant police informant; in fact, the most richly rewarded mole in Canadian history and, like a biblical Cain in a warped Alice's looking glass, he routinely sacrificed his evil brethren for his own betterment.

Near the end of his short life, he'd negotiated a 30-page police contract, which if successful, stood to garner him $2-million. And that was but a fraction of the blood money Kane would receive. The total cost of his projected exploits, including witness relocation, overtime and operating expenses for police handlers, was more than $8.6-million. Witness is chilling in the breadth of carnage it chronicles; disturbing in what it says about the shadow wars that law enforcement agencies must fight daily with enemies without and within.

The high-powered, topsy-turvy world of Danny Kane was one where biker hit squads were nicknamed the baseball team for more routine beatings, and the football team for potentially mortal assaults. Where, even as they openly celebrated St-Jean Baptiste Day, bikers shrewdly sided with Canadian federalists because borders envisioned by an independent Quebec would not be in their drug-trading interests. Where gang leaders proudly produced and starred in porn flicks widely distributed throughout North America, and even travelled with provincial premiers on trade missions to Cuba, masquerading as successful businessmen. It was a world that Kane plainly rejoiced in, even as he routinely informed on it, shrewdly taking a piece of the monetary action from both sides.

Danny Kane was no Peter Fonda thundering down the highway to Steppenwolf's Born to be Wild. Rather, he seems like Gollum, the repulsively fascinating, computer-generated creature in the screen adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, a tormented, spineless piece of viscera, captive to both his desires and their often tragic consequences.

If Kane, the man, proves distasteful to the discerning reader, Witness goes far beyond the call, exposing a criminal-justice system in free fall with the searing intensity of a blowtorch cauterizing a wound. There were no heroes, mythic or real, in Quebec's bloody biker wars. No medal winners, no congratulatory huzzahs, no happy endings.

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But there were murdered victims, more than 160 of them, including an 11-year-old boy and two jail guards whose only crime was toiling honourably in a thankless profession.

Occasionally, Hell's Witness reads like a reworked informant's briefing, replete with exaggeration and bloated assertions of self-worth. But the rubber really hits the road with a resounding screech when circumstances surrounding the contract killing of Nova Scotia biker Robert Macfarlane by Kane and his psychotic sidekick, Aime Simard, are revealed.

Back in Montreal with the newly formed Provincial Wolverine Bike Squad hot on his tail, and with Simard arrested for an unrelated murder and festering in jail, Kane finds himself kidnapped without warrant by Nova Scotia RCMP and air taxied to Halifax for a show trial, in a tactical manoeuvre that is Machiavellian in its sophistication and morality. After 18 months cooling his heels in custody, and as the direct consequence of confused and contradictory evidence by RCMP officers, Kane is freed.

But he is a Don Quixote who doesn't tilt at windmills . . . he blows them up. Soon back in business, informing this time for Sûreté du Québec, he negotiates a deal that would do any NHL player proud. Shortly thereafter, just prior to the apparent successful culmination of his efforts, Danny Kane mysteriously dies.

In short order, on March 28, 2001, in a project called Operation Printemps, 2,000 Quebec law-enforcement agents arrest 128 Hells Angels and associates.

In a wry turnabout from customary complaints of defence counsel that they weren't afforded sufficient Crown evidence through disclosure, biker lawyers are provided with the equivalent of 693,000 pages of documents stored on 177 compact disks, 211 videocassettes, some as long as six hours each, and 1,122 audiotaped wiretaps. The principal trial to begin as a consequence of Printemps would never reach true culmination, as the presiding judge quit after four months of hearings over Judicial Council censure of remarks he'd made concerning a defence lawyer, and his successor wanted to start the laborious process anew. As a result, because of the imagined slight and in the tradition of a provincial justice system that sees 95 per cent of its trials settled by plea bargain, the entire affair became pathetic melodrama suitable for the sensationalist Quebec tabloid Allô Police.

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Hell's Witness is a brooding indictment of a failed justice system, savaged from within by ambition, incompetence, pettiness and chronic under-funding, and so caught up in torts and legal process that it has lost sight of objective rights and wrongs.

In an adolescent moment of bravado, Kane once boasted, "Some day books will be written about me." For once, he was speaking the unvarnished truth.

K. G. (Chuck) Konkel is an organized-crime expert. He has written two novels, Glorious East Wind and Evil Never Sleeps, and is at work on his third.

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